This week’s General Conference #gc2019 is the result of a slow-moving train wreck that’s been happening in the United Methodist Church for some thirty years. Most centered in my mind today are all those who are experiencing pain, most especially of all, my dear Methodist LGBTQ friends across the denomination, and all of those who are watching from the outside.
We must talk about people FIRST, before polity or structure or building. We must always do that. People are more important that structure and polity. (I“ve tried to say that time and time again…)
And so, let me do that. Let me start by talking to people.
Dear LGBTQ Friends:
Mark Miller’s great song is as right today as it was the day he wrote it:
“No matter what the church says,
Decisions, pronouncements on you,
You are a child
You are a child of God.”
That this the Biblical, Gospel truth for all of you, dear LGBTQ friends. That is the word of the One True and Holy God. You are God’s GOOD child, and God loves you just as you are.
Please hear that word, more than anything else that is said today. Today, the United Methodist Church has continued great sin against you, as it has for the past 40 years. Today, that great sin has gotten more strident, dangerous and harmful.
Even as this Traditional Plan is very likely to be ruled unconstitutional, it passed the body….which was a shock to many. (Not me…I didn’t EXPECT it, but I don’t find it shocking either…).
Here’s what I can tell you, Dear Queer Friends… with the passage and affirmation of this traditional plan, the “United Methodist Church” is NOT a church that I recognize. With all of our Progressive United Methodist friends, and with even many of our Moderate friends, we say:
“We no longer recognize this church and what it has become.”
All I know to say is this…Something new will be born out of the ashes of this day. I am sure of that. Exactly what is yet to be determined, or perhaps even imagined.
But simply know that you are a child of God and that many are standing with you. It is time to give up believing that structures of the General Conference will give justice and compassion to LGBTQ persons.
To Progressives and Moderates Friends:
Or, to anyone who is bewildered and saying “What happened to my church?”
I’ll repeat my first sentence…this is a slow-moving train wreck that I have watched building for twenty years.
I know that today is a horrible gut-punch to so many of you. I know that your understandings of your denomination is has been permanently altered.
If I may….as some of our LGBTQ siblings tell us: “This is how we feel EVERY day…”
So, just know —dear straight allies, moderates and progressives— that this horrible feeling of having your Church taken from you, of not knowing whether or how you belong….That feeling of abandonment? Your LGBTQ siblings and their long-term allies can help lead you through this forest.
We’ve been hacking our way through this underbrush for decades. We can see that there are trails, if you look hard.
But! It is deeply important to realize that this great institutional sin cannot be simply be put at the feet of THIS General Conference or THESE particular delegates.
Quite the contrary. The delegates and the Bishops of this General Conference were engaged in ways that they have never before been. There has never been a three-year period where so much energy and commitment was expended toward creating an inclusive church.
They (some of them) put their own lives and reputations on the lines. They (some of them) boldly stated their desire for the inclusion of all people. The worked HARD. And while their grief is different than the grief of LGBTQ persons, their grief is also real and I acknowledge and name their pain too.
This decision did NOT fall out of the sky over night. As I said, this has been a slow moving train wreck.
So having addressed people *first* let me now remind you of the failed strategies that led us to this place. Strategies that go back years and decades now. You can’t know where you need to go if you don’t understand where you’ve been.
(As I go through this essay, the links will lead to very old entries from this blog where I unpack some of the issues of the day…)
The first General Conference where I felt the kind of punch-to-the-gut many are feeling today was 2008. That year, there was a proposal to create a US Central Conference, which would mirror the Central Conferences in other parts of the world.
The second strategy was to change the Constitution of the UMC.
Those were the primary “strategies” in 2008.
They didn’t work.
Had moderates been paying attention —had they truly played out the future of the denomination, leading up to this day today— they probably would have pushed hard for that change that year.
In retrospect now, IMHO that was probably the last year we had a viable chance of making a *structural* change, to the global church. (That can only be seen in retrospect…)
BTW, that conference also first opened the eyes to the strategy of the Conservative American Methodists to *leverage* and *use* the African vote for their own purposes. Some called it the “cell phone debacle.” The Good News caucus distributed hundreds of cell phones to African delegates, so they could tell them how to vote.
We (read: Methodists across the Connection) should have been paying attention to all of the things that happened at this General Conference. We did not. Too many people were in denial. (Including me)
In 2012, the main drum people banged was “restructuring.” Many started questioning the legitimacy of the African Church’s numbers.
TO THIS DAY, many of us are convinced that the membership numbers of the African Church are dramatically overblown. (Every church leader I’ve ever talked to about this privately agrees). That affects the number of delegates in the room. It’s what allows the Conservative American Methodists to control things.
