United Methodist General Conference Is A Lousy Tool
A friend who grew up in a Midwestern farm family speaks of the way his father would care for the farm implements. After each use of a plow, a shovel or a hoe, the tool would be cleaned and sharpened. It would be oiled, re-calibrated and made ready for the next chore, the next planting or cultivation. In this way, would the wise farmer care, year on year, for the tending of God’s good creation.
Recently I wrote of the value of having the right tool for work on my small remodeling project at home. At the time, I was not just thinking about “the right tool” for carpentry and remodeling. I was also thinking about institutions that are our tools as we seek to end homelessness and inadequate housing. In my thoughts, there were other tools that are essential to our our common life, our health as a society and a church.
For example, our health care systems and our public education in the United States are examples of tools when properly cared for can be of benefit to all. Instead of these tools being improved and used to assist, my sense is that in many places they have been cynically and actively undermined and misused.
This week, we have seen the dysfunction and inadequacy of the United Methodist General Conference as a helpful instrument. General Conference is a dull and unwieldy tool that to my eyes destroys more than it builds up. General Conference, built as it is on Roberts Rules of Order, could hardly be a more inappropriate tool for the tasks facing the contemporary church — especially a church that seeks to be global AND also inclusive.
Since the failed conference of 2012, I feared this would be another waste of the time, treasure and talents of many good people. And so it appears to have been. It has become more of a test of raw power and competing caucus groups seeking to win by any means available. Hospitality has been replaced with tactics, legislative maneuvering and strategy wars.
This is not new to our denomination. In fact, many of the wounds we now suffer go back to the racism and patriarchy of the past. The whole notion of “jurisdictions” in the church in the U.S. goes back to a fundamental distrust rooted in differing views of racial segregation and fear of regional dominance.
Efforts to use a different tool, one identified at this conference as “Rule 44” were defeated by the body early in the conference. It was perhaps not the best instrument — but it was an effort to try another approach for making difficult decisions. It failed and no “better way” was offered. So — now other ways to do our work are proposed. A vague outline by the bishops — a call to prayer, a study commission and another gathering of the body in a couple of years.
Let me confess my doubts that this will bring success. Not now, not in two years, not in four, not in ten years. Why? Because there are many different tasks confronting the many constituencies and cultures of the church. These each will require different instruments… not a one style fits all polity or theology.
However, there is another reason I have doubts about the efforts to use General Conference as a tool. It is not the conference itself. It is not Robert’s Rules. It is not Rule 44. It is not the wisdom of our bishops or a study commission. It is, the inability of us ALL to admit our sinfulness and culpability in contributing to the omnishambled morass we now experience.
Back in 1971, Elaine and I returned to the United States after an appointment as missionaries in the Republic of Panama. The experience for was transformative. We left as young idealistic Evangelicals. Living among great people engaged in significant mission, we also saw the colonialism and paternalism of the church’s well intended efforts. We saw the ways indigenous people would damage one another. We saw the jealousies among missionaries and international aid workers. We saw the ways governmental foreign aid was abused and misdirected toward benefiting U.S. corporations rather than truly assisting the needs of the people.
We were changed, and in this change we experienced something deeper than words or theology. We were newly aware of our own complicity, our own sinfulness, our own addictions to the wealth and privilege. And, we saw the lives of great people who likewise could acknowledge their failings and still keep seeking to live ever more responsibly even in confusing situations. These were people who knew that the tools at their disposal (schools, churches, clinics, social service), might be small and dull, but they could be cared for, sharpened and re-calibrated. They were also people who could argue well and respectfully and welcome persons who differed.
We saw great and good people (missionaries and indigenous leaders) whose lives modeled a way of integrity that was exemplary. They were life-shaping models for us. They were United Methodist missionaries, Catholic priests and lay people, Lutheran missionaries, Pentecostal fathers who would bring bags of nickels to school to pay a daughter’s tuition and mothers who would pray dawn to dusk for their children. They knew a brokenness in their institutions, their nations and within themselves. They modeled something deeper — something too rare in our world. As the great leader, Bishop J. Waskom Pickett wrote from his missionary experience, “in the places where it was least expected the lives of believers became confirmations of the gospel.” We watched with joy as Baptists, Catholics, United Methodists, Lutherans and Nazarenes worked together on evangelization teams.
In our first month back in the U.S. in 1971, I found myself speaking at an early gathering of the Good News organization. In trying to tell of the integrity of people of faith (from many traditions) and of the pain of seeing our own personal complicity, I was struck by the response. It was a dualism, the sense that no one wanted to hear such talk. As it turned out, for many in the Good News movement, there were only two ways to view every matter — It was their way and the wrong way.
In one session that week, I listened to a leader who spoke of his visit to Panama and then critiqued United Methodist missionary efforts in Latin America. I listened, astonished, as some of the persons we had come to love, were said to be communists and heretics because of their theologies or divergent political views. It was all untrue, about being heretics or communists, but spoken with a certainty in these public gatherings. I was amazed. I was even more amazed when I spoke to one of the leaders of the Good News Movement about the misinformation being spread. His response? “Sometimes things get a little overstated, but it is for a larger good.” I asked what this good might be? And was told it was the reformation of the church and to gain power in the denomination. In other words, it was about control.
Stunned, I simply muttered… “And, when you win, if you control the denomination as it is, what will you have?”
Today, May 18, 2016 it is clear that the Good News folks, forty-five years later, have WON. The denomination is now in your hands. I would ask, will you join in acknowledging the many ways good people have been harmed, truth has been shaved and repentance is required on all sides? It is my view that the simplistic, either/or ways of proceeding have not changed over the decades. And, yes, it is not just this one caucus that is shamefully one-sided and works with dull, broken and inappropriate instruments.
Today, I wrote my bishop and asked if he could join me in understanding that “complicity” is spelled with the letter “I” in it. I acknowledge ways I have been complicit in the brokenness we now experience. Can he? I suspect not, because the spiritual muscle of dialogue with those who differ and disagree has atrophied.
How will we read scripture?
My reading of scripture and my theological study over the years brings me to the belief that until we ALL acknowledge our complicity and sin, the denomination will stay stuck. And as long as we are stuck, my question from 1971 stands — “If you control the denomination as it is, what exactly will you have?” Wesleyan “holiness,” you see, good Methodists, was always in the context of repentance and accountability.
It is how we kept our spiritual (and organizational) tools sharpened and in good working order.