Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Dispatches from the Sunken Place: United Methodist Special Conference

Well, like Michael Corleone in Godfather, Part 3, it looks like everytime I think I am out, something drags me back in.  I have been taking a blogging hiatus, but, after spending the past 3 days watching the proceedings of the Special General Conference of the United Methodist Church, and having spent 17 years of my life as a member of The Episcopal Church-United Methodist Church bilateral dialogue team working for a closer relationship between the two communions, I found I kept looking longingly at the keyboard, compelled to say something.

It was a tweet from a delegate attending the Conference that pushed me over the edge:

For those of you have not seen Jordan Peele's horror masterpiece which is a devastating and terrifying take on race and racism in contemporary American society, stop reading this and go watch it. 

OK, now that you're back, you can understand the depth of sadness that this tweet represents:  that a church convention is similar to that place where one is completely aware but helpless in the face of violence and terror being inflicted.  Yet after listening to hours of discussion and debate at the Special General Conference, I have to say this tweet nailed it exactly:  in many ways the United Methodist Special Conference WAS the sunken place.

In the course of just one day delegates did the following:  a)  voted for legislation even though they quite likely knew some aspects of it would be later struck down; b)  accused other delegates of bribing people for votes; and c) compared another's position to a virus infecting the church; and d)....I just can't go on.  There was lots more.  And that was what was said in the Convention hall in front of thousands of people!  Following social media, and some of the awful things said there, was even harder to bear.

(This is, BTW, one of the reasons why I took a hiatius from this blog.  I came up with the character of Crusty Old Dean in 2011 and the distinctive voice of this blog after watching Stephen Colbert's character on the Colbert Report.  Dismayed by some of the rhetoric I heard in the church, I created this blog and character as a kind of metacommentary, going over the top in mimicking what I heard around the church while trying to make my points.  I took a hiatus, in part, because I couldn't bring myself to do it anymore, given the level of discourse in the church and in our society had become so poisonous that the character I was playing was no longer out of the ordinary or event over the top.  I'm also writing a book, which is the other main reason.)

So, a quick explainer:

1)  How in God's name did we get here?  What was up with that Special General Conference?

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."  (Although despite many assertions that this has always been the teaching of the church, FWIW this language was not adopted by General Conference until 1972.)  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.  Despite this language, there have been numerous examples of openly gay persons being ordained, and celebrations of same sex marriages.  Most notably, one jurisdiction elected an openly gay, partnered person as bishop.  The church's highest body found this to be a violation of the language in the Discipline, yet did not have the authority to nullify or remove the bishop, so in turn referred those matters to the local authority which had jurisdiction.  The same body which elected her is the body that has authority to discipline her, and has declined to discipline her despite the ruling.  This is but one example of the ways various local authorities have found work-arounds, for lack of a better term, for the language in the Discipline.

After more debate at the 2016 General Conference, 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.  (Various bodies have provisions to hold special meetings in between regularly scheduled ones.  The Episcopal Church held a Special General Convention in 1969, for instance, in between its regularly scheduled 1967 and 1970 General Conventions -- which was also a trainwreck, BTW -- and my parish held a Special Parish Meeting to vote on what to do with a large bequest.)

The bishops put forward three plans for consideration at the Special General Conference (all of these summaries are necessarily truncated, giving the overall gist of the plans, some of which were quite lengthy and complex):

i)   The One Church Plan (OCP).  This would have removed the prohibitions in the Book of Discipline against homosexuality, and allowed local annual conferences (roughly equivalent to dioceses) and congregations to decide on whether to permit same sex marriages and ordination of openly LGBT persons.

ii)    The Connectional Plan.  This would essentially have done away with a single United Methodist Church and created three non-geographical grouping that congregations could choose to affiliate with.  Though never explicitly spelled out, these were envisioned to be a Traditionalist (no same sex marriages or openly LGBT clergy), Affirming (not only permitting but affirming and endorsing full inclusion of LGBT persons), and a Moderate/Centrist.  An annual conference would choose one of the three bodies, and congregations within those annual conferences could in turn choose a different one.  So if your Annual Conference (roughly = diocese) chose the Traditional, your congregation could still vote to join the Affirming.  And you could have three United Methodist Churches in the same town, each belonging to a different jurisdiction.  Unfortunately this one borrowed heavily from the church's segregated past.  In the 1939 merger of the northern and southern branches of the Methodist Episcopal Church which split in 1844 over slavery, the price for reunion was legislated segregation, with African American churches placed in a non-geographic jurisdiction.

iii)   The Traditional Plan (TP).  This would have strengthened current provisions.  For instance, it would have implemented mandatory sentences for persons found in violation of the Book of Discipline and required local board 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.)  It was, in essence, a doubling down on current prohibitions and actually strengthening them.