The big plan that year was “Plan UMC.” Actually, there were big debates about competing structural plans. Again, not a fix to directly address the issues of LGBTQ persons. Instead, United Methodists argued, again, about “structure.”
It didn’t work.
In a crushing defeat that will likely mirror *this* year, Plan UMC was ruled unconstitutional as the General Conference closed.
Same Sex Marriage became legal the next year (2015), and the chasm between our unchanging polity and the American Mission Field broke open even wider.
Then, on to 2016. Because Same Sex Marriage had already been legal for year, some argued that time had already run out then, and change was needed to ‘restart the clock.”
The big ideas were all over the place. Some were still focused on fixing Plan UMC. Others were hoping for a “live and let live” compromise that appeared to be similar to The Way Forward we’ve just discussed for the past three years.
And then, on one fateful night, word broke of a private meeting. An important meeting between representatives from many “sides” of the debate. The word was: We were going to split.
It was over.
Adam Hamilton got up the next day, and even told a group of young people, “Yep….we are going to split, and the Bishops will announce this later today…”
Only problem is, they didn’t announce.
Instead of announcing the split, Bishop Ough implored the General Conference to keep working. They said the Bishops couldn’t agree on a split.
So, they did. The General Conference kept worked by turning right back to the Bishops and saying, “OK, Bishops, you want us to work…we are telling you we are broken, and you must lead us.”
And THAT is how “The Way Forward” was birthed.
Many of us had legitimate and unanswered questions about The Way Forward from the day it was announced:
— How could some new plan pass, even with three years of study, with the same voting factions as before?
— If we didn’t have the votes for change in 2016, how will we in 2019?
Repeatedly, we were asked to “trust the process,” and not cause problems. We were encouraged to be patient and let the process work.
So., we mostly did that.
But that process is now over.
While noble, and while many many people worked very hard for that idea, it clearly failed in spectacular fashion. I’m grateful that so many tried so hard. I too thought they had a chance.
But Conservatives controlled conversation ahead of the Conference.
They controlled debate order.
They controlled the votes, and they ultimately passed The Traditional Plan (Which will definitely be ruled unconstitutional…)
It is clear that *no* votes “shifted” during those three years of study. It is clear that the Conservative block controlled every vote by a 55 percent margin.
Most importantly, this hard truth: It is unlikely that this will ever change. Barring the Conservatives simply leaving, this will be the case going forward for *all future General Conferences.*
And why WOULD they leave now? That seems unlikely, given this vote.
So, this is a description of the slow motion train wreck. It didn’t happen this year. It built over decades. Time and time again, some of us tried to raise the alarm that everyone needed to pay attention to this. But that never happened.
Maybe it had happen this way for everybody to fully see and understand it.
I don’t know. That’s a horrible thing to say, really.
But maybe the pain of things has to get THAT bad before we make changes in our lives.
We no know this, with no possible way to debate it’s truth:
Barring some unforeseen exodus of Conservatives (and, again, why would they?) they will control the votes of any future LGBTQ-related issues in any conceivable future General Conference going forward.
Therefore, for Progressive and Moderate United Methodists, it is time for something new. It is time for something new and inclusive to be born.
And that conversation must happen much more quickly than no doubt anyone believes it can or should. Everyone is in pain right now. Nobody WANTS that conversation.
Heck, the One Church Plan folks had buttons that said “No Scism.”
So, given that clearly stated value, I get that it’s hard to even fathom what I saying.
But that 55 percent number? On those votes?
That’s a datapoint that is not gonna change. If it didn’t change with all the amazingly hard sweat and blood that was poured into the fight this time? It’s no gonna change in 2020 either.
So, it’s time. All those who fought for the One Church Plan were just, kind, and compassionate. The goal was good. The strategy was good. But they, and we all, were mistaken about the playing field. It will not be enough going forward.
It’s time to envision what a divided future will look like, not only so that we may stop the harm, but also so that we may create a positive and mission driven Church of the future. I don’t know how quickly this happens. But I hope and pray it happens publicly and openly…soon.
I’m not smart enough to know all the who’s, what’s, where’s, and how’s of what comes next. I have not been involved in ANY planning or conversations.
I simply know that, de facto, something knew MUST and WILL come next. The majority of American United Methodists…likely most of the ones you know and love…cannot not abide a world where a constitutional traditional plan could pass in 2020. That’s not the church they know.
The pain of this day is great.
What it teaches us is that there must be something new.
There MUST be.
There is no other way through but through.
God will lead the way, and it time to listen for the signs that God doing something new.