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More to Be Censured than Pitied

The United Methodist Church is meeting in Portland, Oregon for its quadrennial bloodletting under the banner, “The Global Church Gathers.”  Since 1984 when the General Conference amended its Book of Discipline to bar openly gay, partnered individuals from ordination, the every four year gathering of United Methodists from around the world has regularly inflicted drama upon itself as it debates the way the church should respond to the call of God to LGBTQ folk who seek recognition of their vocations and their relationships.  This year’s gathering in Portland, Oregon is no exception, though it may not provide quite the photo ops that the General Conference in Cleveland in 2000 produced when over two hundred protesters were arrested!  In a memorable phone call I took in my office at the UCC during their meeting I was asked by arrested protesters in the Cuyahoga County Jail to help them secure legal representation!  This, I guess, was one of those “other duties as assigned” items in the General Minister and President’s ecumenical job description.

Much of the church in the United States is now in dissent, openly defying the Book of Discipline.  “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” prevails in numerous ordination interviews and appointments, and juridical proceedings regularly find clergy in violation of the Discipline for marrying gay and lesbian couples, or for coming out of the closet, while imposing no sanctions.  Retired bishop Mel Talbert is in open defiance; his fellow bishops grumble, but don’t dare discipline the revered senior leader.  The bishops adopted a “Covenant of Accountability,” reaffirming their commitment to upholding the Book of Discipline while working for the unity of the church.  This, in effect, muzzles them in the debates where their role – at least openly – is limited to a pastoral rather than a prophetic stance.  Over 760 congregations have declared themselves to be “reconciling communities,” publicly standing in opposition to the church’s Discipline.  The corporate piety of the Conference cloys in the face of the prevailing chaos.

United Methodists are a diverse lot, with large numbers coming from parts of the country where the culture has been slow to amend traditional views on sexuality.  So it’s not terribly surprising that among other mainline Protestant churches United Methodists have lagged behind on these issues.  But to be stuck in a kind of absurd Groundhog Day cycle every four years for over two decades?  Other denominations have resolved the question by formally or informally allowing decisions to devolve to regional judicatories and congregations.  Unfortunately, the connectional polity of the United Methodist Church makes such a solution difficult.  Various proposals for dividing the church into progressive and traditionalist camps are also unappealing, and for good reason.  In a culture awash in identity politics and issue driven coalitions, communities that can transcend difference are to be treasured.  But not, perhaps, at the expense of finding ways to respect diversity.

One solution I don’t see being proposed is to interrogate the idea and the structures of being a “global church,” something United Methodists seem to prize at their own, and perhaps other’s expense.  Unlike almost all other US based Protestant denominations, United Methodists include jurisdictions in other parts of the world including Africa, Asia, and Latin America.  These “Central Conferences” are, in many cases, the product of 19th century missionary activity and include former mission churches that were never encouraged to become fully independent.  The soft paternalism of this system may have worked for US Methodists as long as demographics were in their favor.  But now it is the Central Conferences that are rapidly growing, a fact reflected in the voting make-up of the General Conference.  As a result, US Methodists are increasingly bound to a form of Biblical and theological discernment based in cultural contexts dramatically different from North America, a situation the African, Asian, and South American Central Conferences have endured in reverse for decades.  Would not some reimagined form of global relationship allow United Methodists everywhere to adopt more culturally sensitive embodiments of the Gospel appropriate to their distinctive locations and contexts?

Other churches manage this quite well.  The Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for example, all maintain rich global relationships through fellowships like the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Communion of Reformed Churches, along with a vast array of church to church partnerships of one sort or another.  The exchange of people, the sharing of resources, mutual accompaniment and solidarity in times of struggle and crisis all help these churches avoid a nationalistic parochialism while allowing each to discern God’s will and way for its own particular time and place.  This is not without stress.  The Episcopal Church (USA), for example, finds its relationships with others in the world Anglican Communion severely strained today.  But that is far better than the endless impasse or, worse, disingenuous work-arounds being employed by United Methodists in the US today.  Such a relationship would also help avoid employing African, Asian, or South American churches as leverage in North American ecclesiastical debates, something that Episcopalians and United Methodists have experienced to their shame. 

Some will argue that revisioning the current global model would simply represent abandonment of historic partners or, at worst, a cynical act of self-serving convenience.  But it could equally well be argued that it is a recognition that the time has come to finally shift from a paradigm of American ecclesiastical hegemony to a richly diverse community of related but distinctive churches.  And it need not be American United Methodists directing the conversation.  Why not ask the World Methodist Council, or even the World Council of Churches, to help midwife the birth of a new relationship?

There was a time when Methodism provided a prophetic voice in American culture.  The Methodist Social Creed of 1908, for example, challenged all of the churches to address the economic injustice of American society at a time of rampant inequality in cities, the oppression of labor, and the exploitation of immigrants.  Surely such a clarion call is needed today for many of the same reasons.  Instead, the spectacle of a church mired in endless debates over human sexuality renders it mute on many critically important issues.  For now, the United Methodist Church remains enamored of its romance with its global identity.  At best this needlessly complicates the lives of every jurisdiction on every continent.  At worst it perpetuates remnants of an old missionary model tainted by colonialism.  The situation might be pitiable if it weren’t self-imposed.  As it is, it is more to be censured than pitied.                  

                               John H. Thomas

                               May 19, 2016

Note:  On May 18 the General Conference voted to refer all questions related to LGBTQ inclusion to a special commission charged with proposing solutions with the power to convene a special General Conference before the scheduled 2020 gathering.  Stay tuned.

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