One Church, Two Church, Red Church, Blue Church

The United Methodist Church General Conference will meet in St. Louis later this month. In the normal course of events, General Conference meets every four years. It is the only entity that can make changes to The Book of Discipline and is the only body that speaks authoritatively for The United Methodist Church. Since its last regularly scheduled gathering was in 2016 in Portland, Oregon, it would be scheduled to meet in 2020. But the delegates, limited by the Book of Discipline to no more than 1,000 and scrupulously half clergy and half laity, authorized the Council of Bishops to anoint a Commission on the Way Forward to develop a way for The United Methodist Church to resolve the divisions among us regarding LGBTQ persons, ordination and appointment of LGBTQ clergy, marriage and same-sex wedding services in our church properties or performed by our clergy.

This has been an issue in The United Methodist Church since 1972. Every four years General Conference was petitioned to loosen or strengthen our positions. The United Methodist Church over the years has declared the “practice” of homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching, defined marriage as between one man and one woman, declared that “self-avowed, practicing” homosexuals are not be to approved as candidates for ordination or appointed as clergy in our churches, decreed that same-sex weddings are not to be held in our churches or officiated by our clergy. If the latter cross that line in the sand, they are subject to internal church disciplinary processes which could result in a church trial and the removal of credentials and status as a minister within the denomination. Organizations and sub-units of the denomination which advocated or acted contrary to the official positions were to be denied denominational funding. The church also proclaimed that homosexual persons are persons of sacred worth, that God’s grace is available to all. It exhorted parents not to turn their backs on their LGBTQ children and called for the end of discrimination against LGBTQ persons and the protection of their legal rights.

The 1996 General Conference delegates declined to change our denominational positions by the narrowest margin thus far. If I recall, the margin was somewhere in the mid-50’s in terms of percentage that voted to retain prohibitions and proscriptions. After this, an academic from a major Midwestern university and a member of a United Methodist congregation in that community co-authored a book predicting that the trend was in favor of those who advocated a more inclusive church and its clergy for LGBTQ persons and it was only a matter of time and the time was drawing nearer.

In what should be a cautionary tale for those who are presently trumpeting the results of the 2018 congressional elections as proof the nation has made a course correction to the left that will continue, The United Methodist Church experienced the law of physics that for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. The traditional/conservative/evangelical folks “got woke.” The result was one of the more conservative General Conferences in 2000. Two-thirds of the delegates voted to retain the denominational positions. A law school classmate of mine was elected to the Judicial Council, our denominational equivalent of a Supreme Court, notwithstanding or perhaps because of his clear alliance with the evangelical renewal caucuses.

And we changed the formula for allocating delegates.

The previous formula protected the interests of the church in declining regions of North America in terms of church membership such as the West and East Coasts as well as the Rust Belt while limiting the voices and votes of Africa where the church was literally exploding with growth. It truly was a justice issue. After all, why would we protect decline and stagnation while penalizing evangelism and growth? The only justification would have been to assert that those portions of the global church which provided the bulk of financial support for the denomination should be proportionally better represented. Those on the denominational left might have thought so, but they dared not say so. Those on the denominational right in North America were fully cognizant of the fact that this would be in their political interest as the delegates from African annual conferences were very much in the traditionalist/conservative/evangelical camp when it came to LGBTQ issues.

In 2016, 30% of delegates came from annual conferences in Africa. In 2020, that percentage will rise to 32%. While these delegations do not march in lockstep with those regions of the church in North America that are similarly disposed on LGBTQ matters, they do form a reasonably reliable and like-minded base for the 33% of delegates from the Southeast and South Central Jurisdictions, not to mention the conservative/evangelical delegates from the North Central Jurisdiction in the American Midwest. Conversely, the more liberal Western Jurisdiction will have only 3% of the votes.

The math does not look promising for those who seek a more liberal denomination when it comes to these matters. What troubles me the most is what I perceived in 2012 – that everything General Conference needed to do and was asked to do was being viewed through the lenses of delegates’ positions on LGBTQ matters. Delegates were reluctant to consider legislation that was needed or at least laudable on non-LGBTQ matters because it might give the “other side” an advantage or a glimmer of hope on sexuality issues.

So General Conference accomplishes little, if anything, beyond spending a lot of time and millions of denominational dollars.

Now we find ourselves spending more millions on a General Conference outside the normal rhythm with the same delegates who were unable to solve matters in 2016.

There are essentially 3 proposals coming to the body later this month. I will not go into the details of each lest the reader’s eyes glaze over, but will share my summary of the gist of each. I do encourage readers and delegates to read the full details of the plans which are easy to find online.

