Sunday, January 5, 2020

Most Right for Now

Nobody ever wins a divorce. Ever. One person may not lose as much as another, but everybody loses. Even in a divorce that is necessary, like in an abusive marriage, nobody wins. Staying safe from harm isn't a win, it's just survival.

We should be clear that the Protocol agreed upon by a respectable group of progressives, centrists, and traditionalists is a call for divorce. And yet, there is some reason for hope. Perhaps because of the profound lack of trust that each group has with the other there have been times when it have felt more like some have been more concerned with making sure another group loses than that ones own group wins - to use Steven Covey's language, we would be more satisfied with a lose-lose scenario than a win-win. With the help of a professional mediator, the group that wrote the Protocol has potentially helped us avoid a lose-lose. Nobody "wins" everything, but everybody "wins" something.

U.S. Traditionalists
This is not who I am so I am open to correction from those who claim this camp. There are some traditionalists, notably in the WCA, who have wanted to leave the denomination for some time. This plan let's them do so with their local church property and the formation of a new denomination. That's a win. Other traditionalists genuinely wanted to reform the denomination from within. For them, leaving is a loss. But the reality is that those of us in the center and progressive wings really truly are not leaving. Further, from a purely political standpoint, the votes in the jurisdictions are in place to elect bishops throughout the U.S. who would not enforce the Traditional Plan. The hard reality, which may have been a motivator for traditionalist leadership, is that the 20019 vote in St. Louis awoke a giant centrist voice in the U.S. that rebuked the direction traditionalists want to take the church. There was no guarantee that the 2020 General Conference would go there way. So, while it is not a total win, traditionalists who want to reform the denomination will get to live out their beliefs in a new denomination. My sincere hope remains that many traditionalists, using now familiar language, the traditional-compatibilists, will choose to remain in the new UMC. Almost all traditionalists have wanted a smaller institution with less bureaucracy. A new start with a new denomination is the perfect opportunity to implement this.

U.S. Centrists
This is where I place myself. On the question of inclusion I am unabashedly progressive. On most other theological questions I am very much in the center of the denomination. Once it became clear that there was no way to preserve the denomination as we know it - once the traditional wing defeated the One Church Plan - some degree of division was entirely and regrettably inevitable. For centrists, the hope is that as few people leave as possible. That is why we have advocated for a high bar for conferences and churches to leave the denomination. Contrary to traditionalist talking points, the One Church Plan DID have an exit path - it was the existing exit path in the Book of Discipline which has a high bar. We did not want it to be easy to leave but we did want it to be possible. The 57% threshold for a conference is not as high as I would like but I understand why traditionalists could not live with it being higher. It seems like an acceptable compromise. I'm not a fan of the local church choosing the vote threshold for choosing differently than their conference. I don't understand this part of the Protocol, to be honest. But, again, it's compromise. It is not a total win. And yet there are significant pluses that I am happy with. I want to stay United Methodist. For better or worse, that name really is important. We will have to work hard at rightsizing the structure. That will be a difficult and painful task. But, with God's grace, we'll be up for the task and ready to move forward with all that are willing.

U.S. Progressives
Some on the theological left are complaining that the group was not adequately representative. I get that, and I also understand why the moderator would be clear that there is an upper limit to how large a group can be to effectively negotiate. If it were me, I would have pulled out a couple bishops and added in someone under 50 (even under 40?!?) and another person of color. I suspect we would all have a slightly different formula for the perfect group. Progressives in the U.S. gain two important pieces with this plan. If there are progressives for whom this plan does not go far enough, there is the option of a new denomination. The $2 million offered to this group is very small compared to the $25 million for the traditionalist group, but the reality is that the negotiating team is correct that a potential progressive denomination would be considerably smaller than a traditionalist denomination. That's just how the math works. I would also ask progressives to walk back in time one year ago. Given the events of the special General Conference, I don't think a credible argument can be made that progressive United Methodists would have better options before them other than $2 million to form a new denomination or the opportunity to end the discriminatory language in our Book of Discipline. The goals of the Simple Plan are within reach. That is a good thing.

