By Bob Phillips
The last day of GC19 was a painful, semi-memorable day. The morning was filled with parliamentary maneuvers that led to the rejection of the One Church Plan. Many US delegates truly were shocked anew and personally hurt or angered by this outcome.
Rev. Tom Berlin, a gracious and effective pastor from Virginia and leader in the OCP proposal, offered stern warnings directed primarily at global delegates (Africans). To embrace a traditional view of marriage as the sole norm for Christians would be to inject a virus into the US church that will destroy American Methodism and then infect them overseas also. Several speakers reinforced the sense of hate, rejection, loss of all Americans under 30, the end of Methodist seminaries, a green light to bigotry and other outcomes inevitable if OCP were rejected.
The afternoon was given successfully to blocking and delaying adjustments to the Traditional plan to make it entirely constitutional. So the plan, with parts of it but not most of it, certainly will be reaffirmed as unconstitutional by the Judicial Council when it reviews the decisions. The Traditional plan was passed by roughly 7%, consistent with previous years.
A last proposal to adopt a gracious exit option was passed, but also with sufficient slowing of the process such that it also has constitutional issues that almost certainly will fail muster by the Judicial Council.
Protests (not outrageous or violent), chants from the gallery, and a small group of demonstrators at the end of the process who came to the platform and sat in silent protest moved the conference toward conclusion. The Western Jurisdiction delegation gathered and a representative spoke, affirming they would not change their practices or obey an unjust law. With 13 years in ministry within the bounds of that jurisdiction in three conferences, I have several friends among clergy and laity. I also know that more evangelically oriented pastors have been marginalized to near extinction, leaving it the least theologically diverse or inclusive region of the US church. So the anguish is real, because nearly all pastors who might articulate a traditional understanding simply have vanished.
So what next and what later?
- All that was decided will be reviewed by the denomination's Supreme Court, the Judicial Council. What is constitutional will hold; what isn't will be overturned.
- The strategy to slow the deliberation process to keep numerous decisions from being voted worked, producing a loaf half-baked (in more ways than one depending on whom you ask) and certainty of fresh issues at the 2020 General Conference.
- GC19 thus cleared a lot of brush but neither mowed the field nor resolved issues long term.
- The Council of Bishops wildly misread and misunderstood the global church they serve. The level of denial about the theological and cultural realities of our international church was painful, and expensive to see. No one is evil, nor is this an effort to blame anyone. Like the (in)famous Edsel automobile, the One Church Plan was launched and praised with majority fanfare but it soon became clear it had virtually no chance of passage.
- What changes for local churches? Nothing that was not the case on Jan. 1. Church teaching on the nature of marriage remains as it was.
- What changes for clergy? Little. I never did and never would say I agreed with everything in the Discipline, for I didn't and don't. Disagree? Yes, always, the Methodist way. Actively disobey? Some gentle increase in accountability for disobedience but several items probably will be declared unconstitutional (in my judgment, mostly for understandable reasons).
- Needed? Everyone is wise to take several deep breaths. All are wise to reclaim Jesus' words on love from John 13:33-5, 'by THIS all will know you follow me..." Remember when a win-lose scenario is arranged by the church, it is always lose-lose, except for Satan who rejoices when saints wound and snap at each other.
- I will not speak of how others may have voted. I did support the Traditional plan and spoke in favor of creating a gracious exit, with memories of Episcopal vindictiveness and expense (over 50 million in legal fighting at least). I voted also to give the Simple plan a full hearing and to have rumors of conservative efforts to bribe African delegates (even third-hand rumors deserve a look for ethics' sake). I also voted for petitions designed to improve the OCP, proposed by advocates of the plan
- Why did I vote for the Traditional plan? Not because it is great; it is very imperfect, portions unconstitutional, and in need of work that might have been done in part had not delay overtaken the process. I supported it for these reasons:
- It reflects 2000 years of consistent Christian teaching on marriage, affirmed by 95% of Christians worldwide. I do not believe the Christian faith has never gotten the doctrine of marriage right, and if Christians through the centuries all misread the Bible on the binary nature of marriage, there is grounds to take nothing seriously, much less literally, in scripture.
- Every Protestant church that has adopted a OCP has suffered accelerated decline, without exception. I asked and listened for anyone to explain how what happened to every other denomination would not happen to us. I never heard an answer.
- In the trenches of ministry there is virtually no change. OCP would barely have ruffled a feather in some US areas where traditional UM clergy/members are near extinction, but would have created national schism and immediate crisis in numerous IGRC churches.
- It is vital to demonstrate in life and word that the descriptions leveled against supporters of Traditional teaching are not (quote): bigots, haters, homophobes, a spiritual virus, on the wrong side of history, ignorant, murderers and abusers of their own children who are lesbian/gay, especially in Africa, defenders of segregation-slavery-oppression of women...and to that I could add the worst allegation against traditional folks, "They call names." A photo of the Westboro Whacko Ensemble protesting across the street was attached to a posting that read, "This is what the OCP is up against." All that said, there are bigots, jerks, crazies, judgmental and loveless types who rejoice the TP passed, for all the wrong reasons. It is for supporters of the plan to demonstrate that the labels are untrue and unjust, not through silence but through action.
Words -- angry, smug or divisive -- don't honor God. Prayer, conversation, and the willingness to engage others with an empathy not inconsistent with personal conviction is the need of the hour for all 'sides.' Bringing people to Jesus remains the main thing.
Remember that, church. And thank you for the privilege of serving as a delegate.