[The road to the “Protocol Of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation” (Jan. 2020)]
Feeling mass regret
Seeing something painful coming doesn’t make it much, if any, easier when it finally comes to pass. Make no mistake, mass harm was done in St. Louis. So, first, I must apologize to all LGBTQ+ persons, and their loved ones, for the indecent harm the church has done in the past, is doing in the present, and will do in the future. I also beg forgiveness for my complicity in that harm. Most directly, I offer apologies to you who are LGBTQ+ persons—or one of their loved ones—who I have directly harmed in any way through my words or actions.
For those who have no idea what happened in St. Louis, the Special General Conference [SGC] of The United Methodist Church [UMC] was held there last week. Watching it on live stream, I couldn’t help but think: this is a raw display of the ‘powers and principalities’ at work, but in the church. Retired, Saint Paul School of Theology, seminary professor, Dr. Tex Sample, must have seen the same as last Wednesday, after SGC, he wrote:
We struggle against the principalities and powers in the church. RESIST!!!
My deepest heartfelt prayers offered for the delegates and rank and file supporters of both the opposing approaches to the way forward. Serious leadership failures, of both the exclusive and inclusive approaches, led followers to believe in robust promises that could not, and cannot be delivered. Even though the margin is very thin (53/47), a minority (Green) cannot magically produce the votes to overturn a majority. Conversely, a narrow (55/45) majority (Blue) cannot produce calm, ordered, compliance even with a coherent, constitutional plan—which is not the case as the Traditional Plan [TP] is incoherent and largely unconstitutional. LGBTQ+ rights are a work of the Spirit and so cannot be controlled by rules.
We recall, Church Blue is totally dependent on free will. National Blue is quite different, because sovereign governments have law enforcement, retributive justice, and various militias to maintain compliance. Churches are not designed to be able to force compliance (except for its extensive inventory of shame technology||the Wahhabi sect in Islam would be a violent exception here, and there are likely others, too). Any notion whatsoever of forced compliance is completely misguided and doomed to a very harmful, painful failure in both church and society.
I’ve written both exclusive and inclusive leadership/plans failed to truly allow room for the other. Meanwhile, we have no resolution to the incredibly stubborn fact that it’s still an open question whether those who exclusively use a binary frame for reality have the ability to find a way to live and let live with those who are using a pluralist frame. Is co-existence simply impossible for naive Blue? Is it somehow essential for those using binary framing to make the pluralists walk the plank? Conversely, in theory, pluralists are indeed able to harmoniously co-exist with those using a binary frame. However, given the amount of toxic shame that pluralists have marshaled and directed at those using binary framing in the way forward debate, perhaps subtle, passive-aggressive exclusion is preferable to what is much more difficult: actual co-existence. If we are all siblings, then intolerance is unacceptable and co-existence is always and everywhere necessary. Attention, leaders: any plan that is oppositional, that overtly, or covertly, coerces the other to walk the plank will ultimately prove ineffective.
Since the passing of the TP at the SGC of the UMC last week in St. Louis, I’ve watched many people who were passionately opposed to that outcome, and will be seriously harmed by it, say they will still remain in the UMC and resist. I’ve also observed many people this week who supported the TP outcome respond to those tenacious activists, “It’s been decided, it’s over. Why don’t you just find another church?”
To a disinterestedly casual outsider, that question might seem completely reasonable. I mean, the majority has voted to define the UMC in a particular way. If one doesn’t agree with that definition, then doesn’t fairness indicate finding a church that has defined itself in a more compatible way and going there?
The majority feels it has settled the definition of the church, cut it in stone, and, along with the casual outside observer, also finds the question to be completely reasonable—it seems only fair. However, it will not be quite so easy because there are several problems with that.
- First, on a change the magnitude of going from “Open Hearts Open Minds Open Doors,” to “Open Doors Except for LGBTQ+ persons,” a margin of 55/45 is far too thin. Any adequate local church leader knows to never encourage taking a vote that close on anything important. Rather, near-even splits are an indication that much more work, more consensus building, is needed first.
- Second, Fred Phelps beat Barbara to the Streisand effect with a specialty in unintentionally raising LGBTQ+ visibility and rights. Rev. Tom Berlin and Rev. Adam Hamilton both made the observation that SGC has backfired for the TP Plan leadership in that it has helped create many new allies and activists, and will generate increased activism.
- Third, there is the matter of justice. We’ll take this one up at a later date.
- Finally, and perhaps of greatest significance, most of the people closely engaged in the way forward debate, on both sides, are people who were born in the church. They don’t know anything else, it’s their church. This is just as true for those who are totally unaware of the SGC and its legislation at this moment. No one is inclined to leave their church.
