We had a professor at Miami University named B.H. Smith who started every class he taught with the same question: "Why do we study history?" Of course us students knew the answer, and every hand rose to make a good first impression: "So that we don't make the same mistakes made in the past." Smith would look at us, pause for dramatic effect, and with great emphasis reply, "Most of us will never be important enough to make the mistakes made in the past. For us history is about two things - dates and dead people."
It would get a big laugh, but there was an air of truth to the man's words. Most everyone reading this will never be in the position of making a bad treaty with some nation or propose some economic program that led to hyper-inflation. But if you are a United Methodist know that this last week, you were all a small or large part of a repeat of our denomination's history. One-hundred and seventy-two years after we split into the M.E. North and M.E. South over the election of a bishop, we're on the verge of doing it again.
I have no idea exactly how it will all go down but I am certain that some progressives won't go forward without an openly gay or lesbian bishop, and some traditionalists won't go forward with one. We've reached a dead end, and the bridge so many of us prayed would get built, spanning our divide to allow us to go forward together, isn't even in the design stage.
As a centrist it would be easy to point my finger at the traditionalists or progressives for this position were in right now. The traditionalists in my opinion, never came to the table in good faith to discuss some sort of compromise. In fact, compromise that resulted in any change in our Discipline as it relates to human sexuality to many traditionalists has always been non-negotiable. So whether it was accomplished by taking a majority in General Conference or via a schism, the end game for traditionalists always seemed like total victory without compromise. But all that said, what other arena of work on the face of the planet are you considered the "bad guys" because you follow the rules?
I can't blame traditionalists for this place we've arrived.
I could wag my finger at the progressives. Years of both peaceful protest and civil disobedience to finally get a substantive conversation on the place and role of LGBT persons in the denomination, and just as we are on the cusp of this happening they give half-a-peace-sign to both traditionalists and the growing number of centrists who worked to make this possible. Seven non-compliant conferences and one elected bishop later, the hopes for the special commission aren't dead, but like in the movie "The Princess Bride", you could call them "mostly dead". Short of "Miracle Max" coming up with an eleventh-hour magic chocolate pill (go back and watch the movie), the prospects for maintaining unity where traditionalists, centrists, and progressives could make peace AND reach out to all as their conscience allowed and the Spirit led.... are thin.
But all that being said, with no door or window to open, why should any of us be surprised that the question of inclusion was forced through a new hole in the roof? These are sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, and friends who the progressives see themselves standing up for. I can't lay my dismay this at their feet either.
In the end centrists have nobody to blame but themselves. We kept turning a blind eye to the ills that bedevil us. Not just a blind eye to the ever-growing divide as more prohibitive language was added to the BoD, parallel mission societies were formed, thirteen bishops wrote a letter, a challis was shattered, Elders were getting drummed out, time was wasted in Tampa, and the letters "LGBTQ" couldn't even be uttered on the floor in Portland. We turned a blind eye to more than forty years of decline and increasing irrelevance by largely just settling for the status quo.
We turned a blind eye to forty years of cultural, demographic, racial and geographic shifts. We turned a blind eye to a growing group of increasingly ineffective Elders and underprepared Local Pastors. We turned a blind eye to the local church which was hemorrhaging even as we forced her to give more blood to a bureaucracy that's only grown more bloated and ineffective. We turned a blind eye to the "death tsunami", the corrosive influence of partisan politics via the IRD, and generations of Americans who thought it better to be "nones" than "United Methodists". We turned a blind eye to the escalating cost of seminary and a growing distaste for itineracy among younger clergy even as locationalism has made it less viable.
We turned a blind eye to changing attitudes toward LGBTQ persons, and refused to use our influence to heed the wisdom of Gamaliel to open up pathways of inclusion so see if this was a movement of the Spirit. We turned a blind eye to the frustration of our conservative colleagues and congregations who felt increasingly like they were the "villains" even though they largely just upholding the Discipline.
I blame us.
And while there have been successes, pockets of spiritual growth across the connection, for every one of these great stories I can point out ten examples of congregations we've managed into obsolescence. The writing was on the wall. We just decided it was better to keep the prophet locked up in prison and pretend the writing was for somebody else.
We've been reactive. We asserted our influence to keep the boat from rocking. We didn't take seriously Bishop Schnase's assessment that the church needs to engage in "risk taking mission" to be considered healthy and growing. Instead of organizing and forcing hard discussions between bitterly divided parties so that a clear vision could emerge, we just let the ship sail until it absolutely had to turn... and now it's listing near the rocks.
So at this late hour, my prayer is that the bishops to act quickly. Please don't wait to nominate the special commission but please have them in place by Labor Day, their work completed by next year, and the special session of General Conference meeting in 2018. The denomination cannot withstand four more years of resolutions, counter-resolutions, pronouncements, and acts of defiance. Further, if the failure of the "Connectional Table Plan" has taught us anything, it's that under-representing folks in the connection will most likely result in a solution that in real terms, has no chance passing General Conference. So please consider proportionally representing the global connection on the commission as they're represented at General Conference.
Centrists, as we think about being proactive, given the reality of our current situation, as the special session of General Conference nears, let's keep everything on the table. We can introduce restructuring plans which would essentially create multiple apartments under one roof. But we also need not avoid planning for a possible future where "live and let live" cannot be abided by a significant number of clergy and congregations. Since the "trust clause" and the sustainability of the pension system are poor reasons for us to stay together, let's not be afraid to explore a potential pathway where money on litigation isn't wasted on lawyers, and a mutual respect for those who served before us can still be honored, even if our unity cannot.
In closing, in this season of uncertainty we all need clarity to effectively plan for future ministry. It's not reasonable to allocate funding for new church starts or recruitment of new clergy when funding streams could be upended abruptly. It's not sensible to keep working the itinerant system as if all things will likely remain same, when great upheaval in our local churches is now more than just speculation. It's not ethical to keep promising retirees that we will live up to our obligations when so many things are in the air.
And it's no longer acceptable for those of us in the center to keep expecting things to just work out. You can't a build a bridge people don't want, to keep the illusion of familiarity and "sameness". Hard choices will need to be made about what may have to be dug up and pruned so a new season of planting can begin.
In our prayer and devotional lives, local church ministries, communities, conferences, nation, and denomination it is time to heed the words of 2 Chronicles 7:14; to humble ourselves, pray, seek the Lord's face, and turn from the wickedness of worshipping the idol of "not rocking the boat because we're so close to retirement and it might reduce revenue". Then and only then, if we're truly earnest and faithful, we will be forgiven our sin of turning a blind eye, and through us God will heal our church, and our land.