Sweet Tea, Christmas Plays, and The Way Forward

This is an admittedly hastily prepared cut-and-paste document from various presentations I have made on the crisis in the UMC. Some will recognize parts of it from those previous publications/presentations. It is intended as an initial introduction of a congregation to the nature of our problems, the importance of

addressing them within the local church, and reassure the members that a sound future is ahead. It does not address the content or advisability of specific proposals. This is not a polished presentation, but parts of it may be useful for those having to address the issue with their congregation for the first time. 

For most of us, as long as there is enough sweet tea at the covered dish social, and there is a place for my grandchild in the Christmas play then all is right with the Church. We have little awareness or interest in the affairs of Conference or denominational machinations. We do not concern ourselves with the curricula of the seminary, the work of Boards of Ordained Ministry, or the integrity of our thirteen boards and agencies. That is how it ought to be. We ought to be able to go about our daily work in the church, caring for our community, raising our children, attending to the edification of believers and the conversion of the world, without taking on oversight and audit responsibility for those who are supposed to oversee us.
I was such a pastor. I took great pleasure in the fact that the Bishop did not know my name and could not find my churches with a GPS. I trusted that those above us were taking care of their responsibilities with the same integrity and Christian charity that we observe in the local church. I am here to tell you this is not the case and it has not been for a very long time.
Imagine a youth worker telling the Church Council that she will not abide by their guidelines yet insists on holding her position. Imagine a pastor expressing his displeasure with the congregation by smashing the communion cup and trampling the blood of Christ under foot. Imagine a church service where some members set up their own communion table and refuse to join with the others. Imagine trying to hold a board meeting while someone marches around the room shouting complaints through a megaphone. These are not imagined or rare occurrences. At the Conference and General Church levels these things happen with such regularity that we schedule time for them when we gather.
As a result, a storm has come upon the UMC. The presence of a tropical storm off the coast does not mean it is necessary to immediately flee one’s home, but it does mean it’s time to consider which hotel the family will move to, which relatives might take us in, and to make sure there is gas in the car. Similarly, we do not need to panic every member of the church family over the coming storm, but we do need responsible family members of our local church to start paying attention and have a disaster plan ready. The most critical step in being able to recover from a disaster is being prepared for one in the first place.
So what is the nature of our current crisis? It is generally being argued around questions of human sexuality and the definition of marriage. It is much more than that, but since each of our schismatic factions have chosen to center the debate on this one issue, it will serve the purpose. It is not as good a defining issue as some, but it is better than most. Where one finds oneself on this issue is pretty much determined by their understanding of the authority of Scripture, the nature of church, and the person of Jesus Christ. If we disagree on the first then we probably disagree on all others. These disagreements have not been dealt with well. Now, they have created such division that (in a very real sense) the United Methodist Church has already ceased to exist.
The following background was prepared for an occasion in 2017. Endnotes at the bottom of this document provide documentation of selected examples of our disorder which were too numerous to mention at that time. The number and severity of divisive actions have multiplied in the year since.

BACKGROUND

“Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.” (1 Corinthians 1:10)

“Now in this that I declare unto you I praise you not, that ye come together not for the better, but for the worse. For first of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions among you; and I partly believe it.” (1 Corinthians 11:17-18)

“And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand…” (Mark 3:25)

