Sunday, January 5, 2020

Didn't I Blow Your Mind This Time? The UMC Separation Proposal, Explained

I try to keep these blogs under 3,000 words and
that's no lie...it seems to make my readers sad
each time I try.
Back in the 1990s, Crusty was in a relationship that just wasn't working out.  We both knew it, but neither had the courage to say it.  I was at the train station, heading back to where I was going to school, and just couldn't take it anymore.  I called the person up on a pay phone from the station (hard to imagine a day before cell phones?) and told her I just couldn't do this anymore.  There was silence on the other end, and she said, "I didn't think you'd be the one to say it."

These lines from the Delfonics R&B classic popped into my head, and I said to her, "Didn't I blow your mind this time?" 

The lines came back to me as Crusty read about the separation proposal unveiled earlier this week by leaders in the United Methodist Church, and had his mind blown.  So COD put on his playlist of greatest R&B and hip hop breakup songs of all time as I prepped this blog.  (With this soundtrack on as I wrote this blog, I did not mean in any way to trivialize the events involved.  Division in the church is contrary to God's will, and always a difficult thing.  Yet unity also cannot be grounded on injustice or at the expense of the marginalized. Far from trivializing it, for me this grounded the sadness from this division in some of the greatest music ever written.) 

The text of the Separation Agreement can be found here, along with a news release and FAQs.



If you don't like then just go Crusty on it...
--A little background on me: Many, many years ago I served as assistant ecumenical officer, then ecumenical officer, to the Presiding Bishop from 2001-2011.  I've served on the United Methodist-Episcopal Church official dialogue team since 2002.  I was one of the primary drafters of the full communion proposal, "A Gift to the World: a Proposal for Full Communion", which can be found here, and the summary theological statement produced in 2010, "A Theological Foundation for Full Communion," found here, which gives greater historical and theological background to the proposal.  So when it comes to United Methodist-Episcopal Church relationships, no worries Queen Bey, Crusty can walk and talk at the same time.

--A little background on how we got here...Crusty explained this in depth in a previous post, but since COD pretty much encapsulates TL;DR, I'll summarize it below and you can read it all in depth here.

The United Methodist Church has language in its governing document the Book of Discipline which specifically states that "The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church."  The Discipline also has language specifically forbidding clergy from performing same sex marriage ceremonies.

Proposals to change or amend this language have been made at the last several United Methodist General Conferences (equivalent to General Convention in the Episcopal Church).  Despite this language, there have been numerous examples of openly gay persons being ordained, and celebrations of same sex marriages, as local authorities have found work-arounds, for lack of a better term, for the language in the Discipline.

After extended, passionate, and wrenching debates at the 2016 General Conference about these sections of the Book of Discipline, the delegates asked the bishops to try to find a way forward despite the deep divisions in the church.  The bishops eventually decided to call a Special General Conference to deal solely with trying to determine a way forward on the issue of human sexuality, prior to the regularly scheduled General Conference to be held in 2020.  

The bishops put forward three plans for consideration at the Special General Conference.  The Special General Conference, held in February of 2019, approved the Traditional Plan. This Plan strengthened current provisions.  For instance, it called for mandatory sentences for persons found in violation of the Book of Discipline and required local boards of ordination to certify all persons for ordination were complying with the language in the Book of Discipline.  (Since the language was around "self-avowed and practicing", in some areas a kind of "don't ask-don't tell" emerged.) 

There were other proposals, and modified versions of some of the above proposals, in the mix as the Special General Conference opened.  In the end, after a lot of voting and
The Persuaders' version, not the Pretenders'.
debating and parliamentary manuvering,
 the Traditional Plan was adopted by a margin of 54 votes, 438 in favor, 384 opposed.  The debate became very intense, and emotional, and in the end Crusty found himself thinking "So here I am in a state of shock...I guess actions speak louder than words."


Several things to keep in mind:

i)  The United Methodist Church truly is a global church, and is becoming more so.  It has jurisdictions in Europe, Asia, and Africa and an enormous overseas presence.  In 2004, 19% of delegates to Annual Conference were from overseas conferences, called Central Conferences.  In 2016, that was over 40%.  I tell Episcopalians, "Imagine if nearly half of the Episcopal Church lived in Province IX or non-US dioceses." While far from being monolithic, the Central Conferences overall tend to be conservative theologically.  For those USA-based General Conference representatives, approximately 60-65% of delegates have voted to either remove the restrictive language or against plans to enforce these aspects more stringently.  A minority of USA-based United Methodist delegates, combined with a majority of overseas Central Conference, have reaffirmed the language, and so the Traditional Plan passed. 

ii)  These overseas jurisdictions, the Central Conferences, have substantial autonomous self-governance.  The can legislate for themselves.   However, the US-based United Methodist Church does not have this provision for self-governance. The Central Conferences thus can vote on measures in General Conference which are binding on the US-based church, but not on themselves, while the US-based church does not have this ability.

iii)   The United Methodist Church has a Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) which can issue binding decisions on whether what is passed by General Conference is in violation of the Book of Discipline.  The Episcopal Church simply has nothing even remotely close to this.

