Let us in The United Methodist Church stop calling ourselves, or even aspiring to be, countercultural.  We have proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that we are thoroughly accommodated and inured to our 21st century American culture.

Lest you think I am adding my voice to those of conservatives who decry the an accommodation to society’s cultural mores regarding human sexuality by progressive UMs and conferences such as the Michigan Area Conference, such is not what I have in mind.  Instead, I am taking a much broader view and seeing a UM church comprised of conservatives/traditionalists/evangelicals and progressives/liberals that looks like the greater culture in which it lives.

I had hoped, at the start of General Conference 2019 and again at the start of the Michigan Annual Conference 2019 that its delegates would do what we have forgotten how to do in our society’s public discourse: hold constructive conversations that present the issues of the day in depth so that opposing views (and opposing sides) might be understood and considered.  I had hoped that there would be substantive theological and ecclesial debate in which both conservative and progressive view would be compellingly defended.

Instead, from GC2019 through MAC2019, the pattern of presentation (the word debate is inappropriate) was like that in our national discourse.  Each side raised their flag, stated their position without defending it, labeled the other, and assumed the other performed political maneuvering to undercut the other.

Conservatives claimed adherence to orthodox biblical authority and church tradition regarding homosexuality without arguing why their position remains the necessary one today after so much in the church has evolved in the last two millennia (for example, we no longer attribute mental illness to demon possession, withhold the bible from the laity, or treat divorce as a sin leading to excommunication).  Nor did they address the suffering caused to LGBTQIA+ by their position, nor current scientific understanding of sexuality and sexual identity beyond calling anything other than cis-gendered heterosexuality a sin.

Progressives appealed to the pain LGBTQIA+ feel when confronted with language such as “homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching” and prohibitions against ordination and same-sex marriage without dealing with almost two millennia of church tradition regarding human sexuality, and, more importantly, the passages in the Bible that speak quite forcefully about homosexuality.  They did not defend their position in a way the church, with the Bible as its primary source for theology and authority, could embrace let alone understand.

I realize that what I wanted to see—thoughtful, constructive, and critical debate—would have been hard work.  Unfortunately, without that debate all that was accomplished was the further separation and solidification of the opposing positions with an unhealthy dash of suspicion and distrust thrown in.

We had a chance to be countercultural and we wasted it.  We call each other names (using labels), raise our flags of “orthodoxy” and “inclusive love”, and eye each other warily across the ever widening divide.  How is this different than the world around us?

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The following is a Facebook post that looked meaty enough to blog.  It references the following UM News item:
https://www.umnews.org/en/news/denominations-future-under-discussion-quietly

It sounds as if there is a sense of ownership of the denomination underlying the discussions mentioned in the attached article–more so by the progressive side but also by conservatives.
What everyone might want to consider is the statistical implication of the GC2019 vote to adopt the Traditional Plan. It was 438 for to 384 against. The difference is just about 6% or +/- 3%. Anyone who does polling will tell you that this figure is the standard margin of error. Any poll within this margin is statistically equivalent. Except for the technicality of a majority vote (a quantitative but not qualitative rubric), one might conclude that neither side “owns” the UMC; neither side “won”.
For progressives, who are feeling that there is no place for the draconian hard-line of conservatives in their church, and conservatives who are feeling a bit triumphant that they “won”, the statistical equivalence suggests neither side has accomplished anything but a more public articulation of our differences.
I expect all of the above may be labeled “gobbledygook” (or worse) by anyone who feels that discernment of the divine will has been achieved by a narrow numeric superiority and that there is nothing more to be said. One can print this off and paper a bird-cage with it if desired.
My take on this, from a qualitative interpretation of the vote, is that both sides dug trenches and threw ideological grenades at each other, never really making a compelling case that might have inspired at least a moment of consideration of each other’s views. It’s not enough to simply say, “LGBT persons feel disenfranchised and 2nd class, which is wrong” or “this is what the Bible and the church have always said, therefore it is so”. Such statements are little more than introductory summaries to the debate.
(time to wrap this up . . . have probably hacked off enough people for a Tuesday morning)

