An uncertain future
By Chris Ritter
I can’t sleep so I will write. Twitter and Facebook are abuzz with leaks that a proposal is being drafted for a commission to bring a plan of separation back to a specially-called 2018 General Conference.
I first heard of this plan yesterday morning from one of our mega-church pastors. He said that a meeting on Sunday with high-level folks had concluded this was the regrettable place in which we find ourselves. The unofficial reports tonight are that the Council of Bishops is taking up the plan.
I didn’t entertain the rumors all that seriously until I looked in the eyes of one of the elder statesmen of the progressive wing of our church. He chronicled his forty-plus years with the church in which he held hope that the tide would turn in a favorable direction for his vision of the faith to be realized in the church. GC2016 has quelled these hopes. There is every indication that a unified and orthodox international coalition will be at the helm and working to restore accountability. Separation is perhaps viewed as less painful than taking each other through this process in the media spotlight.
The direction is unmistakable. Today the full slate recommended by the Renewal and Reform Coalition was elected for Judicial Council, our Supreme Court. Our legislative committees have recommended upholding our rules on human sexuality and implementing new accountability provisions. Few doubt the votes exist to pass these. Loopholes that have been exploited by the left, like the Just Resolution Process, are being closed. The only successful General Conference tactic by progressives has been running down the clock to keep more from being done.
The demographic trends of our church make the future prospects of progressives particularly dim. The African church is vibrant, growing rapidly, and voting as a bloc with U.S. Evangelicals. Efforts to segregate Africans from decisions affecting the US church have been stymied. The more progressive sectors of our church, while more and more vocal, are numerically collapsing. At Sunday’s African Central Conference worship service, the future face of the church was revealed as dark, young, energetic, and orthodox. They baptize dozens at their charge conferences while we shuffle papers. One speaker drew upon Luke 2 in order to write a prescription for our troubled church: “Take the child to Africa.”
Many obituaries are being mentally drafted tonight for The United Methodist Church. But this would be more of a divorce than a funeral. While funerals are about closure, divorces are about questions: Who gets what? Who goes with who? Will this be amicable or adversarial? Will anything be shared?
And more questions follow these. What makes us think a divorce would result in only two or three churches? Might there be fifteen? Can a failed institution wield the power to determine what will succeed it? Has anyone considered the fact that the UMC never really existed? Annual conferences are the basic unit of the church. The UMC itself holds no assets. These are controlled by subsidiary structures. A breakup would not be one divorce but dozens of smaller ones.
To frame what is happening as either a conservative takeover or a progressive temper-tantrum would be to both miss the point and indulge in the sort of self-indulgent blame-shifting that is so common in any divorce. We should refuse to soothe our suffering by skipping over the hard searching questions that can and should accompany such tragedies. We leaders allowed the church to arrive at this place both by sins of commission and omission. In spite of some notable successes, we have poorly represented Jesus together. Our apathy for each other allowed us to grow apart. Our distrust of each other was built into our polity in 1939 and 1968. Were we ever married or just living together?
We have plenty of theological material to help us face death. “Our end is our beginning.” “Death is a necessary step toward resurrection.” “Yes, Sunday is a’comin.” We have less to help us through divorce. But just as Ecclesiastes says there is more to be learned in the house of mourning than the house of feasting, maybe sitting on a hard bench in divorce court for a couple years is what will do us the most long-term good. At least we will have a good view of the Judge.
P.S. The Love Alike Plan is on the table. Since we are talking about a two-year moratorium on accountability and dividing everyone up into camps, the Love Alike Plan could provide us with a framework. We might even find it allows us to arrive at a sustainable place together.