The following is or ought to be obvious to all parties concerning the state of the church:
1. Schism is not separation from a church body but separation within a church body(1)
2. To declare that “we are not of one mind” or “not of the same judgement” is to affirm that we are in schism(2)
3. The United Methodists Church has been for a generation engaged in divisive debates on numerous matters of doctrine and polity which have created suspicion and mistrust among its people(3) , restricted its ministry(4) , and thereby damaged its witness to the world.
4. Attempts by people of good will to recover unity—to speak with one voice as one body—whether through dialogue, legislation, or judicial action have all failed(5)
5. The one remaining path, the Bishops’ Commission on a Way Forward, has neither in its charge nor in its communication any intent of bringing about unity of purpose or common mission(6) , but seeks only to maintain a unity of property and a common purse.
6. Even IF the Bishops’ Commission is successful in its goals, and IF they are affirmed by a subsequent General Conference, and IF they are ratified by enough subsequent Annual Conferences, and IF they are then implemented by all our administrative bodies as the General Conference intends, and IF they withstand the inevitable challenges before the Judicial Council; then the result will still condemn us to codified perpetual schism
7. Because of our ongoing schism and the unwillingness of administrative bodies to implement polity, the General Conference, the one body designated to speak with authority on behalf of the whole church
a. cannot establish uniform criteria for the licensing of its professionals(7)
b. cannot establish uniform criteria for membership in the church(8)
c. cannot establish uniform criteria for being in “good standing”(9)
d. cannot establish criteria for the election of members to its own quadrennial body(10)
e. cannot direct the ministry of its boards and agencies either by requiring them to act in one matter or by restraining them from acting in another(11)
f. cannot speak authoritatively with one voice on behalf of the church

8. The General Conference cannot perform the essential functions for which it was formed and the United Methodist Church has ceased to exist except as various independent corporations with shared interests in certain properties, copyrights, and trademarks
9. Boards and agencies are already electing to reorganize themselves and remove the term “United Methodist” from their title
10. Individual clergy and local churches are already separating themselves from the structures of the former United Methodist Church in a spontaneous and chaotic manner(12)
11. Chaos is not a friend of the Church, and any realignment or change in affiliation ought rightly to be accomplished in an organized way while charity remains with us still.

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE

Schism is not where we are headed. It is where we are. Our missional agencies cannot represent a church which is committed to the biblically informed orthodox understanding of human sexuality and a church which celebrates anything between consenting adults. We cannot form missions which proclaim both that “all persons stand in need of the means of grace which the Church alone supplies,” and that Christ is one revelation of God among many. No mission agency can advocate for both unrestricted access to abortion and the sacredness of life from conception to natural death. Seminaries cannot teach both that Christ is the sinless incarnation of the Divine, and that he was a troubled bigot who became more god like through encounters with oppressed people.
We are in a mess and there is no painless way forward. We are two different churches. On more issues than sexuality we are not simply of divergent opinions — we are working at cross purposes. The Methodists who once led multitudes to a saving knowledge of Christ, established universities, children’s’ homes, and hospitals, will continue to spend little time accomplishing anything and much of our time trying to stop each other from accomplishing things.
We are in a mess and any way forward means hurt. It means broken relationships. It means some people we dearly love will no longer be a part of the same church with us. It means smaller boards and agencies, and some general church structures may no longer exist.
It will be painful, but not fearsome. In your church there are probably hymnals which are labeled United Methodist, Methodist, and Methodist Episcopal or Protestant Methodist. These are not just editorial changes. They represent different denominations which occupied this place. Some of you are old enough to have been baptized in one denomination, married in another, and are continuing in yet another…all at the same altar. This denominational structure within Methodism of which you are now a member is only fifty years old. With each change that has come some traveled with us, but others chose a different path. The next Methodism is coming. Some of us will follow one path, others another.
Every church will do well to identify a group of trustworthy members to study the situation and make your views known to Conference leadership. That group will need to become familiar with the work of the Commission on a Way Forward and General Conference. They need to be aware of the activity of para church groups such as Reconciling Ministries and the Wesleyan Covenant Association. They will need to understand terms such as contextualization, connectionalism, and Christology. They will need to learn quickly. Decisions will be made in the coming months, and within a year or two (maybe even sooner) they will affect how much sweet tea you need to make and how many spots there are in the Christmas play.

