General Conference 2012 has come and gone and I am recovering. I wonder about our church’s recovery. This was my 5th rodeo and it felt like the most ornery bronking buck ever ridden. Dr. Scott Peck wrote an analysis of community building that stated that there are 4 stages: pseudocommunity, chaos, emptiness, and community. We started with pseudocommunity, “Hail fellow, well met,” and saw moments of truce along the way like during the Service of Repentance toward Indigenous Peoples. Dr. Peck says some groups stay in this safe place so that they avoid airing their differences.
However, United Methodists aren’t afraid to move out of truce mode and tear at the fabric of harmony. The Rules Committee report should have been a dire warning of what to expect. It usually is a breeze and takes a few minutes. It took a couple of hours this time. It set the tone of intractable deliberation. We hit the chaos stage and pretty much stayed there until Friday night when GCFA’s final budget reports were being made. I could feel the calm of emptiness fall over the most contentious General Conference that I have witnessed. Maybe then, and only then, did we approach true community and because of money of all things. How sad!
Where did the chaos that derailed us come from? Some want to blame back room shenanigans of people hammering out restructuring deals without everybody being at the table. We all need to remember to get together for the larger cause of holy conferencing and we all need to be at the table. The General Conference was hijacked by multiple agendas in an apparent effort to stall, filibuster, and question to death anything that came before it. It appeared that a deal was struck between multiple constituencies well before any protesters came on the floor that if things could get bogged down enough then we wouldn’t have to talk about sex and expose our utter division. How Victorian! What an avoidance of speaking a prophetic word to society.
Victorian-era denial of human sexuality has precluded us from being theologically relevant to our society. Worse, we can’t even talk to each other about it. No matter what side you’re on, was our silence acceptable? We chose to let our present 2008 language stand rather than speak theologically to a confused generation that has turned the Wesleyan Quadrilateral into an equilateral. Experience has unseated Scripture as the foundational starting point of our theological method. This isn’t a good strategy in speaking to the world. They will see us as do-nothing, irrelevant by-standers in a culture war for the soul of the cosmos.
The ruling by the Judicial Council has now put up an almost impenetrable wall around the agency silos. In the JC’s opinion only the superintending body of the Council of Bishops can offer guidance to the agencies. Doesn’t everyone know that the agency boards all have bishops on them now and their presidents are bishops? Episcopal presence and the possibility for supervision hasn’t been lacking. Paragraph 427.3 has been in operation although ill achieved. I’m not trying to lump all bishops or agencies into an ineffective amalgamation, but the Judicial Council ruling makes it almost impossible for us to ever do a new thing.
The only means left to gain alignment among the agencies could be very damaging in the long run. Money! If the JC says that only the bishops can have oversight of the agencies then all that the General Conference can do is cut off the money. This sole option will either create more competitiveness or cooperation among the agencies and I plead for the latter. By the way, I’m grateful for the work that a few of our agencies did to help craft a way forward. I plead for the bishops to continue in exercising their spiritual and temporal authority. God help us if this ruling means that the status quo remains! I am devastated that, except for a few changes, all we need to do is keep our 2008 Book of Discipline and put a 2012 sticker over the date. That is not acceptable, but it appears to be reality.
We may have just witnessed a historic tipping point of our denomination into the morass of failed enterprises. I pray not and pledge myself to work for us to regain our theological identity and traction as a movement. We will never, however, get to true community unless we let chaos do its painful work and then we embrace an emptiness where we give up our self-interests. What I experienced at GC2012 was the worst example of filibustering do-nothingism for the sake of selfish recalcitrance: “If you don’t play my way, I’m taking my ball and going home.” This wasn’t the first time the middlers of United Methodism were shut down.
It’s happened before. Is there much difference between hardliners- whether liberal, conservative, young, old, male, female, US, or Central Conferences? I guess that we all have non-negotiables about which we won’t budge. However, irreducible positions seldom move forward - most are stuck in the past and claim that it’s the future, and the real problem is that’s it’s supposed to be a shared future and taking hard-line sides doesn’t help. Some dare to say, and I heard this over and over again at GC2012, “It’s my church. I’m taking back my church!” It’s God’s church not ours. If anybody thinks that it is theirs, remember, it’s not. Jesus said, “Upon this rock I will build MY church.”
I pray that we can get beyond the past two weeks. We must never let General Conference be hijacked again. The basic rule of parliamentary procedure must be operative: “The minority must be heard, but the majority shall prevail.” I believe the majority is in the middle and wants what’s best for the church.