The recent proposal by the United Methodist Church’s controversial D.C. lobby office, the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS), to comprehensively rewrite the UMC Social Principles reminded me of a couple of incidents in the process the GBCS used to get to this point.
With a GBCS-provided public platform, the then-Secretary of the General Conference (a role from which he has now retired), the Rev. Fitzgerald “Gere” Reist, actually likened the primary United Methodist critics of the GBCS’s liberalism to Nazis!
This raises as many questions about the process of how the GBCS chose to go about trying to replace our entire Social Principles as about the bigger matter of the role of our bishops in the level of civility in how we conduct our debates within our church.
Reist was basically appointed to this position by the Council of Bishops. So his stewardship of this role in some ways reflects on those who put him there.
This one incident fits with a disturbingly wider trend seen among the UMC’s bishops.
Here’s what happened: After the GBCS took over a process of rewriting the entire UMC Social Principles, it held “consultations” with select groups of United Methodists around the world.
This may serve the GBCS’s PR purposes by suggesting that their efforts were shaped by listening to a variety of United Methodist voices. But how much was their process really open to respectfully considering the perspectives of United Methodists with different views from the GBCS’s monolithically far-left programmatic staff?
The GBCS hosted Reist as a speaker in D.C. for the two consultations for American United Methodists in January 2015.
At the second D.C. consultation — while paying lip service to church unity and to disliking divisive rhetoric — Reist juxtaposed his fellow United Methodists involved in UMAction with Nazis!
He observed that “National Socialism, the Nazi Party, was evil, and by its very nature it is evil, no matter how it’s formulated.” And then he quickly moved on to say that the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) was likewise a bad organization with unsavory motives.
But Reist made a distinction in how we should talk about individuals, conceding: “That’s not to say that everyone who was in the National Socialist Party was evil.” And after denouncing both the Nazi Party and IRD as organizations of people, he went on to say “John Lomperis and I get along very well” and note that he liked me personally. And indeed, before that point we had gotten along well, despite not seeing eye to eye.
The Secretary of the UMC General Conference publicly describing me as analogous to a likable Nazi remains a memorably complimentary insult, or insulting compliment.
Reist said this in the context of criticizing “restraining forces” opposed to the “obvious” and “necessary” step of having American UMC leaders to set their own rules without any input from the global church.
A few days earlier, I had informed Reist in dialogue about how while IRD is ecumenical, the UMAction program I direct is accountable to its own all-United-Methodist Steering Committee and Advisory Board. But while likening us to Nazis, Reist chose to distort these facts to paint fellow United Methodists in UMAction as not legitimately “part of our dialogue,” while also delving into anti-ecumenical rhetoric, seeming to suggest that Eastern Orthodox Christians are so bad that other Christians should not work with them on the sorts of ecumenical religious liberty concerns on which IRD works (apart from our UMAction program).
The two senior GBCS staffers present had no objections, and added nothing substantial beyond one going out of his way to protect the Reconciling Ministries Network (whose work is assisted by the largely non-Methodist Institute for Welcoming Resources) from similar criticism.
Reist also distorted the truth at the first D.C. consultation by suggesting that IRD was somehow on the side of South African Apartheid, when in fact the IRD was on record, with multiple board resolutions, as denouncing that evil system of racist oppression when it existed.
These were not isolated incidents of Reist promoting his liberal agendas by crossing basic lines of honesty. As a delegate to the 2016 Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference, Reist introduced an infamous motion basically asking relevant church leaders to lie for the sake of preventing our marriage standards from being followed.
I made private efforts to reach out to both Reist and GBCS leaders about his D.C. remarks, but these went nowhere. Ironically, the GBCS hosted Reist’s Nazi remarks the very day after its CEO, the Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe, posted a statement about wanting to “Cultivat[e] a Culture of Respect.” As of this writing, I noticed that under the leadership of Henry-Crowe and Bishop Sally Dyck, the GBCS continues to encourage people to “check out” a trailer for an old anti-IRD video called “Renewal or Ruin?” That video featured two now-retired bishops (Beverly Shamana and Ken Carder), attempted to link IRD to the Ku Klux Klan, and has been discredited for misrepresenting facts.
I have pasted a transcript of Reist’s Nazi remarks below, as the GBCS has since removed the video from online.
But there is a wider concern. Why would our bishops choose such a person for such an important leadership role?
I know and appreciate that a number of bishops do not believe it is appropriate for church leaders to bear false witness or call people Nazis. But there is little evidence, beyond wishful thinking, that the Council of Bishops as a whole shares such concerns.
When it comes the tone of difficult discussions, we repeatedly see many of our bishops not only failing to be as positive influences as they could be, but that they are often themselves a big part of the problem in their own rhetoric, in the examples they set, and in whose voices they choose to publicly elevate.
Furthermore, it is rather remarkable that in all my years of observing United Methodist bishops, while I have seen plenty of wrongdoing on their parts, I cannot recall a single instance of a United Methodist bishop doing wrong and then genuinely apologizing. (A single possible exception is an orthodox bishop who made a quick joke referencing “gender confusion,” likely offending few beyond a small number of activists, and later publicly apologized.)
If there ever emerges within the Council a deep concern about stridency in how controversial disagreements are handled within the UMC, then they could start by looking within their own ranks:
- The aforementioned Northern Illinois Bishop Sally Dyck has become notorious for her extreme incivility towards those who don’t share her liberal views, from her 2016 General Conference sermon broadly caricaturing the views on sexual morality of the majority of the UMC to a blog post rather harshly misrepresenting the concerns and character of a smaller group of some conservative United Methodists.
