Reader’s Poll: Do We Really Want Division?

With all the talk of division in the UMC, I really don’t think this is what most people want. I think it is the will of the most vocal among us. Nevertheless, I would like to know what readers of this blog think. Therefore I’ve decided to conduct an entirely unscientific poll asking readers to opine on this matter. I’d appreciate your sharing this post with others because more participants will hopefully mean a better cross section of perspectives. Yes, I know the answers you give may be contingent on a number of factors, but just give it your best shot.

71 thoughts on “Reader’s Poll: Do We Really Want Division?

  1. So… let’s talk one about the deepest sources of conflict in cultures and organizations.

    It’s not differences per se. People can have very different views on all kinds of things and remain in generally positive relationships with each other.

    So if it’s not differences, what it it?

    It’s different individuals or groups desiring the SAME thing in a context where they can’t both actually have that thing simultaneously. René Girard calls this “mimetic desire.”

    In the case of The UMC and several other denominations, mostly in the Global North or with Global North roots, what’s “desired” by very different groups is control over how The UMC will regard and be in ministry with LGBT persons.

    In mimetic conflicts about control, as each side puts forth its case for “controlling interest,” what typically happens is an escalation of demand that increasingly de-legitimizes one or more “others” from any claim to control. If both “sides” are sufficiently numerous, the result will look more like war than a negotiated settlement.

    Unless– unless some party that all can unite against can be identified and then systematically excluded. Girard calls this process the “scapegoat mechanism.”

    The creation of The Methodist Church was predicated on the operation of such a scapegoat mechanism. The Central Jurisdiction, and indeed, the whole jurisdictional system was created as part of this “reunion” so folks in the former MECS could prevent themselves being “forced” to accept an African American bishop who might be appointed and sent there if elections and appointments were done on a national and race-neutral rather than a regional and race-segregated basis.

    (A side question– Were LGBT persons an identified scapegoat of the EUB/Methodist union, even if a few years after the fact? Or is that merely a sort of post hoc ergo propter hoc correlation?).

    In the normal course of mimetic rivalries, war is nearly inevitable and will not cease unless one side exhausts and destroys the other or until such scapegoats can be identified and excluded.

    Or… unless the leaders involved in the mimetic conflict can be led to de-escalate their rhetoric before things move to all out war, mend some of the fences they’ve broken, and find a way to negotiate a new way forward (whether co-existence or division) without (or at least with a reduced number of) innocent victims (scapegoats). This is the historically and biblically the work of covenant-making.

    This is really hard to accomplish. It rarely happens. It takes extraordinary leadership to call off the ringleaders on all sides, then even more extraordinary (and mature) leadership to sit with them and all affected parties and negotiate some new way forward– for as long as it takes.

    This is part of why the story of Abraham NOT sacrificing Isaac is so remarkable.

    These kinds of conflicts do not simply “settle down” by themselves. Serious and significant intervention by leaders respected on all sides is necessary. In The UMC, because of our episcopal polity, this would likely require the creation and careful management of a pro-active intervention process by the Council of Bishops.

    Short of that, in our polity we are heading toward war and all of its “collateral damage” until some decisive winner becomes evident and the “losers” walk or limp or are driven away.

    So maybe the question “Do we want schism” really isn’t the most relevant one– yet. Given the nature of this conflict, we’re more likely headed toward flat out war. The better questions might be “do we want to head into war?” Or “are we willing to enter a serious process– other than just social media posturing and lobbying delegates on the floor of General Conference– to negotiate some better way forward?”

    If the answer to the first question is No, the answer to the second, whether we like it or not, probably must be Yes.

    • Taylor, you have described the dilemma well. I think the solution is unworkable. The CoB is part of the problem. They have members who have chosen to blatantly ignore the will of General Conference through prohibited behavior. They have fulfilled the letter of the law while ignoring the spirit by having trials with little or no consequences. How can they be trusted to actually oversee a process of healing???

    • I appreciate the schema, but must comment that the Bible has many citations affirming the importance of boundary markers. In fact, moving the markers was forbidden. There are also plenty of examples where parties separated for peaceful coexistence and for missional integrity.

      • Right– how were those boundary markers established? Through careful negotiation (backing away from what could have been endless war) and covenant making.

        As for parting ways in scripture (I assume you mean Paul and Barnabas, for example), you have cases of individual leaders doing this, but not the church as a whole. So while Paul may have focused on continuing to Pamphylia with Silas and Barnabas brought John Mark with him to Cyprus, this did not mean the church in Cyprus would not recognize the members of the church in Pamphylia as part of one and the same church, or vice versa.