A man with a skin disease approached Jesus, fell to his knees, and begged, “If you want, you can make me clean.”
Incensed, Jesus reached out his hand, touched him, and said, “I do want to.  Be clean.”  Instantly, the skin disease left him, and he was clean.  (Mark 1:40-42)

Jesus wasn’t miffed or a little annoyed.  He was incensed–enraged, angered, feeling a moment of “don’t even mess with me” pique.  By the time we get to this scene, Jesus had seen a lot of sick and disabled people with both physical and mental illnesses.  When yet one more sick man approaches Jesus, he gets lit and loses his temper.  While we might interpret his rage as a kind of holy anger at the world’s brokenness displayed in the begging man, I suspect he might have simply had enough of dealing with sickness and disease and flashed into anger.

At that moment he had a choice.  He could, as angry people often do, walk away.  The other option, the one that he chose, was to do something about the need and brokenness before him.  He channeled his anger into a furious fit of healing and cured the man’s skin disease.  In other words, he didn’t walk away but remained to do what he could to make things better.

Right now, church congregations, factions within churches, families, and individuals incensed, enraged, angered, disappointed, frustrated, and/or saddened by GC2019’s decision to retain The Discipline‘s ban on gay clergy and same-gender marriage are contemplating leaving The United Methodist Church.  I understand, or am trying as best I can.  It’s an understandable reaction.

A reaction–but not a response.

If anyone reading this is in the midst of this reaction, please hear me out before you act.

This is a good time to remember who we are–the people God has gathered to be the Body of Christ in the world, the community of Christ’s presence, and the people who offer a glimpse of what the coming Kingdom of God will look like.  The problem we have is that the church is full of people, and worse, sinful, reprehensible, short-sighted, selfish, people (and these are the ones we call “the saints”).  For 2,000 years the church has been a frustrating and disappointing cesspool of human pride, prejudice, and failing.  But it has also been the place where God meets us with his grace, forgiveness, healing, and inspiration to do something about the brokenness in the world around us.  Indeed, if the church was a place where everyone were paragons of virtue, morality, and wisdom, it would be . . . well . . . plastic, and really dull.  As it is, it is the church is living, breathing, good, bad, ugly, and sometimes great, profound, and amazing.  It is where God meets us and invites us to wrestle with what being human and God’s people mean.

For those who are angered–incensed!–by GC2019’s decision and considering walking away, please step back for a moment.  Take the space provided by Lent to breath, pray, think.  And discern where you are called to ministry.  Maybe, in this season of your discontent, your ministry may be in staying and channeling your anger, as Jesus did with the sick man, and helping your church here in the place where you worship and serve, do its best ministry to the world through its worship, teaching, and service.

Keep the faith!

The Michigan Statement, today, hit the newspapers.  It now belongs to our culture as an artifact of our time that represents the religious, social, and political dynamics of our culture, not just United Methodism in Michigan.  In its public form, it is a simple statement of support for full inclusion of LGBTQIA persons in all areas of the life of the UMC, particularly within the Michigan Conference.  It includes a confession to LGBTQIA persons for the pain inflicted by the GC2019 decision to affirm 47 years of homosexual exclusion in the clergy, a more recent rejection of same-gender marriage, and the assertion of more severe sanction for disobedience in these areas.  In addition, the statement declares support for LGBTQIA persons.

In addition to the public statement, displayed on The Michigan Statement website’s homepage, is a link to a page containing the much longer letter read to the Michigan Area bishop on 9 March during a session including the bishop and Michigan Conference clergy (no laity were present).  That letter says the same thing as the briefer public statement, albeit with greater verbosity.  It also says something that the statement does not say–that the undersigned vow to disobey the prohibitions of homosexual clergy and same-gender marriage found in The Discipline.  This takes The Michigan Statement a step further than I am willing to go and further alienates me from the veritable who’s-who of Michigan Methodism who have signed the letter.