Since then, some Annual Conferences (roughly equivalent to dioceses) have announced they will not comply with aspects of the Traditional Plan.  The provisions are set to come into effect in 2020.  And the regularly scheduled General Conference of 2020 could revisit all of this and consider any proposals which could come before it.  

With all of that, a group of United Methodists met over the past several months and negotiated a proposed a plan of separation.  

--Who was involved?

Both LGBTQ+ affirming and conservative groups were present, along with bishops and a professional mediator with extensive experience.  They are listed as "Traditionalists", "Centrists", and "Progressives," representing both annual conferences, congregations, and affinity/advocacy groups.

--What are they proposing?

It's kind of mindblowing, but here it is, in a nutshell.  Crusty is not an expert in United Methodist governance or polity, and welcomes any necessary corrections:

1)    General Conference in May of 2020 (in four months!) will vote on enacting the provisions of the Separation Agreement;

2)    United Methodist entities will have until May of 2021 to form new Methodist denominations;

3)    The default position is remain in the United Methodist Church; that is, if an Annual Conference or congregation does nothing, they remain United Methodist.  If an Annual Conference or a congregation votes to leave, it must be by a majority vote of 57%.  This number seems to be a compromise between 50% + 1 on the one hand and 67% on the other.

4)    $25 million is set aside for a Traditionalist United Methodist denomination to get started.

5)    $2 million is set aside for other denominations to get started.

6)    The provisions of discipline on openly LGBTQ+ clergy and same sex marriages will voluntarily not be enforced.

7)    Everyone keeps their pensions.

8)    Congregations that leave keep their property and assets.

9)   $39 million it set aside "to support communities historically marginalized by the sin of racism...The goal of these earmarked funds shall be to strengthen ministries by and for Asian, Black, Hispanic-Latino, Native American, and Pacific Islander Communities."

10)  The parties involved agree to stop supporting any other plans and advocate for this one.

11)   Annual Conferences will not to close any churches between now and May 2020 General Conference.

I'm sure that's not all, and that I didn't get or phrase everything correctly, but I think the summary captures the overall sense of the Proposal.

--What's Next?

Some observations:

--It's pretty mindblowing that those communities impacted by racism, named in the agreement, and who have $39 million allocated...were not present in a formal way in the drafting of the Agreement.  Yes, there were persons of color involved in the negotiations.  But "Asian, Black, Hispanic-Latino, Native American, and Pacific Islander Communities" did not have their networks present in any formal way, as, say, the Traditionalists were represented by the Wesleyan Covenant Association.  For a denomination that had institutional racism and segregation written into its history, that's pretty mindblowing.  (The Methodist Church split in 1844 over whether bishops could own slaves or not; in 1939, when the northern and southern branches reunited, the demand was for legislated segregation and the creation of all-black conferences for African American congregations as a condition for reunion.  Not to mention historically African American Methodist Churches were created precisely because African Americans were not treated equally or justly in the then Methodist Episcopal Church.)

--By my count, at least one of the more progressive, LGBTQ+ affirming groups was not formally part of the negotiations.

--This is all a handshake agreement until May of 2020.  Nothing was voted on, these are individuals and members of affinity/advocacy groups.  All of this will depend on the goodwill of all parties involved between now and the General Conference in May.  That may be a lot to ask, given some of the passion, vitriol, anger, and hurt that have marked the past 45 years of debate over this question within United Methodism.  We
And so my heart is paying now for things I didn't do.
already know somebody manipulated the voting at the Special General Conference by using credentials of people who weren't there.  There have been examples of groups at times unwilling to demonstrate respect for others, grace, and goodwill.  Can they hold it together between now and May?  Or are some "shackled to a memory, and drifting apart" despite caring for each other?


--While not officially stated, it would appear that the $2 million for other, non-traditional denominations is intended for affirming and progressive United Methodists who will feel this proposal, and any United Methodist Church which emerges from it, will still not been fully inclusive of LGBTQ+ persons -- and that this money is for a liberal, progressive future Methodist denomination.

--What happens if it doesn't pass?

If this proposal is not accepted or approved by the 2020 General Conference, then I think we will end up with more or less those same Methodist bodies I outlined above, just with a lot more lawsuits, pain, anger, recrimination, and hurt spread out over a longer period of time.  It has seemed to me United Methodists have already been going through a kind of slow motion, cold war schism for the past 25 years.  The division is already here; it's just a question of how it plays out.

