Rejoinder to Rebekah Miles

By Thomas Lambrecht –

The Rev. Dr. Rebekah Miles recently invited her readers to join her going down the “rabbit hole” into the “Alice in Wonderland” that is currently The United Methodist Church. The point of her post is to critique elements of the Traditional Plan and encourage her readers to worry about what it might mean if the rest of the Traditional Plan is enacted at General Conference 2020 in Minneapolis.

Although I would not use her over-the-top rhetoric, I do see truth in her short-term prognosis for United Methodism. “Conservative groups will keep pushing for legislative accountability, even if they have to go to more astonishing extremes to do so. Progressives will keep pushing the limits of that accountability through increasing ecclesial disobedience, even if they have to go to more astonishing extremes to do so. And many moderates, horrified by the draconian extremes of the So-Called-Traditional Plan, are finally ready to join them. Nobody will back down. And as far as I can tell, all of us believe we are acting according to conscience and in loyalty to the people with whom we are in ministry.”

In Miles’ mind, the solution is “to find a way either to amicable separation or a profoundly new form of unity.” She refers interested readers to her chapter in a recently published anthology. “I make a more sustained case for separation or significant restructure in my article, ‘When Brothers and Sisters Fight to the Death: Ecclesiology, Mission, and the United Methodist Church,’ in Where do We Go From Here? Honest Responses from 24 United Methodist Leaders, Kevin Slimp, ed. (Market Square Publishing, 2019)”

Although we come at this solution from opposite ends of the theological spectrum, Miles and I ultimately arrive at the same place. The only healthy way forward for The United Methodist Church is some form of separation. (So far, proposals to resurrect the Connectional Conference Plan or some other “significant restructure” into a “new form of unity” have failed to attract concrete ideas or substantial support.) I think we would both agree that finding our way to that reality in an amicable way that is generous of spirit would be a significant witness to our faith in Christ and the grace of the Holy Spirit.

So far, so good. Where I part ways with Miles is over her caustic characterization of the Traditional Plan as containing “draconian extremes” that “horrify” many moderates.

The way Miles describes the Traditional Plan, it sounds like the provisions of the Traditional Plan were dreamed up by some mad church scientist having a nightmare. Unfortunately, such a description ignores the context and history of our church and how we got to this point. As a colleague portrayed it to me, this would be similar to being late to attend a play. Walking in during intermission and starting the story with the second act of the play, one would have missed the first act. The reason why the characters are acting the way they are would make no sense because the foundations for their actions in the first act were missed.

Act One of the United Methodist drama is a 30-year-long story of increasing disregard for the teachings and standards of the church and for the ability of General Conference to make decisions on behalf of the whole church. This act included a number of high points such as incidents involving the “Sacramento 68,” Jimmy Creech, Greg Dell, Karen Dammen, Beth Stroud, and resolutions passed by up to a dozen annual conferences repudiating the teachings of the church on marriage and sexuality, including innovative legislative strategies aimed at circumventing church requirements. The list could go on.

The climax of Act One, however, was the series of events beginning in 2011, when hundreds of UM clergy signed statements indicating their willingness to perform same-sex weddings. Bishop Melvin Talbert twice invaded another bishop’s territory for the purpose of performing high-profile same-sex weddings, while calling for increased disobedience. Some bishops began settling complaints against clergy performing such weddings by first a 24-hour suspension, then no consequences at all, and finally even giving these clergy a platform to promote disobedience in their annual conferences. About a dozen annual conferences officially declared they would not comply with the Book of Discipline and boards of ordained ministry openly recommended self-avowed practicing homosexuals to be ordained as clergy.

This growing bishop and clergy rebellion in some parts of the U.S. led to the realization at the 2016 General Conference that the situation in our church was untenable. A group of respected leaders asked the bishops to create a commission to develop a plan for amicable separation of the denomination. Instead the Council of Bishops recommended a Commission on a Way Forward to try to keep the denomination together.

Act Two began with the work of the Commission, which resulted in three alternative “ways forward” that would preserve some amount of unity in the church. The Connectional Conference Plan was a “significant restructuring” of the church, for which Miles recognized the need. However, neither end of the theological spectrum (nor the moderate institutionalists) embraced the restructure option. This left two “winner-take-all” options.

The One Church Plan would dramatically change the church’s teachings and allow same-sex weddings and ordination, at which change conservatives indicated they would have to withdraw from the denomination. (Tellingly, many moderate institutionalists were dead-set against allowing anyone to leave and refused to consider any kind of exit path. They wanted to force unity, even at the cost of people’s consciences and the prospect of a multitude of lawsuits.)

The Traditional Plan was an attempt to restore accountability and compliance with the Book of Discipline and the decisions of the General Conference, while providing a gracious exit for those who could not live with the current standards of the church. Here again, it is important to note that many moderate institutionalists refused to allow for a gracious exit, even for themselves. Instead, they did all they could to obstruct the Traditional Plan and attempt to prevent the General Conference from making any decision at all.

