A more hopeful outlook on this matter can be found here. Read it. I want the author to be right. I fear the ones in whom he trusts are not as charitable as he is.
Most of us have a practice within our personal and professional relationships to always allow for the most charitable interpretation of an individual’s words and actions. When there is any doubt as to their intent—assume the best. Someone turns in a report with erroneous information. Is it a lie? Is it incompetence? Did they believe it to be true, but relied on a faulty source? Is it a transposition error that they aren’t even aware of? With no evidence to support any of these theories it is best to approach the situation with the most charitable of interpretations. However, if the individual has a long and uninterrupted history of presenting faulty information which always results in their personal gain, then it is reasonable to presume that the most charitable interpretation is the one most likely to be wrong.
Our North American Bishops, individually and collectively through the Council, have a history of responding to controversial events with statements nuanced to the point of self-contradiction. Though allowing for multiple interpretations, the eventual actions resulting from those statements have without exception produced the results that are before us today. From the standpoint of one committed to our doctrinal standards and connectional ecclesiology it is reasonable to presume that the most charitable reading of their statements is the one most likely to be wrong. I remember a CoB statement from the early 2000’s (the online archives do not go far enough back for me to retrieve it.) where a pastor’s disobedience to the discipline was downplayed as being one case in one Annual Conference. (Even though numerous similar events preceded it).. I remember asking a bishop, “How many ones does it take to make two?” We were told not to worry. The process would work itself out, and it does not affect any other conference. Under the guidance of our North American bishops the process did work itself out, and it is not one case in one Annual Conference anymore. The more recent “just resolution” for Bishop Talbert has also turned out to be anything but just, and the North American bishops cannot be believed in feigning surprise at his continuous disobedience. Notwithstanding the multi-layered meanings of the nuanced vocabulary of the text which allowed for a reading suggesting that order would be maintained, the esoteric message again turned out to be the true one: Bishops Talbert’s actions are affirmed by the Council.
The wording of the executive committee’s statement on “The Commission on a Way Forward” follows a pattern. They are masters of a form of rhetoric promulgated by Leo Strauss in the 1950’s and 60’s. Whether the result of catechistic instruction or unintentional mimesis they have become masterful disciples. They use layered meanings and deliberate self-contradiction in communicating esoteric truths. The casual reader sees these contradictions as mere blunders. They are the skillful blunders of artful writing. This allows for a reading by the people in the pew which protects the North American bishops and their allies from the retribution of the faithful, yet allows them to continue with their actions and inactions that will change the church into the form which they are certain is the proper one.
So, not using an undeserved charitable reading of their words but a deservedly cynical one, here are seven things wrong with the statement about The Commission on a Way Forward.
First, they deliberately delayed a resolution by naming a commission. We already have a commission to do this work. It is called General Conference. It has studied the situation for forty-four years. The children of the people who began the discussion are now approaching retirement age. Every person there has studied, reflected upon, and dialogued the matter their entire life. General Conference has repeatedly answered the question and was prepared to make the answer even more plain. The bishops and their allies do not like the church’s answer, so they defer and delay implementation. The purpose of the commission is not reach an agreement but to delay implementation of agreements already made. Their hope is that with two more years our connectional structure will be so entangled with the situation which they have created that the church will see any remedy as worse than the disease.
Second, they called for a special session of General Conference. A special General Conference is a great hardship for Central Conference delegates. Visas are always problematic, and even with financial support from the church it’s a hardship for the delegates and their families. It is likely that there will be less Central Conference participation in a special session dealing exclusively with a subject of which they are weary and disgusted. The North American bishops are not ignorant of this. Furthermore, the resolutioms of non-compliance by more progressive conferences affirms that their clergy delegations are not properly elected nor qualified. Since the compliant conferences obediently refrain from electing the generally more conservative local pastors, the GC make up is disproportionately progressive. As bad an idea as this is, the bishops have already succeeded in making this one of those conditions where the remedy is more painful than the disease.
Third, they acknowledged the election of Bishop Oliveto. Though they used the Straussian language of “problematic” to avoid inflaming the larger church, they did acknowledge her election and included her as a bishop. The referral to the Judicial Council is only another of their actions to delay implementation of what has already been agreed. The election was contrary to polity on many levels. There is already guidance available from existing Judicial Council decisions. The proper action would have been not to recognize her episcopacy and let Oliveto challenge in the Judicial Council. No doubt, when the Judicial Council does invalidate the election and she refuses to resign then they will ask for yet another Judicial Council decision. The tactic is to delay and defer, and if ever forced to act then they will produce a decision such as Bishop Talbert’s just resolution which changes nothing.
Fourth, they acknowledged this is not just about sex. “The matters of human sexuality and unity are the presenting issues for a deeper conversation that surfaces different ways of interpreting Scripture and theological tradition” (emphasis added). They now open the door to officially gut what is left of our doctrinal standards. Sexuality arguments will be used to assault the elementary, fundamentals of the faith, basic ordination vow stuff. The reason we are having this trouble over sexuality is because of all those bible believing rubes out there. If the North American bishops intend to lead us in these “conversations” the way they lead us on human sexuality, then start budgeting for Korans to put next to your pew Bibles, and expect your Sunday School curriculum to be authored by Leo Buscaglia.
Fifth, they chose three bishops as moderators who are committed to our denominational structure. It is exactly at the General Church level that our dysfunction and impotence have taken their greatest toll. Yet, at least two of them have made public statements urging continuance of our General Church structure (could not find much on the subject concerning the third.) This kind of unity is not a theological unity nor a missional unity—it is a unity of the purse. Unless each of them is prepared to say that there are moral truths for which they will stand even if it means smaller boards and agencies, then this commission has declared it has a price and can be bought.
Sixth, they pointed toward a New Connectionalism. They have no intention of letting go of the money no matter what. Regardless of how fragmented, chaotic, and hostile the environment becomes they are committed to a connection of property that can be enforced in civil court.
Seventh, obfuscation and deceit will continue to be the norm. The commission will issue communiques every four to six weeks, and “the entire church, will be invited to continuous prayer for the Commission through a “Praying Our Way Forward” initiative.” Regular reports in their characteristic esoteric form are intended to persuade the pews that their concerns are being heard and a solution is coming. They will include intentionally contradictory sentences such as, “(we will) avoid further complaints, trials and harm while we uphold the Discipline.” The prayer initiative will give the people a sense of investment in the process. This is intended to pacify the pews as more and more acts of disobedience go unchecked. They hope to stem membership loss and keep the money flowing to the denominational Rome. Meanwhile, the North American bishops and their allies delay and defer agreements already made and ignore Judicial Council decisions already given. In two years, when the product is revealed, the acts of disobedience will be so much a part of the church that the remedy may seem more painful than living with them.
There is nothing in the statement to restore trust or offer hope unless you read it as though the Council of Bishops has no history. The Council of Bishops has a reputation which it has justly earned. If there is to be any answer for those who are Wesleyan in the plain sense of our doctrinal standards, any way forward for those of us who are evangelical and sacramental, any connectionalism for those of us who respect the ordination vows, then it must come from some other group because it will not come from the Council of Bishops but only in spite of them.
We would all like it to be different. Maybe this time the process will be fair, transparent, respectful, and everyone will abide by the agreement. But, “Hey Charlie Brown—that’s still Lucy holding the football.”