Next week the United Methodist Church (UMC) begins the quadrennial orgy of institutional decision-making at the General Conference, being held in Portland, OR. The denomination will reportedly spend $10.5 million to bring delegates together from around the globe to celebrate the church’s work and, more importantly, most would say, to determine its polity and priorities for the next four years.
Plenary Session 2012 General Conference
I urge my friends who will be delegates or will attend to lobby the denomination for changes to its position on homosexuality to skip the committee meetings, the lobbying sessions, the celebratory gatherings and most of the plenary sessions; dispense with the hallway hymn sings and pleading newsletters. Consider instead spending the time to organize a massive effort to begin moving tens or hundreds of thousands, and eventually millions out of the United Methodist Church into another denomination (or denominations) with theology and polity more consistent with your understanding of the Gospel.
Your plane tickets are bought, your hotels paid for, and delegates will have generous expense accounts for meals that perhaps you can share with your progressive friends. Why not use the time productively rather than participating in a process that once again will leave you defeated and in tears? I love you. I cherish your efforts on behalf of LGBT folk, especially as one dear friend reflected, the gay babies she wishes not to abandon. I would love to be proven wrong about my prediction of the outcome, but we all know in our heart of hearts it is right.
Many of you already have experienced what ReligiousTolerance.org has documented: the increasingly intolerant position of the UMC taken toward LGBT folk in General Conferences and other denominational venues over the last 44 years. There were no changes at the 2012 General Confernence. You have joined groups like Affirmation, the Reconciling Ministries Network, and the Methodist Federation for Social Action, among others in making a substantial witness against what you regard as the denomination’s lack of fidelity to the Gospel on the matter.
The Love Your Neighbor Tabernacle at the 2012 General Conference
I was a part of this work for a while and I am proud of what we did and what you have have accomplished since I checked out. You found ways meaningfully to mitigate some of the language so as to remind United Methodists of the Gospel call to ministry with all people despite adverse judgments they might make. You brought some people around to a new point of view.
So what’s different in 2016 that would justify the radical action I’m pleading for you to consider? The other side has upped the ante considerably, surreptitiously moving from simple advocacy for “traditional” positions on things like human sexuality and marriage to what appears to be a coordinated effort to take over the UMC by imposing a rigid theological orthodoxy on its clergy and seminaries. Dalton Troy Rushing, pastor of North Decatur UMC in Decatur, GA, has documented this convincingly in his blog.
Those involved, having been caught out by Rushing’s careful analysis of proposals published in the Advanced Daily Christian Advocate are screaming bloody murder. They especially object to having their tactics likened to the ones used by those who engineered the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in the early 1990’s. A review of those events puts the lie to their objections. The tactics are essentially identical.
The other thing that’s different is the delegate math. A total of 864 delegates is expected in Portland, down from 1000 in previous years. Of these, 626 are from areas noted for conservative voting patterns in the General Conference: 296 from the South Central and Southeastern Jurisdictions in the United States; 260 are from Africa, 50 are from the Philippines; and a total of 20 from Central and Southern Europe, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Caribbean & the Americas.
What would it take to gain approval, for example, of the “Simple Plan” being supported by the Reconciling Ministries Network and others? The plan “simply” requires the removal of all the negative language referring to homosexuality in the United Methodist Discipline. Simple it may be, bold it also is. By my math, it would require 100% of all the votes from delegates from the following: the Northeast, North Central, and Western Jurisdictions in US, the Conferences in Germany, Northern Europe & Eurasia, and Great Britain, plus nearly 1/3 of the votes from the areas I’ve identified as likely to vote overwhelmingly in opposition to such a proposal.
Defeating the proposals that would impose theological orthodoxy, possibly subjecting progressive clergy to trial for heresy and risking academic freedom in seminaries would require the same kind of voting. What will be the impact of these votes on budgets of the General Agencies, elections of the Judicial Council and the University Senate and, in the Jurisdictional Conferences, membership on the Boards of the General Agencies? Will the UMC be recognizable in the Fall? Will it be something to which you can in good conscience continue to give your time, your talents and your treasure?
What if instead of fighting this losing battle into the future, you and thousands of others took your gifts to the United Church of Christ (UCC), the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), and/or the Episcopal Church (ECUSA)? Imagine how the mission and ministry of those denominations might be magnified in community after community around the country, and in the many places around the globe where they are active in significant ministries of justice, service and evangelism! I could be wrong, but I believe you would be welcomed with open arms.
You could spend time and money trying to sort things out to create the infrastructure of a new and separate progressive Methodist denomination. Those on the other side might even make it easy for you to go. But honestly, isn’t that a kind of idolatry for an institution, when instead you could be fully engaged in ministry in these other churches the day you get home from Portland, taking time only to tie up the loose ends of your previous life?
Granted the “loose ends” are not insignificant, nor am I suggesting you ignore financial responsibility for clergy or lay church staff who will face the bulk of the practical burden of this change. You don’t want to leave them without support for their salaries; you want to advocate to ensure that they are not treated punitively with respect to pension benefits. It will take time for them to make their way to a new place, but there will be a need for them.
However, the reality is that if the worst happens progressive clergy will have to defend their livelihoods and their right to pensions in any case. What about partnering with them proactively and joyfully in anticipation of what you believe God will be doing in this new thing?
Nor would taking this step be painless, I get that. Knowing how happy the other side will be to see you go may be part of that. Let them enjoy it. Their websites are already full of scorn for what they regard as your congregations’ failures real or imagined, your supposed decline in membership, what they consider to be your lack of the true faith.
You’ll be leaving behind in UM congregations friends and family whose values are different from yours. Some will be staying to “take care of the gay babies,” an honorable calling. Some will be staying because they can’t imagine anything different. These partings may be difficult and grief-filled. You may be leaving behind sanctuaries and education buildings you’ve helped to finance or build or maintain, and it will seem like a shame.
You will still be in the season of Eastertide as you arrive in Portland. May I challenge you to consider finding churches that will offer a home to support and inform your life, witness and ministry in place of an institution that will more and more seek to get in your way?