By Walter B. Fenton
Without question, politics is often a nasty and mean spirited business. Everyone decries the tone and tenor of our local, state, and national politics. “Negative ads,” distortions of opponents’ records, political favors for large cash donations, and the political gerrymandering that strongly tips the scales in favor of incumbents makes for a dispirited, weary, and cynical electorate.
Not surprisingly, good church people want none of this in their midst. But in its justifiable aversion to all the more unsavory aspects of politics the church overlooks its necessity and so mistakenly believes it can somehow have a polity without politics. This is naïve at best and disingenuous at worst.
Ironically, in its attempt to eschew politics the church often ends up practicing politics badly. This is manifested most clearly at the most critical time in the church’s corporate life: the lead up to General and Jurisdictional Conferences (GC/JC). It is implicitly understood—especially among the clergy—that politicking for a delegate’s seat to the GC/JCs is impolitic.
Some annual conferences go so far as to explicitly ban the practice of politics when it comes to the election of the GC/JC delegates. And while everyone who has had anything remotely to do with the election of episcopal candidates knows it is fraught with politics, the politicking goes on almost completely behind closed doors. Episcopal candidates seldom if ever spell out their thoughts on the critical doctrinal and ethical issues exercising the church. Rather, their written materials and answers to delegates’ questions are almost always indirect, and couched in ways that make it difficult to decipher how they will lead in critical areas.
The messiness of politics. The necessity of politics, despite all its more unsavory aspects, becomes obvious when we humbly admit that we are a frail and sinful lot of folk who amazingly enough are called to be the Church. Certainly we all long for that day when we will be the pure bride of Christ, but until that time we are given the task of discerning and living out God’s will in this time and place. That is a high calling and we all know discerning God’s will is fraught with difficulty despite the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the beguiling precision of cranking tough issues through the quadrilateral. And yet, we must do the hard work of corporate discernment, and then we must equally bear witness to what we have discerned.
Thankfully, we have a good polity that offers us freedom and yet necessarily constrains us in our discernment. Our polity orders the body in such a way that individuals are free to speak and share what they regard to be God’s will for the church. Indeed, our polity gives us the freedom and the responsibility of being good writers and rhetoricians. We are charged with the task of persuading one another of the correctness of our discernment. Then, after a period of reflection, we are called to vote on the matters before us. And it is here where the source of all our ambivalence and misgivings about politics in the church is to be found, for there is something acutely odd and disconcerting about voting on what we regard to be God’s will for church.
The New Testament is painfully silent on exactly how the early church discerned God’s will. While Acts 15 is often celebrated as a model, it offers no explicit formula for how the Apostles arrived at its decision regarding the acceptance of the Gentiles. Oddly, the one mode of discernment that is explicitly spelled out is the casting of lots for a replacement Apostle (Acts 1). Although it would save a great deal of time, expense, and agony, I don’t think anyone would seriously propose this method of discernment for episcopal candidates.
For all our high regard for Peter and Paul, for all of our admiration for Martin Luther, and our obvious debt to John Wesley, we people called Methodists have a strong aversion to one individual dictating to the whole body what God’s will for it is—and we clearly are not alone in this. But then what? Well, we have decided that adopting a polity that is expansive and broadly participatory is the best course. It is not a perfect system, but when engaged in with graciousness and humility and also with candor and courage, it is a workable and respectful one. We must always remember that if we have a polity we will have politics. The question, therefore, is not whether we will have them, but rather what kind will they be?
Aversion to politics makes matters worse. The Church’s aversion for politics manifests itself in a variety of ways, but allow me to highlight only a couple of the most egregious examples and to demonstrate how they often make matters worse rather than better.
First, as stated earlier, not a few annual conferences attempt to ban politics by procedural means. This is most apparent when it comes to the election of delegates to the GC/JCs. Clergy and lay delegates to the annual conferences elect these delegates, but they often know very little about the candidates placed in nomination to represent them. This seems particularly true for the laity, many of whom do not know each other well, and may only serve as a lay delegate for three or four years.
