Beyond the Nightmare (Comparing Plans for GC2020 at an Arkansas UMC Next Gathering, Sept 2019)

IMG_4576Unity vs. Schism

There is a new primary choice before us – unity or schism.  Before we look at the plans, I want these words to linger for a moment.  I want us to remember our calling “to maintain the unity of spirit in the bond of peace” and to do so with humility, patience, and kindness (Eph 4:1-3). With this calling planted in our hearts, most of us here were willing to adopt the One Church Plan – and not for some vague sense of “unity” but real and incarnate unity where we stayed at the table together and learned how to love one another in the midst of our differences.  We believed that would truly glorify God.  Yet, as we know, this plan crashed and burned…But out of this burning we have also witnessed a fire being kindled in many hearts.

In the light of this growing sacred-fire, there is a renewed commitment to unity, but with a nuanced understanding. Unity of spirit does not necessarily mean unity of organizational togetherness. To build upon the values that we have named as Arkansas Uniting Methodists, we want “unity in love rather than uniformity by law.” We want to cultivate sacred communities where there is “room for all.” We want to give witness to the unity found in God’s beloved community, in God’s kin-dom.

What about the word “schism?”  Schism is divorce on a community scale where groups within the body intentionally pull others away.  You will notice that this word in not used in the plans before us.  Instead we have notions of dissolution, new expressions, and the multiplication of our witness.  I will say that there is merit to seeing things from a different perspective.  This often leads to better outcomes.  Thus, it may not be schism at all.  At the same time, I believe it is important to ask if we are just putting a “silk dress on a pig” (as the saying goes). We need to be honest with ourselves and each other about this and our motives.

As I read these plans, and prepare as a delegate, it seems inevitable that we are moving towards schism, division, “multiplication of our witness.”  We seemed determined to “give into culture” in this way.   I have no doubt that God can work for good in the midst of this, but that does not mean it glorifies God.  I still suspect that God would be more glorified in our efforts to stay at the holy table together and learn how to love one another, instead of retreating into our own bubbles. If we take this course, we will need to find new ways to live into the clear calling that we have been given and find new ways to forge true unity.

With that introduction, let’s look at three plans, and then the one plan that is about to become policy.

The Indianapolis Plan

This plan was developed by leaders from each “camp,” including representation from the WCA.  It starts with the premise that there are “irreconcilable differences” among us and that we need to get beyond the “vitriolic” atmosphere that has marked our conversation for so long. Therefore, we need to “send one another into our respective mission fields to multiply our witness to Christ.”  (I do wonder if “respective mission fields” is code for like-minded camps or if it is dressing up a pig). This plan takes great pains to avoid the notion of dissolving the church. What we know as the United Methodist Church would stay with the centrist/progressive branch – boards, agencies, etc.  Then, we would “give birth” to a new expression of the church for traditionalists (I find this image of being asked to help “give birth” somewhat disturbing…). This “new expression” would share some resources like Wespath, UMCOR, UMW, and Publishing. There would be a formula for allocating resources among the bodies, including future apportionments.  After blessing this new expression, then this plan would remove all restrictive language and the language of “incompatibility” around same-sex marriages and ordination.  Conferences, congregations, and clergy would make decisions about alignment, with a simple majority as the rule.  If no vote is taken, the default would be the centrist/progressive Church (The UMC) in the U.S. Interestingly, Annual Conferences in Central Conferences would default to the traditionalist branch.

