by Beth Ann Cook
I stepped to the microphone to present what would become Paragraph 2553 in a very difficult moment in the life of the United Methodist Church. The contentious 2019 General Conference in St. Louis had reached a crescendo with our vote on human sexuality. After years of study and prayer delegates selected not the liberalizing One Church Plan but the Traditional Plan retaining our historic theology on human sexuality.
Many in the room were present to advocate for liberalizing UM Church theology to allow same gender marriage and LGBTQ ordination; the room exploded with anger, sorrow, shock, rage, and pain upon the passing of the Traditional Plan. Those of us present in support the historic position of the church on sexuality took no joy in the “victory,” which revealed our deep brokenness as a denomination. And several of us had to be escorted out of the convention center by armed guards.
In that painful context I stepped to the microphone and argued for a gracious exit provision for whoever felt that they needed to leave the UMC because of the disagreement in theology over human sexuality. I spoke of my church’s flag-ship ministry, a day care and preschool, where we were teaching the children the golden rule. Could we not at least treat one another with love in the midst of disagreement by letting one another go graciously? After a challenging debate the body adopted a process by which churches can pay their share of pension liabilities and leave the UMC.
I would have preferred (as I argued back then) for us to have dealt with this provision before the main vote on human sexuality. It would have been better to have voted not knowing which provision would be chosen.
But in our deep brokenness—in the immediate aftermath of one of the most profoundly difficult votes in our denomination–the delegates of GC 2019 chose to honor God by saying we would disagree in love. We chose to apply the Golden rule to our situation in the hard moment. We would not see each other as enemies, hold each other hostage, or fight over money and power.
The passing of 2553 felt like a holy moment to me.
Anyone remember reading “Anatomy of Peace” a few years ago? It was the in vogue book for a while in UM circles. Passing 2553 was the essence of having a heart of peace instead of a heart of war.
I think the photographer who snapped a photo of me with my friend Jorge Lockward, who disagrees with me and was wearing a rainbow stole, captured something of the power of the Holy Spirit in the photo. I think it is why that photo has been used so many times by news outlets. There was something holy at work in our deep disagreement and concern for one another.
Last Saturday morning my Annual Conference, Indiana, held a vote to ratify 105 church disaffiliations under Paragraph 2553. The process was handled well and went smoothly. It was poignant—for those leaving and those staying. Once again, I felt the witness of the Spirit that we are seeking to honor God by parting in peace. We are not, as Bishop Trimble pointed out, enemies. We are blessing one another on a different path. Similar stories of grace and grief were told in North Carolina and West Ohio.
By Saturday Afternoon I became aware that implementation of Paragraph 2553 was playing out very differently in Arkansas. I tuned into their web-stream and found my spirit grieving deeply.
The spirit of 2553 seemed to have been turned upside down as people gave speeches for and against the ratification of individual churches under Paragraph 2553. The parliamentarian ended up reading Roberts Rules’ provisions against slander. Ultimately three churches were not allowed to disaffiliate even though they had met all the requirements under 2553.
Now traditionalists in other places are wondering if they have jumped through hoops to try to fulfill the very costly requirements of 2553 only to have the same thing happen to them.
When we passed the provision, I didn’t dream that would happen! I assumed that ratification would be basically a final check that all the boxes were ticked and a formalizing of legalities.
Of course, I also never dreamed that some Bishops in Central Conferences would say that Paragraph 2553 shouldn’t apply to congregations outside the USA—but that has happened too.
I’m writing this mostly to process what I’m feeling: grief, disappointment, and frustration.
I think I take it kind of personally when people mess with 2553.
It is imperfect. Many have pointed out that the unfunded pension liabilities at the level of funding we passed in St. Louis are impossible for many congregations to reach that would otherwise seek to leave.
Those moments in St. Louis are never very far from me. I sometimes wonder if those moments will always in some way define me. (My counselor says I literally have some PTSD from General Conference experiences.) I’ve worked long and hard trying to help us treat one another well in our disagreement. I want all my time and effort and sacrifice to mean something.
Passing 2553 was us at our best. What I saw in Arkansas was not. I hope what happened in Arkansas stays in Arkansas!
Photo Credit: Delegates Jorge Lockward of the NY Conference and the Rev. Beth Ann Cook of the IN Conference embrace during the closing moments of GC 2019. The two had previously spoken on opposite sides of possible exit plans for churches wishing to leave the denomination. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.