The key to this narrative is that the Traditional Plan would not have been necessary at all, except that the instruments of unity – primarily some bishops and annual conferences – failed to maintain the unity of the church by enforcing the Discipline’s requirements. Over the past 30 years, it has been the escalating disobedience that has forced the General Conference to take repeated actions to close loopholes and adopt punitive measures to ensure compliance. Without such compliance, the church would experience chaos and a constitutional crisis. Ironically, that is where we are now, at the end of Act Two, in chaos and constitutional crisis.

The Book of Discipline. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

For Dr. Miles to write as if the Traditional Plan were developed in a vacuum is unhelpful as various factions discuss the future in good faith before we arrive in Minneapolis. Her comments in this instance can be seen as both disingenuous and misleading. Nitpicking individual provisions of the Traditional Plan with scaremongering rhetoric misses the bigger picture described above.

Moderates such as Miles had a chance to help the church move into a healthier place in 2016 by either ending the disobedience or helping the church to consider a plan of separation. They did neither. Instead, they attempted to force an artificial unity on the church that is belied by the differing foundational theological commitments held by progressives and conservatives. Failing in that attempt, they are now engaging in the very same divisive and schismatic actions they have accused conservatives of contemplating over the years, but magnified ten-fold. When the shoe is on the other foot, the standards for behavior and expectations change radically.

What will Act Three hold? Will the confrontation simply escalate until the church explodes? (Think of the movie, War of the Roses.) Or will there be partners across the theological spectrum willing to work together to formulate a fair and reasonable plan of separation that allows the groups with contradictory theological commitments to walk apart, while retaining the possibility of cooperation in areas of agreement? One hopes that the public relations battle being waged by some on the left to demonize and misrepresent the Traditional Plan and its supporters does not make such cooperation impossible.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. 

 

Comments

  1. The debate is over. Let’s stop beating a dead horse.

    A schism is fully exposed and confirmed in the UMC. The irreconcilable differences are locked in and confirmed. There is really no new ground to cover regarding the Biblical and theological differences between the traditionalists and progressives. If there is a third group, the middle or moderate group, , they are far from offering a coherent definition of themselves, but mostly fall in the progressive camp when it comes to opposing the Traditional Plan.

    Now the conversation must shift exclusively to separation and peace. Since there can be no peace without separation, the the only option left is SEPARATION. Traditionalists have not equivocated— they are ready to negotiate. The ball is now in the progressive/moderate court.

    • I agree with this. The problem is, I think, that the Moderate/Progressive side was working on Unity as a basis point, and completely disregarding that there was no such desire from the Conservative side.

      And when you consider that the Conservative side has been working for a decade to establish a leadership cadre, align their groups, etc – the Mod/Prog side is almost wholly disorganized here.

      Seems very much in alignment with American Politics, not the body of Christ.

  2. Because the progressives control the UMC bureaucracy (to our shame), this fight is going to be ugly. Sadly, it seems they view the assets of the UMC as belonging solely to themselves, and will fight tooth and nail, using every dirty trick in the book, to hold on to power and control. Those claiming to be “moderate leaders” before GC2019, it turns out, were really just progressives all along who were hoping to avoid the baggage associated with wearing the progressive label. Well, they’ve now taken off their velvet gloves exposing the brass knuckles they’ve been wearing all along.

  3. Joe Webb says

    The ball is in the progressive court, true, and the plan is to use every tactic possible to force out traditionalists, in my opinion. Why all the ugly charges about traditionalists? Use fear, coercion, dissimulation to paint traditionalists as hateful and bigoted with a spirit that fails to honor Christ. Their approach is based on an assessment that a majority of American Methodists agree with them (55%, 65%, 75%??) and the minority traditionalists should leave and take the overseas Methodists with them.

  4. Charles Armour says

    Despite whatever previous undying love was formerly pledged between two people in a now divorcing marriage, as nearly every pastor who has offered counsel in such circumstances can attest, the final act of divorce nearly always ends with one thing, a conflict over property.

    The Progressives, despite their soaring rhetoric of Christian love, seem, by virtue of their subtle and sometimes not so subtle ad hominem attacks and political maneuvers, determined to force the Traditionalists to leave piecemeal, until such a time as the former is able to confiscate what should have been the property of the latter.

    • creecher66 says

      another marriage metaphor! Reminds me of Abraham’s sentence with “for better or worse” . Traditionalists are envisioning for several outcomes and maneuvers. We need good faith discussions, so Act 3 is not a classic Greek tragedy ending. Maybe it is time for the lawyers ? If party A has not been subtle lately, neither had party B who had many other accountability measures in the pipeline, for all to see. Is the goal to avoid a contentious General Conference(that would be like a public fight between spouses) and to begin the future with reasonable division of assets, or to WIN i.e. someone loses, or to somehow stay together?

