Archives for March 2019

Two Questions from St. Louis

Delegates pray together during the February 23, 2019, opening session of the Special Session of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church. Photo by Paul Jeffrey for United Methodist News Service.

In the aftermath of the special called General Conference in St. Louis, there are two questions that could point to possible misunderstandings of its outcome.

1)     Was the decision to affirm the church’s current position on LGBTQ ministry an answer to prayer?

The 2019 General Conference was the object of more prayer than any other church event in my lifetime. Church members undergirded The Commission on a Way Forward with concentrated, widespread prayer for 18 months. We felt and appreciated those prayers and notes of encouragement! The Council of Bishops instituted a “Praying Our Way Forward” effort that assigned each annual conference an opportunity to pray for the 2019 General Conference in an intentional, concentrated way leading up to February. Individual United Methodists engaged in weekly fasting and daily prayer on behalf of the General Conference for the nine months leading up to the conference. The General Conference itself began with a whole day of prayer for all the delegates and observers.

Yet many progressive and moderate United Methodists are treating the outcome of the special General Conference as if God ignored all the prayers. Could it be that the decision of the General Conference is in fact God’s will, an answer to the many prayers that were prayed?

It is wise not to speak dogmatically when speaking about how God answers prayer because there is a lot of mystery in how prayer works. God is perfectly capable of answering a prayer with yes, no, or wait. It is often difficult to draw a straight line from a particular prayer prayed to a specific outcome.

But it seems equally unwise to simply discount all the prayers on behalf of the conference and say that those prayers were not answered. It sounds like some people are saying that if God does not orchestrate a specific outcome they agree with, God did not answer the prayer.

When I look at the many roadblocks put in the way of the Traditional Plan before and during General Conference, I cannot deny the miraculous aspect to the passing of it in any form, even with its shortcomings. I detailed in another blog the many ways the deck was stacked against the Traditional Plan. Is it not possible, then, that the passage of the Traditional Plan was indeed an answer to prayer?

The implications of this line of thinking lead us toward a heart of peace and away from a heart of war. In my own prayer life leading up to General Conference, I had stopped praying for a specific outcome and instead asked for God’s will to be done. That prayer posture led me to have peace in my soul, regardless of the outcome at General Conference. I believe the passage of the Traditional Plan was the right decision, but passage of the One Church Plan would not have been a devastating outcome for me. I had confidence that a faithful form of ministry would exist, no matter which way the General Conference decided.

People on all sides of the questions involved can view the outcome of General Conference as an answer to prayer and still make their own personal decisions about how to respond. For some opponents, the passing of the Traditional Plan might have been God’s way of freeing them from a system they believe shackles them from fully living out their faith commitments. That is the way I would have viewed it had the One Church Plan passed.

If the decision of General Conference was an answer to prayer, then those who disagree might be better served to simply accept the decision as the decision of the church. They can then determine for themselves whether God is calling them to live within that decision or remove themselves from it. Such an approach holds promise for a healthier outcome for General Conference 2020 than simply returning to the same battlefield and fighting the same battle over again.

2)     Was General Conference 2019 called to finally “decide” how the church’s ministry with LGBTQ persons would be shaped?

The rhetoric used by some progressives and moderates for many years has been that General Conference needs to decide this question. The implication is that we had not yet decided, even though General Conference voted the same way every four years for 45 years.

Does that mean that something is not “decided” until the decision is one that I can support? Short of a favorable decision, must I regard every earlier conclusion as provisional or temporary? At what point is a question finally decided?

This line of thinking is very frustrating to traditionalists and evangelicals. We believe that the General Conference decided the question in 1972. Every General Conference since then has affirmed that decision. Is it right for those who disagree to never accept the church’s decision until or unless they can convince the church to change its mind?

What we now have is many leaders – bishops, superintendents, clergy, annual conferences, and now one central conference – that have simply decided that, since the result of General Conference was not to their liking, they refuse to accept it or live by it. Never mind that our church’s structure is built around decision making by conference (in this case, a global decision by the General Conference, the only body empowered to speak for the church as a whole). Never mind that the General Conference is the primary instrument of unity in The United Methodist Church. Never mind that clergy have vowed before God to abide by the teachings of the church and the enactments of General Conference, whether they agree or not.