Collegial alienation, or at least some distancing, is something I do not want but is something I can deal with.  I expect to not always agree with my peers in ministry, although disagreements have been rare.  But I do worry about what might happen should increasingly more partisan colleagues come into positions of influence over clergy assessments and appointments.  So far, I have not been willing to entertain the cynical distrust I am hearing from others.

Unfortunately, a document, which has been published but not widely distributed by our conference Board of Ordained Ministry, makes me wary.  In it is a declaration to disobey The Discipline‘s prohibition on gay clergy should it be determined that a LGBTQIA person displays the gifts and graces for ministry.  My concern is how the BOM might deal with clergy that do not agree with their position, or, like me, reject disobedience of church law.

I continue to be disappointed that many on both sides of the divide are not taking time to pause, breath, pray, contemplate, and take time to not react.

I just heard on our local NPR outlet a report about the BOM’s vow to disobey (4:00pm).  I suspect this to be the result of a press release given them by someone representing the BOM.  If this is the case, it is more than a little disturbing because it implies the conflict is being pushed into the arena of public opinion.  I find this unwise.

It’s getting a bit lonely in the middle between conservatives/traditionalists (those who hold to the UMC’s stance on homosexuality since 1972) on the right and liberals/progressives (those supporting full LGBTQIA inclusion in the UMC along with same-gender marriage) on the left.  A few years ago I might have assumed that there was a silent majority traveling the via media with me, but my denomination appears increasingly, and alarmingly, to resemble the widening separations we see in American culture–social, economic, and, especially, political.  Our politics once divided the opinions of people who otherwise embraced each other as colleagues and friends, but now are the basis for distrust and even hatred of each other.  Something disturbingly similar is taking place in the UMC.

As I talk with colleagues on both sides of the conservative/liberal (traditionalist/progressive) divide I am hearing something new to my experience of United Methodism–deepening distrust.  On both sides are colleagues and friends who can no longer (in my opinion) effectively, maybe constructively, work with each other or support each other be cause they no longer trust each other to be faithful ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  And that trust ripples through how they experience the connectionalism of our church and its administration.  More than one colleague is now voicing the suspicion that their conservatism has become an impediment to advancement within the Michigan Conference and to consideration for appointments to larger, more prominent churches.  While this is hardly a new concern in our conference, it is now present with an intensity that is new.  I hope my experience is due to the passions of my closest colleagues, which are intense, but my suspicion is that this is happening around our conference and denomination.

The middle ground I inhabit feels a bit more lonely and a place.  I experienced this at a recent meeting of Michigan Area clergy with our bishop to discuss GC2019.  Following the bishop’s remarks, he opened the floor for comments and questions.  Immediately, a large group came forward and read The Michigan Statement, which declared profound disappointment in the choice of the traditional plan at GC2019 and unequivocal support for both ordination of LGBTQIA clergy and same-gender marriage, punctuated by a declaration to disobey The Discipline if conscience led otherwise.  The asked that those in sympathy rise in support.  As the statement was read, people around the room stood up.  I did not.  I also became uncomfortably aware that their action was forcing each of us to pick sides.  We either stood to support full inclusion of LGBTQIAs or we stayed seated to affirm the traditional stance that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”  It felt as if there was no middle ground.  By choosing to not be counted with those standing up for full LGBTQIA inclusion, I had to be seen as throwing my support to the other side.  Without putting too fine a point on it, I reset being put in such a position where I have to pick between two views I am unwilling to fully own.  I am also more than a little unhappy that our bishop, at the beginning of the meeting, asked that we suppress any applause as it would exacerbate tensions, he allowed the silent applause of standing during the reading of The Michigan Statement. . . same effect either way.

At present I inhabit the middle ground.  I will obey The Discipline and the covenant it represents, but I cannot just write off the full inclusion of LGBTQIA persons in the life of the church or same-gender marriage without serious and critical consideration of scriptural exegesis and the traditions of the church, which indeed have evolved over the last few millennia.  I take the Bible seriously and authoritatively, but I do not take the church’s interpretation of it slavishly.  The church evolves and grows both in the Spirit and in our continued exploration of the mind and heart of God.