UMC Next Proposal

This proposal starts by envisioning a UMC that welcomes everyone, nurtures devoted disciples of Jesus Christ, and equips our members to live as salt and light in the world. It calls us to reclaim the spiritual zeal and creativity of our Wesleyan heritage.   It keeps the UMC intact by allowing for greater regional autonomy and freedom to engage in ministry within diverse missional context. In this way it honors the diverse global nature of the church.  It directly affirms our doctrinal standards and core beliefs. And then, in the light of these values and beliefs, this plan removes “language and policies…that are harmful to and exclusive of LGBTQ persons.”  It affirms the ability of pastors to determine readiness for marriage and annual conference to determine criteria for ordination.  After offering a vision of what we can be as a denomination, this plan provides methods and resources for groups of churches to form new expressions of methodism. The plan acknowledges that separation can be a faithful step that honors those who experience a call to move in different directions. It grounds this possibility in the story of Paul, Barnabas, and Mark and thus gives the notion of multiplication biblical roots (Acts 15:37-40) and combines this with the life-giving theological language of respect, partnerships, and cooperation in ministry. The proposal ends by moving us back to vision and calls for a “commission on the 21st century church” to prepare a “comprehensive structure and governance plan…”  For a couple of other details, this proposal endorses a proposal from the Connectional Table to create regional conferences and calls for professional mediation to help all parties move forward.  In terms of voting, local church disaffiliation would require a 2/3 majority – an option available for a limited time.

The Bard -Jones Plan

Named for the two bishops that developed it, this plan is similar to the Connectional Conference Plan that came out of the Way Forward Commission, but never got much traction at the time.  Like the Indy Plan, this plan starts with the premise that we must find a way to address our division.  It starts by highlighting our options. 1. Relying on the legislative processes of Conference to make changes. 2. Groups just decide to leave.  3. A “forced schism,” through trials and active disobedience. Or 4 (the shining light)- to negotiate a new unity, a new connectionalism, and a mutual blessing for the parting of ways.  This plan calls for the creation of two or three self-governing branches – an “open” branch initially operating under the “simple plan,” a “traditional” branch operating under the “traditional plan,” and perhaps a “progressive” branch with a strengthen version of the “simple plan.” The United Methodist Church would be an umbrella organization, for the purpose of sharing in mission and organization support.

The Traditional Plan  

As with the rhetorical device, use in the Bard/Jones Plan, where three bad options are given to lead to new option, there is a parallel here. All three of these plans look good in the light of the one plan that was passed at GC2019 – the traditional plan (soon to be policy).  This is the big ugly elephant in the room – a plan that defines unity as uniformity, that establishes strict mandatory penalties for anyone who violates certain, that requires oaths in order to be in certain leadership positions, that creates a globally elected body to enforce particular rules, a body likened by our Judicial Council to an “inquisitional court.” And it was all passed knowing that much of it would be ruled unconstitutional.  One possibility before us is that General Conference will be about perfecting this plan.  And, that my friends, is my nightmare.  Even many who have more traditional views on particular topics are opposed to these draconian measures. They do not honor Christ or glorify God.

So, in comparison to this plan/policy, all the others look great! We need to keep that in mind. In terms of big outcomes, any of these plans (or some combination) would allow for the formation of a church that truly aspires to the values that we have named as Arkansas Uniting Methodists:

  • Unity in Love rather than Uniformity by Law, where we come together at the holy table and give witness to the royal law of love.
  • Making Room for All and cultivating the values of inclusiveness and diversity as strengths that give witness to God’s beloved community (God’s kingdom) in our midst.
  • A High(er) View of Scripture where we honor the whole of scripture, interpret through key concepts as Jesus did, and move beyond proof-texting to affirm prejudices and opinions.
  • Wesleyan Holiness, defined through the virtues of humility, patience, and gentleness rather than through judgment of others and zeal for our own righteousness.
  • A Sexual Ethic Rooted in Values rather than Personal Identity, an ethic rooted in the values of monogamy, faithfulness, commitment, and the virtues summed up with the word love.

Beyond the Nightmare

Before our discussion, I want to elaborate on the nightmare that haunts me.  What if we are not able to pave any path for a church that cultivate these values. What if we don’t have the votes, even after the wave of support that occurs in the US?  (It is not unlike what we witnessed in St. Louis). What if I’m sitting there and I realize that it is not going to happen – at least in the legislative arena.  Can I (we) just sit there as more harm is done?

One image that comes to mind is something that happened at Annual Conference a couple of years ago when a group of women made the decision to excuse themselves from the bar of the conference abstaining from a vote on a resolution in support of women in ministry.  While acknowledging that the resolution was well-intended, it was reasoned that they did not want to subject themselves to the possible harm of becoming, once again, an “issue” to be justified and defended, or by having to vote, once again, on their own legitimacy.  And so, they chose a response that I believe honored our shared covenant.

