by Bob Phillips
Recently the General and Jurisdictional delegates elected by the conferences of the North Central Jurisdiction gathered to hammer out our priorities and strategies prior to the 2022 General Conference. Out of the event came the document, “Covenant to Build the BeLoved Community.” Commitment to anti-racism, LGBTQIA+ issues and inclusion were highlighted.
Drawing on the template for baptism, the BeLoved Community statement was specific in calling for the churches of the NCJ “to renounce and reject the spiritual forces and evil powers of colonialism, racism, sexism, classism and heterosexism.” Specific actions to purge these evils from the programs and budgets of local congregations were encouraged. The vast majority of delegates called for suspension of obedience to the Book of Discipline in selected areas, as conscience directs. The Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation, formed from intensive 2019 collaboration among representatives of various perspectives of the church and overseen by an impartial and world-renowned negotiator, received no mention.
I offer the following reflections arising from the BeLoved document, especially related to the areas of sin and repentance. These thoughts are my own and speak officially for no group.
- Systemic racism is real. A progressive pastor good friend from another conference asked me recently if I believed systemic racism exists. There was some surprise at my quick answer of yes, because I framed the answer in categories of Christian theology from Paul (Romans 1-2) through Augustine (think his On the City of God) through Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society. Original sin has left deep wounds on the human soul and on the structures and organizations created and directed by that same fallen humanity. Racism is one, but not the only, expression of our collective and systemic sinfulness and need for redemption. As Deuteronomy 24:16 makes clear, blaming the children for sins of the parents is no answer. Confronting the consequences of personal and systemic sin is part of the call to holiness of heart and life without which no one can see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14). Remember, systemic racism, not just a bus driver (and lifelong Baptist named James Blake), ordered the AME Methodist Rosa Parks toward the back of the Montgomery bus where ‘her kind’ traditionally sat…only she refused to move. And don’t forget many Bible-believing churches and leaders faulted her as the problem.
- Define terms with care. The statement calls us to reject ‘classism.’ Consider systemic examples. Remember that what I say is not to fault or criticize any individual but to address how the NCJ named sins can flaw the system and the process. I draw from W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management, that emphasizes that nearly all institutional problems are with the system/organization, and warns against the common and unfair practice of simply finding people to blame. With that caution, consider: Local pastors serve roughly 42% of all conference local church appointments but are allowed no vote for GC or JC elections. Is their exclusion an example of systemic classism? Elders and deacons, active and retired, amount to four-tenths of one percent of conference total membership but get 50% of the delegate votes…and 2/3 of them are in retired status. Is this systemic clergy classism at work? In such cases repentance would be to empower local pastors and laity, who are 99.5% of the membership, with a far greater voice than the existing process permits. The talk about the sin of classism (for example) loses credibility if those raising the issue refuse to move on obvious issues.
- Beware unintended consequences. The NCJ statement is passionate about “inclusion” yet the delegations have scant Hispanic representation. The IGRC delegation has no Hispanic representation, although it is the only ethnic group where ministry has been growing in our conference. A pastor born outside the US (not Hispanic) commented to me that many delegations in general, and IGRC in particular, include no one whose first language is not English. The overwhelming number of Hispanics embrace a traditional view of marriage. The successful effort by single-issue interest groups in many conferences to exclude traditionalists from delegations had the unintended consequence of exclusion, in the name of inclusion, of voices representing the largest non-white minority group in the nation, nearly 50% larger than our African American population. Both colonialism and racism, though clearly unintended, can impact a dysfunctional system. Repentance must include those who have leveraged the system to advantage some at the expense of others.
- Be sure that what one calls a sin is a sin. What is the definition of “heterosexism?” Dictionary definitions agree that heterosexism is the assumption that male/female identities and sexual intercourse between a man and a woman is ‘normal.’ Other expressions are not normative (though possibly morally neutral) but rather by exception or deviant in ways that do not reflect the image of God in its practice. The NCJ statement declares it to be a sin to believe the church’s existing and historic teaching on same-sex marriage or same gender sexual behaviors, since such a vision is rooted in heterosexism. The church’s sin now is when it rejects unconventional sexual expressions (adult/consensual kink, leather, sadism & masochism, polyamorous, etc.) as reflecting human brokenness. When voices advocate a church where all will be welcome (hence no need for division) but exclude those who affirm the church’s existing teaching on marriage as guilty of the sin of heterosexism, who moved the welcome mat?