Africa
My friends in Africa are troubled. There is deep concern from some about a WCA denomination based on the draft plan for a new Book of Discipline. Some feel betrayed and let down. There is no question that the large majority of Africans are theologically more traditional AND there is no question that the large majority of Africans very much want to stay United Methodist. I would argue that under this plan Africans could have both. Along with the bulk of the U.S., they could stay United Methodist and with an additional degree of regional decision-making they could remain theologically conservative. Ultimately, though, the win for Africa and all central conferences is that they will get to make a choice. Maybe it is that lack of trust talking again, but I believe too often the U.S. has used people from Africa in particular as pawns in a U.S. game. I know that's how some of them are feeling right now. The charge some have made that going to regional conferences is a racist ploy to not let black Africans control us is outrageous. The reality is that we still have a colonialist mindset. Our current Book of Discipline which allows non-U.S. conferences to make adaptations effectively says, "The U.S. does things the normal way. If you're not normal like us you can make changes to fit your abnormal system." Regional conferences level the playing field for everyone. That's why many of us favored a U.S. Central Conference several years ago even when it was clear that moving in that direction would not alleviate the discriminatory language in the Book of Discipline. Now central conferences will be able to make their own choice without being placed in the middle of a U.S. conflict.

Other Central Conferences
Europe and the Philippines are complicated and more diverse than we might think at first. (See the first comment below on Europe, for example, which necessitated an edit to my original post). I can't speak well to either area and hope for additional comments from those who can.

People who are LGBT+
I consider myself an ally and I acknowledge that I cannot speak for people who identify as LGBT+. What I've heard from friends so far is mixed. Some love this plan and some hate it. What I'm certain of is that discrimination will not end because of the implementation of a plan. I've shared before that at the 2016 General Conference the lay leader from an annual conference told me without apparent embarrassment that 90% of churches in that conference would not accept a woman as a pastor. Legislation can help with discrimination. It can't end it. So I understand that for some this does not go far enough fast enough. I also understand that for many this is a huge blessing. It is not a win. It is more like ending the abusive marriage that I started with. It is not a win, but it is safety. It is progress. For that, I'm grateful.

The Money Question
One last piece. There is common frustration with the $25 million gift from the UMC to the traditionalists who leave. I've got to say that for me this is the least troubling aspect of the entire plan. I can't verify the accuracy of this report, but one blogger who seems to have a handle on the situation says the Episcopal Church has spent upwards of $60 million on lawsuits in their division. And that was four years ago. I have no reason to believe we would spend any less. I have friends who are attorneys. I love them. And I don't want to pay them $60 million.

The Most Right for Now
This is not a win. Divorce is never a win and we need to be clear that this is a divorce. Divorce of a church body is not, I believe, God's desire. I believe the Church is a partnership of the Divine and the Human. We are at a moment when the Human component of the Church is forcing a divide that the Divine component of the Church does not desire. But here we are. In our imperfect state we must, as they say, play the hand that we are dealt. The church I serve recently decided to move from three worship services to two. We formed a group, a negotiating team if you will, that explored eight different models for restructuring our Sunday morning - nine if you include just leaving everything the same. I didn't like any of them. All of them had pluses and minuses. None of them was perfect. So I came to appreciate the phrase that one of the members of the team shared - we ended up agreeing to the plan that was "the most right for now." The arrangement our church will use on March 1 is not perfect but it is the most right for this moment of time. Sometime in the future something else will be the most right for that time. I'm convinced, at least in this moment, that the Protocol team did a faithful job of discerning what is the most right for now for the People called Methodist. May we all pray for continuing discernment as we move towards General Conference and for the day that we are reunited in a new "most right" moment.

10 comments:

  1. Thanks David for your insightful comments. I can see that for the UMC in the U.S. this divorce is probably necessary as the fighting has done so much damage and used up so much energy and resources. Let me just comment from a European perspective on your one sentence concerning Europe: “Europe gets to be Europe, which I think they were already doing.”

    Your remark makes it sound as if Europe was homogeneous. Yet ours is probably the most diverse area of the UMC. There are three Central Conferences in Europe:
    (1) Germany: one country, culturally fairly homogeneous. They are the ones who took a stance against the Traditional Plan right after GC 2019. Some of us in the rest of Europe wish we could have done that. We couldn’t because we are as divided as the church in the U.S. – minus the fighting.
    (2) Central and Southern Europa (my Central Conference) includes 16 countries from Poland to Tunisia, from France to Albania. My own Annual Conference is comprised of folks from Switzerland, France, Algeria and Tunisia. Talking diversity! Our views on LGBT+ differ greatly. They always have and probably always will.
    We’ve lived with this diversity quietly, trying to keep the issue low key not least because we believe that it is not a central issue in the Christian faith and in the life of the church. And because there has been so much more that unites us and binds us together, not least historical ties that go back to Cold War times when there was not much exchange possible across the Iron Curtain other than through the UMC.
    Now that the LGBT+ issue has become the one question over which we must decide who to side with, I fear that this is the end of our Central Conference. My sisters and brothers in the Eastern part of the Central Conference seem to be very much on the conservative side whereas the majority of folks in Switzerland and Austria are somewhere between centrist and progressive.
    The question is likely to also divide my Annual Conference as folks in France and North Africa are very much on the conservative side, in spite of the respective cultural and religious context. And let’s not forget that all of us in Europe already are very small churches that can’t really afford to split any further.
    (3) The Northern Europe and Eurasia Central Conference is as diverse as Central and Southern Europe, encompassing people from Norway to the Baltics, from Denmark to Russia. I’m not too knowledgeable about that area so would prefer for them to comment for themselves.
    Yes, we get to be Europe. But let me tell you: it’s going to be challenging, heart breaking and most likely totally reshaping the map of Methodism across the continent. The old Iron Curtain which was overcome politically is likely to divide us again in the Church. Not a happy outcome as far as I’m concerned.

