November 11, 2015

UMC Connectional Table Models How NOT to Conduct a “Dialogue”

 

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.

But:

(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.


9 Responses to UMC Connectional Table Models How NOT to Conduct a “Dialogue”

  1. Orter T. says:

    I never cease to be amazed how the radical liberal/progressives think they are going to change the official stance when everybody acknowledges the votes are not there. Even Amy DeLong acknowledged that at their gathering in San Antonio back in August. It is becoming more and more obvious that they are not thinking straight. They are obviously feeling empowered by the Supreme Court decision as well as clergy getting away with participating in same sex unions. Only question is, how far are they willing to go–how big a temper tantrum are they willing to pitch–at GC2016. Is GC2016 going to be the lesson the denominational leadership needs that there is no middle ground in this issue?

    My current relationship with the local church has become strained because of things that happened locally. However, I find myself hesitant to get involved until after I see what transpires at GC2016. If the UMC craters, it will not be because of the same gender question; it will be because a minority group of radical liberal/progressives who see themselves as right and everybody else as wrong has been allowed to take center stage and drive the agenda of the church for way too long; they are the ones that keep stirring the pot and pushing it to a boiling point.
    Modern fundamentalism now has two faces: conservative and liberal/progressive!

  2. Jay Hollis says:

    Who wrote this article? I am confused at what is actually being presented. Is this a pro-family writer or a closeted, emotional gay person who is processing their own sexuality? Whoever the author is, please know that you are loved by God, and I pray that you will come to peace with what ever is you are trying to articulate.

    • Skipper says:

      Perhaps you didn’t like hearing that “premarital sex, adultery and homosexual practice – are inherently sinful.” When we truly understand how much God loves us, we want to respect Him back by living the way He ask us to live. Is that too much to ask, considering He suffered and died for us?

      • Jay Hollis says:

        Skipper and to the author of this article. I deeply apologize for the candor in which I wrote in response to this article. I wrote in response to what I felt was an emotional, mean-spirited attitude in the article. I love the gift of the UMC faith community. It breaks my heart when I see my brothers and sisters, on all sides of this issue, speak in candor that can be seen as mean spirited to the opposite party involved. I intentionally work in ultra conservative and ultra liberal para-church organizations to be a voice of love in the midst of the current churches status of exclusiveness of beliefs. Do I love well? I try, but I fail too, as I did in my post. My calling is to love as Jesus did, and keep going, even when I fail. We live in a culture that has become so black and white and unfortunately this has influenced the church. It feels as though that we have a lost our first love, Jesus. We are more concerned about setting boundaries in the church than we are expressing Gods love in action. We are more concerned about preserving what has been than being open to the Holy Spirits new work among us. I pray that we all can see what God is doing in our midst and join Gods dream for the world to love like the world has never seen before, so that together with God, we can make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

        • Skipper says:

          I felt the article was trying to keep us on the right track, while various forces are trying to shift us away from God’s Word. Those who say they have “discovered” how one can continue to live immorally and still be pleasing to God are guilty of a very serious trespass before God – and one of the most unloving ways to influence our neighbor.
          Working with groups with extreme ideas can be very confusing and require that we be constantly grounded in God’s Word from the Bible. Those who put “what it means to me” ahead of what God himself says in His Word are asking for trouble! And yet our duty to Christ is to help all who need it.
          In such a case, we must risk being considered “mean spirited” to point them back to God.
          When we really love someone, we won’t let them continue in destructive lifestyles, for example. We must take the risk of losing their friendship to point them back to God. Jesus took that risk with the Pharisees and paid the price for trying to help them! Most became very angry, but a few did turn back to God! He paid a high price for any who wish to follow Him! He said many would take the wide and easy road and it sure seems that way today. Yet our job is not only to bring the Good News but to bring it truthfully!

          • Jay Hollis says:

            Thanks Skipper for your heart felt response. Although I have serious disagreement with what I think you are saying, I can appreciate your conviction to follow Jesus to the best of your ability. This is what I try to do as well.
            I am not sure how we dialogue about matters such as these anymore in the church. I too hold God’s Word as being authoritative. As I grow in the spirit, I am convinced more and more that God never changes but we do. I am so thankful for the Holy Spirit’s continued nurturing of my faith which has convicted me through scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, that human sexuality is a gift in loving committed relationships. I can no longer say that committed gay relationships are a sin according to the Bible. God’s word is clear in the Hebrew and Greek that the verses used to condemn homosexuality, are actually verses describing rape and power over others. Yes, rape and sex used in abusive power is wrong. I stand by God’s Word. However, I recognize others do not understand this. I pray for their Holy Spirit enlightenment.

            Some of the most beautiful and fruitful collegues I have met are in gay committed relationships. They are having a profound impact in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. I realize we come from two different Biblical world views and serve the same God. I guess this is the beauty of United Methodism. We are a big tent for all to experience God’s love. As John Wesley said, “though we may not think alike, may we love alike.” Wesley was a great example for us, as he would not diminish what God was doing through other religions. In a culture that has become so black and white, the church struggles in not falling in this trap too. I pray for you my brothers and sisters in Christ that you continue to live out your calling and be open to the Holy Spirit’s leading in loving ways as Jesus loved.

          • Skipper says:

            I’m so sorry you can’t accept Methodist Doctrine. I believe it would help you. Best Wishes.

          • Skipper says:

            I fear you follow a strange gospel. Consider reading the bible for what it says. Listen to what you are saying – that is it o.k. with God to live immorally. It is not o.k. with God to steal, murder or live immorally!
            Jesus severely dressed down the Pharisees for making the bible say what they wanted. Today many people do that on sexuality. Ezekiel 36:27 tells us in the New Era (When Christ has come) God will give us a New Heart of obedience. Christ has come! You need a New Heart to serve God with obedience! We need to ask God to forgive us and pray for a New Heart so we can serve a Holy God in obedience.

          • Tom says:

            I do not doubt that some of the most beautiful collegues you have met are in gay relationships. It’s a fact of life that even nice people have flaws. There are beautiful collegues who you later find have committed adultery or pedophillia or worse.

            But I do doubt that “God’s word is clear in the Hebrew and Greek that the verses used to condemn homosexuality, are actually verses describing rape and power over others.” If it’s clear, why dont the academics all realize this? If it’s clear, why has the church historically taught otherwise? If it’s clear, why isnt it clear in English translations? What is ‘clear’ to you, seems to be completely mistaken, to others.

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