The Council of Bishops forwarded these three proposals to the Special General Conference, and indicated they were endorsing the One Church Plan.

iv)  In addition, The Simple Plan (SP) was drafted and put forth by the United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus.  This would have removed the language concerning prohibition of homosexuality as incompatible with Christian teaching from the Discipline and made no other structural changes of any kind.

There were other proposals, and modified versions of some of the above proposals, in the mix as the Special General Conference opened.

2)    So what happened in St. Louis at the Special General Conference?

Several things to keep in mind before proceeding:

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.  Many are also located in areas which have bans against homosexuality.  Russia, for instance, has laws banning "homosexual propaganda" and in my time there doing research on Christian churches, many are concerned that being connected with an American, LGBT-friendly church could open them to financial liability (fines may be levied against organizations into the thousands of dollars for "homosexual propaganda"), or having their licenses to function as churches revoked.

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.

So:  what happened?

Functioning as a committee of the whole, the Conference decided to move forward only with consideration of the TP.  However, certainly parliamentary efforts resulted in the SP and the OCP also being considered.  Some delegates seemed openly to adopt an effort to try to offer as many amendments to the TP and parliamentary procedure steps to try to run out the clock and have the Conference adjourn without approving any plan. In a church that had for years not been able to muster a majority to change the language in the Discipline, it seemed to be a very high bar to find the votes to pass the SP or OCP, and it seemed most likely some version of the TP would pass.

In the end, with about an hour left before mandatory adjournment, the Traditional Plan was adopted by a margin of 54 votes, 438 in favor, 384 opposed.

However, the situation remains in flux.  The SJC ruled parts of the Traditional Plan unconstitutional when it was initially considered on Monday, Feb. 25.  On Tuesday, Feb. 26, a number of amendments were presented trying to fix those issues.  The SJC in turn ruled some of those unconstitutional.  Additional amendments were proposed.  The Traditional Plan was passed without final rulings on constitutionality of some matters.  The SJC is meeting in April, and could rule some aspects of what was passed unconstitutional.

3)   So what's next?

--It is likely a good number of United Methodists will be considering leaving, both conservatives who do not think the Special General Conference went far enough, and those affirming of LGBT persons who feel they cannot comply.  The Wesleyan Covenant Association, an organization which "connects orthodox churches" and which endorsed the TP, is meeting February 27 and 28 to determine their response to the Conference.  Had the Conference not passed the TP, it was predicted by some that the WCA would announce the formation of a new, traditional church organization.

--The SJC will likely weigh on provisions of what was passed, including a key provision which would have allowed congregations to leave the denomination and under certain conditions keep their property.  If this aspect gets ruled unconstitutional, all hell breaks loose and lawsuits over property will abound.

--The regularly scheduled General Conference of the United Methodist Church is scheduled for May 2020, and everything passed at this Special General Conference can be up for a vote again.

4)  So what are non-United Methodists to do?

First of all, prayer for our brothers and sisters in the United Methodist Church.  I served as ecumenical officer of the Episcopal Church and have been to a number of General Conferences.  I've told Episcopal Church colleagues that what was coming in the United Methodist Church would make the conflict the Episcopal Church had over Gene Robinson look like the Council of Nicaea by comparison.  I knew it would be bad.  But the Special General Conference was even worse than I imagined, with a level of hurt, anger, vitriol, and despair that was truly hard to witness.  Many people are shocked, angry, hurt, and feel abandoned by their church.

Second of all, resist the urge to say "Hey, come to our church!"   Many United Methodists are grieving.  They love being United Methodists.  It's a bit of an extreme example, but the first thing you say to someone who lost a child is NOT "You can always have other children!"  Listen.  Pray for and with.  Express support.

