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.

Resisting Harmful Lifestyles

IMG_4576I’ve recently read a post from a Conference WCA group that offered a real and honest perspective, worthy of attention. The post called for resistance to the harm caused by the #resistharm movement, claiming that the “liberal theology” behind this movement is “causing untold harm to hundreds of thousands of wonderful people around the world…by promoting a lifestyle that rebels against the known will of God,” a God who does not “bless unholy or unrepentant people.” As a supporter of #resistharm, I would like to enter into conversation with this perspective.

While I don’t presume to speak for all, I can confidently use the plural when I say that we are not here to promote some secular agenda. As a church, we ask different questions: “How do we respond faithfully to anyone who desires to live as a follower of Christ and grow in relationships of faithfulness and love?”  Many of us are asking, “Is it faithful to assess certain people based solely on the way they identify rather than on their character and calling, faithfulness and fruitfulness?”  “Do we welcome some by saying they need to change in ways that we don’t ask others to change?” “Is it possible to develop a serious sexual ethic based not on identity, but on the virtues to which we are all called – monogamy, faithfulness, forgiveness and grace?  “Rather than judging some as ‘incompatible,’ would it not be more faithful to focus on forms of sexual immorality that objectify others for personal pleasure and cause so much harm in the world?” In short, how do we promote true holiness? We believe that the Holy Spirit is involved in this kind of questioning and is calling us to honor the struggle and to learn how to love one another in the midst of so many diverse expressions of faithfulness and fruitfulness. We believe that this process of struggling and learning is a lifestyle that truly glorifies God. I would even call it traditional – and certainly deeply rooted in Scripture.

With this desire to cultivate lifestyles of faithfulness, we do use the language of LGBTQ, with some adding A and I and +. This language seems to cause much holy discomfort. Why this language? We use the language as a way to express our hope that the church to be a safe place for people to engage in personal and spiritual discernment and find themselves welcomed into a lifestyle of glorifying God through Christ our Lord.  We use the language to acknowledge that suppression of this kind of discernment is not healthy and is in fact harmful. The letters themselves are fluid and are there to help people discern who they are as uniquely blessed children of God.  For example, I can embrace the letter “A,” as an “ally,” wanting to stand with those who are being harmed. This is one way this letter is used. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, I am working on changing my understand of the term “Queer,” and learning to honor those who use this word to acknowledge that they are “different” and stand outside the sphere of what is deemed culturally normal, often without being a direct reference to sexuality. Some might say that this is the calling of the whole church.

Using this language as a tool for discernment is very different from using it to label others and assess their status in the larger community. That’s what we want to overcome. We long for the day when we get beyond labeling some siblings in Christ with letters, and colors, and references to gender, in ways that hold some to a different standard, outside the inner circle of those who are privileged and who do NOT feel the pressure to qualify and justify themselves in this way. Faithfulness demands that we resist this particular kind of “evil, injustice, and oppression.”

For one more clarification, I do not accept that “liberal theology” is to blame. I see “liberal” as another charged word used to characterize others as one-dimensional and thus lacking in life-giving truth. As sinful and limited creatures, we need more from each other than that.  While seeing through a mirror dimly, and in great need of the perspective of others, my theology is rooted in Christ, in Scripture, in the Creeds, in Wesley, and with a heart that wants to promote holiness defined, with Wesley, by the virtues of humility, patience, and kindness. Through my theological lens, I do not believe it is right to use God and the holy Scriptures as cover to protect our own privilege and conceal our own prejudices.  If I ever do that (and I do have blind spots that would make it possible), I hope others in the body of Christ will call me to repentance.

Oh, how I wish we could take the opportunity we are being given to share a positive witness to the world based on all the things in which we could find agreement, liberally sharing the love of Christ and the high and holy calling that we all have been given: to bear one another with a love that is humble, patient, and kind, seeking unity of spirit in the bond of peace (Eph 4:1-3).  I believe with all my heart that such a lifestyle would glorify God and be a much better witness to the world.