If you follow the goings on in the United Methodist Church, you will undoubtedly be offered many options to tell you what happened at the General Conference, and many more thoughts on what that means, what legislation said, etc. The truth is that we will not know those things for a bit, so I am not going to bother with them. You will also have many who rush to tell you what this all means for the UMC, but again, we do not know yet, so I will not try to do such a thing. I do want to talk about the things that we did learn however, and there was much to learn.
After a day of prayer, and a couple days that were remarkably civil, we learned that, when push comes to shove, we are a deeply fractured church that does not appear to like each other very much. There were progressives that revealed what they thought about traditionalists calling them at worst a virus, and at best, a virus carrier. The usual words were flung about- bigot, homophobic, male fragility, etc. Of course after that, they speak about the way that we can all be in church together. If traditionalists are that bad, why would you want to share in ministry with them? By the same token, we had traditionalists make allusions to human beings, who happen to be LGBTQ individuals, as millstones and fleas on the back of a dog. Of course that is followed by the affirmation that they have no desire to leave the church. Why not? If that is what you think of others in the church, why in the name of all that is holy would you want to stay? We learned one of two things. Either the cognitive dissonance is so pervasive that any serious decision making is rendered impossible, or we learned that our representatives are willing to say anything in a ends justify the means type of battle that doesn’t reflect God, but sure made Satan smile. Neither is good.
We learned that some people seem to think that they have a market on the future of the UMC. My pastors are key leaders in the UMC. You know why? They minister to me and my family, as well as the community that I am in. Near as I can tell, there is no leader more important to that. There is plenty of hubris to go around, but it is also true that some have demonstrated this hubris more than others and it is not only unhealthy for a Christian, but unhealthy for the church. We also learned, to go with that, that disparaging caucus groups, which are not official UMC bodies, on the floor of the General Conference, is apparently a valid way to do things. I am not a member of any caucus group, I have never been, nor do I plan to be. When speaking against the traditional plan, Pastor Hamilton decided to stand up and rant against the WCA, because you know, they are the “bad guy”. For that matter, many people supported the Traditionalist plan that were not members of the WCA. Speaking about, and disparaging groups that are not officially connected to the UMC, during the General Conference, just shows that the division is not only real, but that there are defined sides, at least in the minds of many. We are not trying to find a way for life together, we are trying to find away for life on our terms. That is ok, but we need to be honest about that.
We do not trust each other. Period. When we start accusing each other of buying votes, rather passionately mind you, and invoke ethics investigations while making accusations, we only show that we do not trust each other. The Methodist connexion requires trust, and we do not have it. We do not trust our Bishops. The Way Forward was micromanaged by them from the start. They made their preference known, and many appealed to that preference in the General Conference, yet it did not make it to the floor. The One Church Plan, touted by the majority of the Council of Bishops as the last, best hope, for peace, did not make it to the floor. This is not a commentary on that plan, but rather a commentary on the lack of trust that the body has in the Bishops. If we trusted them, this makes it. To add to that, the Bishops revealed themselves to be out of step with the body of the church. After months of the full court press to support the One Church Plan, including the support of (yet more) caucus groups, it did not work. What’s more, people were genuinely surprised that it didn’t. This shows us that not only is there a deep divide, many in the church, and the Bishops, don’t seem to have an understanding of what that means.
We learned that not only are we not better together, we are actually worse. As early as 2004, some were recognizing this, and calling for some sort of amicable separation and dissolving of the denomination. The plural big tent Methodism was a bold experiment, but that thing about experiments is that they sometimes fail. That is ok. It let’s us know what not to do in the future. If you watched the final day of the General Conference, how can you say, with any integrity, that this is better? People shouting from the stands, insults toward each other from the floor, microphones being cut out to stop angry rants. This is better? Thank you, but I will try worse for a bit and make an informed decision on that. We are not better together. Together we are tearing each other apart, not to mention that horrible witness that the church is leaving.
This might be the most important thing that we learned: now, more than ever, we need to hold fast to our local churches and pastors. The connexion is broken, and is not to be repaired that I can see, that means that the local church, now more than ever, is the way for us to engage with the great tradition. Our local pastors are not immune to any of this, and are charged with the reality of ministering to a deeply fractured church. Now more than ever, our local churches and pastors are forced to be the translators of what has occurred, and primary decision makers about what direction is best for the church. Now more than ever, given how defective the body has become, the local church is the only shelter in a denomination beset by storms. We learned that we need to take shelter there and support the pastors who are acting on our behalf in an impossible situation.
Finally I think that we learned that this can not continue. While I have thoughts on how that plays out, I will keep them to myself for now. What we learned is that this is not only unsustainable (we knew that already), but that we are unable and/or unwilling, to make a change.I love the church. I believe that those who disagree with me love the church. I love Jesus to the best of my ability. I believe that those who disagree with me do the same. In the weeks and months to come, there will be many polemics, some likely written by me, but that is not what this is. This is what we have just learned and we learned that we can not do this together. I don’t care about assigning blame. I don’t care about pointing fingers. Those things do not matter now. I care about what we learned. Everyone is hurt and exhausted after this. Take a breath. Take a rest. Take some time. Remember what we have learned.