Well, the Special General Conference for the United Methodist Church is done. For those of us who are LGBTQ and allies, the result was shocking and hurtful. I want to share some observations about the event and what it means for the church as a whole.
A few caveats: I’m not Methodist, so this is an outsider’s perspective. But, this issue matters to me as a gay man, an ordained minister and most importantly, as a Christian. Second, people will not like this post for various reasons. This is not a blog post trashing one side, there are a lot of other blogs that can give you that. What I want this post to be is a way how church in many ways is ceasing to be church. Just as the wider culture has become polarized, with no middle ground, the church is showing those same sides. Instead of being an example of unity in the midst of diversity, we are simply following culture and what happened in St. Louis is Exhibit A.
One more thing. My underlying point here is that we, the church have to learn how to have hard debates in ways that respect one another. What happened in St. Louis is just a microcosm of what is going on in the larger culture. Beyond all the nice words, we really don’t respect one another and we feel that the other side is evil.
I say all of this not as someone who is above the fray but as someone that has “picked a side.” I am gay. I am married to a man. I do believe the church is called to welcome folks like me. I saw what happened at the General Conference and felt sadness and shock. So yes, this is personal.
But I am also a Christian that is called to love even those I might believe are my enemies. I know that there are people who I strongly disagree with on this issue who are good and faithful people. I know this because I’ve met them and engaged them. I know that this is also a personal issue to them. So how can we talk about this important issue and still be church? How can we be an example, a witness to the wider society?
With that, here are some of the salient points:
The Traditional Plan Sends a Clear Message. It was quite telling that of the four plans that were offered, One Church Plan, the Simple Plan, the Connectional Conference Plan and the Traditional Plan, the one that was approved was the only one that did not allow a place for LGBTQ Christians in the church. I know that there are those who will say that gays are welcomed in conservative churches and I do believe that. But the enhanced penalties that are now in place against gay clergy and same sex marriage send a message that conservatives might not think they are sending: the message that any LGBTQ Christian is not really welcome in churches. That sense of not being welcome is born out in the fact that conservatives didn’t seem to even want to be in the same denomination with LGBTQ Christians. Nevermind that some of these plans allowed both sides freedom to do their own thing; there was no desire to even have to deal with LGBTQ Christians. It’s hard for me to believe that I would be welcome in a church when you can’t even think of having me in the same denomination.
A Gracious Exit that Wasn’t So Gracious. This is an issue I am most familiar with. I worked for the local jurisdiction of the Presbyterian Church (USA) for seven years. In 2011, the denomination approved allowing gay and lesbian Presbyterians to become ordained and serve in PC(USA) churches. This was not something that more conservative Presbyterians could support. Presbyteries worked hard to draw up “Gracious Separation” plans that allowed some path that would allow for dissenting churches to leave with their property. It makes sense to have some kind of plan that dealt with the separation of dissenting churches because it would lessen the chance that church bodies would end up in court against departing congregations. This is what happened to the Episcopal Church after the consecration of a gay bishop in the early 2000s. The plan that was approved by the Bishops, the One Church Plan, didn’t have an exit plan. I don’t know why and there didn’t seem to be much talk about adding a plan. The Traditional Plan did have what is called a “Gracious Exit.” On the surface this seems like offering more progressive churches room to leave if they can no longer abide by the rules. It seems compassionate, but I’m starting to wonder how gracious it really was. It feels more like what is being said to moderate and progressive churches is, “here’s the door.” It looks like they are the good guys in offering dissidents a way to leave, but it could also be interpreted in a negative way.
The Bishops lost authority. The Council of Bishops endorsed the One Church Plan. In an earlier time, the delegates to the General Conference would take that endorsement to heart and would probably pass it up the bishop’s recommendation. But General Conference basically ignored the Bishops’ advice and passed a plan they didn’t endorse. I’ve heard that Methodist bishops are more powerful than bishops in other Protestant traditions like the Anglicans. However, after this vote, the bishops have lost any authority. The General Conference not only passed on their recommendation, but they picked the plan that was the exact opposite of the One Church Plan. Will the bishops be listened to in the future? I don’t know. But any illusion that they have power is now gone.
We don’t know how to talk about social issues. Why is it that when it comes to issues like homosexuality we don’t know how to talk about them without wanting to go our separate ways? In the early 1990s I attended a Baptist church in Washington, DC. At the time it was an odd church; it had both liberal and evangelical members. An ordained pastor who belong to the congregation was called as a part time Associate Pastor, but there was a catch, she was an LGBTQ ally. During the debate, an evangelical member spoke in favor of calling her. The two had a relationship and she might have disagreed on the pastor’s stance, but at the end of the day, they were friends. That’s an example of how to disagree and yet be united. Unity was some kind of afterthought to the opposing sides. Conservatives thought the One Church Plan enforced a fake unity. Progressives never didn’t seem to see conservatives as people they should respect. As fellow Disciple minister, Douglas Skinner noted, progressives never listened to theological conservatives. No one was interested in talking in a way that respected the other. Instead, people talked at each other.
False humility. I remember seeing an image of a tweet written by a Democrat on election night 2016. The person wrote thinking, like many people did, that Donald Trump would lose the election about the need to come together and all of that. A few hours later when it became certain the Clinton would lose and Trump would become President her attitude changed. The next tweet was angry at conservatives swearing up a storm.
