Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Agreeing to Disagree

A UMNS photo by Kathleen Barry
I am a United Methodist.  Thanks to nineteenth century circuit riders, the Methodists remain the most widespread church in America.  Along any given Main Street, you are more than likely to find a United Methodist Church.  Methodists have the highest favorability of any major religious group, and are known for our many soup kitchens, preschools, and other community programs.  As the home of George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Beyonce, we are also known for our "open minds, open hearts, and open doors."  We are a big tent church.  We know how to agree to disagree and focus on the important things that we hold in common.

Over the past couple weeks, the UMC held its General Conference in Tampa, Florida.  For all you non-Methodists, General Conference meets every four years and is the only body that can speak for the whole denomination.  Close to 1,000 delegates are elected from around the world to represent their annual conference (the Methodist equivalent to a diocese or presbytery).  Complicating this democratic process is the UMC's increasingly global makeup.  Although still the largest mainline Protestant church in America, church membership has continued its steady decline in the US to around 8 million.  Overseas, the UMC is booming, especially in Africa and the Philippines, now numbering roughly 4.4 million.  Since delegates are proportional to membership, every four years at General Conference, there are fewer representatives from Los Angeles and more from Lagos.

United Methodists went into this year's General Conference with high hopes.  Bishops and leading pastors touted a "Call to Action" that would streamline a bloated 1960's era bureaucracy in order to bring a united focus on building stronger congregations and reversing membership decline in the US.  For progressives, shifting public opinion in the US and votes to ordain gay clergy in other mainline churches seemed to provide momentum for changing the church's positions on sexuality. Add to the mix calls for a "set aside bishop" to lead the global church and elimination of so-called "guaranteed appointments" for ordained clergy, and General Conference 2012 promised to be one of the most important since the 1968 merger.

Church Structure

As General Conference got underway, the bishops and pastors of some of the largest churches made a big push for the Call to Action plan (to turn formerly independent agencies into committees under a central board focused on local church vitality).  Maybe they pushed too hard.  Judging from the flurry of tweets and blog posts, there was a general feeling that a few (mostly older, white men) were forcing this plan on the whole church through a rhetoric of fear.  Lines emerged between the "leaders" on one side and young people and caucuses representing women and minorities on the other.  In committee, the plan was chopped up and amended beyond recognition.  When no plan for restructuring got out of committee, the Call to Action folks swooped back in with a new compromise ("Plan UMC") that kept some of the agencies, but still made them accountable to a central body that would focus on local church vitality.  In spite of heated protest, the plan passed. 

  • The longstanding practice of guaranteed appointments for ordained pastors was eliminated without discussion in favor of a process (with some checks and balances) for transitioning "ineffective" pastors out of ministry 
  • A set aside bishop was voted down (there was some troubling anti-Catholic rhetoric here about a "Methodist pope") but delegates also declined to set term limits for bishops in favor of retaining the current ecumenical model of "once a bishop, always a bishop"
Then, on the last day of Conference, a requested ruling was handed down by the church's highest court: Plan UMC was unconstitutional!  The central governing board it would create took on authority that the denomination's constitution assigned to the bishops and the General Conference.  The Plan would require a 2/3 vote to amend the constitution and then must also be approved by 2/3 of the annual conferences.  A dramatic, last minute attempt to salvage something - anything! - of the original plan turned almost comical as weary delegates who were ready to go home began to lose patience with one another.  Opponents felt vindicated, with some even citing the Holy Spirit in the court's ruling.  Supporters felt defeated, helpless to change the status quo.  Both sides were left with very little change, but more than a little distrust of folks on the "other side."    

Sexuality (and other social issues)

A UMNS photo by Paul Jeffrey

Let's be honest, this is all most "outsiders" care about (including the New York Times, USA Today, and the Huffington Post).  After passing a resolution calling for people to oppose Israel's settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, the Conference rejected a controversial move to divest its own pension funds from companies that benefit from the settlement construction.  Even for those who opposed divestment, there was a sense of just how silly it is for the UMC to make grand, sweeping statements about world political issues - and then refrain from "putting their money where their mouth is."

On the much watched issue of human sexuality, the conversation centered around a vote to change the church's law book that states: "the church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching."  Two amendments were put forward to "agree to disagree" on the issue.  The amendment introduced by Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter, pastors of two of the largest churches in the denomination would have read:
"Homosexuality continues to divide our society and the church. All in the United Methodist Church affirm that homosexual persons are people of sacred worth and are welcome in our churches, but we disagree as a people whether homosexual practice is contrary to the will of God.

The Bible is our primary text for discerning God's will. We read and interpret it by the light of the Spirit's witness, with the help of the thoughtful reflections of Christians throughout the centuries, and assisted by our understanding of history, culture, and science.

The majority view through the history of the church is that the scriptures teach that same-sex sexual intimacy is contrary to the will of God. This view is rooted in several passages from both the Old and New Testaments.

A significant minority of our church views the scriptures that speak to same-sex intimacy as reflecting the understanding, values, historical circumstances and sexual ethics of the period in which the scriptures were written, and therefore believe these passages do not reflect the timeless will of God. They read the scriptures related to same-sex intimacy in the same way that they read the Bible's passages on polygamy, concubinage, slavery and the role of women in the church.

