Wednesday, February 27, 2019

We’ve seen this before: UMC schism and conservative power

Our friends in the United Methodist Church (UMC) aren’t so united today. They have just completed a special conference that was specifically intended to resolve their conflict over issues re. sexuality and allow them to go forward. Their polity is different than The Episcopal Church (TEC): they are a truly global denomination where votes come from all around the world. In contrast, TEC is an American church in a loose federation with related independent churches in the Anglican Communion. (And you can certainly bet that conservatives in Anglicanism and the Church of England wish they had this degree of authority over TEC.) But I digress.

The Methodist book of discipline and other church policies are opposed to recognition of same sex marriage, or the full participation of LGBT people as ministers or bishops. In the US, the UMC is as divided as any other mainline on the subject, but has moved from “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” to “Pay No Attention to the Pastor In a Rainbow Stole”. They even have an out, lesbian bishop who technically runs afoul of the rules but in actuality continues to serve faithfully.

The Bishops of the global UMC proposed a policy that would allow individual churches or affiliations to allow and accept LGBT people, marriage, and service, without demanding that all churches do so. This “One Church Plan” was promoted as a way forward. But the well-organized conservatives weren’t having any. They organized an umbrella group called the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) and promised to leave UMC if any liberalization passed. As one wrote in advance,
You may not understand it but we will not remain in a church where pastors and bishops are free to promote and bless what we believe is contrary to Christian teaching and dishonoring to God.” We are told that we should find this plan acceptable because we will not be forced to perform marriages and blessings that we do not support. I can appreciate that progressives don’t truly understand us. But whether they can comprehend our reasoning or not, they need to hear it: It violates our consciences to be in a denomination that promotes what we believe counters God’s will and purposes. We can live in a church where there is disagreement about our church’s teaching about marriage and sexuality – we’ve done so for decades – if pastors and bishops who promised to uphold the church’s teachings actually do what they promised. What we cannot do is remain in a church with an official sexual ethic that denies the clear and consistent teaching of Scripture. Liberals don’t have to understand our thinking. But they would do well to take our warning seriously. The local option will create schism – and it is likely to be litigious, costly, and ugly.

So they proposed an alternative plan that not only did not relax the language against LGBT people, but made it more pronounced and punitive. This plan was found unconstitutional under the church’s own rules, but yesterday, the conference PASSED IT ANYWAY. It is not insignificant that there were also two plans proposed for how to divide the church property: how to leave.

And, they won.
 The traditionalists did a bang-up job of political organizing and counting the votes. The progressives were all busy talking about unity and community and listening and loving. The conservatives were on the floor getting the votes….We spent time yesterday openly discussing, “Now, how much do we have to pay to have to leave? Is a third of a property assessment OK?” It was just weird hearing us talk that way. That’s not the way we’ve talked previously. If you talk that way, it means the debate is almost moot. This may be a bad analogy, but as a pastor, when a couple comes to me and says, “We’re talking about getting a divorce. We’d like to hear your views on our marriage,” I say, “If you’ve gotten this far, you’re going to divorce. What do you want from me?” I kind of feel that way here.

So, now what happens?  The WCA said it was their way or the highway, and they pulled it off.  So ....
As a committed centrist who has been working toward a compromise where all people would be welcome in The United Methodist Church, I've dealt enough with various members of WCA leadership to know that there will be no compromise. This is a matter of principle upon which they will not budge. No scenario that would permit an ordained gay and lesbian clergy or an elected lesbian bishop to be in any way affiliated with them will be entertained. 
Down the road, these same leaders I fear will become as hard-core about other issues as they are about LGBTQ exclusion. For those who stand for any "leftist" sounding cause (Health care reform? Gender equality? Compassionate immigration reform? Reasonable gun control?) or continue to call those to accountability for rejecting infant baptism, confirmation, and female clergy leadership, I have a hard time believing that eventually a target isn't going to be on your back, too. If the denomination starts heading "right," my centrist colleagues agree that LGBTQ exclusion isn't where things will end.
Hmmmm. This is not unlike a similar purge of the Southern Baptists in the late 80s-90s, when the liberals moderates were driven out, leaving a conservative behemoth. And look where that got us.

But it's not just theological fundamentalism. You might also want to follow the money.

The goal of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, as far as United Methodism goes, is to make the denomination so intolerable to progressives and moderates that we leave the denomination. … 
The prize is ownership of United Methodism, which despite its myriad problems is still an unfathomably valuable institution. United Methodism owns an incredible amount of real estate, hospitals, academic institutions, churches, offices, conference centers, retreats, camps, nonprofit and for-profit entities, and the incredible controlled wealth of the United Methodist Foundations. Not to mention WesPath. By purging progressives and moderates, they will lose some churches and conference centers and perhaps entire Annual Conferences, but they will retain ownership of all of the rest.
So, the money matters.

Back when Bishop Gene Robinson was elected, there was a similar conflict between conservatives and liberals in TEC. You may have recalled the bitter vitriol that ensued. But what you may not remember is that a shadowy conservative money-group, the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), was up to its elbows in dirty water. Episcopalian journalist Jim Naughton followed the threads and wrote a hugely important piece called “Following the Money” that linked the IRD to a number of conservative foundations.
These foundations have provided millions of dollars to the IRD which, in a fundraising appeal in 2000, said it sought to "restructure the permanent governing structure" of "theologically flawed" Protestant denominations and to "discredit and diminish the Religious Left's influence."
Importantly, this was not limited to TEC, but also targeted the Methodists and the Presbyterians.  HMMMM.  (Our Blog Father, Father Jake Stops the World, also has a summary about the TEC experience).

Fortunately, the IRDs efforts to overturn TEC didn't work.  The contentious fights in the Episcopal Church from 2006 on eventually led to the broad acceptance of LGBT ministers and marriages (with some holdouts). The fiercest conservatives left to form their own group, ACNA, which has never been formally recognized by the Anglican Communion.

Blogfather Fr Jake makes an excellent case in his latest post for the IRD being deep in this Methodist mess.

 Meanwhile, lots of people are hurting. The arguments on Twitter were passionate and in some cases, cruel (aside: Twitter is a cesspool, but is invaluable for following breaking action. It’s also like eating a large bag of potato chips entirely in one sitting: you know it’s not good for you, and you will regret it, but you can’t stop).

 There’s a tendency of Episcopalians to want to bring these hurting liberal and LGBT Methodists in. But as someone said, they are grief stricken and have just lost a loved one. Don’t try to set them up on a date just yet.   Listen, be present, and recognize they may simply need a sabbatical before going back to fight. They may want to try to keep the church they love intact.  They'll need lots of support to do so.


Unknown said...

Fundamentalism is always total conquest, an all or nothing proposition. You cannot reason with people who are unable to think outside of one way of interpreting scripture. You have push fundamentalism out as soon as it rears up or it destroys everything remotely akin to diversity and compromise. The SBC learned this in the 80s, and now unfortunately the UMC has to learn it too. The Moderates and Liberals came together in good faith, and they lost their denomination.

Jake said...

IRD was in this up to their eyeballs. See Jake.

Jake said... have a link up

IT said...

Yes, I've updated with a post to your latest!