Friday, March 1, 2019
5:04 am. George jumps onto the bed and sticks his furry, purry face into mine to tell me the coffee maker has come to life downstairs. It’s good news for both of us because I’m ready for a cup of something dark and smoky and he’s ready for breakfast.
It’s black at this hour, but I don’t turn on a light because Mother Nature does it so much better than I do. With my cat on my lap, my coffee at-hand, and MSL still snoring upstairs, I watch the light spread into the sky for my morning think-time.
There’s been a lot on my mind this week as the Christian denomination within which I work gathered for a global General Conference to address our longstanding struggle over whether to allow LGBTQ clergy and/or same-sex marriage. Moderates and progressives had proposed two packages of legislation which would allow more flexibility on these issues. Traditionalists had promised to leave the church if either were passed.
The conference didn’t go as I had hoped, and the way the politics played-out has left a bad taste in my mouth. Rather than move in a more open and inclusive direction, the delegates to the Conference voted to uphold the United Methodist Church’s current restrictions on gay clergy and gay marriage, and to strengthen penalties against those found to be in violation.
My job as a church communicator just got harder as I now have to figure out how to say words like “open” and “welcome” and “loving” in ways that sound sincere to a cynical outside world. My LGBTQ friends in my congregation are wondering if they should show up next Sunday, or go somewhere else. My emotions have run in repeating cycles of rage, embarrassment, and sorrow and I haven’t had much to smile about.
Until just now.
Sitting on the couch in the predawn half-light, I remembered this picture. I shot it last spring in Detroit. It shows the worst men’s restroom fixture I have ever seen. It’s a urinal which forces two men to stand very close to each other and turn toward each other with their wieners exposed. It is terrifyingly intimate and I have never seen another one like it. The absolutely priceless part of it - the hilarious part - is that it is installed in a gentleman’s lavatory in a United Methodist Church.
I laugh out loud for the first time in days and it feels great - like a heavy weight just lifted. It’s the third morning since the UMC crucified itself, and as good a time as any for a resurrection.
. . .
OK, we got beat. It happens to all of us from time to time. In our secular politics the power pendulum swings back and forth so sometimes we win and sometimes we lose. Life goes on. We stand up, dust ourselves off, and continue to push the cause forward another day and another way. That’s how it works in churches, too.
Normally, on issues of politics and theology, I lean to the right . . . lean, I hope, without tumbling over into the right-wing lunatic fringe. But not this time. I didn’t really take a side in this fight until the last year or so. I had been aware of the controversy, but at first I simply didn’t want to be drawn into a battle that I didn’t think included me. (there’s a battle coming, may 4 2016)
But as I thought more about my view of the church’s role in the Kingdom of God, and as I thought about the assets that I’ve seen different people bring to the ministry effort, and as I thought about the relationships that I have had with LGBTQ people, I decided that the integrity of the church was not threatened by them, and in fact, was actually enhanced. So I moved from the ambivalent right to the interested center.
And then, unable to discern which side had the stronger scriptural case, I decided to err on the side of inclusion and openness because then I could say my church “loves” everyone without putting quote marks or asterisks beside the word. I didn’t become an activist, but I knew which side I was on. (comfortable clothes, Jan 6 2018)
In the months leading up to the General Conference, our Bishop, the leader of our Iowa United Methodist Churches, encouraged us to have conversations on the issues and to have empathy for each other as we learned both sides of the debate. She held meetings to explain the various proposals for what was called “A Way Forward” with the noble goal of keeping us all in ministry together. There were four possible plans which either maintained the current restrictions against LGBTQ clergy and marriage, or which defined new structures for more inclusion, while not requiring any pastor or church to operate outside of their own conscience.
Other moderate Bishops were doing the same in their areas of responsibility - preaching denominational unity. I was right there with them. How nice it would be if we could solve this together. All that top-down emphasis on “understanding” created a sense that this General Conference was going to be a shared discussion of issues, resulting in a cooperatively crafted solution.
Well, we needn’t have bothered with all that empathy shit.
While us centrists and progressives were working on our “understanding”, the traditionalists were doing their homework and planning their strategy. We were preparing to have a conversation and they were preparing to win a war.
The traditionalists, led by the hard-right Wesley Covenant Association, came well-prepared for victory. They’re a minority among US churches, but the UMC is global. WCA built a coalition with the conservative Africans and Asians which gave them an edge in voting numbers. Once the General Conference began, they used their allied strength to prioritize the items they found advantageous, while pushing moderate plans lower on the agenda. And once their traditional and restrictive plan was approved to pass out of committee and onto the big floor - they actually moved to not even consider any other legislation. They did everything they could to not give the centrists and the progressives a chance present their plans.
That’s the piece of it that upsets me the most - that these people with whom we have a ministry covenant have so little respect for us that they actually tried to silence us at the General Conference. They tried to not even give us a chance to bring our plans forward for discussion. They place so little value on our opinion that they weren’t interested in hearing it, and they did their best to suppress it. They have dictated to us that the United Methodist Church is no longer a big tent, with room for diversity of thought and interpretation.
How gullible we were! We were wrong to trust that they would engage us in a constructive way. We were naive to think that unity was possible with this group that has spent the last year threatening and preparing to split the church apart. We were so caught up in our soft, lefty, snowflake belief in peace and harmony, and we were so paralysed by our fear of schism that we overlooked the fact that unity only works when both sides want it, and if we had been really paying attention to their organization, we would have known better.
Well, now we do know better, and we know exactly who they are, and we have a new question to ask ourselves, “are these the people we want to work in ministry with?” They, apparently, have already asked themselves this question regarding us.
As a church communicator, I often get to write the great stories that come out of the United Methodist Church, and I’ve always championed our connectional structure as a great asset. Through our local churches, districts, conferences and global boards, we have a network which links every congregation - indeed, every member - to every other one, wherever they may be. This connection is a pathway along which people, ideas and resources can flow to where they are needed to further the cause of Christ. Great things have happened because of the United Methodist Connection.
But in the fallout from the General Conference, as we consider how one group moved to not even listen to the other, we see that in addition to our differences of theological interpretation, now we also have a trust problem. How can I, as a centrist, trust a traditionalist to be a good-faith partner going forward in ministry? How can I trust them to “have my back” as a denominational partner, if they aren’t even willing to listen to my point of view? The connection is broken, and we’ll have to build a new one.
At the moment, we’re all still operating under the UMC umbrella. The traditionalists are savoring their victory, the centrists and progressives are licking their wounds and writing sour-grapes blog posts like this one, and we’re all waiting on decisions from the judicial council to see just exactly how much of the new restrictive plan can actually be implemented.
But in the background, the discussions have started - “where do we go from here?”. Leaders from the middle and the left are looking at possible new alliances. It is liberating to know these talks have started. When the issue gets pushed to this point, schism is no longer something to be feared but something to embrace - it’s a chance to create a brand-new thing and there’s plenty to get excited about in that.
I have no idea what the United Methodist Church will look like in one year or five years - maybe pieces of the current structure will still exist, and maybe not. The traditionalists will still be preaching the gospel and engaging in worthwhile outreach ministries, and so will we. But I hope in just a short time, they’ll be able to do it in the gay-free churches they desire, and we’ll be able to do it in a way that honors the ministry gifts and the loving relationships of all who wish to work with us.