United Methodists will continue to struggle with this issue in the years ahead as a growing number of young adults identify with what is today the minority view. The majority view of the General Conference, and thus the official position of the church, continues to hold that same-sex intimacy is not God's will. We recognize, however, that many faithful United Methodists disagree with this view.

It is likely that this issue will continue to be a source of conflict within the church. We have a choice: We can divide, or we can commit to disagree with compassion, grace, and love, while continuing to seek to understand the concerns of the other. Given these options, schism or respectful co-existence, we choose the latter.

We commit to disagree with respect and love, we commit to love all persons and, above all, we pledge to seek God's will. With regard to homosexuality, as with so many other issues, United Methodists adopt the attitude of John Wesley who one said, "Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may."
Both amendments were voted down by a loose coalition of conservatives in Africa and the US South in favor of retaining the church's present language.  In the process, one African delegate compared same sex intimacy to bestiality.  Following the vote, protesters with rainbow stoles marched to the front of the room singing songs and celebrating Communion until the Conference was unable to continue its afternoon session.  After meeting with the bishops, one report suggested that the protesters agreed to stand down if all other legislation related to homosexuality and abortion were moved to the end of the agenda.  Given the chaotic debate that ensued once Plan UMC was ruled unconstitutional, petitions related to changing the church's position against ordaining gay clergy, same-sex marriage, church membership, and removing the UMC from the Religious Coalition of Reproductive Choice - were never addressed.

In other news, delegates:
  • Approved full communion with five historically black Methodist denominations in the USA
  • Urged the US Congress to support the DREAM act, offering a path to citizenship for children of illegal immigrants who serve in the military or go to college
  • Voted to remove funding from pro-choice advocacy groups that go against the church's position on abortion (this could include the Religious Coalition of Reproductive Choice, although the UMC would retain membership)
  • In a service of repentance, acknowledged the participation of Methodists in sins against the indigenous people of North America
  • Approved more money for training clergy outside the US and for recruiting more young clergy in the US
  • Separated United Methodist Women from Global Ministries agency
  • Lumped ecumenical agency into Council of Bishops
  • Reduced agency boards by about half
My Thoughts

I love my church.  I love it so much that I sat there like a dork in front of a live feed on my laptop or on my cell phone and watched people talk about budgets and "amendments to the amendment."  I want to see us fulfill our mission to introduce more people to the life changing message of Jesus and transform the world together.  But for me, General Conference 2012 betrayed the best parts of who we are as United Methodists - that we are a big tent, we agree to disagree, we focus on the important things.  At this General Conference, our divisions were on display like never before.

Instead of acknowledging together that our structure is broken and outdated, we turned it into an argument about our differences: insider vs. outsider, old vs. young, white vs. people of color, men vs. women.  Even the conversations around bishops and guaranteed appointment revealed a deep lack of trust between bishops and pastors and congregations.  The sad thing is that most United Methodists don't care what happens at General Conference.  And that's kind of the point.  We had a chance to overcome that disconnect, to cast a vision that would inspire and unite us all, and we totally dropped the ball (even if Judicial Council hadn't ruled it unconstitutional!).

Instead of acknowledging the truth that we are a church divided on issues surrounding sexuality but united in our love for God and for each other, we dug in our heels in predictable ways.  Conservatives rejected an amendment that would have simply acknowledged with refreshing honesty and humility what is already going on in most local United Methodist churches (including mine).  Liberals retreated to arguments about "exclusion" - as if Christians who prayerfully uphold traditional interpretations of Scripture and sexual ethics don't ever love and welcome LGBTQ sisters and brothers who might disagree with them.  "Why can't we agree to disagree?" the protesters asked, even as they pressed to keep the Conference from voting on the UMC's membership in an organization that does not represent many of their fellow Methodists' views on abortion.

But in spite of our differences, I agree with my friend (and western NC young clergy delegate!) Jeremy Troxler, who wrote,
"I am more convinced than ever that positive renewal in our church will not come through formal bodies, although they may perhaps empower this work.  It will come wherever one, or two, or three people take ownership for the church, realize that THEY are the UMC, and serve God together with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength."
I am a United Methodist.  I love my church.  As mainline churches continue their drift to the left and evangelicals and the Catholic bishops double down on the right, United Methodism has the unique potential to stand in the middle and focus on the big things that bring us together in spite of our differences.  As Paul wrote to the Ephesians so long ago, "Christ is our peace.  He made both Jews and Gentiles into one group.  With his body, he broke down the barrier of hostility that divided us...He reconciled both sides as one body to God by the cross, which ended the hostility to God.  We both have access to the Father through Christ by the one Spirit" (Ephesians 2).  And so, until 2016, can those of us who are United Methodist continue to agree to disagree?
"We have a choice: We can divide, or we can commit to disagree with compassion, grace, and love, while continuing to seek to understand the concerns of the other. Given these options, schism or respectful co-existence, we choose the latter.  We commit to disagree with respect and love, we commit to love all persons and, above all, we pledge to seek God's will.  United Methodists adopt the attitude of John Wesley who one said, "Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?"
Without a doubt, we may.