One of the most difficult things about the United Methodist Church is following, understanding, and navigating our parliamentary system for denominational governance and legislation. Even for ordained clergy, trained in polity, it can be confusing. We follow Robert’s Rules of Order, a procedural system based upon consideration of the rights of both individuals and the collective. It can be a very cumbersome system, that often appears to complicate rather than streamline, and confuse rather than clarify. Yet this is what we have for now, so we must work within its scope.
Yesterday many people present and watching the live-stream, social media, and news coverage, found themselves feeling hurt, upset, and even angry. There are votes cast and preliminary decisions made that would bring that about anyway, but much was unnecessary as it stemmed from confusion. The task of the Conference delegates yesterday was to function as the legislative committee, and perfect (amend, modify, and work upon) petitions submitted to the General Conference for consideration. In a normal session of General Conference, this would occur in smaller committees in the week preceding the plenary, or full gathered body meeting, that makes final votes, and issues final decisions through the voting process. Due to the Called nature of this General Conference, and the drastically compressed work schedule, the perfecting process occurred on the floor with the entire delegation serving as a singular legislative committee. It is awkward because the same group making changes and perfecting will turn around tomorrow and make final votes.
Many of those invested and concerned following the Conference saw the results of perfecting votes and thought that was a final vote, killing some petitions in specific cases. No one has asked me, and I have no power to speak, much less vote, but I personally would prefer to perfect every petition for a church plan, so that everything that came before the delegates tomorrow would be it its best, most perfect, and fully constitutional form. This is true for petitions I may not even support, but upon which I would vote. So what people observed and heard yesterday was that some of the votes on particular petitions, such as the One Church Plan (to create a system to specifically and openly affirm non-heterosexual persons), and the Simple Plan (to delete the current language of prohibition that causes pain to non-heterosexual persons), did not pass. It readily appeared as though they were completely lost, and the Traditional Plan (to strengthen current language regarding non-heterosexual persons, and require adherence to The Book of Discipline), was passed.
In fact, a majority approval vote in the legislative committee still requires a final vote and full delegation approval during the plenary session, which will occur today. A petition that did not get a majority vote in the legislative committee can still come before the full delegation as a minority report, with a significantly smaller threshold for passing to be heard. So the One Church Plan and the Simple Church Plan are not dead, and the Traditional Plan is not final. Today will be the day when the final discussions are held, the final votes cast, and a final decision is determined. Yet even then, the Judicial Council, the United Methodist equivalent of the Supreme Court, will need to review and verify that anything passed is constitutional, and therefore valid.
For many United Methodists, we watch without having a voice or vote. We are not officially elected delegates to this Called General Conference. We seem to watch from the sidelines, and wait to see what will be handed to us from our legislative body. No matter our theological stance on the issue of human sexuality and inclusion, we feel helpless and anxious to know what will be when all the votes are cast and a plan revealed as the way forward. Having been in St. Louis and interacting with delegates since midnight on Friday, attending the day of worship and prayer on Saturday, and being present for Sunday and Monday, here is what I have discovered:
- Robert’s Rules of Order cause more pain, confusion, and frustration than we should tolerate. Robert is not an Apostle of the Risen Christ, nor do the Scriptures outline this form of order. Many clergy appointed to local church I have personally spoken with, do not follow all or any of Robert’s Rules. They instead engage in a drastically simplified and modified version, if any version at all. Preferring to be in conversation, collaboration, and work for consensus, rather than a winner and a loser as determined by Robert’s Rules. There has to be a better way, and it is beyond time for the United Methodist Church to seek it out in order to go on to perfection legislatively.
- We are such a huge denomination founded upon space for divergence in thought, practice, and emphasis, that we are not all alike in these areas. We are alike in our fundamental Trinitarian theology, our foundational doctrine of grace, and our belief that our faith should transform the world. All three are united to fulfill what we refer to as The Great Commission from Jesus Christ: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). We may never all be of one mind outside of those holy and spiritual truths, but it is not to be taken lightly either just how powerful and vital that agreement is. Much less how effective it has been in making disciples and growing our faith called Methodism.
- No matter what plan is ultimately passed tomorrow, we need to address how we speak to one another, and how we behave towards each other. It is not all right to speak of those who disagree with us as all sides have been doing. It is not all right to make assumptions and use our vast platforms for our voices to be heard to degrade our delegates, our leaders, and our family of faith. I have seen so many people hurt on all sides in the past couple of days. I have watched us speak of each other as we should never speak of our enemy, much less our fellow members of the Body of Christ. We need to learn to speak with a Christ-like Spirit first and foremost, or the message too deep and profound for words will never be heard, received, or allowed to take root in each other. We did not have a dialogue, nor did we engage in Holy Conferencing. Growing up outside of Washington D.C., I all too readily recognized our tone, words, and behavior, and while it is readily American and political, it is not fit nor effective for the Body of Christ. We are called to better, and should rise above such methods and manners.
So many non-heterosexuals have been hurt by Christianity in a scope larger than just the United Methodist denomination, but significant damage has been done within our Church and throughout its history. Perhaps if we had been willing to focus first on addressing that, creating encounters for expressing that in healthy and reconciling ways, and seeking to create relationships rather than pursue legislation, we might have found ourselves in a different place that is not necessarily marked by a different outcome in voting, but a different way of processing, dealing with, and moving forward with it. I heard arguments for and against all three plans yesterday. I heard non-heterosexuals express their immense pain and suffering, their feelings of rejection in and from the Church, and their acquiescence to these plans rather than a clear unity on which plan was God’s will and justice for the entire community. One delegate boldly identified himself as non-heterosexual from the floor, and rejected the Simple Plan, because he said it did not go far enough, since it lacked affirming words.
I honestly have no idea what will happen today. Anything is possible. I refuse to claim that our Church is already broken, or that the decision is already made, because God is greater than me, and all of us. God can do what I could never envision, and God can redeem anything and everything. Instead, I keep watching, praying, and making note of what we need to address no matter what. For a Church that repeatedly today used the legalistic language of divorce in its discussions and legislation, I know from personal experience that sometimes there is a separation that results ultimately in reconciliation. We saw that in our history with the Methodist Episcopal and Methodist Episcopal South Churches, who split over inclusion of slave owners, and later found unity once more. That is not what I or I suspect many wanted, but I also know that there have been long periods of growth in the Bible as people seemed separated from their goal, i.e. bondage in Egypt for four hundred years, wandering the wilderness for forty years, exile in Babylon for seventy years, Jesus being tested for forty days before starting his earthly ministry, and many others.
Does that mean we want to endure this? No! Does that mean that God cannot take our mistakes, missteps, and failures, and make something new after a time of separation where all sides grow, and ultimately grow back together? No! I hope not. God knows I hope not, but God also knows that sometimes we make such a mess that we have to lie fallow to heal and be ready to be fruitful again. How long will depend on us and how much we truly want to be reconciled and united with those who share our unique theological emphasis on grace. My point? No matter what happens today, this does not have to be our end as United Methodists. We can find a way to move forward, even if it is separate for a time, but we will truly have failed if we allow all hope for reconciliation in the future to die. That is something that will be determined and lived out in our hearts, our minds, and in our churches. May God help us all to find our way forward, and may we all find ourselves together in the Kingdom to Come, and hopefully in this world long before then, too.