- At the 2004 General Conference, the Rev. James Preston protested the UMC’s biblical sexual morality standards by disrupting a communion service and deliberately shattering the chalice on the floor. As a speaker at a national RMN event the next year, he spoke unapologetically of his irreverent vandalism. The next year, Dyck’s predecessor in Northern Illinois, Bishop Hee-Soo Jung, promoted Preston to be a district superintendent, in an apparent move to appease RMN activists.
- As the self-styled “maverick” bishop of Northern Alabama, William Willimon used his position to inject himself into the 2012 Southeastern bishop elections, by writing a lengthy, public ad hominem attack against the character of one candidate, Tim McClendon. To be clear, I neither endorsed nor opposed the Rev. McClendon’s candidacy, so my concern is not post-election sour grapes. Rather, most United Methodists would hope that complex restructuring proposals could be debated on their merits in a calm, honest, and civil way, without attacking the characters or blatantly twisting the words of those with whom we disagree, and without wildly making such inflammatory accusations as claiming that “Tim has little concern for … vital congregations.” Is that really too much to ask from bishops like Willimon?
- After his fellow bishops elected him to the role of Ecumenical Officer, Bishop William Oden used this position to defend the far-left, politically partisan activism of the National Council of Churches (NCC) by misrepresenting the facts and stooping to sloppy ad hominem character attacks tying the NCC’s critics to “radical right pressure groups, global conglomerates, and a variety of anti-middle class institutes and think tanks.”
- I recently spoke with a faithful, orthodox United Methodist pastor with a successful track record of growing congregations about an incident in his annual conference. Three clergywomen angrily confronted him after he had defended a pro-life position during debate on an abortion-related resolution. At one point, one of these women pointed out this pro-life pastor’s disability, and actually told him that it would have been better if abortion had been legal when his mother was pregnant, so that this pastor could have been aborted and “you wouldn’t have to live your life as a cripple.” The other two clergywomen affirmed this outrageous judgment against their clergy colleague’s very life. Each of these women was later promoted to district superintendent, as that conference’s current bishop and the two predecessor bishops evidently saw in these women the compassionate, humble Christian leadership they wanted to see modeled for other pastors.
- After the 2012 General Conference, Bishop Minerva Carcaño (for whom Reist now works) infamously wrote a piece for RMN “wondering when our African delegates will grow up” by accepting the alleged superiority of present-day Western cultural values over biblical teaching on sexual morality. I have never seen her or RMN apologize for this.
The list goes on.
Perhaps at their meeting next week, the UMC Council of Bishops could try something very new for them, of actually do the hard work of repenting and modeling “a better way forward” in HOW we handle controversial issues. Or at least they could offer some clarification by producing a document explaining the theology with which some seem to operate of how “Being a United Methodist Bishop Means Never Saying You’re Sorry.”
Or at the very least, perhaps the Council of Bishops could develop a set of guidelines for when it is or is not appropriate for UMC leaders to call people Nazis. Like maybe they could produce two lists, one noting how it IS okay to call someone a Nazi when they do such things as oppose a U.S.-only central conference, but that’s NOT appropriate to call someone a Nazi when they accidentally cut in front of you in a snack line.
After all, while there are numerous individual exceptions who I appreciate, producing such documents would seem a more constructive use of time than much of leadership we have seen in recent years from the Council of Bishops as a whole.
Here is the promised transcript of a key part of Gere Reist’s January 24 remarks hosted by the GBCS:
…there are supportive forces and there are restraining forces. And you’ll know that there are good people on both sides of the issue.
Sometimes it’s easy to paint things in black and white. We can, I think, do that quite honestly in the cases of institutions. We cannot do that in the case of people.
National Socialism, the Nazi Party, was evil, and by its very nature it is evil, no matter how it’s formulated. That’s not to say that everyone who was in the National Socialist Party was evil.
BUT there are restraining forces in the United States and I want to be very clear about this: some of them are within the United Methodist Church and wholly a part of us, and those restraining forces are part of our dialogue. And this is where I say something that’s going to get some people upset. There is one organization, the IRD, 1/3 of the members of their board are United Methodists. They’ve got an Antiochian Orthodox member of the board; that church doesn’t believe in women having any role in the life of the church, essentially. They have Roman Catholics and Anglicans, not Episcopalians but Anglicans, on the board. The majority of that board is not interested in the United Methodist Church as a unit. Because we have a process for dealing with change. Let us do our process, let us deal with
I have never in my life gone to an Episcopalian pastor, an Anglican pastor, or a Roman Catholic priest and said, “Your church needs to do it this way.” But the consequence with the IRD … just go to their website and look at the headlines they post and you will quickly see that their intention is not fostering dialogue within the church.
Now having said that, John Lomperis and I get along very well. I like John.
In fact, and this will show something about how strange I can be, John posted a picture of himself marching on a pro-life march in Chicago, and I really enjoyed the picture because John was clearly enjoying himself. And I felt good for him for that.
Because we should all feel free to express what we believe and what we want.
We should not feel that we’re under attack for doing it.
But we need to be conscious in the United Methodist Church not allow the voices that are NOT within us to dictate or control or significantly influence—So if someone within the church says this is how I feel, we should listen with complete respect.
But an organization from outside the church, we should listen with a certain degree of suspicion.