In the midst of the celebrations over the accomplishments of traditionalists at General Conference I sound like a faultfinder…grumbler…whiner. I am the boy who speaks out loud about the Emperor’s attire.
What we witnessed over four days of the special General Conference (GC2019) and the results of that assembly are so painful to describe that I could not endure putting them to paper immediately. So here is the delayed response. A description of where we are (fact, not opinion), an explanation of how this happened (factual analysis), and, maybe in some future post, why the United Methodist Church is institutionally incapable of reform (opinion, but a reasonable conclusion).
First, to be fair, those who are celebrating a great victory aren’t ignorant or deceived. The words we put into the book are great. Theirs is an anticipatory celebration. If we get accountability measures approved next year, or five years from now, or nine; then we have some great words in place to go along with them. However, I am among those who are no longer satisfied with mere words and promises. For fifty years traditionalists have produced erudite statements while progressives have accomplished changes to policy. In the final act of GC2019 the episcopal leaders of the entire Western Jurisdiction stood to announce they will ignore all that was passed and become even more radical in expanding their agenda. Once again, traditionalists got words and a promise of tomorrow. They got policy today.
Where We Are
For those whose focus is on our sexual ethic (It is not mine. My concern is on the doctrinal and disciplinary teaching that brought us here) we are exactly in the same place we were before General Conference. The United Methodist Church celebrates same-sex marriages in our churches, ordains homosexual pastors, and consecrates homosexual bishops. These are not isolated instances of disobedience. They are widespread practices of our church. We added more words to a book saying we should not do that, but we continue to do it. We added more words to those we already had saying clergy who do these things should be removed from their office, but we continue to allow those charged with implementing that policy the freedom to ignore those provisions and any other parts of the Discipline they choose.
If anyone denies this ask them the following sets of questions:
Is Karen Olivetto still bishop? (yes) Will she now be removed? (no)
Are clergy still performing same sex marriages? (yes) Will they now be removed from their appointment? (no)
Are conferences still ordaining clergy who are in same sex marriages? (yes) Can they be stopped from continuing the practice? (no)
Words in our Discipline notwithstanding, the actual practice of the United Methodist Church today is to affirm same-sex marriages in our churches, ordain homosexual pastors, and consecrate homosexual bishops. This is not hyperbole. It is not a mischaracterization. There are not two opinions on this. Furthermore, if you are in a region where this is not common practice, it is possible that could change tomorrow. Nothing in what was passed at GC2019 prevents the leadership in your Annual Conference from changing their practice whenever they choose, and there is nothing you or anyone can do about it.
Such a change does not require any vote in your conference. They don’t need your permission and can act over the objections of the membership. The leadership of an Annual Conference is about one or two dozen people. They decide the policy for your Annual Conference. You can object. You can cite the discipline and bring them up on chargeable offenses. All these things were done in the parts of the UMC where these practices are now common. The problem is that (when it comes to conference leadership) the same people who commit the offense are the ones who get to decide if they are guilty and what their penalty should be. That is why Karen Olivetto (a married lesbian) is still a bishop, and it is why those who consecrated her are still in their office. Our church court (Judicial Council) ruled on the violations that occurred and then ordered the parties to charge each other, try each other, and come up with a penalty for each other. That ruling came three years ago. Not surprisingly, nothing has happened. The same thing can happen in your conference.
That is what the delegates to GC2019 tried to fix, but your bishops prevented it from coming to vote. That leads the discussion to how we got here.
How This Happened
Let me try to make a boring subject interesting. The UMC is governed by two things: its Discipline and its polity. The Discipline is a book that describes what we believe. Our polity is a combination of written and unwritten rules that determine how we really act. As you can tell from what has preceded there is little connection between our Discipline and our polity. This is a surprise to many laity. If you have been involved in your church administration for any length of time then you have been confronted by a District Superintendent with a copy of the Discipline…usually over money issues. If you do not send more money to the conference treasurer, if you do not buy your educational material from our approved vendor, if you do not provide a particular benefit for the pastor…then we will punish your church. The laity are unaware that we do not hold our leadership accountable to the Discipline because our polity is, “We just don’t do that, and you can’t make me.” (For more on this you can read this short piece.)
One other thing which is helpful to understand is how our bishops respond to controversial issues. If it affects the whole church then they do not speak individually but in joint statements through the Council of Bishops (COB). That way we don’t have sixty individual voices but one voice speaking for all the bishops. If a bishop believes the joint statement is terribly unacceptable then they can issue their own commentary. Otherwise, their silence allows the COB statement to speak for them. In this way a very progressive pastor assigned to a conservative conference can promote a radical agenda behind closed doors and come home and say something like, “I must remain neutral, so I can pastor the whole flock.” (Pay attention South Carolina).