        For leaders to shift their plans and parterships in the global mission field happens all the time, and the results can be fairly positive.

        However, causing schism in the church a second time was the only sin considered by a good number of the early churches to be truly unforgivable, and the only sin that could lead to permanent excommunication. The first time would lead to extended excommunication until it was clear the person had learned not to engage in such behavior. But the second– immediate and permanent excision. See F.X. Funk, editor, Didascalia et Constitutiones Apostolorum, Vol. 1 (Paderborn: In Libraria Fernandi Shoeningh, 1905), 135-136.

        Deciding to change mission partners is simply not in the same category– at least not as early Christianity would see it– as splitting a church or a denomination that is more than an “association” of “likeminded congregations” to accomplish certain missional purposes.

        What our current struggles reveal, I think, is the awareness that our former ways of setting the boundary markers (votes at General Conference) are insufficient in themselves to manage the living mimetic conflict in which we find ourselves. GC is not a negotiating body. It is a deciding body. If we want to negotiate a way forward together, we need to do that apart from General Conference, then together bring the results of that work to General Conference for the ratification of the much more extensive negotiation process this kind of conflict will necessarily entail.

    • Wow that’s deep, Taylor. I think you’re right that LGBT persons often tend to be a pawn in a fight over control. I know that my own baggage that I bring to this struggle is that I left the Southern Baptists to go Methodist and so it makes me bats**t crazy to see Methodists behaving like Southern Baptists. I was like I thought this new group was different and had the “real” gospel and now they’re drifting back to what I came from. It’s also true that I have very close friends and mentors who are LGBT but there is this other dimension to my baggage.

    • As you say, General Conference is a “deciding body,” but it is also a deliberating body (theoretically, “holy conferencing”). In fact, Methodism is structured top-to-bottom on conferencing, though increasingly, as you will agree, fissiparous at virtually all levels. Perhaps “outside work” could be done, then brought to GC for final deliberation and decision (as attempted before 2012). BUT I am less sanguine about this maneuver to resolve matters of profound conscience.

      • Gary…

        GC can’t possibly function, really, as a deliberative body. A “perfecting” body perhaps, but not a dellberative body per se. They have way too much legislation to plow through. Over 1300 items came into GC2008. Over 1100 came into GC2012. The General Administration Committee, facing 4 different proposals for restructuring, demonstrated its inability to deliberate among them AND decide to bring any restructuring proposal forward.(I don’t blame the committee– it was an impossible task in this situation). Then there wasn’t time to construct something on or off the floor that could have passed constitutional muster even if it did pass in votes on the floor. So it didn’t. What did pass (the changes in board structure proposed by every general agency save GCBS) was the legislation the GAC chose not even to address– so it was still alive at the end for the body to consider at the 11th hour, so to speak.

        What was the problem behind that problem, though? We had too many options, with people too committed to their own version, going in. In other words, we failed to do sufficient deliberative work ahead of time so GC could do its perfecting and deciding work well. Frankly, when the Plan B party presented itself as a rival to the work of the IOT recommendation, that should have been a signal, from a process perspective, that the denomination was not ready for the question at all at the 2012 General Conference. GC just doesn’t have the time to deliberate AND decide on matters of such emotional and political complexity– least not well.

        That said, those things that do pass (and that do pass constitutional muster) are generally those things that other bodies have worked on and worked out across the church even in the face of wide varieties of opinion. I would point particularly to documents such as By Water and the Spirit and This Holy Mystery– both of which involved global study and consultation to arrive at a common framework that cut through many kinds and levels of prior theological confusion, disclarity, or even contradiction across our church. Both passed– and were reaffirmed after 8 years– by huge margins. Few now dispute they reflect and are to direct our sacramental theology and practice.

        GCs real work in these was to commission the deliberative process, and then to bless the outcome when it was completed– and time to be reaffirmed (in 2012).

        Likewise, GC has been patently unsuccessful in addressing the global nature of the church as a deliberative body itself. That’s another really big set of challenges, not unrelated to other challenges at hand. So GC continues to commission the work of the Global Nature of the Church Commission to engage the conversations that need to happen so we can find some better way forward than many of the current arrangements we all acknowledge are untenable and unsustainable.

        We don’t know when any final results from this work will be presentable. That’s okay. Genuine deliberative processes take the time they take. And they need to if GC is going to be able to act on them in a way that will generate confidence across the church.

        Underline that last sentence.