- Beware of selective indignation. The statement openly calls for disobedience to some sections of the Book of Discipline relative to blessing same sex behaviors in adult, consensual relationships, blessing such marriages, and ordaining and appointing sexually active lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, intersex, drag, kink, trans, queer, questioning, intersex, non-binary and other persons so self-identified, all other conditions being equal. Conscience for the delegates required such an NCJ aspirational statement. Declarations of action by such as Bishop Haller, indicating she will not enforce the ban on contested ordinations or marriages as of January 1, likewise are rooted in conscience. Bishop Hee-Soo Jung of Wisconsin, preaching to the 2016 Jurisdictional Conference in Peoria, Il, made clear that the Spirit trumps the letter, the claims of conscience trump the law, and rules (think Discipline) must bend to the supreme rule of love. This builds on Bishop Talbert’s stance in Cal-Nevada in 1999-2000 when he affirmed the Spirit and conscience trump the letter of the law in the process of dismissing complaints against clergy who affirmed ‘Holy Unions,” despite Discipline prohibitions. But Talbert then led the charge that bounced 13 evangelical clergy and several thousand members from his conference when some suggested a conscience-led protest by partial withholding of apportionments. Selective indignation thus has a downside. If traditional congregations believe their consciences are being violated, are they likewise free to disobey parts of the Discipline on paying apportionments to support causes which they believe wrong? Are clergy and churches free to disobey sections that set limits and major hurdles to departing the denomination? Is there freedom in conscience to disobey the Discipline that forbids infant dedications if the parents so desire, or offering the option of real wine (the communion answer to the question, ‘What did Jesus do’)? If full obedience is expected in areas of money and property but disobedience is affirmed in matters of sexuality, moral credibility is shot. If bishops who personally affirm full obedience to the covenant remain silent in the face of open calls to disobedience by colleagues, credibility is shot.
Others have commented that the NCJ statement must be read in tandem with the Council of Bishops pronouncement, although the BeLoved document made no reference to it. The Bishops’ document is an aspirational and positive statement, picturing a denomination where all get along and gospel words are used with emphasis, though without specific definitions. The Bishops’ statement reveals no engagement with the realities of demographic challenges, trust deficits, organizational dysfunctions or theological schizophrenia. No mention is made of the responsibility of the Council in confessing failures of leadership in following the Book of Discipline. The precipitous decline in US church attendance, (the Greek mythical ‘Kraken’ in the room, big enough to eat elephants), is ignored. A third statement, also affirmed by the NCJ, a “Call to Grace,” likewise was unmentioned as a point of reference in the BeLoved document. It encourages a graceful approach to congregations whose Christian conscience does not permit continuation in the legacy UMC. Had a diverse, inclusive group produced that document (traditionalists were functionally excluded and their input ignored in its production), sensitivity to the show-stopping financial expectations implicit in the document would have brought it closer to its intended constructive reality.
The earliest summary of Jesus’ message in Mark 1:15 was a call to repentance. Individual repentance was the focus of Jesus’ call, with clear systemic and institutional implications where true repentance and revival occur. All players stand in need of a penitent spirit amid the raucous days of 2022 now upon us. The legacy/Continuing UMC and the new-birthed Global Methodist Church alike will be ‘standing in the need of prayer’ and repentance. May the Holy Spirit inspire the discipline of holy penitence that transcends the various interest groups and truly become part of our lived Wesleyan way in the new year.
Chair WCA, Illinois Great Rivers Conference
Degrees from University of Illinois, Asbury and Princeton Seminaries, University of St. Andrews
Graduate of Senior Executive Seminar on Morality, Ethics and Public Policy, Brookings Institution
Captain, Chaplain Corps, US Navy (ret)