The Traditional Plan calls for the retention of the current denominational positions with the addition of greatly enhanced enforcement penalties for bishops and other clergy who would violate the prohibitions against ordination and appointment of LGBTQ clergy and officiating at same-sex weddings. It includes provisions for a “gracious exit” of clergy and congregations who cannot or choose not to adhere to these restrictions. “Gracious exit” would allow congregations to retain their properties against the Trust Clause which historically and legally means that when a congregation leaves the denomination, the property belongs to the denomination.

The One Church Plan would create a new big tent for the denomination which would allow each annual conference to determine whether to ordain and appoint LGBTQ clergy and each pastor and congregation to determine whether to host and solemnize same-sex weddings. This will in reality add additional elements of regionalism and congregationalism to the hallowed theory of connectionalism in the denomination and will be the end of the fiction that any ordained United Methodist clergy can be appointed to provide clergy leadership to any United Methodist congregation.

The Connectional Conference Plan would create 3 non-geographical entities for the church, essentially lining up pastors and congregations on theo-political bases on the left, center and right. My concern is that we have created such a complicated mess in our denominational constitution and Book of Discipline that it would takes years to get this all straightened out, if ever.

Personally, I prefer the Simple Plan which would simply remove the negative language and prohibitions against LGBTQ persons, clergy and weddings, in effect leaving these matters in the hands and spirits of annual conferences, congregations and clergy. Unfortunately this plan is put forth by the United Methodist Queer Caucus which is a poison pill for too many delegates from too many regions of the church.

My prediction is that nothing will be accomplished later this month given the truncated schedule. If two weeks of a “normal” General Conference accomplishes little if anything, I have very little hope for a mere 3 day conference.

If a plan is adopted, The United Methodist Church will cease to exist. The Wesleyan Covenant Association and the other “evangelical renewal” groups have drawn a deep line in the sand, saying they cannot and will not live with the One Church Plan. My experience has been that they have been planning and working for schism for years. Some of their churches have properties held by separate legal entities designed to circumvent the Trust Clause. They have properties so highly leveraged with debt as to be poison pills for annual conferences that might be tempted to enforce the trust clause.

Similarly, if the Traditionalist Plan is adopted any victory will be Pyrrhic. Many clergy, particularly those in the Millennial generation, will leave the denomination. So will many churches. Those that stay will continue to disobey any enhanced disciplinary provisions, insisting on church trials by their peers further wasting church resources much more faithfully used in ministry.

One significant part of my process of moving from where I was 20+ years ago to where I am now has been getting to know colleagues and other people who did not think and believe as I did and listening to them. I have come to realize that persons on both sides of the LGBTQ issues firmly believe they are led by the Holy Spirit.

It is time we stop beating on each other and get back to beating on the Devil. It is time we freed each other to do ministry as we each believe the Holy Spirit is leading us to do and let God bless whom God chooses to bless. It may just be that God chooses to bless us all – everyone.

Given the sharply and deeply drawn line in the sand, I call on the Wesleyan Covenant Association and its opposite organizational elements to publicly confess that The United Methodist Church can no longer pretend to be united. Then with deep repentance move to disband the denomination and distribute the property and other resources. No successor denomination should be allowed to retain the words “United Methodist” in its title.

I know from my experience as both an attorney and a pastor that divorces are often messy and painful, but I also have experienced that sometimes they are where grace is ultimately found. Neither side, particularly the traditionalist/conservative/evangelical side shows any interest in reconciliation – only in winning.

The only win-win situation I see is for us to meet at the Jabbok – and then go separate ways.

Be careful what you pray for

It was my pastoral practice over many years to include the Wesleyan Covenant Renewal in worship on the first Sunday of each new year. I came to call it the “Most Dangerous Prayer.” It says:

“I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things
to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.”

The reason for the cautionary introduction is that, rather than imploring God to do what the person praying wants God to do for them or someone else, the person praying is imploring God to do whatever God’s will is for them and solemnly vowing to accept whatever that is as a matter of holy covenant. There were times when I had to remind myself of the fact that I had freely and knowingly prayed that prayer, especially when decisions of those appointed over me in our church hierarchy resulted in pain, dislocation and disagreement for me and my family, but that is another matter perhaps for another day.

Be careful what you pray for. God may just take you up on it.

I am a rules-follower. Perhaps it is due to my years in Scouting. This old Eagle Scout still does his best to live up to the Scout Oath and Law. Maybe it is also due to my years in law school and the practice of law. The law may be an ass at times, but it is still the law and should be obeyed unless and until it is changed. The United Methodist Church has its Book of Discipline which too often makes the Internal Revenue Code and the Code of Federal Regulations look simpler and easier to decipher, but if the Discipline said I as a pastor “shall” do something, I did it even if I thought it was not the thing to do and if it said I “shall not” do something, I did not do it even if I thought it was the thing to do.

