Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Good Rhetoric, Bad Logic: Correcting Rob Renfroe

So I'm on vacation right now, but when I saw a link to Rob Renfroes's latest column on Facebook I had to take a brief hiatus to respond. Rev. Renfroe is woefully off base in his conclusions about the Connectional Table and Adam Hamilton's proposals to address human sexuality. In fact, he's wrong on virtually every point. I'm familiar with both since I authored a similar plan that was approved earlier this month by the Great Plains Annual Conference. Let me go point by point following Renfroe.

1. "Neither plan is a compromise"
The "no compromise" approach from the progressives would be to propose adding human sexuality to the list of protected statuses in the Book of Discipline (BOD). That would ensure that no annual conference could choose to deny ordination and no pastor could deny marriage based solely on sexual orientation. It would be a reversal of the current position we hold. That is not what is being proposed. Renfroe says it is no compromise becks it would give progressives the "ability to ratify their position wherever they have sufficient votes. Yes, but it would also give precisely that same authority to traditionalists who have sufficient votes. And if a progressive or traditionalist couldn't serve in good conscious in the conference where he or she is a member then transferring to another conference would be a reasonable alternative. Having that alternative makes it more unreasonable that a pastor could perform a same-gender wedding and not be charged. Standards could actually be better enforced. Every pastor could have part of what they want but not all of what they want. That's pretty much the definition of a compromise.

Renfroe further says that all this assures for traditionalists is that they'll have to keep fighting the same fights (my paraphrase). I'm wondering which plan has been proposed that would ensure that our debate is over. I haven't seen that plan yet.

2. "Both plans would make many pastoral appointments difficult if not impossible." 
I have not spoken with the bishops that Rev. Renfroe has. They have a remarkable insight to be able to make a statement like only three churches in an episcopal area would accept a pastor who would perform a same sex marriage. Perhaps I have more esteem for my clergy colleagues than Rev. Renfroe. The old maxim "you stop being prophetic when the people stop listening" should surely help a number of pastors opt not to perform same-gender marriages. Given that, the statistic that only somewhere around 3% of the population is gay, and the reality that same-gender marriage is already a reality for those who most desire it,  it seems unlikely that there will be a huge rash of pastors performing same-gender weddings if our denomination allows them to be done.

3. "Both plans would bring the heightened tension of General Conference into our annual conferences and into our local churches."
I was at General Conference 8 and 20 years ago, but not 4 years ago. My experience was like Rev. Renfroe's - divisive is a good word. Have church trials reduced that tension in annual conferences? Have bishops' pronouncements? Are our annual conferences immune right now to this debate? And now that the Supreme Court has ruled and public opinion has swayed do we really believe the debate will stay out of the local church? There is, I think, some truth to this charge on the Hamilton/Slaughter plan. I think that plan has some other technical issues that will prevent it from being approved. But the Connectional Table plan would result only in "lobbying" of pastors, not church members. Again, I trust that my clergy colleagues have the integrity to make the correct pastoral and theological stand regardless of the lobbying of members.

4. "Both plans will cause many of our traditional members to leave our congregations and the UM Church.
Let me grab a couple specific quotes:
"Many pastors will feel forced to leave the denomination and will do all they can to take their congregations with them." I encourage Rev. Renfroe to use his position and persuasion to urge schismatic pastors to allow the congregations they serve to make their own decisions. 
Citing the huge sums of money lost by Episcopal Church lawsuits, both plans "will guarantee that the same costly litigation will take place among United Methodists." We're not Calvinists. That future hasn't been determined yet. I believe that the numbers that would leave are exaggerated. Regardless, I would hope that we could find a way for those who cannot live within this voluntary organization to leave. Lawsuits are unnecessary. 

5. "Even if traditionalists accepted either plan, it would not end the battles regarding marriage and sexuality."
This is likely true - and pretty strong evidence that even Rev. Renfroe recognizes deep inside that the proposals actually are compromises. If they were not compromises then there would be nothing left for the progressives to battle over. And if Rev. Renfroe is right on point 4 then there wouldn't be enough traditionalists left to battle. These are self-contradicting points. You have to pick which one to argue. Because this is a kind of compromise proposal, I suggest that point 5 is true. The debate will not be over because the large majority of our membership will remain intact when they realize that they are in conferences that will not agree to having pastors who are gay and their pastors choose not to perform same-gender weddings.