ENDNOTES FOR BACKGROUND SECTION

(1) John Wesley, On Schism, Sermon 75 “The whole body of Roman Catholics define schism, a separation from the Church of Rome; and almost all our own writers define it, a separation from the Church of England. Thus both the one and the other set out wrong, and stumble at the very threshold. This will easily appear to any that calmly consider the several texts wherein the word “schism” occurs: from the whole tenor of which it is manifest, that it is not a separation from any Church, (whether general or particular, whether the Catholic, or any national Church) but a separation in a Church.”
(2) 1 Corinthians 1:10;
Resolution to WJC2016: Non-Conformity: “General Conference recognized the deep division in The United Methodist Church and have made clear that we are not of one mind, and have formed a commission to study “A Way Forward.”
Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, quoted in http://www.umc.org/who-we-are/bishops-called-to-embrace-team-spirit: “As soon as we mention Israel and Palestine, we are not of one mind.”
Greg Nelson, Director of Communications, Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference: “We are not of one mind. We never have been. So conversation and debate will continue. Not just about the inclusion of LGBTQ participation in our churches, but about many issues where the church intersects with society and culture.”
Bishop Scott Jones, Great Plains Conference: “United Methodist Church is not of one mind regarding the practice of homosexuality.”
(3) Distrust and Suspicion: The Commission on a Way Forward, in both its February 17 communication and its March 1 communication, identified building trust as first of “several of the challenges that are inherent in our group. “
Administrative bodies are established as trusts to implement the polity of the church between sessions of General Conference. Our Bishops, Annual Conferences, Boards of Ordained Ministry, the GCFA, the GBHEM, and others have an immediate fiduciary responsibility. Central to their purpose is to ensure that the church’s resources are used to achieve its purposes within its conditions. When acting on behalf of the United Methodist Church they must set aside their own interests, whether professional or personal, or the interests of any other organization. Further, they have a responsibility to be faithful to the church’s stated mission and not to act or use its resources in incompatible ways or purposes. This includes the duties of care, loyalty and obedience. Yet, few expect our administrative bodies will conduct the affairs of the church in such a manner; whether it is one party’s concern as the Council of Bishops permitted Bishop Talbert to assume pastoral oversight of churches beyond his jurisdiction and to perform actions specifically prohibited by the General Conference; or another party’s distrust of Bishops which led to two delegates at GC2016 accusing the afternoon’s presiding Nashville Area Bishop William McAlilly, of bias and incompetence. The Rev. Gregory Gross, a delegate from the Northern Illinois Conference, accused McAlilly of trying to telegraph votes by shaking one finger or two as he addressed the delegates. Jen Ihlo — a delegate from the Baltimore-Washington Conference —asked that McAlilly step down.
When GC2016 by a vote of 425 -268 required certain agencies to withdraw their membership from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (specifically because of RCRC’s promotion of gender selection and late-term-partial-birth-abortion), the Rev. Dr. Susan Henry-Crowe, General Secretary, General Board of Church and Society and Harriett Jane Olson, General Secretary and CEO, United Methodist Women issued a joint statement in their official capacity which neither “set aside their own interests, whether professional or personal, or the interests of any other organization,” nor did it meet the standard of being “faithful to the church’s stated mission and not to act or use its resources in incompatible ways or purposes.“ Rather, by omitting any reference to the concerns of General Conference as to RCRC’s work in opposition to our Social Principles, they misrepresented the position of the church and encouraged others to continue acts which the church had denied to its boards. This may be within their right and laudable as a commitment to principles and personal conscience. It may represent honest loyalty to a constituency—but it is not exemplary of keeping trust, and it fostered additional mistrust throughout the church. (The full statement is available at http://www.unitedmethodistwomen.org/news/letter-to-the-religious-coalition-for-reproductive-choice)
(4) Restricted Its Ministry: When GC2016 enacted restrictions on participation in RCRC this was understandably perceived to be an impediment to the ministries of the agencies most directly affected. At the same time, when it comes to organizations endorsing our social principles on the sanctity of life, these same agencies refuse to “be a voice at the table” on behalf of the church, offer no resources for local churches who are moved in such a direction, and will not even facilitate the transfer of information amongst them; thereby impeding such ministries.