  5. The debate is over. Separation is going to happen. But Traditionalist has an over-reliance on the fact that Moderates will go along to get along. The most common concerns I have read lately is that the money will flee from the Central Conferences and the Liberal and Moderate conferences turn inward to avoid this conflict again. When Conservatives fled with their dollars ministry went on because the Progressive-Liberal-Moderate base supported the church. Now people feel stung but the very people they supported with their dollars. I think schism will happen before 2020. Minneapolis will be a far less joyous victory party for the Traditionalist cause.

    • Reynolds says

      Eric,
      I am not sure where you are getting your facts. Look at all liberal theocracy denominations and you will see a steep decline of people in the pews and money in the coffers. Yes, the orthodox denominations are also losing members but not nearly the rate of the other side. UCC and PCUSA will be no more in 20 years at their rate of decline.

    • creecher66 says

      This narrative about a years past fleeing of dollars keeps coming up. Could someone at Good News get me up to speed? To Eric, the go along to get along crowd is trying to get up to speed so we can make a choice of good consience, if it comes to that. To have a renewed Methodism in the US if the Lord is merciful is my prayer. Excited to be for something (orthodoxy) instead of against . It is more joyful.

  6. The COB in 2016 developed the Way Forward Commission as a way to align the UMC to cultural norms, not biblical scripture. At least, that is my way of seeing it. If their crystal ball had been better, perhaps they would not have taken this action. But, they did and now they will do everything possible to see the Traditional Plan collapse. We’ll see.

  7. With relation to separation —- what are the major hurdles, other than the general church bureaucracy, that must be overcome?

    • The bulk of the heavy lifting is done. The Trust Clause is out of play until after GC. Although that body could extend it. Votes could be taken and resolved by the AC as early as next year. The bulk of the issue is convincing a congregation to take the leap. For the activists its an easy call. But for your average person, the answers are not so clear and action could destroy many smaller congregations. The mega churches are a different matter but make up a fraction of the membership.

  8. Charles Armour says

    All the recent and rather sad debates causes one to reflect upon the old idea of “pluralism”, a term once so widely used in many Methodist circles and now increasingly exacerbated in scope. The end result is the question of what exactly is the baseline to be a Christian, and more specifically a Methodist?

    For so many, the baseline of Christian belief has been diluted to the point that its very foundations become mute. Does one need to accept the Virgin Birth and Incarnation? Apparently not. Does one need to believe that Jesus was the Son of God? Apparently not. Does one need to accept the Atonement and that Christ died upon the cross as an expiation for our sins? Apparently not. Does one need to believe that Holy Scripture is inspired by God? Apparently not. What then is the baseline if in fact there yet remains one?

    The only consistent historical testimony and and witness of the life of Jesus Christ is found in The New Testament and other first and Second Century Christian writings. All other early statements of Jesus are at best neutral and otherwise mostly derogatory. Thus, without the belief in the inspiration of scripture one is left with very little upon which to base one’s faith.

    Judaism and Christianity stand out as unique among ancient religions as being religions based not upon myth or esoteric philosophy and belief but rather faiths based upon history and the notion that God acted in specific pinpoints within the realm of human existence. Islam also coming out of the old Abrahamic tradition makes the same bold claim. Each one of these great religions therefore base their existence on historical truth claims attested to by the peoples of that time who received or were eyewitnesses to the direct revelation from God and His resultant actions thereof. That is why Peter was so adamant in saying; “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we told you of the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses to His Majesty.” (II Peter 1:16)

    Through the ages such a claim made by the Abrahamic faiths has often been challenged, ignored, mocked and their proponents often attacked and persecuted. It is thus not easy to be a believer of a historic faith claim and the temptation to embrace a given culture and develop some religious syncretism of the two is great.

    No wonder Paul opined reminded his congregation that; “We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to the Jews and a folly to the Gentiles, but to those who are called both Greeks and Jews, Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (I Cor. 1:23) Likewise, The Old Testament repeatedly warned the children of Israel not to be “Like the nations” but to steadfastly remain “a people set apart.”

    Regardless of how many people believe them, in any given period of human events, the truth claims of a historic religion rather remain. For Christianity, either Jesus was born of a virgin or he was not. He was either the incarnate Son of God or he was not. He either died for our sins or he did not. Scripture is either the inspired word of God or it is not. And people either believe these claims or they do not.

    As for various religious organizations, each one must determine precisely what is their baseline for belief. Joshua Pointed this out to the people as they entered the promised land and admonished them to: “Chose this day whom you will serve….” (Joshua 24:15) It was then a hard choice. It still is. No wonder Christ warned that we can either serve God or the world but we cannot serve both God and the world. Beneath the current debates within Methodism is the haunting question looming like a gauntlet for us all. What is our baseline of faith?

  9. So true. Thanks for your comments.

    Yes, this “debate” is specifically about same sex sexual behavior amongst clergy and same sex marriage. But the real divide is over what is our belief as methodists. And shouldn’t we expect that our clergy follow and teach those beliefs?

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