At the North Central Jurisdictional gathering for elected delegates, held in Barrington, Illinois October 23-24, our denomination’s Connectional Table effectively dropped any pretense of serving more than just our denomination’s liberal faction.
Our United Methodist Church has had some very divisive internal debates over core beliefs. The most prominent flashpoint has been the disagreement between the majority who follow traditional biblical teaching that sex is a gift for marriage between one man and one woman and a very vocal minority who see it as an urgent matter of justice for the church to bless same-sex unions. The former group believes that all other sexual relations outside of the traditional marriage covenant – premarital sex, adultery, and homosexual practice – are always inherently sinful. Meanwhile, many of the key leaders and organizations pushing the gay-rights cause in the UMC also advocate church acceptance of pre-marital co-habitation – as seen here and here – and of multiple sexual partners – as seen here, here, and here – and even morally and legally defending prostitution.
Tensions have increased due to a minority of the minority being ordained United Methodist clergy who, with the protection of some sympathetic bishops, have engaged in some publicity stunts of performing same-sex union services, in open violation of our denomination’s very clear prohibitions of them. While United Methodism’s “on-paper” official standards are clearly traditionalist in our understanding of marriage and sex, they do not provide adequate tools for enforcing clergy adherence to these standards. So some have urged the General Conference to strengthen our denomination’s enforcement mechanisms to better ensure accountability for those of our clergy who choose to break their own word to honor our communal covenant, while others have called for the anarchic behavior of a few to be rewarded by liberalizing our sexuality standards.
Part of this Barrington gathering featured a time led by the Connectional Table (CT) for the roughly 100 assembled General and Jurisdictional conference delegates from the upper Midwest to dialogue about which way we thought the upcoming General Conference should go.
At our small-group tables, we were given only three possible options to discuss: to continue enabling violating our sexuality standards, to reward the covenant breakers by totally redefining and liberalizing the UMC’s teachings and policies on marriage, or go even further to advance the gay-rights cause. In other words, how much did we want to empower covenant-breaking clergy doing same-sex unions: as much as we are currently doing, a lot more, or a whole lot more?
Here is how the CT itself framed our three options: “do nothing” (maintaining our current sexuality standards but without strengthening enforcement), changing the official United Methodist definition of marriage to include same-sex couples while removing current prohibitions on our clergy conducting same-sex unions or personally being homosexually active (changing no less than six paragraphs of our governing Book of Discipline to do so), or doing everything in the second option plus removing prohibitions on the use of apportioned United Methodist offering plate money from being used “to promote the acceptance of homosexuality.”
The CT has repeatedly framed the second option as somehow being a “compromise” because (1) the petition the CT has already submitted along these lines would include some acknowledgement that our church has “historically” not condoned homosexual practice, (2) some hint that it could allow for some local variation, and (3) it would, for now, not remove the funding prohibitions.
(1) Such acknowledgement of history is a matter of undebatable, objective fact, not a concession of any sort.
(2) Not only would liberalization with a “local option” to let some annual conferences maintain orthodox sexuality standards be the same policies that ultimately split the Episcopal Church, but the CT’s proposal would make the UMC more liberal than the Episcopalians, by removing the church-law basis for defrocking a minister in any annual conference who stepped outside of traditional sexuality standards. The CT’s own Executive Secretary, Dr. Amy Valdez Barker, made this clear in Barrington when she explained, in very broad terms, that the CT proposal would end relevant church trials.
(3) The CT has demonstrated its own lack of sincerity about honoring the funding prohibition over the last year by repeatedly, explicitly devoting much of its apportionment-funded work to promoting the acceptance of homosexuality.
Anyone who describes the CT’s proposal, to completely liberalize our denomination’s effective teaching and policies on marriage while offering nothing new to the traditionalist side, as a “compromise” raises serious questions about their basic honesty and trustworthiness.
And the CT’s preferred manner of “dialogue” is reminiscent of a Stephen Colbert segment in which he asks a politically liberal interviewee if George W. Bush was a great President or the greatest president, with no other options. The main difference is that at least the comedian Colbert was self-aware of how ridiculous he sounded.
Or as I noted to fellow delegates at my discussion table, it would be a bit like if my wife and I were debating where to eat dinner, with each of us pushing different options, and I tried to conclude things by saying, “I know! Why don’t we go at the very same place I’ve been pushing all along, and call it a totally new, third-way compromise?”
The church leader guiding us to table discussion at times adopted a condescending tone, even dismissively saying that obviously “doing nothing” (i.e., not liberalizing) was not a serious option. The CT disparagingly characterized our church’s biblical policies as “negative,” echoing the rhetoric of liberal caucuses. The CT excluded any sort of enforcement-strengthening proposals from our discussions. Furthermore, this church leader that the CT selected to lead/badger us for this part of the gathering was about as divisive of choice as possible: Bishop Sharon Rader, a retired radical who doesn’t like calling God “Father” and who, at least until recently, was one of only two bishops (along with Mel Talbert) serving on the board of the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN), a caucus that routinely refuses basically Golden-Rule civility to United Methodists outside of their ideological faction.
It is also worth noting that the CT rushed to formally commit itself to the sexual liberalization agenda last year, without bothering to even try hear from a single voice from Sub-Saharan Africa, where 40 percent of our denominational membership lives. At this Barrington gathering, CT representatives paid lip service to the CT caring about the global church and wanting to increase African representation among its membership, currently a tokenized six percent. But reminiscent of the cartoon of an ever-moving carrot dangled just out of the donkey’s reach, the CT is not recommending that this next General Conference increase African representation on the CT, claiming that the CT can be trusted to fix things if we wait perhaps until 2020.
The gathering was an overall good experience of meeting fellow delegates and enjoying some nice hospitality from our Northern Illinois Conference hosts. But as this elected delegate prepares for General Conference, it was also a pointed reminder of how too much of our general-agency structure remains unrepresentative and in desperate need of reform.