Passing on the Pressure (Initial Reflections on the Protocol from a Delegate Perspective)

cic-universal2The pressure is on!  As a delegate, it was clear that we were the target audience of the first live-streamed presentation from the group giving us the Protocol, aired yesterday. Scattered throughout the conversation were statements about this now being placed in our hands. There were pleas to join the movement.  It was repeatedly emphasized that this protocol received unanimous affirmation after an intense mediation process. Everyone at the table was willing to compromise for the sake of good-will, peace, and the hope of moving forward.  Much motivation came from the shared assumption that the alternative would be much worse. In fact, the word “catastrophic” was used at least twice for what would happen if this does not pass.   So once again, the pressure is on.

Instead of reporting on what individuals said, I will focus on the different perspectives – the traditional, the progressive, the centrist, and central conferences.  (I use these terms with some reluctance, for I do not believe it is good to define others by a single word or story.  For example, it is very possible to want “progress” for those being harmed around current policies and to be immersed in the traditions of the church through creeds, hymns, liturgy, and prayers. It is possible to value inclusiveness and respect for the faith journey of others and see this as mandated from the living tradition of the church).

With that qualification, representatives of a traditional perspective, from the confessing movement and the WCA, led with calls for “amicable separation” because of “irreconcilable differences” around issues of human sexuality.  Since progressives/centrists were not willing to leave, even after repeated unsuccessful attempts to change the BOD, traditionalists have made the decision to actively move towards the formation of a new denomination. They affirmed the need to “set the church free from the conflict.” As stated, in the interests of good-will, peace, and moving forward, these representatives were willing to make significant compromises around voting thresholds and financial support.   In answering a question, this group would not likely leave the General Conference immediately for a Convening Conference of the new denomination, but they did believe this will happen soon – in 2020.  They made it clear that they would actively seek to persuade others to join the movement.

For Progressives, this protocol “changes the landscape for those who have been deeply harmed.” The discriminatory language that has caused so much harm would be removed.  This is an answer to the longing of many hearts.  At the same time, there is a place for caution.  The Traditional Plan that was passed in 2019 has become the source of much fear and hurt. Continued vigilance is needed.  Many, but not all, will resolve to stay in the Post-Separation UMC.

For Centrists, and many who would use the word progressive, this protocol affords the opportunity to rediscover the blessings of being a “big tent” church, where different perspectives are honored, where unity is sought, not in a uniformity of law, but in our call to love one another, with all patience, kindness, humility, without arrogance or insisting on our own way.  Unity is found in this core scriptural calling (Eph 4:1-3; I Cor 13:1-8).  It was stated that 85% of all United Methodists across the spectrum – traditionalists, conservatives, progressives, and centrists – communicate that they can exist in a church where there is diversity of interpretation.  This diversity can be seen as a blessing and even essential to the fulfillment of our calling. It was stated that centrists are united around a desire to welcome all and to remove the discriminatory language that uses outdated and harmful language to single out one group of people, and to access their status in the church by this single criterion rather than by calling, character, faithfulness and fruitfulness.  From this perspective, humility demands that we focus on being welcoming of all who want to know Christ and grow in the virtues of faith and love.  Realistically, this post-separation United Methodist Church would be smaller – but hopefully not for long.  It was expressed that this will be an opportunity for growth, to be more nimble and responsive to the mission field, and to respond in new ways to the call to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

This centrist stance would be the default perspective for the post-separation United Methodist Church. No vote would be required to remain within this expression of faith.  If a vote was taken, the threshold for an Annual Conference would be 57%.  This percentage was the result of compromise.  The traditionalists lobbied for a simple majority, with others asking for two-thirds.  Central Conferences would require a 2/3 vote to leave the UMC.  Local Congregations could choose to leave the UMC. If this vote is taken, it would be by a Church Conference where every member can vote, as opposed to a charge conference where elected leaders vote.  We probably need to be ready for attempts to change these thresholds.