6. "Our African brothers and sisters would be disenfranchised."
This statement is embarrassing. 1) African UMs have 30% of the vote at General Conference. How can a group with 1/3 of the vote be disenfranchised? 2) Central Conferences have the ability to choose portions of the BOD to modify but the US conferences and jurisdictions do not have that same power. So, in fact, a unanimous Africa and a minority of U.S. delegates could bind the entire United States to a decision that African churches could then ignore. (A unanimous Africa would need at most 40% of US delegates to have a voting majority). It is Africa who could actually disenfranchise the US, not the other way around. 

7. "Both plans require a change in our UM polity."
No. Our polity is clear that pastors have sole authority in who to marry - unless they are asked to marry two people of the same gender. Our polity is clear that Boards of Ordained Ministry and the clergy session of annual conference have the authority to determine who is qualified and called to ordained ministry - unless they are gay. Our current statements on sexuality are an anomaly to our otherwise consistent polity. The political conservative in me knows that centralizing authority tends to cause problems. We have centralized a decision that should be left to the annual conferences and local pastors as our polity dictates in virtually every other case.

8. Both plans give homosexuality a preferred status in comparison to other issues that divide us."
It is interesting, once again, that Rev. Renfroe has move away from his stance that this is not a compromise position. "Agree to disagree" language would precisely be a compromise. And, as such point 8 is valid in the case of a substantial change to paragraph 161F in the BOD. It is not true in matters of marriage and ordination. He compares the acceptance of homosexuality to ordination of women and infant baptism. What Rev. Renfroe has missed is yet another critical distinction. Both women in ministry and infant baptism are part of our doctrinal standards. There is absolutely nothing - and I mean nothing - in our doctrinal standards that directly speaks to our stance on homosexuality. Zero. 

This is why the CT proposal, or the Hamilton/Slaughter proposal, or my own proposal are all better ways forward than the status quo. All three plans 
1) Return the authority to the annual conference and local pastor that our polity intends
2) Allows standards to be better enforced, not less enforced, by helping pastors move to regions that are a better fit.
3) Allows African and other central conferences to self-determine as they currently do AND allowing U.S. conferences that same ability.
4) Returns human sexuality to its proper place in our conversations - an important conversation, but NOT a doctrinal conversation. 

And this is perhaps the one place that Rev. Renfroe and I agree - but it is an important one. We would both like to serve God in the church "to transform broken lives, heal wounded souls and save those who are drowning in a sea of confusion and sin." We have more than 40 years of experience that the approach we are taking is not working. I hope we are willing to try something new in 2016.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Can We Agree to Agree?

Just in case you didn't hear yet, the Great Plains Conference of the United Methodist Church took a significant step on Saturday towards becoming more of the church that I believe God wants us to be. Obviously a lot of people disagree with me. That was to be expected. But something interesting happened to me as I listened to the speeches against the petition - I agreed with most of what they said. It made me wonder if it would be helpful for us to take a look at what the large (almost unanimous?) majority of United Methodists, indeed the majority of all Christians, agree about.

"I believe in the transformative power of the Holy Spirit"

The first speaker was the one who, regrettably, chose to leave the denomination said this. I agree. Completely. Isn't that why we are in the Church? The church I serve is filled with stories of transformation. We have new people coming to faith. In a denomination where less than half of congregations have professions of faith other than confirmation, St. Paul's has had at least two every year for the last 17 years. This coming Sunday alone three adults will be baptized. I don't just believe in transformation, I've been transformed! By the grace of God I am not who I once was and I will not always be who I am now.

"Christians should not be conformed to the world."

Absolutely! I've argued elsewhere that even on same-sex marriage conservative and progressive alike tend to follow the local community norms, but the community's norms are not necessarily God's will. We would all (I hope) agree that when our communities advocated segregation they were wrong. We would all agree that Christian ethics are not identical with the laws of the land. Christians have a higher calling. We are supposed to act different. I will continue to maintain that when we allow ourselves to be polarized we have become conformed to the world.

"We shouldn't give in to sin"

Of course we shouldn't! Sin and evil are real and opposed to God's will. We all agree with this. We differ on what we consider to be sin.

"Scripture is Authoritative"

Not only do I agree that Scripture is authoritative, I agree that Scripture is the primary authority for Christians. Every pastor I know bases their sermons on Scripture. Almost every person I know who argues for the acceptance of homosexuality will contend that it is compatible with Scripture, not that we should ignore Scripture. We do not disagree about whether Scripture is authoritative; we disagree about how it is authoritative.