What'll happen next?

Being an outside but engaged observer to this for the last 18 years, included as an invited ecumenical observer to three General Conferences, it had become clear to Crusty then tensions within the United Methodist Church were too great for it to hold together.  I thought 10 years ago that some kind of separation was likely.  Given the depth of division within the United Methodist Church, combined with its increasingly global footprint, I just didn't see how it could all hold together.  Like some breakups, while still sad and not something to celebrate, it seemed inevitable.  To do otherwise would be asking somebody to do something they simply could not.

By Crusty's guess:

--There will be a centrist/progressive United Methodist Church of maybe 4 million or so members.  This could potentially be the largest LGBTQ+ affirming denomination in the country.

--A conservative, traditionalist Methodist denomination with 2 million - 2.5 million members in the USA, which will likely form either a new denomination including the overseas central conferences or form their own, USA-based denomination and have a very close covenant partnership with the majority of the overseas conferences.

--A couple of smaller denominations in the 250,000 or so member range.  One more conservative than the larger traditionalist body that emerges, and one that feels the centrist/progressive larger Methodist denomination does not go far enough in full inclusion.

What does this mean for the Episcopal Church-United Methodist full communion proposal?

Since the proposal was released back in 2016, there has been the significant concern raised about the Episcopal Church entering into full communion with a church that does not affirm LGBTQ+ persons.  

--It is my hope that the 2021 General Convention will approve the United Methodist full communion proposal in an amended version.  In the proposed agreement, The United Methodist Church agrees to adopt the historic episcopate, and full communion for Episcopalians is on the basis of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral.  (If the Episcopal Church wants to make full communion be on the basis of something else, it needs to say so and outline exactly what the basis should be -- the Quadrilateral has been reaffirmed a dozen different times by General Convention as the basis for full communion.) This amended version would have an affirmation of full inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons and would state that we will be in full communion with any Methodist body which adopts the same proposal without amendation.  

I believe the Episcopal Church should vote first for two reasons.  One is that historically ever single ecumenical outreach between Anglicans and Methodists has been rejected or put on hold by the Anglicans, from William White's response to Thomas Coke in the 1790s to the Church of England-British Methodist Church proposals of the 1970s, to the Consultation on Church Union in the USA.  

The second is that it will take several years for things to settle if this separation proposal is enacted by United Methodists, and it will likely be until 2024 before the contours really begin to take shape, with the new denominations formed and Annual Conferences and congregations sorting themselves.  Voting in 2021 will allow Episcopalians to stand in solidarity with those Methodists willing to be in common witness and ministry; otherwise we'd be waiting until 2027.

--This could create a mutual full communion partnership between the United Methodist Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Episcopal Church.  This would create an LGBTQ+ affirming network of nearly 9 million Christians.  At a time of weakening denominational affiliation, this is potentially a seismic reordering of American mainline Christianity.

--It is also my hope the Episcopal Church will continue to take seriously this commitment to full inclusion. We do not have full inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons in our own church, and are in full communion with other provinces of the Anglican Communion which do not support inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons.  Many of our bishops will go to a Lambeth Conference which did not invite the spouses of openly LGBT bishops.  How can we demand something from our ecumenical partners we are unwilling to demand in our own communion?

On a personal note, it has been hard, as an ecumenical observer these past 18 years, to see the tension and discord among and between fellow Christians in the United Methodist Church.  Methodism has been a movement within Christianity that has understood itself as a fellowship and connection: what Episcopalians would call "clergy in good standing" Methodists call "elders in full connection."  To see those bonds of fellowship and connection in danger of being broken is a difficult thing.  

We in the Episcopal Church have gone through some of our own tensions, but it has not been anywhere on the scale of the United Methodist Church.  We have had significant conflict, with five dioceses attempting to leave the Episcopal Church, along with parishes attempting to leave their dioceses.  While not minimizing the degree of that conflict, it has been 5 dioceses out of over 100.  This is on a greater scale:  the United Methodist Church breaking more than in half.  I told an Episcopal colleague once the closest thing the Episcopal Church has had to this kind of disruption has been the American Revolution and its aftermath, which almost destroyed Anglicanism in what would become the United States.  It has been hard to see LGBTQ+ persons have their dignity, worth, and very being at times called into question as members of the body of Christ.  I have, and will continue, to hold my United Methodist friends in prayer.  I also have, and will continue, to pray that our churches may have the courage to join in common witness and ministry and come together in full communion for the healing of the world and adopt this full communion proposal.

And BTW, the greatest breakup song of all time is a tie between "Katie's Been Gone" by The Band and "When You Were Mine" by Prince.

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