Third, let's not forget the mote in our own eyes as Episcopalians.  We have dioceses which do not fully incorporate LGBT persons in the life of the church and same sex marriages rites are still not openly available to all.  We still have significant gender disparity in leadership.  We are part of a global communion which is mostly opposed to full inclusion of LGBT persons.  We lagged far behind other denominations in incorporation of LGBT and women in the church.  The ELCA endorsed same sex marriages, for instance, in 2009, six years before The Episcopal Church.

Fourth, let's also remember the way in which unity is often built on the marginalization of others.  Anglicans love to talk about our "Elizabethan Settlement" and diversity and tolerance of Anglicanism.  Elizabeth executed over 300 people for religious reasons and people would be fined for not coming to church.  Marriages of non-Church of England members were not recognized as legal until the 19th century, and England abolished the slave trade before it let Jews and Catholics vote.  Episcopalians like to talk about our seamless reintegration of the church after the Civil War, we do not talk as much about the fact that the price for this was segregation and consigning African American Episcopalians to second-class status, including being refused for admission to Northern seminaries.  While noting that the UMC is now essentially demanding marginalization of LGBT persons for the sake of unity, may we also be willing to see where that has happened and continues to happen.

5)   What does this mean for the proposal for full communion between the United Methodist Church and The Episcopal Church?

There is an official proposal for full communion, including interchangeability of ministries, between The United Methodist Church and The Episcopal Church.  This is scheduled to be considered by the 2020 General Conference and the 2021 General Convention of The Episcopal Church.

Frankly, it remains to be seen whether this full communion proposal can proceed.

From the Episcopal Church side, it would be difficult to accept full communion with a church that would not recognize our openly LGBT clergy and marriages.

From the United Methodist side, can a church which voted down proposals to allow for difference of interpretation on homosexuality (the SP and OCP) get a majority vote to enter into full communion with a church that has widespread acceptance of LGBT persons?

I have been a member of this dialogue since 2002, and after attending my first General Conference in 2004 it was clear to me that the United Methodist Church, as constructed, would not survive intact.  It seemed sad but likely that there would be either a de facto schism -- which was what the Connectional Plan above offered, in effect -- or the formation of one or more new denominations. 

If have read this blog, you should know I think denominationalism is dead, a relic of nationalism, racism, classism, and colonialism, and that God is calling Christianity to new ways of being in the 21st century.

My hope is that if there is a significant break within the United Methodist Church,and there is the formation of new church bodies  -- and I believe there will be -- that the Episcopal Church and progressive, affirming elements of the United Methodist Church can consider creating a new body.  Not "Methodists are welcome to become Episcopalians!"  But healing the schism of the 1700s that should not have happened had there been greater patience and charity on all sides, and bringing a potential abundance of resources and opportunities to mission, evangelism, and ministry. That God could be calling us to something transformative, and not flogging the dead horse of denominationalism.

However, I realize that is likely a pipe dream.  It's hard enough to get two local congregations to hold a joint Ash Wednesday service, let alone create a new denomination.  Nearly 20 years after Called to Common Mission brought about full communion between the ELCA and Episcopal Church, we have hardly any substantive joint seminary collaboration, and next to nothing on shared positions on the diocesan staff or denominational staff level.  Many in our denominations are far, far more interested in preserving the husk of our denominational relics as long as possible, and there are still so many wedded to the power and privilege they enjoy in their denomination, and many fearful of loss of identity.

Failing that, the Episcopal Church should be willing to enter into dialogue with Methodist bodies that would be willing to do so on the basis of the full communion proposal which is the product of nearly twenty years of discussion.

At the very least, the Episcopal Church can affirm the recognition of the ministerial orders of persons ordained in the United Methodist Church and be ready to offer space in our churches, or in our seminaries, or to join in our national, diocesan, and regional social service and justice agencies and organizations.

To fail t do any of these would show us to be hypocrites, more interested in our own survival, and that as allies were are little more than an ecclesial version of "thoughts and prayers" with no actual, substantive support.