"The Church can change"

OK, nobody actually said this one, but they could have. We are the product of a changed church. If that were not the case we would all be Catholic. The Church changed even in Scripture. Pentecost represented a huge change at the very beginning. The Jerusalem Council was another huge change. The early ecumenical councils all represented change by solidifying the boundaries of faith. John Wesley believed the Church of England needed to change. Not all change is positive (which is one reason I hesitate to embrace the label "progressive"), but some change most certainly is positive.

Why this discussion matters

We know we disagree. We will always disagree on some topics. But if the United Methodist Church is going to survive this moment in time we need to at least be able to talk with each other about where the disagreements really are. I'm convinced that much of our conversation is one person talking past the other and the other returning the favor. It's a tennis game where both people are serving and no one is returning the volley. It's not a dialogue, just a series of disconnected monologues. We need to do better than that. In doing so, we may model the church Paul hopes for in Ephesians 4:1-6.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Five Rules for an Undulating UMC

Chris Ritter recently shared some interesting thoughts about a flatter UMC structure that might help our debates on sexuality. Besides the title being a misnomer, I think he has some helpful ideas.

It's important to say at the outset that Chris' five rules don't actually make the structure flatter. The only way to truly make it flatter is to eliminate some of our structure. But I think he's correct that it would feel flatter, which may be even more important than whether or not it actually is flatter. So I'm using the word "undulating" instead. Undulating means wavy - it's not flat, but it's not too hard to manage. It allows movement, but it still has form.

But let's look at his rules.

RULE # 1:  Annual Conferences may overlap geographically.

Chris points out that there are isolated examples where this already happens, but of all Chris' suggestions this is the one that concerns me. I can't see how if would be helpful to have 1st UMC of the Missouri Annual Conference across the street from 1st UMC of the Great Plains Annual Conference, for example. Opening up a geographical mission field to multiple conferences would become competitive rather than cooperative, But there may be a way of nuancing the disciplinary language to allow for the second rule, which I would support.

RULE #2:  Local churches may join whatever annual conference is willing to service their location and may reconsider their conference affiliation once every four years.  

The Book of Discipline acknowledges that the primary work of ministry happens in the local church. If the ministry of the local church is being hampered rather than helped by the Annual Conference that they are a member of I see no reason not to empower them to make a change. This should not be a decision taken lightly. Chris' recommendation of a four year minimum makes sense. I'd suggest some additional safeguards like requiring a two-thirds vote of the congregation rather than a simple majority so that we can minimize the likelihood of changes in affiliation every four years.

RULE #3:  Annual conference may join any jurisdiction they wish, and this decision may be revisited every four years.

This is already allowed in our Book of Discipline, but the current process requires approval by the annual conference seeking the change and a majority vote of the annual conferences in each affected jurisdiction. The current requirements make this really an eight year decision, not a four year decision. I think this is probably healthy, but I could support a move to simplify switching jurisdictions.

RULE #4:  General church standards related to ministry and chargeable offenses may be adapted by our jurisdictional upon a 2/3 vote of their jurisdictional conference.

I'm all for this. As it stands today, this would be a more limited version of what Central Conferences are already able to do. If we can acknowledge that Central Conferences have different cultures that may require different rules then it seems we should be able to acknowledge that different regions in the United States also may require different rules. There is no monolithic U.S. culture (here's a good example). Let's acknowledge the truth of it. The Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters will bring recommendations to the 2016 General Conference regarding just how much of the Book of Discipline should be adaptable. Whatever they are allowed to change, jurisdictions should be allowed to change also.

RULE #5:  If a jurisdiction falls below five constituent episcopal areas, it must disband and its annual conferences must each join another jurisdiction.

Seems reasonable to me.

Chris correctly says that his Jurisdictional Solution proposals (moving us to two or six jurisdictions) meet these standards. I'm not sure if that's true about Rule #1. But I'd like to suggest something more modest. I think these rules can work with the current five jurisdictions. Both versions of the Jurisdictional Solution work by creating a place where those who lean left can find a home. That already exists. It is widely acknowledged that the Western Jurisdiction is largely (but not 100%) "liberal", the Southeastern Jurisdiction is largely (but not 100%) conservative, and the remaining three jurisdictions fall somewhere in between. If local churches and annual conferences have the right to switch from one jurisdiction to another then we already have the structure we need. Adopting rules 2, 4, and 5, and perhaps a modified version of rules 1 and 3 would accomplish the same thing.

I'm still opposed to the Jurisdictional Solution, but I think Chris may have helped us move toward a workable middle ground with these guidelines.