At best, lay and clergy delegates receive a list of the candidates’ names with very brief biographies and then a list of local church, district, and conference committees on which they have served, but precious little information is offered about their views on the very contentious issues that we all know they will have to address at the GC/JCs. And to complicate matters further, many annual conferences severely restrict or completely prohibit anything that smacks of politicking on the floor of annual conference or even in the venue where it is held.
Furthermore, and most egregiously, annual conference members are not allowed to review the past voting records of delegates who have attended previous General Conferences. We would never allow this in the case of our state and national government representatives. But as things now stand, a GC delegate can be very discrete about his or her views on a given issue, cast a vote on that issue contrary to the will of the majority of one’s annual conference, and yet never have to answer for casting such a vote. At best, this system creates voter apathy, and at worst it fosters suspicion and mistrust.
Second, our aversion to politics leads to a disrespecting of our polity. This is most evident in the infamous and increasingly strident protests at recent General Conferences. Ironically, it is often the church leaders who most loudly call us to “holy conferencing” and beckon us to be “above politics” who most often allow and engender the most divisive political statements to be made at General Conference.
Protesters took to the floor of the 2000 General Conference in Cleveland and brought the proceedings to a halt. Even worse, some protesters, delegates, and even episcopal leaders precipitated a terrible violation of Paul’s admonition that we should settle disputes among ourselves when they forced the conference to have them arrested by the civil authorities so the church could proceed with its work. In retrospect, the presiding bishop should have requested that our ushers remove the protesters rather than calling in the Cleveland Police Department.
While the protesters styled their demonstration as an act of civil disobedience, it was an unfortunate act of ecclesiastical disobedience.
The protesters returned in Pittsburgh in 2004 and Fort Worth in 2008, and without even allowing the assembled and duly elected delegates to vote on whether they wanted GC proceedings to be interrupted by a protest, the presiding bishops simply welcomed the protesters onto the floor of General Conference, whereupon, the gathering was subjected to the smashing of a communion chalice in 2004 and the shrouding of the communion table in 2008.
The huge disconnect for most of us is being told by our bishops and other administrative leaders not to be political when they allow the most partisan among us who are disgruntled by a particular vote at General Conference to come on to the conference floor, disrupt the proceedings, engage in political demonstrations, and to make full use of the conference microphone to castigate those who have voted their conscience.
Certainly, politics can be stressful, but engaging in politics would be much preferable to the antics that result when we are afraid to be open and honest with one another at the annual conference level. If we were to deal forthrightly and clearly with one another at our annual conferences we could avoid some of the spectacles of recent General Conferences. But dealing forthrightly and clearly means engaging in open, spirited, and grace-filled politics.
Time must be allotted so candidates for JGC/GJCs can speak candidly and courageously about their positions on the critical issues facing the church. And annual conference members must be given the opportunity to learn as much as possible about the various candidates for these important positions. Yes, the process will be fraught with tension, but I have confidence that our annual conference leaders can create a constructive and respectful environment where all candidates share their views forthrightly and at some length. Too many annual conferences attempt to bracket the difficult issues and short circuit the election process. Instead, they engage in long pep-rallies that are never quite as convincing as the planners intended.
The imperative of politics. Clearly, on some issues, folks allied with Good News or The Confessing Movement or with The Methodist Federation for Social Action or The Reconciling Ministries Network are not going to see eye to eye. However, I am thankful that each of them has the courage of their convictions and, despite the constraints placed on them by fearful annual conference bureaucracies, do what they can to engage in a political process that is necessary for a healthy polity.
For in reality, in this in-between-time of Christ’s first and second coming, we frail and fallible men and women are given the task of being the church in the world. We should do it with graciousness and humility, but also with courage and candor.
Walter B. Fenton is an elder in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference and currently serves in an extension appointment as Vice President for College Advancement at Greenville College in Greenville, Illinois.