For those clamoring for “unity,” the refusal to abide by the church’s primary instrument of unity comes across as the height of hypocrisy. That refusal leads to the interpretation that unity is only desirable when it fits my preconceived ideas of how the church should be. That makes the individual, not the body in conference, the final arbiter of what is the true teaching of the church. This is precisely the atomization of the church that opponents of the One Church Plan warned about. Make the individual (pastor, congregation, annual conference) the final arbiter of truth and one has a shattering of both truth and unity.

Since so many leaders and annual conferences have publicly vowed not to live by the teachings and requirements of the church, we can no longer pretend there is any interest in unity. Rather, we must acknowledge that the primary interest is in doing ministry as each individual sees fit (what is right in one’s own eyes). Only if each individual is allowed to do ministry in the way he or she sees fit could there be any hope of holding the organizational church together (the One Church Plan). However, that is not unity, but surrender to individualism and congregationalism.

Since the 1740s, Methodism has been built around the unity of the conference. Those who could not abide by the will of the conference either departed or were removed. This is how unity was preserved in the church, with organized separations happening in our church’s history about once every ten years for the first 150 years of its existence. The attempt to “stay together” despite an unwillingness to live by the decisions of General Conference is simply “un-Methodist.” It sacrifices the unity of the church on the altar of individual conscience.

We must let this current reality sink in deeply, if we are to hope for an alternative way to move forward. The widespread disavowal of the General Conference actions means there is no way to move forward together in one body. The original conclusion of some at General Conference 2016 that separation was inevitable now dramatically shows itself to have been correct. Since separation of some form is inevitable because we cannot live with others who practice their faith in ways that are deeply offensive to us (on both sides), how can we move into a new relationship with one another in the least painful and most Christ-like way? Or are we doomed to repeat history and continue to fight over power and control of an institution?

 

 

What REALLY Happened in St. Louis (Part 2)

In the last Perspective, there was a report on what actually passed the special called General Conference in St. Louis, including what the Judicial Council will probably rule as constitutional and therefore able to be implemented. This Perspective offers a behind the scenes look at how some of the proponents of the One Church Plan attempted to obstruct and prevent the Traditional Plan from being adopted. This includes ways they tried to prevent corrective revisions to the Traditional Plan so that the Judicial Council would declare it unconstitutional. You will find here a more detailed account of the General Conference legislative process.

In order to prevail in St. Louis, traditionalists and evangelicals had to fight against some very significant headwinds. From the very beginning, the deck was stacked against any plan for amicable separation or a traditionalist plan. Separation was taken off the table by the Council of Bishops at the 2016 General Conference, when they declined to accept a request to form a commission on separation. Instead, they formed a commission to formulate other alternative plans for the denomination to move forward.

The Traditional Plan was taken off the table in November 2017 when the Council of Bishops asked the Commission on a Way Forward to work on only the One Church Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan. The only reason there was a Traditional Plan at all is that a small group of bishops insisted that one be included at their May 2018 meeting. Since the decision to include a Traditional Plan came only two weeks before the Commission’s final meeting, the Commission was unable to develop the plan. It was left to a few individual members of the Commission and several bishops to flesh out the Traditional Plan.

At that same May 2018 meeting, the Council of Bishops endorsed the One Church Plan by a vote of nearly 60 percent. The Council argued before the Judicial Council that only the One Church Plan should be considered by the General Conference, with the Connectional Conference Plan and Traditional Plan included only for historical context. The Judicial Council rebuffed the bishops’ request, determining that all three plans should be considered by General Conference, along with any other petitions that were in harmony with the call for the special session.