        What we need is for GC to be able to act on a deliberated proposal in a way that generates confidence across the church.

        This is a simple fact of politics. When the people, or some part of the people, lose confidence in the legitimacy of their governing processes, they will not follow them, or follow them only selectively.

        Decisions taken without due deliberation involving all parties affected by the decision (consent of the governed?) tend not to be consider legitimate. This works no matter what side of the aisle you’re on.

        So we have a retired bishop who rejects the authority of an active bishop to restrain him from performing a same-sex blessing in her episcopal area. He has lost confidence in the decisions of GC barring such actions.

        And we have pastors of some large churches who talk about withholding apportionments (a chargeable offense against the Order of the church– since this is the first benevolent duty of every congregation and the duty of every pastor to make sure they fulfill it) if there isn’t swift and decisive action to stop all disobedience regarding same sex blessings and call all bishops who allow it to account for it. They’ve lost confidence in the Discipline’s unequivocal call for apportionments to be paid no matter what, and in the accountability of bishops.

        So disobedience abounds, whatever other adjective you want to attach to it.

        And that means it’s not the presenting question that is the real problem. The real problem is a crisis in confidence in our deliberative and decision processes on all sides. Ultimately, we have to renegotiate those processes in a way that generates greater confidence from all, on this and other “mimetic rivalries” we’re pretty well bound to find ourselves at other points in our life together. All organizations where people have a lot of emotional investment do.

        The presenting question behind our current troubles– “Who gets to control how The United Methodist Church views and is in ministry with LGBT persons”– is not particularly amenable to a deliberative process. Or simply a deciding process, as the current troubles reveal.

        But there is a question that could help us have some better deliberations– and then maybe some better decisions.

        “Who all needs to be part of a decision about how The United Methodist Church views and is in ministry with LGBT persons?”

        The first question continues to generate pitched battles by those who expect to control the outcome, one way or another. We know what that looks like. Ask the 2012 General Administration Committee.

        The second one can generate more collaborative thinking and action. The focus is off the power brokers getting their way. It’s on making sure all voices that need to be heard in the conversation are heard– so whatever renegotiation of processes and boundaries through whatever deliberative process follows is more likely to get to GC, at some point, for perfection and decision– a decision in which there might be more confidence.

    • Taylor,

      I have read a number of your writings and you never seemed to be conversant with the work of Rene Girard or Gil Bailie or James Alison or any number of authors. Is there a scapegoat to be found in our current controversy or will there be an “all against all” war? If we continue down the path of schism each side will blame (scapegoat?) the other I fear.

      Is there a Girardian Facebook group?

      • Gary,

        I don’t often get to trot out the peace studies parts of my peace studies degree– in which Girard’s thinking (with Bailie and Allison and others) plays a considerable role. I tend to focus primarily on the liturgical texts in my day job.

        But if you’re asking about scapegoating as “deserved” blame, I think that sort of misses both what Girard was describing in using this term and the way the Bible (in Leviticus 16) describes the role of the scapegoat in relation to the Yom Kippur rituals.

        The scapegoat in the Bible is not actually “blameworthy.” Indeed, the goat used for this ritual must be spotless and without blemish. Rather, this goat is selected to become the bearer of the (unintentional) sins of others into the desert, thus taking these sins away from the people and restoring peace with God and each other.

        In Girard, the scapegoat is likewise chosen not because the scapegoat is particularly blameworthy for the current war of all against all. Rather, the scapegoat is chosen to carry out the function of “absorbing” the blame of all the people on every side, with the expectation that this “deflection of hostility” will make peace between the formerly warring parties not only ritually but also historically– precisely because now the hostility becomes not “all against all” but “all against [a convenient] one.” And Girard points out, this actually has worked over and over again across centuries and cultures. Well, at least until the next mimetic rivalry begins.

        Girard et al would further suggest that wherever you see a scapegoating mechanism arise (some group or individual getting treated with a hostility far out of any reasonable proportion relative to other individuals or groups) that tends to suggest there is already considerable (and so far unsuccessfully addressed) mimetic conflict happening in the larger group. The initial “disparate treatment” of the “identified other” functions as a kind of stopgap release valve to help slow the approach of outright “all against all” war, if not ultimately prevent it.

        In the long run, though, the scapegoat mechanism fails because it must be repeated, again and again, and often with an escalating frequency– much like an addictive substance to which one develops some sort of tolerance.

