by Bob Phillips
Garrison Keillor, in his classic Lake Wobegon series, commented about the Catholic priest of the local parish. Every year the priest would give a homily on birth control and unplanned pregnancies. Every year, as part of that homily, he would ask the Catholic saints of his parish this clarifying question, “If you didn’t want to go to Minneapolis, why did you get on the train?”
The people of the United Methodist church are at Kingdom station, are about to board a train. Many will ride the Continuing United MC train, others the Global MC train. Others will take a hand-car of independent and solo transportation out of the station to…where? Where, indeed.
There is gentle irony in the priestly reference to Minneapolis, for that was the literal destination for the now defunct GC2020, 2021 and 2022. Regardless of specific location for a next GC, the deeper issues remain. All United Methodists will be boarding a train. For all it will be a new train, for the existing United MC will undergo change and reconfiguration as profound as anything those aligning with the Global MC will face. Stephen Covey offered as one of his “seven habits” the insight to “Begin with the end in mind.” Where are these trains headed? When does spin end and realism begin? In short, what are the intended and the unintended consequences?
The Continuing United Methodist Church (CUMC) Express
The CUMC train is headed to the destination of “Better together.” If you respond, “That’s an attitude, not a destination,” you are right. “A Narrative for the Continuing United Methodist Church,” issued by the Council of Bishops in November, speaks of a church that welcomes, loves and serves all. It believes in Jesus and the Bible. It is the church where war has ceased, polemic swords have been beaten into inclusive ploughshares, and the liberal lion lies down next to the conservative lamb, or vice versa. The church will be unified on the essentials, with the assumption that folks know and agree on the identity and content of those essentials. Paraphrasing a classic line spoken by the monster in The Bride of Frankenstein, “Institutional separation BAD; institutional unity GOOD.” Strangely, no concurrent calls have been issued for the separated Methodists to rejoin the Anglicans, or the Protestants to rejoin the Roman Catholic church, nor demands that the Salvation Army repent of its separation from Methodism. Selective indignation is a temptation common to fallen humanity, liberal and conservative alike.
The intended consequences of boarding the CUMC train are declared in the Bishops’ statement, and other recent publications from Jurisdictional delegation gatherings. The results of GC2019 will be canceled. Without overstating specifics, since sexual issues are not the main challenge facing the church, the denomination will affirm gay weddings, ordinations and the sacred identities of persons of all genders and their sexual proclivities, provided they involve adult, consensual behaviors in committed relationships. Clergy will be free to interpret and preach the gospel as a semi-fundamentalist or a progressive post-Marcus Borgian, and the entire spectrum between the two. All key scriptural terms and teaching must be taken seriously, but literal understandings will be left to one’s education and conscience.
The language of Zion will be retained. “Apportionment,” “appointment,” and “annual conference” will remain in conversational currency. The system will be tweaked but not upheaved by profound change. For example, the number of District Superintendents and the district boundaries could be revised, though less as the result of an extensive strategic vision and more as a reaction to reduced membership and finances, otherwise known as ‘shooting the wolf nearest the sled.” General Conference 2024 may approve a version of the Protocol, maybe not. A clear center-left theological social vision will guide the church into the future. Global warming, poverty, hunger, militarism, reproductive freedom, critique of Israel’s repression of Palestinians, and a raft of social justice advocacy items will find a new birth of freedom. If a century ago the canard was the Episcopal Church was the Republican party at prayer, the larger leadership of the CUMC bishops, boards and agencies will be the Democratic Party at prayer.
The recent North Central Jurisdiction gathering of delegates, firmly in the hands of those rejecting the outcome of GC2019, offers further suggestion on the direction of the Continuing UMC train. Conferences and congregations will be encouraged to prioritize repenting of and rooting out the sins of racism, heterosexism, colonialism and all anti-LGBTQIA+ bias. The delegates encouraged conferences and churches to screen membership, leadership, committees and budgets to ensure proper financial support for each of these priorities. Traditional voices at the gathering were neither sought nor heard. Initial response from some bishops who are more traditional in beliefs but firmly institutional in vision has been that all such statements are aspirational and have no authority to be obeyed, or heeded, or read. This derives from the Latin “aspiratio,” which means “to blow wind.” In common parlance the term is, “Hot air,” with all the credibility of a call to invent time travel.
Leaders are clear that local churches will get the pastors they wish, or at least not get the pastors they absolutely don’t wish. The essential bottom line is that absolutely nothing of profound significance is wrong with the existing church or status quo that cannot be covered by realizing that nobody is perfect and every system can always improve. Issues such as process dysfunction, demographic challenges of aging and poor building locations, trust deficits, top-heavy and redundant bureaucracy/structures and schizophrenic theology receive no mention and no acknowledgement as one boards the train. Neither does the struggle with denial of all the above issues, aligning the church historically with the examples of American Motors, Sears or Blockbuster. The US church is moving toward the loss of 2/3 of its US passengers prior to a separation and remains unable and unwilling to articulate why it is or what to do.
One interesting dimension still unfolding is how the engineer and conductors of the CUMC Express treat passengers who desire to disembark before arriving at leadership’s definition of a final destination. When passengers on the Episcopal 737 desired an alternative stop reflected in the formation of the Anglican Church of North America and related bodies, the 737 bishops’ crew responded by pushing the discontents out of the plane without parachutes, otherwise known as church property. This led to rejoicing among members of the Bar association but not before the eyes of Heaven or earth. Recall at least 50 million dollars flowed to lawsuits that a good dose of mutual grace could have diverted to Kingdom purposes.
The CUMC equal to the Episcopal stunt is not pushing folks off the train but leveling a 40-50% surcharge on their ticket if they wish to leave with their belongings as recompense from the trauma of unexpected empty seats. If this tactic is followed, watch neighboring Episcopal and Anglican saints shake their head with sad wisdom, and be sure several millions for lawyers are set aside in each annual conference to cover the impact of such strategies. Notes from the front (called the Western Jurisdiction) suggests a much more gracious approach is pending to their few remaining conservative congregations and clergy who wish to depart; other regions, not so much.
To be sure, in the midst of all the above good ministry has happened and faithful ministry will continue. Honorable and dedicated followers of Jesus will choose the ride the train, and a number of them will do so without any illusion of the bumpy ride or real (if unspoken) challenges they will face. Most of the clergy will still affirm the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Half or more will believe in his virgin birth. There will be wide agreement among those on the train that one can be totally ‘orthodox’ in belief and yet not be a Christian, akin to Wesley’s warning against ‘dead orthodoxy.’ In several ways the US church will race to catch up with the Western Jurisdiction, which in its priorities, actions and inactions have been laying track for the larger church into the balance of the 21st century. While theologically traditional congregations will be few, and mostly limited to racial/ethnic churches that choose to remain, the CUMC train will drive toward a Kingdom vision suitable for a progressive future in Christ. To be clear, it will do good, bring to Christ some folks others cannot reach, and bear witness in settings where many cultural conservatives don’t go and in circumstances that some more traditional folks are not aware even exist. In short, there are honorable reasons to board the train, provided one is aware of the destination and the condition of the track.
Part II, boarding the GMC Express, arrives at the station shortly…
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)
See Bob’s work on Methodist Mitosis in Methodist Review.