It was very clear that those representing Central Conferences were supportive. A Bishop from Africa said that African support would be 100%.  A similar statement was made from the Bishop of the Philippines.   Representatives from Central Conferences also support the continuation of the United Methodist Church, saying that dissolution would have catastrophic effects on ministry and mission.  There was also support for the idea of regional conferences as being essential to making this work, given freedom for ministry and decisions within various cultures and contexts.   If support indeed comes at these high levels from Central Conferences, then it does appear that this Protocol will be a first step for how we move forward in mission and ministry.

In conclusion, we were asked to not let perfect get in the way of good.  We are asked to understand the need for a small representative group to initiate the process and how it is now time for others to come to the table.  We were asked to pray.  As was stated, with prayer all things are possible and without prayer nothing is possible (Wesley).  Testimonies were given for how prayer opened the way several times in the midst of this mediation.  That is a good word.

Immersed in prayer and in politics together, it is time to turn our attention to the future, to begin to develop a vision for what is possible for the post-separation UMC.  We must give a compelling reason for committing to this “big tent” church.  Without this vision, permission is implicitly given to withdraw into comfortable and like-minded camps.  The pressure is on for delegates to initiate by inviting others of all perspectives to develop a vision and strategy for a faithful and fruitful post-separation UMC.  May God be with us all.

Our Calling Amid Possible Schism

IMG_4576The decision is in.  While I was hoping for a different result from the Judicial Council, I don’t believe we can blame the messenger.  I do wonder if they grieved over this decision, knowing that it would contribute to the schism that is likely to come.

Before General Conference, I wrote about Wesley’s view on schism.  Now I find myself revisiting his advice from a different perspective.  At the end of his sermon, “On Schism,” Wesley acknowledges that leaving a church, or forming a new church, can mean multiplication rather than division. It can be good for the body of Christ, as long as this move is not motivated by condemnation or personal comfort.  Withdrawing into “like-minded camps” is generally not the best way to glorify God.

In this sermon, Wesley actually defends heresy. It is a bit shocking – and very relevant for us today. Different perspectives – even factions or heresies – serve a positive purpose within the body of Christ. A variety of perspectives teaches us how to love and how to break bread together. There is likely some level of “heresy” in all of our stances and opinions.  Acknowledging this in humility leads us into life-giving community.  On the other hand, claiming right belief, and making this the focus of what it means to be the church, only breeds self-righteousness and creates “a present hell for those involved.” That’s Wesley’s take.

So where does this leave us? We are in a strange place where those who advocated for biblical unity are in the minority. After this ruling by the Judicial Council, the green-light has been given to a plan that moves us from unity in love to uniformity by law, with strict mandatory penalties, strengthened definitions that cause harm, and accountability taken away from bishops and the annual conferences. (If you are following the process, this is all old news).  I am glad that the provision for requiring oaths to serve in certain leadership positions was ruled unconstitutional, but it was still the will of the majority at General Conference. On the issue at hand, there is no room to do ministry from a different perspective. Those who want to make this room are being asked by many to “just leave” – or be subject to the new “inquisitional court” that will be established. That is where we are.

So, what’s next?  As we work through our grief, my hope is that we will join with others and focus on the calling God has given us – to bear one another in love and seek true unity of spirit (Eph 4:1-6).  Let us increase our resolve to make room for all, including those with traditional, centrist, and progressive perspectives, as we seek to listen and learn together, in respect and grace (that is possible and truly glorifies God), and in light of our current conversation, especially work to honor the gifts of our LGBTQ+ siblings and make room for them.  Let us promote a high(er) view of scripture where we honor the whole and seek God’s intended message in our time, using the royal law of love as our guide.  Let us affirm Wesleyan Holiness, defined through the virtues of humility, patience, and gentleness, as oppose to holiness defined by judgment of others, and zeal for our own righteousness.  Let us promote a strong sexual ethic rooted in the values of monogamy, faithfulness, and the virtues summed up with the word love.  Let us work towards policies built on a shared ethic of calling and character, as opposed to policies that make judgments around personal identity.   In sum, let us join with others to form a church that glorifies God.

Yes, some sort of division or “branches” is likely at a denominational level.  I hope that this possibility will increase our witness to the values we share. I believe that this is the calling we are being given, in this time, as we stay open to God’s work through us.