By Chris Ritter
I arrived in St. Louis this afternoon and all is familiar. These are my old stomping grounds. For eight years earlier the arch was visible to me on the horizon as I pulled out of my neighborhood each morning in Illinois’ St. Louis Metro East. I know all about toasted ravioli, “The Hill”, Forrest Park, and Cardinals Baseball. This place seems like home and, for an event like GC2019 so otherwise rife with anxiety, there is comfort for me in that.
It also helps to have a friend with me. Aaron is a District Superintendent in the Liberia Annual Conference and he is fast asleep in our hotel room as a type this. I picked him up at O’Hare on Monday and watched him trudge through his very first snow wearing the Chicago Bears coat one of my church members sent for him. Aaron’s presence in the U.S. during General Conference is a happy accident. I feel very blessed to have him beside me as a prayer partner. We walked down to the America’s Center tonight to see where it all will take place. Afterwards we had a long talk about the three proposals over Chinese food before jet lag got the best of him.
The details of the plans were fresh on our minds because we had spent the previous three days at Lake Williamson at the invitation of the Africa Initiative. About 80% of African delegates were at this retreat center in rural Illinois to discuss the petitions that will come before GC2019. I knew many names and faces from an earlier A.I. event in Nairobi that I was fortunate to attend last year. I then taught a workshop on how to write legislation. This week’s event was a deep dive into legislation written by others.
For part of the retreat, organizers of the Africa Initiative invited the few non-Africans in attendance to leave the room so they could discuss among themselves and plan their legislative strategy. But I got to witness many of their deliberations. Spending time with my African brothers and sisters confirmed a few things. First, they are cold. This is a brutal climate for them. They wore the donated coats given by our host annual conferences the entire time, even indoors. Second, they are ready to vote overwhelming for the Modified Traditional Plan. There is no hesitation or reservation about this. Third, they are extremely opposed to the One Church Plan. I’m guessing there were well north of two hundred delegates at the event. If I remember correctly, a straw poll showed nine indicating they might rank the OCP as high priority. Later even these meager totals were discerned to be voting errors instead of real support.
Finally there is no real openness among African delegates to the Connectional Conference Plan (legislation I support). This is regrettable but understandable. They view this as church endorsement of behavior they clearly understand to be incompatible with Christian teaching. They experience none of the institutional urgency borne of anxiety we have in the U.S. and are not nearly as eager to find ways out of this fight. They simply want a church that teaches the Scriptures and they are concerned that the CCP will degrade their witness… just as they are certain the OCP would do.
It may seem like over-generalization for me to write about what African delegates will and will not do as group. After all, Africa is a big continent and far from a monolith. The event included speakers in English, French, Portuguese, and Swahili. Contexts varied widely. Many of these folks were meeting for the first time. But I am not overstating the point. Africa, as a unified bloc, will support the Modified Traditional Plan. They understand this to be why they have come. There was something approaching zero support for the One Church Plan and they are highly motivated toward its defeat. I do not discount the fact that someone might produce an African delegate or two supporting the One Church Plan, but they are rare birds indeed.
With +/-180 U.S. delegates expected to vote for the Modified Traditional Plan and clear majorities from the Philippines and Eastern Europe, it is difficult to see how General Conference 2019 is going to do anything other than pick up where GC2016 left off. We seem on track to affirm the established teaching of our church on marriage and human sexuality and enact new and signifiant measures aimed at accountability.
But a lot can happen in just a few days.
I was emailed a leaked strategy plan that supporters of the OCP have developed. No big surprises, but it provides a preview of things to come. Entitled “High Level Strategy for the One Church Plan” the document (dated February 18) details the rallies, voter guides, and WhatsApp channel that will be used for vote coordination with “friendlies.” OCP supporters encourage delegates to vote only their plan as high priority on Sunday. They plan to vote against all amendments to the Modified Traditional Plan except for mention of a possible poison pill that adds language rejecting remarried clergy.
The document encourages resistance to all amendments to the One Church Plan except the three corrections needed to make the plan constitutional (Judicial Council Decision 1366). They also are supporting an amendment that will come from Europe that stretches the timeline for central conferences to act in response to the plan. They intend to reject or table all five petitions for gracious exit while monitoring how this is portrayed in the press. They don’t want to see an exit path attached to the OCP and desire any exit legislation to stand alone. They expect “WCA types” to focus on exit provisions if the MTP fails.
American Traditionalist delegates are guardedly optimistic this week about the defeat of the OCP, even as they dread the path it will take to get there. There is the feeling of stepping into an arena none of us chose. If either of the leading plans pass, a large percentage of delegates will leave emotionally distraught. All will step into an uncertain future. Passing the OCP will mean schism, but how much, how long, and how divisive? Passing the MTP will do one of two things. It might cause those defying the Discipline to take the gracious exit path built into the plan so they can give birth to a progressive Methodist Church with ongoing relationship to the UMC. More likely, however, it will ignite a year of defiance, delay, and legal challenges aimed toward a rematch at General Conference 2020.
Our two win/lose scenarios are actually lose/lose scenarios. The only thing approaching a win/win strategy, in my mind, is the Connectional Conference Plan. I posted on Twitter today that I will be happy if the CCP receives 22% support on Sunday’s ranking system where each delegate votes as many plans as we want as high priority. While this system is unlikely to make the CCP a high priority, it will keep the legislation on the table as the other two plans vie for dominance. Either MTP or OCP supporters will find their favorite plan lagging behind its chief rival. (One will be slightly above 50% and one below, I should think.) The losers will, maybe, give the CCP a strong second look. And, just maybe, this 40+% “bump” is enough to bring everyone to the table in an effort to avoid disaster. True, African resistance to the CCP does not bode well for the ratification process. But we are either going to spend the next year trying to ratify a gracious plan or spend the next year with open wounds and heightened conflict. I know which I would prefer.
If the CCP fails ratification, we can always do this again next year in Minneapolis. But, CCP or no CCP, General Conference 2020 is nearly upon us. Any plan that can be passed by a simple majority can be reversed by the same. When this is all over, it still isn’t over.
I think Aaron has the right idea. Good night all.