Undeterred, the Council of Bishops asked the Judicial Council to rule on the constitutionality and legality of all three plans in advance of General Conference, some of them perhaps hoping that their preferred plan would gain the endorsement of the Judicial Council. In what appears in retrospect to be an ideological ruling, the Judicial Council ruled that the Constitution did not require uniform standards for clergy, thus validating the One Church Plan. It also ruled about a dozen provisions of the Traditional Plan unconstitutional, meaning that they would need significant amendments in order to become legal. Since the time for submitting legislation to General Conference had passed, those amendments would have to be proposed and passed on the floor of General Conference — a daunting task.

Proposed revisions to the Traditional Plan were written to make it constitutional. The revisions were sent to many delegates via email. However, the conference secretary refused to allow the revisions to be distributed to the delegates in written form. That meant that the delegates would not have a printed copy of the proposed revisions to examine ahead of time or to consult during the debate. The daunting task got harder.

In the days before General Conference, the Committee on Reference referred petitions that affected central conferences outside the U.S. to the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters (SCCCM). The referrals included the main petitions for the Traditional Plan and the Modified Traditional Plan, but not some other petitions from the One Church Plan and Connectional Conference Plan that arguably also affected central conferences. This last minute referral took delegates by surprise. Normally, the SCCCM meets a day or two before General Conference to consider legislation that affects the central conferences. If the referral had been made weeks earlier, the SCCCM could have had adequate time to consider the referred petitions and possible revisions. As it was, the committee had only an hour after the day’s plenary session to discuss, amend, and vote on petitions — not nearly enough time. As a result, the petitions implementing accountability for annual conferences, providing the Traditional Plan’s exit path, and the Modified Traditional Plan’s enhancements were all voted down in committee, essentially killing them.

At the same time, the Council of Bishops asked the Judicial Council to rule on the remaining petition of the Modified Traditional Plan, which instituted a global process for administering complaints against bishops. The Judicial Council ruled that petition unconstitutional. The ruling stated that it is only the jurisdictional conference that can hold bishops accountable. Thus, by the end of the first day, the Modified Traditional Plan petitions were both dead.

In order to succeed, any plan to be passed at General Conference had to receive three votes in its favor. The first vote was a prioritization vote taken on the first day. In that vote, over 55 percent of the delegates gave the Traditional Plan a high priority. By contrast, the One Church Plan received only a 48 percent high priority vote. This set the stage for the Traditional Plan to be the first plan that the conference would work on.

The second vote any plan needed was to be approved by the legislative committee portion of the General Conference on the second day. In a moment of confusion, the conference passed a motion to end debate after only a few of the corrective amendments had been made, so that no further amendments could be made that day. However, the Traditional Plan received its second vote in favor, with over 56 percent voting yes.

In another attempt to head off the Traditional Plan, supporters of the OCP proposed asking the Judicial Council for yet another ruling on the provisions of the plan. Although little had changed in the plan, some OCP delegates were hoping to further discredit it by having it ruled unconstitutional again. That proposal easily received the required 20 percent of the vote to call for a Judicial Council decision. However, rather than announce during the public session that they would be acting on the request for a decision, the Judicial Council did not respond until after the session was adjourned. Advocates had less than two hours to prepare legal briefs for the Judicial Council to consider. And the decision itself was rendered after less than an hour of deliberations. Such a hasty process did not engender trust in the outcome of the decision, which was to reaffirm the unconstitutionality of eight of the sixteen Traditional Plan petitions and both of the exit path petitions.

Delaying tactics

This brought us to the third day and the third crucial vote on the plans. Delegates again attempted to make amendments to the Traditional Plan to correct the issues identified by the Judicial Council. Opponents of the Traditional Plan went into full stall mode, trying to run out the clock to prevent any amendments from being made. Presiding bishops appeared to cooperate with this strategy by failing to call on evangelicals who were trying to get the floor to make an amendment. Instead, it appeared that preference was given to people wanting to make speeches ahead of those wanting to make amendments.