Ironically, one also hears LGBTQ+ advocates say, “Just leave,” meaning that the traditionalists should be the ones who exit the UMC (walk the plank). What’s that about? The Wesleyan Covenant Association [WCA]—the group behind the Traditional Plan initiative—has, in their first organizational communication since St. Louis, made threats to exit. The WCA leaders have made it clear that if this clarification of the rules does not bring orderly compliance along the lines that have been drawn, then they are prepared to leave the denomination. Our second point makes ‘orderly compliance’ seem rather unlikely.
The U.S. news media is crowded with political news these days. However, national news media didn’t miss an opportunity and provided full reportage of the poisonous machinations of the UMC in St. Louis. The legislation of discrimination passed there justifiably merits the scrutiny of the press. The effects of that press are taking a bitter toll on many United Methodists and churches across the U.S. People are hurt, confused, sorrow-filled as a result of this news. Others are rejoicing in the idea that certainty has once again been buttressed. Never mind that certainty about religious matters is an oxymoron.
Brand completely shredded
In the U.S.A.’s hyper brand-culture environment, the UMC as a brand has now been totally shredded from an inclusive welcome standpoint. Many feel this has been the case for some time. However, after the SGC, there is no longer any doubt about it, the ‘brand’ is now toxic waste. Many churches are now scrambling to cover up logo signage and everything with the UMC name, and/or the UMC‘s mark (cross and flames) on it. Simply stated, anything associated with the UMC brand is toast in many areas of the U.S. right now and forever. Churches are frantically attempting to communicate local welcome despite the divisive, discriminatory decrees of the denomination at the SGC. Dayspring UMC in Tempe, AZ, quickly became simply, Dayspring after the SGC‘s move to exclusion. This will be a significant issue for the people heretofore called United Methodists going forward.
The Phelp’s effect says that new and increased activism has been inspired by SGC. What allies and activists need to be asking themselves right now is: How can we help our siblings who are using a binary frame learn how to co-exist with siblings using pluralist framing? So, UMC history has been Blue shames LGBTQ+ people in an effort to control them. Green shames Blue in an effort to control those who are using a binary frame to exclude LGBTQ+ people. Excluding others using one kind of shame technology or another is very bad form. None of it is healthy, none of it works, because it is toxic.
Some will now feel the need to leave the United Methodist Church without any further adieu. Godspeed to all those precious souls who must go. If one goes or stays, it is still important to remember that the oppositional approach that our democratic culture and legislative structures in the U.S. demand is not suited to the church, or to reconciling this, or any, complex ‘values’ issue. Regardless of the context, healing a tear in humanity as raw as LGBTQ+rights, and the harm the SGC has wrought, is a heart to heart process. Perhaps a healthy small group could also take up this kind of heart reconciliation.
No one may ever ask such a difficult thing of you as I will ask some of you right now. I ask of all those who resist the evil of injustice: Please, you must let go of any notion of winning, or of even opposing.
While oft repeated in queer contexts, I don’t think the kingdom assurance, “Love wins,” is proprietary to the LGBTQ+ movement. In any case, “wins” is misleading in the way worldly humans ordinarily take the meaning of the word. A regular reader offered some very wise words in a comment on my “Ice nine” blog post from last week. So, I pray that all LGBTQ+ siblings, allies, and activists may always remember, and never forget, what he said:
“May love win. Which usually looks a lot like someone dying on a cross out of love for others.” ~ Dr. Chris Hawley
As I replied, Good Fridays don’t ever seem to get any easier—I’ll now add, or any less powerful.
Experiencing Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrors” exhibition the first of this year was the final piece in the metaphor mashup that is my thinking and this blog. If the UMC’s recent activity in the way forward debate is simply a reflection of the society and its extreme polarization, then our inability to overcome our divide satisfactorily may be a negative indicator for the wider society right now. If releasing shame from our relational dynamics holds the key to transformation, then finding empathy for each other holds the key to a way forward, both in the church and in U.S. society. It would be a good thing if the church could find ways to lead on this.
Both church conflict and national political conflict are marked by the same disturbing reality: extreme voices on both sides demonize their counterparts. The church has found itself in a struggle in which both sides would prefer the other side walk the plank. It may even come to full schism in the UMC. The society can absorb the harsh fracturing of the UMC. The larger concern is, if the church is unable to work out its differences and one side really does need to walk the plank to resolve the gridlock, wondering, how do the U.S.A. and society at large accomplish schism?
“When we are dancing with the angels the question will be asked, ‘In 2019, what did we do to make sure we kept our democracy intact? Did we stand on the sidelines and say nothing?’” ~ Elijah Cummings (here)
When someone with the stature and integrity of Elijah Cummings raises the possibility of democracy not being intact without everyone’s help, it’s time to pay serious attention to what is happening. Can the church find a way to wake up to what’s going on and discover ways to be relevantly helpful in reconciling broken people, broken relationships, a broken nation and world?
I never know what I’ve said till I hear the response. What did you hear me say?