        Loving enemies, showing mercy and offering forgiveness to all may be more costly to those who pursue this path (the one Jesus taught and modeled), but, in the end, these do not merely temporarily, as a kind of corporate “fix,” deflect but actually disarm and disable hostility in ways the scapegoat mechanism even in its most extreme forms cannot begin to accomplish.

    • Taylor, I’ll grant (to compress discussion) that there may be optimal processes if all parties step back, but that doesn’t seem realpolitik going into GC 2016. Some parties have already declared “the party over” for traditional policies on sexuality, coute que coute (whatever the cost). Are you presuming to negotiate for them? Your optimism seems noble but illusory, as Voltaire (1778) said of Cartesianism: “Cartesisianism is like a good novel, in which all is credible and nothing is true.”

      • There are typically very strong pre-commitments in negotiations where several parties are highly vested. That does not mean negotiation cannot lead to a better way forward. What it means is people care a lot. It’s possible to work with that.

        I am not putting myself forward as a negotiator. I’m just describing what’s at stake, what’s needed and what may be possible.

  2. I’m not going to vote because I really don’t think that the options reflect our reality. A while back, Ben Witherington succinctly explained the situation. The acceptance of homosexual behavior (men having sex with men and women having sex with women) has been voted down for quite a while and it has become clear that there is no hope for the liberals/progressives to change the UMC”s stance through the church’s processes. The Western and Northeastern Conferences are shrinking fast while the more conservative South Eastern ones are holding their own or slightly growing. Meanwhile, the church in Africa and Asia is growing and the majority are very conservative in regards to sexual ethics.

    Now that it is clear that the liberal/progressives cannot attain their goals through the rules of the church, they are jettisoning them. They are simply refusing to do anything about violations of our covenant together. And here’s the kicker – a while back, Good News wrote about how the actions of the libs/prog’s have made our church community “untenable” (which is the truth – we can’t live together without covenant) and some took that message and starting calling the conservatives/evangelicals “schismatics.” What a big ol’ pile of BS.

    And here’s the thing: with all of this talk about schism/splitting/blah blah blah . . . we’re missing the elephant in the room. The UMC in NA is dying rapidly. I minister in the Memphis conference (which is the smallest conference in the UMC) and it’s pathetic. Our churches are full of people who are going to be dead very soon. And what about guaranteed appointments? How can we continue to do this? How can we continue to guarantee pastors who are nothing are but church-killers a job when it is clear that they flat out stink at leading the people of God into the mission of God? This structure that we have is totally unsustainable and is going to crash. All it is going to take is another dip in the economy or some sort of recession and the dying off of a several more of our old, faithful givers and it’s going to get bad.

    What’s going to happen when we only allow pastors/leaders who actually know how to plant churches, proclaim the gospel through the power of the Spirit, and do the work of Christ in the real world – serve among us? There’s going to be a lot of progressive/liberals out of a job. The soft cushion that they’ve been living on is about to pop. It doesn’t matter if we want to divide or not, the UMC is about to meet reality.

  3. “Suppose, for instance, you were a member of the Church of Rome, and you could not remain therein without committing idolatry; without worshipping of idols, whether images, or saints and angels; then it would be your bounded duty to leave that community, totally to separate from it. Suppose you could not remain in the Church of England without doing something which the word of God forbids, or omitting something which the word of God positively commands; if this were the case, (but blessed be God it is not) you ought to separate from the Church of England.”

    ~ John Wesley on when to schism.

    • Chad…

      That is guidance for when an individual might choose to leave one congregation for another, not counsel for when denominations should split.

      One of the most frequently republished tract by John and Charles that did address Methodists en masse becoming their own church was “Reasons against a Separation from the Church of England.” Look up and read!

      • Taylor,
        I don’t read that as being limited to just individuals. But even if it is, I think that shows a precedence for when it is necessary to split, such as when a church begins calling sin, good.

        The address you cited describes a very different state of affairs. Wesley writes that separation is uncalled for,

        “BECAUSE it would be throwing balls of Wildfire among them that are now quiet in the Land. We are now sweetly united together in Love. We mostly think and speak the same Thing.”

        I don’t think it can be shown that if the Church of England was blessing sexual immorality Wesley would not have led the charge for schism without hesitation.

      • Good point, Chad. You are NOT the one in schism. Those in rebellion are schismatic. They need to own this fact. Meanwhile, keep speaking up for truth.