The parliamentary process was used (and abused) to try to thwart the Traditional Plan. Some OCP supporters asked irrelevant questions and put forward multiple points of order. Most egregiously, some OCP supporters gained the floor claiming to make a speech in favor of the Traditional Plan, but then spoke against it. Such manipulative lying has no place in the church, but it demonstrates the desperation felt by some OCP supporters. In addition, some used the parliamentary trick of employing a point of order to “correct a misrepresentation.” But instead of correcting a factual error, they proceeded to launch into a speech against the Traditional Plan. The presiding bishops unfortunately allowed these kind of underhanded tactics without challenging them.

Equally disheartening were the troubling statements made by OCP supporters that betrayed their antipathy toward traditionalists. One prominent moderate leader accused traditionalists of bringing a virus into the church, the virus of conflict, which would make the church sick. (As if the conflict had not already been provoked by those intentionally disobeying the church’s standards.) Another speaker decried “the spirit of hatred, judgment, and discrimination which creates division instead of unity.” Another delegate alleged that the Traditional Plan was born out of “a story of control or power or dominance.” A prominent moderate leader accused traditionalists of being Pharisees and elevating the Book of Discipline above the Bible, calling the Traditional Plan “hateful” and promising to “amend until the monster trucks roll in at 6:30.” (This alluded to the conference’s need to adjourn by 6:30 in order to make way for a monster truck rally scheduled to start the next day.)

In the middle of the debate, an unsubstantiated allegation surfaced that delegates were being bribed for their votes. While this allegation was referred to the ethics committee, it was never substantiated. The political strategy appeared to be to float the baseless allegation with the knowledge that it could never be addressed or refuted during the time left in the session. The ethics committee released a two paragraph statement after the General Conference stating that its investigation found no substance to the allegations.

Amidst all this turmoil and delay, only a few of the needed amendments could be made to correct the Traditional Plan. More time was taken debating points of order, suspension of the rules, and other parliamentary matters than working on the content of the plan. As the deadline for adjournment approached, the presiding bishop called for a vote on the Traditional Plan, which passed for the third time. For the remaining hour of the plenary session, people in the gallery continued to shout, sing, and try to (unsuccessfully) disrupt the proceedings.

It truly was a miracle that any plan passed General Conference, much less that it was the Traditional Plan. It was a miracle that as much of the Traditional Plan passed as did, and that parts of the plan can actually be implemented.

In a final act of desperation, the OCP supporters again passed a motion to ask the Judicial Council to review the Traditional Plan that was passed for its constitutionality. Again trying to sow doubt about the outcome of the conference, some are claiming that the Judicial Council could throw out the entire plan. As noted in last week’s Perspective, at least eight parts of the Traditional Plan were already found to be constitutional, and they will be implemented.

This level of conflict, the hateful language toward those holding a traditional position, and the determination to prevent the General Conference from accomplishing what the majority wanted to accomplish, tell us that our church is hopelessly divided and unable to continue living together. Why, then, are some progressives and moderates continuing to insist on forcing some type of unity — only on their terms? The 2020 General Conference is unlikely to change the direction of the church or reverse the accountability put in place by the Traditional Plan. Can the church’s leaders not work toward a different way to resolve our conflict that honors and respects the deep differences of conscience and theology?

 

 

What REALLY Happened in St. Louis (Part I)

The United Methodist Church has just finished four days of wrenching deliberation at the special called General Conference February 23-26. The conference demonstrated a deeply divided church — something that was readily apparent before we ever arrived in St. Louis. The vitriolic conflict that characterized the proceedings inflicted pain on persons of all perspectives, both participants and spectators.

Already, the “spin machine” is working overtime to attempt to paint the outcome to the advantage of institutionalists whose main interest is preserving the structure and finances of the church. Several statements have come out from bishops and other church leaders claiming that the direction of The United Methodist Church is somehow unclear.

Let us be clear about what happened at the St. Louis General Conference. By a vote of 449 to 374 (55 percent against), the delegates rejected the One Church Plan (OCP). The OCP was endorsed by a majority of the Council of Bishops. The OCP had its own website built to promote it. The OCP had all the general church agencies working overtime (on our apportionment dime) to lobby delegates in its favor. Despite this full-court press, the plan favored by the “establishment” was roundly rejected.

