Saturday, April 16, 2016

Three Thoughts And One Plea To My Traditionalist Friends In the United Methodist Church

A couple of weeks ago, Talbot Davis on the "Ministry Matters" blog made a post entitled "A Plea To My Centrist Friends in the United Methodist Church". As one of founders of what we call the United Methodist Centrist Movement, he seemed to be reaching out to all my colleagues who proudly will serve GC 2016 under the centrist moniker. I pondered his thoughts, and decided that it might be a good idea to respond back. So before General Conference begins in a month or so, here are three thoughts and one plea as a Centrist I'd like our Traditionalist friends to ponder. 

First, traditionalist friends you don't have to panic about GC 2016, or any future GC because math is on your side. The ever-growing African delegation assures a traditionalist majority at GC perpetually. So when it comes to human sexuality there are really only two likely outcomes at GC 2016. The most likely outcome is that the current language (and all the legal wrangling that goes with it) in the Book of Discipline will be maintained. Maybe this doesn't bring you much comfort given the all the upheaval the past four years, but at least in principle your desire for the BOD language to remain the same is secure.

The other less likely - but still possible - outcome is that the current BOD language will be replaced with a proposal written by four of our colleagues entitled the "C.U.P. Plan". I say this is "less likely, but possible" because you have a simple majority this year, but you'll need a few of us centrists to lean your way for the "CUP Plan" to see the light of day.

In case you don't know what the Cup Plan is, here's a summary. It will...

  • strengthen the current BOD language around the prohibition of same-sex marriage and same-sex ordination 
  • end our current practice in the United States of maintaining order in our respective conferences usurping the authority of our respective conference Board of Ministry, order of clergy, cabinet, and bishop on matters of human sexuality
  • mandate suspensions and expulsions without what we in western civilization would recognize as "due process" for those who conduct same-sex ceremonies, essentially creating an entirely new class of offense above and beyond all others
  • allow those churches and clergy who have had enough of the United Methodist Church to leave with property and pension in tact after a "discernment period" of sixty days (remember this one... we'll talk about it more later)
So at least from an institutionalized perspective, traditionalists have nothing to worry about. And given the long-term prognosis both for membership growth in Africa and membership decline in the United States, you will always have this advantage. You only need centrists to vote for a more punitive form of discipline. 

But that's isn't likely. Let me explain why. Here's my second thought.

Three out of the four authors of the CUP Plan are ordained Elders here in my conference. Despite the fact they were all running, and heavily endorsed by the traditionalist caucus which for 20 years had dominated our elections, none of them were elected as full delegates to GC 2016. Want to know why? 

The CUP Plan. Or to be more specific it's less punitive predecessor, the A&W Plan. 

The A&W was recognized by centrists as a fraudulent call for "unity" masking a demand for "uniformity". Unity implies we stand together despite our differences. Uniformity is tossing anyone out who can't pass a very narrow, focused, unnecessary litmus test.  For traditionalists to not, under any circumstances, entertain the possibility that the passion of so many United Methodists regarding inclusion was anything more than just individualism run amok was disappointing and disrespectful to a lot of people we admire and respect. The A&W Plan just hammered that disappointment home.

Centrists don't like trials. They don't like kicking people out. They believe unity can be achieved on matters of vital importance while differences exist on the rest. They seek compromise. They don't want mandatory minimums. They have no respect for those who continually threaten to leave or try to force their way by refusing to pay their apportionment unless they get what they want. As Wesleyans who learned the Quadrilateral in seminary our love for free will extends to our desire to be in a denomination that encourages free thought, discussion, reason, pragmatism, and putting aside our differences to do the important things: make disciples of Jesus Christ, and together serve others as He would will it.

If it makes you feel any better we aren't interested in the didactic demands of the Love Prevails crowd either. After all Paul said it best.... love doesn't demand it's own way. Good News, the IRD, Love Prevails, the Reconciling Movement and MFSA in our opinion major in the minors. It's just that the most radical traditionalist voices in that choir actually have the power to put the rest of us under their thumb. Heck, it's their dream. And to that vision we will not bow.

That's why in West Ohio, at least, we rejected this vision for the future of our denomination while we still can.

Third, not speaking for any other centrist but myself, when I read Davis' article I couldn't help but be troubled. Of course I was troubled by an Elder who was single boasting about her active sex life and the unmarried-but-engaged ordinand candidates boasting the same. Know that us centrists believe in the Book of Discipline. We follow it. In fact we probably follow it better than you traditionalists do. On the whole we generally practice infant baptism, both sprinkle and dunk, pay all our apportionment as best we can (even when we don't agree with our bureaucracy), seek inclusivity in our leadership circles, and have no issue with the institutional empowerment of females. 

Your crowd's record in those areas, you have to admit, is a little spotty.

But I was equally as troubled by something else Davis wrote: "I want you to know your vote is not simply about homosexuality and it’s not about justice. It is instead about dismantling the entire sexual ethic that has helped define the Christian faith for two millennia."

The church has been wrong about a lot of things, some of which were taught for hundreds and hundreds of years (and in some corners are still being taught). I was reminded of this just this morning when I read an article in the New York Times about the effort Georgetown University - a Jesuit school - is making to find descendants of 242 persons who the school sold into slavery to pay their debts in the 1850's. The church taught slavery was a defendable institution for over 1800 years.