That said, we also need to note some limitations.  While we popularly may talk about "valid" or "invalid", that is not how the Constitution and Canons or our ecumenical agreement speak of ordained ministries of other Christians.  We can recognize another church's ministry as being an occasion of God's grace without yet having a reconciled ministry which allows interchangeability of ministers.  We recognize the ministerial orders of the Roman Catholic Church, for instance, but a Catholic priest can't stroll in off the street and preside on a Sunday morning because we do not have a reconciled ministry.  Similarly, we don't, for instance, think United Methodist baptisms are invalid or persons whose weddings were blessed by a United Methodist elder have had only a civil marriage.  Yet we do not have a reconciled ministry, which is what the full communion proposal is for.  So while we can invite our United Methodist colleagues to preach, and assist with baptisms and weddings, they cannot yet preside at the Eucharist or at other sacraments in the Episcopal Church.

It is my conviction that we are in the midst of a massive reshaping of Christianity, the most wide ranging since the upheavals of the 1500s we call the Reformation period.  Differences on human sexuality and of the place of LGBT persons in the life of the church is part of what is also an ecclesiological issue, dealing with questions of authority, interpretation of Scripture, and globalization, among other factors.

It is my prayer that we will not be trapped in this Sunken Place, but can see where God is calling people to new and different ways of being church: that we who sow now in tears may reap with songs of joy.  These next few years are going to be crucial ones as to whether we are more interested in resuscitation or truly are willing to believe in transformational resurrection.


  1. Profoundly helpful in more ways than I can count. Thank you.

  2. I can’t wait to read the book! And thank you for this over view. I appreciate the history and your perspective.

  3. Thank you for your insights about the recent UMC convention, and your thoughts about the future of denominationalism. Intriguing and motivating.

  4. Tom, this is so helpful and, as always, succinct and insightful. Where do you think the springs of the possible non-denominational Christian community might be found?

  5. Very helpful account of what went on where we all go from here.

  6. And possibly the UMC could join GAFCON...

  7. I agree with you completely. In many ways, the Episcopal Church has decided that the current Presiding Bishop is to be a "peace maker." This is why "the Way of Love" is so well liked. Who does not like love? However, there are some very concrete ways that the Episcopal Church could set itself up for success. (1) I would talk openly about moving the moving that National ECUSA offices to Chicago to be co-located with the ELCA. They have a hotel, office space, and a major airport. This would open a lot of energies. I would see about having a larger presence around Washington DC. (2) I would start really talking with the break-away Anglicans and see how they could enter the Pension and Insurance Programs. I think in 25 years, the Break-Aways will be no different than ECUSA. The Pension is an easy way to build reintegration. (3) I would seriously look at US church structure and see how many dioceses are currently needed. I do not like the appointed "temporary" Bishop model that is emerging as a cost saving mechanism, so this would frankly save money. (4) I would look at a joint Prayer Book with the ELCA, break-away Anglicans, and others including the UMC. Absolutely, the ECUSA should not start this process in a vacuum.

  8. As a United Methodist elder, former liturgical officer of the denomination, occasional consultant to the full communion process, and as one present in another capacity at the 2019 General Conference (journalist with the French News Desk of United Methodist Communications), let me simply say, Thanks.

    Sunken place is an appropriate metaphor.

    Some of us, both laity and clergy, will need to find some ways out of this sunken place. This may be with you, with others with whom we have a full communion relationship, or, perhaps for those who find themselves most vulnerable and wounded by all of this and what may yet ensue, from any direct connection with a church whatsoever for a time.

    Others of us may seek to find ways to make a damaged UMC a bit less sunken.

    May there indeed be charity and patience among us, in whatever forms The UMC may emerge from this present crisis, or whatever may be left of it if and when we do.

  9. I'd like to read the book as well.

    I'm a Methodist layman who is not only a fan of Crusty, but also of Taylor, who wrote the above comment. He answered an email of mine once explaining anamnesis and the Real Presence at 10:30 pm on a weekend.

    As to the disappointing state of the UMC, I'm ready to come over. I like the dignity, honor, and respect shown to the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of the Universe, and the fact that God's Grace is administered every Sunday, as it should be. What I don't like is attending church with only 20 people in extremely small congregations, and drinking from the common chalice.

    If enough moderate and progressive Methodists switched, that would increase the size of the congregations. And perhaps the church could offer an option of Communion with intinction.

    Can we work out a deal??? We aren't the Green Eye Monsters that some Episcopalians think we are. Nor are we just Baptists-with-Bishops. At least the ones who would come over aren't.

    An Anglo-Methodist


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