I was one of the participants from the Indiana Annual Conference at UMCNext. To be honest, I have mixed feelings about the gathering. Only time will tell whether it was a step forward or a side step.
The following are my impressions of what happened and what it might mean as we move toward General Conference.
Let me own my bias: I support plans for the creation of a new denomination that would have a concordat with a traditionalist United Methodist Church or the dissolution of the United Methodist Church into two or three new denominations. I do not support the strategy of staying in the United Methodist Church to force traditionalists to leave through acts of resistance.
The gathering began in the sanctuary with lengthy introductions by Adam Hamilton and members of the convening team. They acknowledged that no single goal or strategy would come out of this event. Following them was an array of individuals who gave testimonies about the matrix of heterosexism, sexism, and racism before we shared communion. In a word, “Justice” was the theme of the gathering.
For the next day and a half, we were assigned to tables with individuals from different annual conferences. For me, the best part of the meeting was the depth of reflection at our tables. The most frustrating part of the meeting was that we did not have enough time to go further with those conversations.
We affirmed that racism must be dealt with as an essential part of a vision for the future. Too much time was spent talking about different forms of resistance. And typical for United Methodists, there was too much wordsmithing about values instead of strategizing about practical matters.
The heart of the meeting was the consideration of three broad strategies: (1) dissolve the denomination and organize three new denominations; (2) leave and reaffiliate as a new denomination; (3) stay in and resist until traditionalists leave. Members of the convening team gave lengthy introductions to each proposal, outline the pros and cons. I felt that there was a negative bias in the overview of option two. Then the tables discussed them, and we took straw polls.
Each option polled about the same—roughly 60 percent liked each one enough to want to do more work on them. Because the first two options are similar, it boils down to a choice of whether to stay or leave. When that question was posed, the straw poll showed that 57 percent favored some form of leaving or dissolving the denomination.
Wednesday morning, we sat with our annual conference groups. At the Indiana table, there were honest, hard conversations about the struggles, past and present, of being centrist and progressive in our highly conservative conference.
Reflecting the wishes of the body, the convening team announced that we will take a two-pronged approach: Pursue plans for dissolution and resist the Traditional Plan. The convening team summarized four guiding principles. They are fine, but they imply that the only thing we will do is stay in and resist. There was no mention of a two-prong strategy in the written press release. In his clearest statement, Hamilton summarized his position: “Church of the Resurrection is staying to resist as long as possible” for the sake of those churches who are unable or not ready to leave at this time.
There was an inevitable and productive messiness to our time together. Hamilton and the convening team did a yeoman’s job of organizing the diverse group. However, I think they are dominated by a bias toward the option of staying and resisting.
3 CRUCIAL QUESTIONS
The tensions and ambiguities in the gathering point to three crucial questions about tactics, strategy, and vision.
The Tactical Question—How effective is resistance? Acts of resistance are designed to appeal to potential supporters and to shame opponents, but they can quickly backfire if they portray the protestor as obstinate. Sanctions—such as withholding apportionments—are effective if they are targeted and substantial, but usually need a long period of time to build up an accumulative effect. Also, acts of resistance must have a targeted focus. A shotgun approach makes the protestors feel good but never work.
Effectiveness is linked to a goal, but there is a spectrum of four goals coming out of UMCNext: resistance for uniting a centrist-progressive coalition; resistance for persuading undecided congregations and pastors; resistance for leveraging a deal with traditionalists; resistance for changing the denomination. The effectiveness of resistance diminishes quickly as you move across that spectrum.
The Strategic Question—At what point does the strategy of resistance work against the strategy of envisioning new denominations? This gets at the reason for resistance. If it is to stay in and take over, then it is directly at odds with the creation of a new denomination. Right now, because the alliance between centrists and progressives is founded on their shared opposition to the Traditional Plan, this contradiction is not felt. But at some point, these two divergent goals will work against each other and the strategy of resistance will interfere with the strategy of visioning.
This issue could resolve itself if a vision of a new denomination is attractive to moderate churches, which would resolve Hamilton’s concern. Ironically, the longer the centrists focus on resistance, the less time we have to create an alternative that will attract undecided congregations. The deadline for General Conference petitions is looming, and the window of opportunity for negotiating a gracious exit is closing. The strategy of stay and resist is a gamble that could lose badly.
The Visionary Question—What kind of spiritual disposition is needed to receive God’s vision? The gathering concluded with a reaffirmation of baptism and the first baptismal question symbolized the mood of resistance in the meeting: “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?” This is necessary because the traditionalists advocate a theology of death based on a gendered righteousness. But it only expresses what we are against, not what we are for.
What we need to emphasize going forward is love. If Christ is our center, then love will be our way and love enables us to receive God’s vision for a new denomination. The love of Jesus Christ is the only foundation for a new denomination. It is what will make such a vision attractive to undecided congregations.
This is not to say that we should stop emphasizing justice. As Cornel West said, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” But love is more than resistance, it leads us to liberation in Jesus Christ. This is what Our Movement Forward aspires to in their statement “Loved and Liberated.”
At the same time, Christ enables us to love our enemies. Only by loving them do we keep from carrying the dysfunctions of the United Methodist Church into a new denomination. This is why Kent Millard, President of United Theological Seminary, makes the case for separation.
Love gets us to the other baptismal question: “Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races”—and orientations and genders.