I’m not totally sure what to make of this comparison, but I have a couple of reflections. First, resolutions are by nature contentious and designed to divide.  They may be well intended and still cause harm. Often there are better way to make affirmations. In the same way, our whole legislative process is often contentious and can cause much harm.  Acknowledging this, and as a small step, it is important to notice the language of the plans and ask: Do they come from a heart of love or do they mask other motives? Do they flow out of the values we have named, and if so, give the possibility for healing rather than harm? The hope is that we will let our values guide us through the turbulent waters of legislation. For a second connection, and more provocative, I wonder if we need some kind of contingency plan, for all supporters of an open and inclusive church, to possibly excuse ourselves and go to another room to work on a new way forward – while we are conveniently there in Minneapolis.  It is a big question mark at this point, but I do wonder.

I certainly hope that kind of action will not be needed.  I hope I will be able to say in hindsight, “Oh that was just a nightmare.” May our Lord help us see all of this through the light of love divine. May it be so.

Impressions from UMC Next (and for Conference Elections)

UMC Next - MichaelHere are a few first impressions from the UMC Next gathering last week and implications as we move towards the election of delegates this week.  I will assume that you have read the inspired key principles and heard about the two-fold strategy to “Stay, Resist, and Reform,” while engaging in “Negotiations for Dissolution” if this is deemed to be the most faithful option.

Impression 1.  I felt the tension in my own heart between these two strategies.  I was moved by pain caused by the actions of General Conference and empathized with calls for some form of separation.  And then, I heard powerful statements from African Americans and women who have stayed and struggled for justice and inclusion for generations.  To leave too quickly could dishonor those who have stayed and made such a difference by being prophets among us.  I was moved, for example, by the story of how one Conference elected women to go to General Conference, knowing that these women would be turned away because “laymen” meant “male.”  I am so glad that these women continued the struggle.  Perhaps, they can serve as inspiration.  Whether we ultimately schism or not, we need those committed to the cause and those willing to work together. There is strength in numbers.

Impression 2. We must find ways to model the church that we want to become. That means we must be intentional about inclusivity and honoring all voices at the table.  In this light, I stand convicted as one who is responsible for scheduling our Uniting Dinner on Wednesday Night at the same time as the Black Methodists for Church Renewal (BMCR) dinner.  My first response was that it was “unintentional,” motivated by wanting to meet before the elections on Wednesday night.  It was Maxine Allen, a true prophet among us, who agreed that it was unintentional and pointed out that we need to be intentional if we are to live up to the values we claim.  Yes, faithfulness to the vision given at UMC Next calls for much more intentionality.

Impression 3.   I am thankful that our leadership group, first for Uniting Methodists and then for UMC Next, has been open about our participation.  There were many at UMC Next who were reluctant to be open about their advocacy.  In this regard, I think of a conversation I had with Lynn Kilbourne as we were planning a rally for the One Church Plan at Annual Conference last year (that seems so long ago).  I expressed my thankfulness to be in a place, in terms of age and appointment, where I could be a vocal advocate without as much fear of consequences.  I asked Lynn if she was sure about taking a public stance knowing that some heat would come.  She confessed some concern, but then said, “It’s the right thing to do.” We need that kind of leadership as we work for a church that cultivates unity in love rather than uniformity by law and goes back to a biblical vision of making room for all, not just back to a time when discrimination was justified.

You are invited to join this holy work. As a step this week, please join us in electing a delegation that will represent the emerging vision that God is giving.  If you want to be a part of a more organized effort, let me, or any involved, know. There is a plan. We need to work together, or we risk a delegation that wants to perfect the punitive/exclusionary plan with little influence for an alternative vision. For one more impression from the gathering, I no longer want to use the term “traditional plan” because I do not believe it honors the living tradition of the church.  When it comes to honoring our tradition, we can do so much better.