      • Our ancestors did acknowledge John Wesley as a bishop and Wesley accepted it, right? Obviously, things change. I am not in favor of schism. I am certainly not in favor of the “traditionalists” leaving. In fact, I just don’t see how LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR gets what they want in Portland. The African conferences and the Southeastern Jurisdiction will have 51% of the votes in Portland. How will gay ordination get even 40% much less a majority. LOVE PREVAILS has said they will disrupt and leave if they don’t get what they want and others in LYN say the same thing.

  4. I don’t think people who are deeply invested in a system can speak to its problems, weaknesses and failings with any kind of reliable objectivity. My observation increasingly strengthens as I watch these debates go on and on with neither side truly hearing the other, and that livelihood, position, social power, maintaining the status quo, and worship of the church hierarchy and discipline far outweigh worship of God. If the United Methodist Church manages to off itself in a maniacal fury driving it to swallow its own tail in order to stay at the top of the snake, I can’t see the long term loss.
    God will still be there, church will still be there for people who want to worship God or come to him for solace or redemption. United Methodists don’t hold the keys to the Kingdom–God does. If we can’t monitor and control ourselves any better than this as leaders, by what holy right do we suppose we have to lead others? All you have to do is sit back and listen–watch the blogs and Facebook posts–people aren’t listening to each other. The most polite wait for the other guy to shut up before they expound on their own dearly held opinions, but most of our leaders just screech in fury at each other like pissed off monkeys and then offer disgusted judgments about one another in thinly disguised promises to pray for the enlightenment of the “wrong” side.
    In a way, this reminds me of the muck-up financially during the bailouts when people were pretty sure that life as we know it would end if poorly run and corrupt corporations were forced to close their doors. I promise you, the world would not have ended. Neither will the demise of an infighting and uncharitable organization that refuses to behave itself change the direction of the rotation of the earth.
    If this sounds as if I wish the end of the the United Methodist Church, you couldn’t be more wrong. But if screeching like howler monkeys is the best we can do to represent Christ on earth, I can promise you, the disciples we will be building won’t be serving Christ.

  5. Our rule book makes clear statements. We say (vow, if that is stronger) to uphold the rules. In fact, we only have charges and trials to create a false witness for the media. There is NO requirement for a trial. It is facetious to TRY a person who is properly charged with something he and we KNOW he did. We do not have to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. AND if the person did the “crime” the person must do the time. I am not aware of there being OPTIONS as to the punishment phase of any kind of disobedience to our laws. It follows a progression of “someone, preferably an Elder” must file charges against the wrong-doer, and his or her immediate supervisor has the authority and responsibility to dismiss them. In the case of clergy, by cancelling the person’s ministerial orders. It is totally apparent that the infraction has been committed and the remedy prescribed. Many then want to enter the blame phase by saying the church doesn’t really mean to take such a radical stand, or that such a position is not immoral. Problem is, that’s the only problem. It is over an issue that is absolute and finally, immoral. Immorality is not negotiable. What part of wrong do you not understand?

    • James,

      Let me suggest you read how our system addresses complaints against clergy and laity in the Book of Discipline.

      What you are describing actually violates the Book of Discipline.

      Restrictive Rule IV guarantees a right to trial and appeal (BoD, Par 20). The processes we have in place (starting with Par 2702), and in fact have had in place are not at all as you describe. There is a presumption of innocence. And there is fundamental principle that attempts at just resolution without a trial (which may involve simply an agreement between the counsel for the church and the counsel for the respondent) should be exhausted prior to going to trial. “Church trials are to be regarded as an expedient of last resort” (Par 2707). “The judicial process shall have as its purpose a just resolution of judicial complaints, in hope that God’s work of justice, reconciliation and healing may be realized in the body of Jesus Christ” (Para 2701).

      Further, it is simply not the case at all that there are prescribed sentences for specific violations once someone has been determined to be guilty. How the trial court chooses to respond to a guilty finding is entirely up to the trial court to decide. (See Par 2711.3). There is in fact a range of possible penalties listed there, or the trial court may “fix a lesser penalty.”

      And then, within a specified time frame (30 days), the decision of a trial court may be appealed by the respondent (but not by the church) if it is believed by the respondent that the evidence given in trial does not support the charge or the verdict, or the decision or penalty reached violate Church law sufficiently to call for a new trial or vacate the decision or penalty in part or in whole. (See paragraph 2715).

      When those we ordain, commission, or appoint as local pastors vow to “accept the doctrine, liturgy and discipline” of the church (lower case d, by the way, not referring solely to the Book of Discipline, but to the ways of life the church expects of its professing members and clergy), part of what is accepted is this kind of procedure for addressing judicial complaints.

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