Commentary: Bishops, prepare two envelopes…

by Bob Phillips*

General Conference 2016 is over. Fearing a media feeding frenzy over sex, the Council of Bishops answered the plea to start leading on this issue. They created a proposal the conference accepted. Sex was taken off the table and dropped into the bishops’ collective laps to formulate a way through the morass. The media sighed, special interest groups of left and right grumbled, and the delegates wondered what we would do with the rest of the week with no sex on the agenda. We survived.

As the Council anticipates next steps I offer a point of view and a suggestion. The point of view is a reminder the denomination has a “wicked problem.” That is a technical term for an organization facing a pile of issues, conflicting communication, trust deficits, disagreement on what the issue is and a host of other warts and rashes that defy a simple solution. Thus, the Council can come up with the perfect stand for the sexuality disputes and still have no denomination left standing, as nearly every American church continues to hemorrhage participants regardless of their specific position on same-sex anything. Neither the Council nor the churches can afford to assume unrealistic outcomes from this process. Lots of insights on wicked problem theory are available to help the discernment process, but that is grist for another mill another day.

This leads to the suggestion for the Council. Prepare two envelopes. I know that is the punchline for an old joke (google it if you wish), but this is different. Prepare one envelope with the very best of collaborative thought and prayer, reflecting the voices and insights of all stakeholders, on an approach where unity can be nurtured by the global church and these specific issues find a stable and rational place in the priorities of the denomination. Do so remembering that the same delegates who made their conflicting perspectives clear in committee will have the final say on your proposal.

Prepare another envelope to permit gracious exit for churches and clergy who cannot in good conscience and obedience live with the decision the delegates make on the proposal in the first envelope. The talk always has drifted toward disaffected conservatives who wish to leave. That happened with our Presbyterian, Episcopal, and Lutheran colleagues; concerned traditionalists departed in a steady stream until the balance of power at their equivalent to our General Conference tipped the balance clearly to the left. The stream became a flood that continues in the formation of new church bodies.

The world has turned upside down insofar as the United Methodists are concerned. The recent General Conference made clear that the more traditional-moderate-evangelical wing of the church holds serious influence. There is no reason for those folks to leave the denomination. Thus, amiable proposals about churches and pastors whose conscience cannot allow them to obey what they believe are unjust policies (regarding sexuality) affirm they can depart for another new or existing group with property and pensions intact. The more liberal wing of mainline Protestants have never been the ones to depart. Now may be the time to start. The alternative is debilitating disobedience designed to “destroy the village in order to save it.” Those of us with memories of Viet Nam recall that approach didn’t work then and it won’t work now. The “Progressive Methodist Church,” complete with several seminaries and collaborative connections in areas of mission, education, and social witness, can take a firm stand on the right side of history in a truly inclusive fellowship of 21st century Christians.

Two envelopes, bishops, if you please.

 

PHILLIPS-BOB-07.2011Bob Phillips retired as the senior United Methodist chaplain in the US Navy. He now serves as pastor of the multi-ethnic/racial First UMC in downtown Peoria, Il. He is a graduate of Illinois, Asbury, Princeton and St. Andrews.

 

 

 

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7 Comments on "Commentary: Bishops, prepare two envelopes…"

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 
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Wes Andrews
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Richard, “the right side of history” doesn’t mean the side that is true and enduring. Every society that is in ashes is so because (see the Roman Empire and ancient Greece among so many others) they embraced chaos (yes sexual chaos), and they manipulated and exploited their people. The Romans and Greeks thought they were on the “right” side of history because they had “might”, and yet it was those who followed Jesus and obeyed everything he taught that found themselves centered on authentic, enduring, count-cultural TRUTH. Bob, great commentary. If any church wished to leave the UMC, they should… Read more »
Sandy Wylie
Guest

Given the set of circumstances we are in, there is no way to keep this church together. Can’t we be honest? Rather than characterizing the inevitable outcome as one group “leaving,” the articles of separation should make clear that the 2 groups are going separate ways. We can all wish each other well. We are in a box canyon from which there is no escape. This is simply the best of all of the possible outcomes, all of which are very, very bad.

Paul W.
Guest
I don’t think what you are describing is feasible. I think one group is going to have to leave. Given that the average makeup of UMC congregations is roughly 20% firmly theologically conservative, 20% firmly theologically progressive, and 60% middle of the road (i.e., a mix of true centrists and those with no theological convictions), there is going to be no easy way to divide up the individual churches. Because of this, if votes were taken at the local church level on whether to stay or leave the UMC, the vast majority of churches would automatically vote to stay. This… Read more »
John Wesley Leek
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I’ve heard this “rule” that for congregations roughly 40% are conservative, 40% are moderate, 20% are liberal, but for clergy 20% are conservative, 40% moderate, 40% liberal. That “feels” right as I observe the church and her discussions, but I really have no idea.

Phil
Guest

I agree Paul. The PC(USA) tried a conservative and progressive branch approach and it literally tore some individual congregations in two and the “fight” we see in the GC arrived in the local church.

My fear is: Neither an individual conservative nor a new progressive church can support the African churches or even small subsidized churches in this country on their own. I am sure this is weighing heavily on the Bishops.

Keith Sweat
Guest
I held the same position until the CoB letter at GC 2016. Anyone who believes that the CoB will make any proposal other than replacing the teaching of the church with that of the dissenters has no history upon which to take that stand. The plain speech of their joint statement, and of individual bishops, makes it clear they will not consider amicable separation or disaffiliation. It is reasonable to suspect that this will motivate GC2020 to write such a plan on the floor. That is a recipe for flawed legislation leading to litigation. Agree that your recommendation is what… Read more »
Richard Hunter
Guest
A bit more accurate: The world has turned upside down insofar as the United Methodists are concerned. The recent General Conference made clear that the more [conservative] traditional-moderate-evangelical wing of the church holds serious influence. There is no reason for those folks to leave the denomination. Thus, amiable proposals about churches and pastors whose conscience cannot allow them to obey what they believe are unjust policies (regarding [equality] sexuality) affirm they can depart for another new or existing group with property and pensions intact. The more liberal [traditional-moderate-progressive] wing of mainline Protestants has never been the ones to depart. Now… Read more »
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