GC 2012 Observations

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.

23 thoughts on “GC 2012 Observations

  1. Thanks also to you. It was a tough slog interrupted by some good moments. I hope GC16 will be better because of lessons learned!

  2. Good insights yet disturbing. I watched the proceedings from afar and read the updates, blogs, and Facebook comments. I was concerned and frustrated and I wasn’t even there!

    Could you share a couple of additional insights or explanations on a couple of things you mentioned? What are “middlers of United Methodism?” What do they believe? What is their stance? Just curious.

  3. All I could think of as I watched the proceedings from my little mission field here was the quote from Mr. Wesley in which he said he did not fear that the people known as the Methodists should cease to exist but that they should become a dead sect.

  4. Well written and helpful. I also appreciate all of your tweets and updates during General Conference. Perhaps if we can have a few visionary bishops elected during Jurisdictional Conference, we might be able to turn the tide away from fear and toward God’s future. Thank you for the hope!

  5. Via Media middlers are orthodox in unorthodox ways, doing right things more important than doing things right – John Wesley’s model as he promoted grace in a practical syncretistic way that honored core Christian doctrine AND wasn’t afraid to do new things to reach people. There are liberals and literalists on edges. Middlers don’t check their minds or Christian Truth at the door. Neither Pharisee or Sadducee. Hopefully faithful followers of Jesus more than card carrying whatevers. Wesley borrowed from Pietists, R. Catholics, Anglicans, and more while holding firm grip in Christology and adaptive grip in Xn praxis.

  6. I grieve for a denomination that has been such an important part of my life and faith journey. I had such optimistic hopes for GC2012 that we would focus on becoming vital and relevant but instead I witnessed (from afar) selfishness and intolerant behavior. I want to invite people into a beautiful relationship with Christ but I am not sure that I can, with a clear conscious, invite them into a denomination that seems to have lost much of the Wesleyan focus.

  7. Good assessment of GC2012. All of the air seemed to leave the convention center when the Judicial Council ruling was read Friday afternoon. Several of us in the North Alabama delegation had to get together and remind each other of what was accomplished so that we didn’t feel like total failures. I believe that God works in all things for our good, even GC2012. I look forward to seeing what that good looks like!

      1. Thanks for your analysis of GC 2012. I too followed it from afar (via Twitter, mainly) and tired of the drama and power plays that seemed quite evident. It is a tragedy that the whole conference got derailed at the beginning. It could have been a historic conference, but instead it turned out to be really disappointing. Now I’m going to have to look up “syncretistic.”

    1. Scripture is primary in any valid theological method informed by tradition, experience, and reason. Think three-legged stool with Scripture as seat and other three as legs.

      Sent from my iPad

  8. Tim, I am very impressed that you took the time to respond to my remarks from yesterday. Your reply seems to come right out of an Emmaus Walk talk and though I see the truth in it there seems to be a weakness. Scripture cannot/should not be relegated to equality with tradition and reason. It must be above them. Therefore, to me, the three legged stool analogy is weak at best. Blessings, jdajr

    1. Scripture is primary and is not equal with tradition, experience, or reason. It is above them. Thanks for your interest. Doctrine not put into practice as good theology bears little or no fruit. Let us pray together that our denomination bears fruit!

      1. Tim, I am praying with you and hopefully thousands of others that our beloved Church bears much fruit as it follows God’s Word in obedience to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

  9. When a Christian church, be it Catholic or Protestant, is more interested in the institution of the church rather than how they can best serve all of the people, it is in the process of becoming irrelevant.

    1. Amen, and it strikes me that Christian history and our own Wesleyan heritage illustrates from Acts 6 to John Wesley/18th c. Anglicanism to today that it is best to restructure from a positive vantage point of fruitfulness rather than fear and scarcity. I’ve said it before, “You can’t solve a spiritual problem with a structural solution.” Structures help or hinder, of course, but we have larger issues in our beloved church that must be addressed. Our emptiness is the source of hope for me right now. When we are weak, God is strong. I am certainly going to yield myself wholly to what Jesus wants to do with us as United Methodists. That gives me hope.

  10. Thanks Tim for your insight and work at GC. As someone who came into the UMC from another church tradition, I am seeing us slip into the trap of the tradition I left: the Church of God. There is a difference between scriptural holiness and dogmatic self-righteousness. When someone uses language such that they become the saviors of the church, the line has been crossed. When someone says things like, “We are going to take the church back,” I become very concerned because it wasn’t theirs in the first place and if it was, maybe it needs to die. It was very obvious to the outside observer that the GC was hijacked by those with an agenda, and as you stated, kept any progress from being made. I have come to love the people and ethos of the UMC, and in fact, it was those things which attracted me to it in the first place. When I saw the mean spirited diatribes of some of those giving speeches at GC, I wondered if they are familiar with those things and the axiom, “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity.” Are we fussing over non-essentials? And are we “speaking the truth in love”?

  11. I was delighted to see your quote from this blog post in the UM Reporter. I came to read the entire post. I confess I am somewhat disturbed and depressed by what I read in the UM Reporter about our conference. My sister is on the Standing Committee of the Episcopal diocese of South Carolina. I can’t help but see their ugly experiences as a preview of what we might be in for.

    I fear that the homosexuality issue will never be resolved within the UMC. It seems that those who are against it see this as an essential doctrine, and I believe they will not abide by any softening. If softening occurs, I believe they will do like what I see happening in the Episcopal church, they will leave the UMC. Likewise I don’t think those people who want to see change will remain in a denomination that refuses to hear their voice.

    I hate to say it, but I think some sort of split is inevitable. Many “liberal” folks will drift away and find more welcoming congregations. Many “conservative” folks will drift away and find more orthodox congregations. Those remaining will split. One side will confidently believe they are rescuing the church from false doctrine, and the other side will confidently believe they are preserving the Augustian/Wesleyan notion “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

    I would love to be convinced that things are not so dire.

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