I inhabit the middle ground . . . I hope it doesn’t get too lonely here.

I am shifting the focus of these reflections to what is happening post-GC2019, which is far more interesting than what happened at GC2019.

5′ 5″ refers to our bishop, David Bard.  While I my estimate of his height may be off by a little, he is indeed not very tall.  However, his wisdom gives him stature far beyond that measure.

Bishop Bard recently called together the Michigan Area clergy for worship and a discussion about GC2019.  Not only was he prepared and gracious with the variety of comments and questions that came his way, he offered wisdom that I have taken to heart:

Step back and wait throughout Lent and Easter Sunday.

His direct reference was to those who are considering leaving the UMC, either individually as clergy or with their churches as there are some whose knee-jerk reaction to GC2019 is to file divorce papers claiming irreconcilable differences and leave the UMC to its curmudgeonly conservatism.  But “wait” also applies to any action driven by the passion of this post-GC2019 moment of heightened emotion.   Such passionate expressions range from the afore mentioned separation from the UMC to heated rhetoric and abuse spewed out on social media.

Mostly because of social media, we live in a culture of instant reactivity and more often than not, the quicker one is to respond to a provocation, the more likely one is to make things worse.  There was virtue, or at least a bit of a safety valve, in having to sit down with paper and pen to write a letter.  With computer and smartphone typing aids and voice-to-text entry, we no longer have to wait before dispatching our missives, responses, rejoinders, and trolling attacks.  They are away and out of our control before we’ve had the chance to decide if hitting “send” was a good idea or not.

Since I am not immune from this reactivity, my post-GC2019 Lenten discipline is to wait.  Throughout this season, I plan to take a generous amount of time to think, pray, contemplate, and if I feel particularly impassioned, take up a piece of paper and pen to write.  And I intend on making not decisions related to GC2019 until after Easter Sunday.

There’s no hurry.

It was 5 April 2008 all over again (I think I have the date right).

On that day, clergy from the Detroit and West Michigan Conferences, called together by Bishop Jonathan Keaton, gathered at the Lansing Convention Center to vote on merging the two Michigan conferences.  The firm expectation was that this time the merger would happen.  When the final tally was taken (on paper ballots rather than wireless, looks-like-refurbed-blackberry devices) the proposal to merge lost by a disciples-count of twelve votes.

Bishop Keaton, whose demeanor and meeting management were always so well prepared and managed, was gobsmacked.  It was clear that he was thoroughly unprepared for the failure of the merger proposal.  We were in a state of paralysis while he struggled to find something to say.

Roll forward to St. Louis and GC2019.  When the Traditional Plan was approved and the One-Church Plan relegated to the dustbin, it felt like 4/5/08 all over again.  My impression is that our Council of Bishops, informed by the One-Church Plan endorsement of the Committee on a Way Forward, were unprepared for the electoral result. They were gobsmacked.

The passage of the Traditional Plan by a narrow, but not razor-thin, margin (53%) has, and will continue, to invite speculation about what nudged the One-Church Plan over the edge of the UMC’s flat earth.  As interesting as it might be to know how each delegation voted, so we could map the vote in various ways, such statistics are irrelevant.  A more useful question to answer is, Why were the Commission on a Way Forward and our Council of Bishops blind to the theological demographics of our denomination?  Blind may be a bit harsh.  Maybe the more accurate characterization might be that they collectively suffered myopia, unable to see clearly across all of America and past the shores of the U.S. (but I’ll have to stop my speculation here as we’ve been told not to “blame Africa” or the rest of the more conservative UMC Central Conference world outside Western Europe for preferring the Traditional Plan).

My bishop was as gobsmacked as the rest of his colleagues, but unlike Bishop Keaton’s paralysis on (and after) 4/5/08, Bishop Bard has responded to the aftermath of GC2019 with wisdom in his words and a constructive intention to engage with all sides.  I appreciate his “we will talk about this . . . but not yet, let’s wait and give this space” approach.

In the wake of such unexpected results and dashed hopes, it is indeed better to step back and take a few deep breaths rather than flail into a reaction that only makes things worse.