I was reminded of this again when I stumbled on a quote by our first female bishop, Leontine Kelly:

"[On ordination of women:] We must recognize the kind of culture in which Jesus and his disciples lived. It was a very male-dominated culture. However, Jesus did violate the customs of the culture in that he talked with women, shared with women. Women were part of the entourage of Jesus Christ. God calls whomever God would call."

The church taught for over 1900 years that women had no place in the institutional leadership of the Christian movement that involved having any authority over men.

And I was reminded of this again when I thought of Copernicus and I looked at a globe.

What seems to define us as centrists is the Holy Spirit moving amongst us in the form of pragmatism and practicality bending to what Dr. King called an "arc toward justice". LGBT persons and their families are active in our churches. Many of these good folks have exhibited the kinds of spiritual fruit that are helping create vitality in our congregations. They are highly ethical and committed to the cause of Jesus. They have witnessed the destruction sexual immorality has wrought within both  the straight and LGBT communities and are rejecting that kind of practice for something committed and stable. As they raise children and get certified as foster parents, they are looking to us. They are helping us work with LGBT teens who are suicidal to give them hope for the future. They believe in monogamous, life-long commitments between two consenting adults, and are just as appalled at the destruction "sleeping around" creates. They challenged us to treat them like regular old people - regular old sinners - just like the rest of us.  

And we as pastors are serving many, many traditionalists who are becoming "former traditionalists" or "modified traditionalists". They've been challenged by the people they've met, the studies they've read, and reflection in which they have engaged. They searched the scriptures and prayed for direction. And while maybe they (and many of us centrists) aren't really sure what to do with all of this, they know that growing more punitive right now makes little sense. They're ready for a new season.

We can work with this! Let us. We'll leave you alone as we do so. We promise.

Which leads me to my plea..... traditionalists, if you are delegates to GC 2016, or can lobby someone who is, know that the least you can do is reject the CUP Plan, while the most you can do is work with us and willing progressives to find a "third way" for our denomination. 

I know you have the Rob Renfroes and Maxie Dunnams of the world warning you that a change in BOD language to allow a "third way" will result in churches leaving and endless litigation just like it did in the Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian denominations. But same-sex marriage wasn't legal when those folks made those choices, and the attitude of the nation - particularly young adults - has shifted significantly in that same time period. I venture a guess that vast majority of you reading this who call themselves a traditionalist don't harbor any ill-will toward to the LGBT community, and maybe over the last decade or so yourself have had your heart slightly soften on the matter of inclusion.

We can do this differently, but traditionalists only if YOU choose to do so. Come to the table. Tell the hardcore traditionalists and progressives to chill out and give your own willing traditionalist, progressive and centrist brothers and sisters a way to stay together and maintain their own convictions. We won't find a perfect solution, but we will find a workable one. Give it a chance.  

And one last thing... about that CUP Plan. Know that we centrists are rule-followers. Progressives will most likely stick around and fight til the bitter end of the denomination or you kick them all out (which ever comes first). But as for us centrists, well we'll just follow the rules. 

A few of my centrist friends and I were sitting around one evening drinking cold beverages and talking about what a post-CUP Plan UMC might look like for us. None of us were all that encouraged. 

I mean the status quo isn't exactly paradise. Everything already seems to take more energy and stamina than it did when we first started in ministry. And as for our denominational leadership, there appears to be great resistance to the kinds of radical change that's necessary to make sure the local church has what it needs to do good work in the current climate while not getting dragged down by a status quo that's not working. 

Now factor into this discussion the CUP Plan, which none of us as centrists are in favor of. The denomination will come apart at the seams. Progressive conferences will ignore it. Traditionalists will use the leverage of the BOD to enforce it. The rancor will only grow, and we'll do all we can to shelter our congregations from the mess. 

And yet the CUP Plan DOES allow for pastors and churches to leave with property and pension in hand after a sixty day period of reflection. This got us wondering, what if the opportunity, legally, came along to form a new denomination? It could be...
  • One built on the doctrine of the Wesleyan movement, but leaves behind the deaf-to-change bureaucracy who only really seemed to care about us in terms of "nickels and noses" and the preservation of their own position/power. 
  • One that assigns the decisions of marriage and ordination to each of it's local churches and pastors to work out as best for their context.
  • One that only seeks pastors strong in character and committed to creating healthy local churches where they can be effective in partnership with laity in all different types and kinds of settings 
  • One that asks for, say, 3% of General Operating Expense as the only apportionment. 
  • One that, without layers upon layers of denominational staffing and an impossible decision making process, can focus it's available resources on new church starts and church revitalization toward the end of what is the heart of any denomination - strong local churches 
  • A denomination without bishops or a method for assigning church leadership that was perfect for an era when the horse and walking were the main modes of transportation 
  • One that would insure you wouldn't need a boatload of debt to become a pastor
We could call it the American Methodist Church. We've even got an idea for a logo for it. We think the hipsters will love it!

(you have to be kinda old to get the joke... not "Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show old", but still, Millennials you'll need to go ask your parents)

Traditionalists, we don't want to do this. We're the ones killing ourselves trying to keep this thing together. But if you change the rules you give us the ability to put that energy to work in more constructive endeavors. Again, it's not what we want, but traditionalists, we've been asking for a compromise and you won't listen. You won't take us seriously. You want to use us to your own ends, but besides us doing a lion-share of the work and paying the bills, you don't seem to want us around.

We could arrange that. It's your choice. Choose wisely at GC 2016.