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  2. Thank you for sharing, Christine, and I apologise for making assumptions. I knew that Europe was not homogeneous but I thought each conference within Europe was. I will rework that part of my piece when I have a moment.

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    1. Don't worry, David. It's impossible to always be aware of everyone else's perspective, let alone include it in our train of thoughts. Just thought that my comment would add to your piece.

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  3. What I'm not understanding is how the Protocol can even be considered at GC. How does it get around the fact that the deadline for legislative proposals was months ago? Thanks.

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    1. It will be considered by a special session of an annual conference. Once approved it can be sent to General Conference. Annual conferences can submit legislation up to 45 days before the beginning of General Conference.

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    2. There are three potential ways, Lynn, listed in order of likelihood. is a First,There what Ben said although I've heard that may not be allowed. Second, once a BOD paragraph is in front of the General Conference they can make any change that want to that paragraph. So as long as the legislation only involves paragraphs that somebody else has submitted legislation on the Protocol legislation can be made as a substitute motion. Third, General Conference can suspend it's rules with a 2/3 vote to allow new legislation.

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  4. I've read so many articles online from those in the UMC who support inclusion of LGBT clergy and weddings, but I've read very little from the traditionalist side. My mainline denomination went through this "split" over 30 years ago. I do think Methodists I know find it painful to give up the word "united" -- being united (even while fighting) has been a point of pride.
    I see your point about it being a divorce of sorts, although you clearly assume that the LBGT side and its supporters have been abused, and the traditionalists have been the abusers. Interesting then, that the abusive spouse is the one volunteering to leave the home. Every marriage has things that are cherished; within Christ's church, His Word should be cherished in order for all to flourish. Traditionalists feel, I think, that God's Word and its integrity are what it is at stake. I know there are different feelings on the other side. Each side has priorities, each side has points upon which it will not compromise. While I appreciate the progressive side saying it is about love, inclusion, and grace, I want everyone to understand that the traditionalists also feel they are doing something of eternal value: cherishing and valuing God's Word.

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    1. Hi M.K.,
      For the purposes of the blog post abuse was only intended to make it clear that even in the worst of marriages nobody really wins a divorce. Some will certainly extend the metaphor to our denomination but that was not my intent.

      I do understand what you are saying and I think it is important for us to remember that everybody strongly believes that they are in the right on all that is going on.

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    2. I guess I was just going on what you wrote: "It is more like ending the abusive marriage that I started with" in the LGBT section. I found that a bit startling. A marriage that is "over" and ready to be dissolved because both parties are suffering is one thing. But a marriage where one party is clearly abusing the other is quite different. I just wouldn't go that far, in this scenario. I do agree with you fully that both sides feel strongly, and spiritually, that they are in the right. That's what makes it so hard. Christian conscience is a compelling force for both sides. I wish a compromise could have been arrived at, in which exceptions for conscience would have been honored.

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  5. It is truly interesting to me to have a vote and it is won by traditionalists and yet they are the ones to have to go. It is interesting to me that under traditional and we have known people that have openly admitted to refusing to follow the rules are under no part of answering or being brought up to the charges for openly disobeying the rules. Now if this was the other way around would it be handled the same way "no following the rules so no charges" or is there going to be any kind of rules to follow really. When any one of us stand before God and according to the Bible there will be a judgment am I the only one that would rather stand on the word or stand with conforming to the world. I will pray and continue to read and preach the word of God, but my question is what are the others going to preach? Are they just going to pick out the parts that work for them and skip over the rest or are we going to peach and live the whole word of God. Because if we pick and choice the Lectionary is going to have to change to or we can pick to use parts of it when is works for us. (Not that we have to use it anyway) There is a big part of this question to answer to then man or women we will all answer to God. I would rather be safe than sorry. It is not hard to live it when you love the author and creator, we just need to look at creation from the get go and full it with love. I personal think in this we should not have to decide to stay with anything with the Methodist movement if we don't want to it is an embarrassment to all. Fighting as you say no one will win, it is all a lost cause. I pray for all in this mess.

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