In the fifty years of the UMC, no North American bishop has ever been held accountable for violating the Discipline no matter how severe the offense. I am not citing the details here but it is easy to find the charges against Olivetto, Sprague, Talbert, and a number of others. Just put “bishop” in front of their name and “trial” after and do a Google search. It is important you understand this because, if you are at all familiar with the UMC, you are about to hear things that will cause you to say, “But that’s against the rules.” It does not matter when talking about a bishop. That is what the delegates to GC2019 tried to fix, but the bishops most vehemently opposed and successfully prevented from happening.
Opposition by Your Bishops
When the Council of Bishops was charged by the 2016 General Conference to form a commission to solve our problem their first stall tactic was to delay the formation of the commission by almost a year. They asked each bishop to nominate five people from which they would eventually select about thirty. When the nominations came, they postponed selecting the members because they said they were overwhelmed by the unexpected number of nominations they had to review. The COB asked sixty bishops to nominate five people each and were shocked they got three hundred names! They took additional time selecting the commission members. Twice they pushed back its formation.
When the commission was formed, they barely had time for maybe ten meetings. (I believe they were only able to accomplish nine including the organizational meeting.) Well into the process the commission informed the Council of Bishops of their recommendation. They saw three possible solutions. They believed each plan needed a gracious exit policy for anyone who could not live with it. One of those proposals was to enhance accountability for Annual conferences, bishops, and other church leaders. The bishops instructed them to stop work on any plan with increased accountability for bishops and not to include any gracious exit. The bishops would not present either of those options for a vote.
Following a great uproar (and I should include here that Bishop Jones of Texas and Bishop Swanson of Louisiana are the only two North American bishops I know of to speak publicly against the COB action) the Council of Bishops relented and allowed work on the Traditional Plan to continue. The damage was already done. The Traditional Plan and a gracious exit provision had to be hastily written without the resources available for the other plans in order to meet the filing deadline. As a result, they contained numerous conflicts and contradictions with other parts of our Discipline. The authors knew this would have to be corrected on the floor of the conference.
When all the plans were filed the COB announced they still would not present either for a vote. To make this shorter: Thousands of pages of judicial Council briefs later, they were required to allow them to come forward.
Just prior to conference the great distrust your bishops had earned moved them to issue a statement of integrity. They promised to conduct themselves impartially and not to intervene in the process. The first to break that promise was Bishop Carter in the first hour of the first day. He delivered an impassioned speech in opposition to the Traditional Plan and any gracious exit proposal. He did so in the thin guise of a sermon.
The delegates defeated each of the proposals the bishops supported and passed the plans the bishops had opposed. Because of some unique rules for this special conference these items had to be considered in a session where no bishop was allowed to chair the meeting. The next day, Tuesday, the delegates forwarded four items to the conference for consideration. A set of petitions on Pensions (a straightforward housekeeping matter), the Traditional Plan requiring accountability, and two gracious exit plans for the conference to choose from. The Traditional Plan and gracious exits required amending to fix the problems created when the bishops denied the commission time to properly prepare them.
Bishop Palmer chaired the Tuesday morning session. During the entire time he did not permit even one perfecting amendment to be offered to the Traditional Plan. He found time to lead a hymn sing. He invited guests onto the platform. He listened patiently to long off topic speeches, and he even called on opponents to the plan to bring poison pill amendments up for a vote. Bishop Palmer never recognized one person to offer a perfecting amendment throughout the entire morning session.
Bishop Harvey took the chair for the afternoon. Likewise, she recognized more than one person in opposition to the traditional plan to offer poison pill amendments. These were defeated but burnt a lot of time. During the entire day, Bishops Palmer and Harvey only permitted one perfecting amendment to come to the floor. Both bishops Palmer and Harvey sent our parliamentarian to the back bench during the Tuesday session. They improvised rules as they went along to “facilitate” the business. The improvisation was always to the detriment of the plan the Council of Bishops had fought so hard to keep from coming to a vote.
In the final minutes of General Conference, the delegates managed to pass both the Traditional Plan and a gracious exit plan, but both without the necessary legislation to implement them. The delegates were never allowed the opportunity to vote on that. We are left with a lot of good words, but no one is required to pay them any attention.
A quick final thought on why I believe that the United Methodist Church is institutionally incapable of reform. This is for my beloved Pollyannas who are believing we will fix this next year…or five years from now. This was next year, as was 2016, 2012….. We spent three years of study, several million dollars, and devoted four days of conferencing to solve one problem…making our boards, bishops, and conferences accountable. If that can’t fix it, then it’s time to think maybe this can’t be fixed.