I began to strongly identify with and advocate for what are identified as the “evangelical renewal” movements within The United Methodist Church early in my ministry because I saw them taking principled stands for sound orthodoxy in fidelity to the Scriptures, our Articles of Religion and obedience to the structures and strictures of our Book of Discipline. I believe each human being is not only a body, but also an immortal soul and I have always been driven by a passion to do all that I could to help souls experience lives now and forever in relationship with God through Jesus Christ. My liberal colleagues, in my opinion, were too focused on institutional preservation and societal transformation than in doing all they could do to first save eternal souls from an eternity in the absence of God and then working on society and the institution of the church.

Then came the issues of homosexuality and same-sex marriage. I was offended when some clergy solemnized same-sex weddings or commitment services. Not only were they not legally recognized at the time, they were expressly prohibited by our church law and, therefore, a serious violation of our covenant as clergy in a system that billed itself as connectional. They intentionally broke the rules. I applauded the results of church disciplinary proceedings that removed the credentials of some and decried others that gave what appeared to be a mere slap on the wrist to violators.

I played a reasonably significant role in organizing clergy and laity within our annual conference that believed as I did, resulting in a much more orthodox and evangelical delegation of voters to General Conference in order to stem the tide seeking to soften our denominational positions on marriage and ordination. Soon I found myself as a board member of one evangelical renewal organization and active in efforts to coordinate with other similarly minded groups within the denomination.

Then my oldest child came out.

I was floored. Like many parents I wondered what I had done or failed to do as a father to cause it. I realized this was a test of my faith. Would I be able to love her unconditionally while still loving the Lord without limitation as I understood both relationships? Could I advocate and work for what I firmly thought was biblical and theologically right without hurting my own child?

I believed and still believe in the power of prayer. So I prayed, “Lord, please change her or change me.” Every day. Day after day. Week after week, month after month, year after year. And God answered my prayers. It took a long time and the answer was not what I really wanted God to do when I started.

But my prayers were answered.

Like many parents, my daughter’s birth was an epiphany causing a young lawyer who thought himself to be a budding master of the universe to realize he was not. This led me back to the church after 10 years of self-imposed exile (which is another story for another day). Eventually this led to answering the call to ministry I had actively suppressed since age 14.

I and her mother taught her the faith, but we did not indoctrinate her. My daughter’s faith was deep and real. Now she was a young adult feeling abandoned and unwelcome by the church in which she had been baptized and confirmed.

It is difficult to fully or even partially describe what it was like to be torn between two loves – my love for the church and my love for my daughter. It took years to work itself out. Over time I became disillusioned with the evangelical renewal groups in The United Methodist Church. In my experience they more and more abandoned their emphasis on the faith inherited from the saints in favor of the cultural fight against “the gay agenda” and providing prayer support and religious veneer for a particular political party. It came to a head for me during what I call “The Train Wreck in Tampa,” the 2012 General Conference, when I realized its disciplined delegate voting bloc would not even endorse a modification of a particular portion of The Book of Discipline that would have admitted our denomination was not of one mind on the issues surrounding human sexuality.

I will have more to say as the days draw closer to the Called General Conference in St. Louis. For now, let me say I love my daughter even more deeply and fiercely. Her faith continues to inspire me. Her intelligence sometimes intimidates me. Her independence frequently frustrates me. She is happily married and, of all things, is a preacher’s wife to a wonderful woman.

Just not a United Methodist.

Old dog learning new trick

Long before the advent of social media, I shared a series of email opinions some would not incorrectly characterize as rants or screeds I titled “The Curmudgeon’s Corner.”

A curmudgeon is defined as a cranky, ill-tempered individual, often characterized as a grumpy old man, more than a little stubborn. While I am not the sort of neighbor who refuses to pass out candy to costumed children on Halloween or shoo away little ones who are on my lawn, confiscating balls that have landed on my side of the fence, the sobriquet largely fit.

For various reasons, the emailed Curmudgeon’s Corner faded away. A few years later I discovered Facebook and began to use it as my preferred platform (the initial 140 character limit of Twitter was too limiting). As I became more outspoken on political, social and moral issues, particularly after retirement from full-time local church ministry, some friends on the social media platform expressed strong negative opinions of my posted opinions, directly or implicitly stating they not only did not share my opinions, but believed a man of the cloth should not share them.

A much younger, social media savvy person recently suggested that I start a blog. My wife, The Beloved, had made a similar suggestion a few years ago. I have decided to follow his and her suggestions. It is time for this old dog to learn a new trick or two in the digital world.

If you were a recipient of “The Curmudgeon’s Corner” in the old days of group emails, you will probably wonder what happened to the curmudgeon you once knew. I’m still me, but I am not the me I was 20+ years ago nor the one who really did restrain his opinions while in the pulpit.

Whether you agree with me or not (and like most curmudgeons I tend to believe that those who agree are right and those who do not are misguided), I hope you will read them and at least accept that they are the words of a man who is reasonably intelligent and well-educated, a person of deep faith, passion and hope.