By a vote of 438 to 384 (53 percent in favor) the delegates instead passed the Traditional Plan. This plan maintains The United Methodist Church’s traditional biblical position on marriage and human sexuality. It also enhances accountability to ensure that bishops, clergy, and annual conferences live by the expectations set in our Book of Discipline.

Some parts of the Traditional Plan were found to be unconstitutional after a second Judicial Council ruling during General Conference. Furthermore, the plan was referred to the Judicial Council for a third look following final passage of the plan. Institutionalists tried every possible maneuver to delay the plan and to sow doubt about the plan’s final outcome.

Nevertheless, it is possible to know with some certainty the provisions of the Traditional Plan that have already been found constitutional and will be implemented.

  • The definition of “self-avowed practicing homosexual” now reasonably includes persons living in a same-sex marriage or union, and persons who publicly state they are practicing homosexuals. This change will aid in holding accountable clergy who violate the standards for ordained ministry.
  • Clergy who perform same-sex weddings, contravening the denomination’s prohibition, would receive a minimum penalty of one year’s suspension without pay after conviction by a trial court. A second offense would result in termination of credentials. This insures that defiant clergy who flaunt their disregard for denominational standards no longer get by with a slap on the wrist or no meaningful consequence.
  • Bishops are now prohibited from dismissing a complaint unless it has no basis in church law or in fact. No longer can bishops simply dismiss a complaint against a clergyperson that they do not want to deal with.
  • When a complaint is filed and a negotiated settlement is attempted, the complainant must be included in the process, and every effort must be made to secure the complainant’s agreement to any negotiated resolution of the complaint. The bishop may not negotiate a settlement with the accused that disregards the input of the complainant, securing the rights of those wronged by the accused’s actions.
  • The church now has the right to appeal a trial court verdict if it is tainted by egregious errors of church law or administration. Since our judicial system is administered by non-professionals, serious errors can be more common. This provision ensures that a wrongful verdict is not left unaddressed.
  • All persons nominated by the bishop to serve on the board of ordained ministry must certify their willingness to uphold and enforce the Book of Discipline’s standards for ordained ministry, and they may not recommend a person for commissioning or ordination who does not meet those standards, including for being a self-avowed practicing homosexual. This provision counters the nearly dozen annual conferences that are willing to ignore the denominational standards and recommend openly gay candidates for ordained ministry.
  • District committees on ordained ministry are specifically prohibited from recommending persons for candidacy or commissioning who do not meet the denomination’s qualifications, including for being a self-avowed practicing homosexual.
  • Bishops are prohibited from consecrating a person as bishop who is a self-avowed practicing homosexual, despite the fact they might be duly elected by a jurisdictional conference. They are also prohibited from ordaining or commissioning persons who are self-avowed practicing homosexuals, regardless of whether they are approved by the clergy session. This enables holding accountable individual bishops who ignore the denominational standards by going through with such consecrations or ordinations.

Unfinished business includes a Council of Bishops accountability process that enables placing bishops on involuntary retirement or involuntary leave of absence. An accountability process for annual conferences that do not abide by the requirements of the Discipline also needs to be completed. The exit path that was passed is unconstitutional. These can all be enacted by a majority vote at the 2020 General Conference, just 15 months from now.

Most importantly, The United Methodist Church sent a clear message that we will maintain traditional biblical moral standards on marriage and human sexuality. We will not forsake Scripture as our primary authority. We will remain united with our global United Methodist brothers and sisters with shared common ethics. Attempts to force The United Methodist Church to mimic progressive sexual ethics were not successful. Moves toward a disconnected congregational-style “contextualization” of our church were not supported by the only entity — the General Conference — that can speak for The United Methodist Church. The heavy-handed lobbying tactics of our bishops and general agencies proved to be futile.

There will be much more to say about this General Conference in the weeks ahead. But for now, we need to be aware that United Methodism reached an important turning point on Tuesday.