The South Carolina Conference has in its past established four colleges, two retirement communities, and a children’s home. The last major ministry initiative in the conference was thirty years ago with Salkehatchie Summer service which sends thousands of young people and adults into service ministry and disciple making camps. A crowning achievement of this year’s Annual Conference—should we succeed—is the collection of one-hundred bicycles per district. Any one high school within our districts could accomplish that in a semester. Distrust, suspicion, reluctance to engage each other, and lack of sense of common purpose have combined to diminish our ability to participate in cooperative ministry.
(5) From the Council of Bishops’ statement: “We, the Council of Bishops of The UMC, acknowledge the serious differences that exist among United Methodists on issues related to homosexuality. These differences are also reflected within the COB. We have been praying together and have been talking with one another in a new spirit of honesty and openness that is both painful and hopeful…. With the entire church, we seek to address all issues, including homosexuality, with biblical, theological, and personal integrity, and in ways that reflect God’s love incarnate in Jesus Christ. As Bishops, we share in the church’s pilgrimage and pray anew what we prayed at the Table: “By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world…” Our life together is not based upon uniformity of mind or conscience. We are a community of grace centered in Jesus Christ who makes us one. We call upon all United Methodists to join us in bearing witness to God’s gift of unity in Jesus Christ.” While that statement appears to have been written this year, it is from 1996. The ensuing twenty-one years of dialogue, study resources, General Conference legislation clarifying previous legislation, and Judicial Council Decisions clarifying previous decisions have brought us only further apart and made us more dysfunctional.
The Judicial Council, in responding to yet another request for a declaratory decision at GC2016 “regarding the setting of the minimum standards for ministry, and the voting on ordination and clergy character,” stated “The Judicial Council has addressed this concern in multiple decisions through the years.” The decision (1321) then rehearsed some of the specifics beginning with Decision 7 and citing 313, 318, 325, 536, 542, and 823.The same issue is back before the JC in April 2017 with a half dozen Annual Conferences and Jurisdictions. From this, one may rightly conclude that fifty years of legislative action, judicial clarifications, and Bishops’ statements are not sufficient to resolve the divisions between us.
(6) From the Commission on a Way Forward, official website: “The Commission on a Way Forward was proposed by the Council of Bishops and approved by the 2016 General Conference to do a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph of the Book of Discipline concerning human sexuality and explore options that help to maintain and strengthen the unity of the church.”
The Commission on a Way Forward is charged solely with preserving unity, and the only purview allowed them by the Council of Bishops are disciplinary paragraphs regarding human sexuality. Our divisions are far too extensive to be resolved in such a narrow scope. They are not charged with developing a unity of purpose or mission for the church.
(7) While the number is fluid, at this writing at least five Annual Conferences and two entire Jurisdictions refuse to use standards set by General Conference for evaluating candidates for ministry or determining good standing.
(8) Judicial Council Decision No. 1032 (The uniform standard includes “discretion of the clergy,” however, Judicial Council Decision 1032 presupposes that the clergy are properly certified with standards set by General Conference. The ability to set uniform standards for church membership depends upon the General Conference’s authority to set minimum standards for and assure the character of those to whom it entrusts this discretion. The inability to control the first negates the ability to set standards for the second.)
(9) The stories of Bishop Karen Olivetto and the Reverend Cynthia Meyer illustrate that a person may be elected Bishop of one conference with the same behavior that will have one removed from the pulpit in another.
(10) A large portion of its delegates are selected by and from the clergy. When the General Conference cannot set standards for clergy or for who is in good standing, then it cannot set standards for its clergy delegates
(11) (see also endnote iii regarding RCRC as typicalof how general Conference cannot direct the activities of its agencies) When general church bodies include clergy who have not been certified through any process permitted by the United Methodist Church in the formula for distribution of the Ministerial Education Fund, then they are distributing funds for purposes contrary to the stated purposes of the General Conference. When general church bodies admit to their organization clergy who have not been certified through any process permitted by the United Methodist Church, then they organize themselves in a manner contrary to the stated purposes of General Conference.
(12) Wespath, formerly, General Board of Pension and Health Benefits of the United Methodist Church, does not mention its affiliation with the UMC in its name, web address, or the home page of its website. It does not use the official cross and flame logo but rather a proprietary variation. Discipleship Ministries has removed United Methodist from its name but continues to use the cross and flame logo.

One thought on “Sweet Tea, Christmas Plays, and The Way Forward

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s