I remembered that when I read retired Bishop William Willimon’s article after the vote. I’ve always respected him and love reading his blogs and books. But his writing after the vote was like the second tweet, a mask of civility fell revealing a sense of rage. He asks God to smite the other side and exhibits what I think is a rather racist attitude when he says that the global Christians who voted for the Traditional Plan will have to deal without that money from American Methodists which provided the income for the denomination. His advocacy for LGBTQ people is admirable, but the attitude towards fellow Christians tarnishes his support. He displayed some a kind of false humility because he believed his plan would win the day. When it didn’t that mask fell revealing his true face.
Listen, don’t come talking about wanting the Spirit to move and then get mad when it seems the Spirit didn’t go your way. Willimon had a false kindness that was only based on his side winning. It’s hard to see someone I have respect seem to be so petty and shallow.
The Global Church was heard…and Progressives and Centrists didn’t like it. The United Methodists are different from most American mainline churches in that they are a global denomination and not just limited to the United States. That means there were people at the General Conference from Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe. In most of these places the view regarding LGBTQ people is…well, not as affirming. But they deserved to be listened to. One of the problems that progressives have is that they don’t know how to deal with Christians in Africa and other places. Either they speak down to them or they think they are the unwitting tools of American conservatives. What became very clear in the aftermath of this debate was the underlying racism coming from progressives. Both Willimon and another Methodist I hold in high esteem, Adam Hamilton, have written blog posts that basically assert that American Methodists are the ones that fund the church, which is basically saying that American pay for the church so the Global Church should be grateful. I’m sorry, I respect both Willimon and Hamilton, but such assertions can’t be described as anything but condescending to persons of color. It reminds me of what happened in the Anglican Communion during the Lambeth meeting where Bishop John Shelby Spong, a progressive bishop in the Episcopal church called African Christians “superstitious.” For some reason, that didn’t go over well, with African Anglicans. I want to believe Willimon and Hamilton were speaking out of the immediate hurt and anger and that this isn’t what they really think about people from outside America. People have every right t to be angry; but don’t patronize your sisters and brothers from outside the States in doing so. Progressives have to come to terms to the fact that Christians in Africa or Asia or Eastern Europe probably don’t share our views.
When we think of Africans we tend to think they are being deceived by evil evangelicals here in America. They have come to their own beliefs on their own. They have their reasons for why they believe how they do. Disciples pastor Jeff Gill explained why at least Africans might not want to relax sexual standards:
…Africans are not interested in relaxing standards on sexual activity from where they’ve been. For this, they’ve been demonized in social media and by advocates of the changes proposed; perhaps worse, it’s been repeatedly implied they’ve just been manipulated by cash and propaganda from American conservatives. When I read this stuff, I ask myself “have they actually ever met and talked to any African bishops?”
I have. I had a series of life-changing conversations with one, in this country, in 2005 and have kept up with him, and alongside him some mission and ministry partners in North Katanga on the eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. What they have said repeatedly is this: our society does not have any guardrails. Next to none. Polygamy is common, exploitation rife in our cities and villages.
Christian preaching is often the first message many men in Africa have heard, I am told, about the need to treat women with respect, and to live their family lives as something other than a series of conquests. This is, they tell me, still an ongoing struggle. The boundaries of their church are pretty much all the guardrails they have for defining family and relationships in any form other than through power and force as their defining qualities.
So the African Methodist delegates are not interested in relaxing any standards right now. And I hear them. I also see the conflict in this country perhaps more clearly than they do in Africa, and I acknowledge the pain felt by those who see our society making lane changes and resetting some road markers, opening up acceptance and support of same-sex relationships, but then seeing some churches, perhaps their own faith tradition say “we are not making those shifts.” Not now, maybe not ever.
You don’t have to agree with this viewpoint, I don’t. But you need to understand it. You need to know why Africans other international members think the way they do. Progressives need to engage these people and also realize that the black and brown people that they admire don’t always see eye to eye on this issue.
And to borrow a tired phrase, Progressives and Centrists need to check their privilege.
Where do we go from here? There are some people who think that things will remain the same. Since the Traditional Plan has to go through a judicial process, it might be rejected outright. But I think a line has been crossed. Both sides came to St. Louis, not to have a conversation, not to find unity amidst diversity; no to listen to each other. They already had divorce on their minds. As the old saying goes, it was all over but the shouting.
My guess is that by the time of the next General Conference which is next year in Minneapolis, the United Methodist Church will not be whole. My guess is the Progressive and Centrist factions will split from the main church to create something news. Adam Hamilton has said there will be a big meeting at Church of the Resurrection after Easter to talk about the future of Methodism.
I would also keep an eye for what is happening with the Western Jurisdiction of the church. This includes all the Annual Conferences in the Western United States and it tends to be the most liberal. I could see the Western Jurisdiction becoming the basis for a new denomination. There is no desire in the church to try to heal fissures. For LGBTQ Methodists and their allies, the passage of the Traditional Plan was the last straw. There is no going back. That’s probably the best option for the sake of LGBTQ Christians. But I think the Methodists missed a chance to show the world how to deal with difficult issues and still remain united.
I am reminded of the song, “Up on A Cross” by 80s Contemporary Christian group, Degarmo and Key. It’s a song about all of the different flavors of Christianity and how they are divided. The last chorus ends with an extra line that sums up what is behind some of the division:
Up on a cross, He died for sinners
Up on a cross between two thieves
Up on a cross, He died for you and me
I heard the Devil’s voice today
I feel somewhere the devil is laughing.