Commentary: Wait . . . or maybe not

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The last days of the 2016 General Conference in Portland, Oregon were filled with all sorts of emotions — with some feeling joy over the breadth of our common ministry, but others (both “progressive” and “traditionalist”) having a sense of unease that the General Conference had not definitively addressed issues around human sexuality. Instead, breaking past precedents, the General Conference chose to follow the lead of the Council of Bishops who suggested a “way forward” in addressing those issues.

So when our production team brought me the following video as a part of our GC Shorts collection, I was hesitant in sharing it, fearing that the emotions were too raw and that this video might bring unneeded pain to some:

That’s what we all thought we had agreed on as a General Conference — to wait one last time and give the Council of Bishops time to discern a way forward. While the specifics called for a special commission to examine of all paragraphs in the Book of Discipline related to human sexuality, the conversations between bishops and church leaders that preceded the bishops’ recommendation included conversations about a possible church split.  Certainly, not all agreed with the “Way Foward” proposal, but among many there was a sense of hope that in taking a new path, there might be some way to maintain unity in the United Methodist Church

However, in the weeks months since the gathering in Portland, it became more and more clear that waiting was not part of the plan for certain segments of the church. For some waiting symbolized weakness (“We need clearly defined doctrines NOW”). For others, waiting perpetuated injustice (“All means ALL”). For both folks on both sides of the divide waiting was not an acceptable answer in an instant gratification society. We want a definite answer NOW. The time for waiting is over.

What General Conference called for was a season of Advent — a time of reflection and penitence to prepare for Christ’s breaking forth into the world. But there were some that simply weren’t willing to wait 4 more weeks.

“We spent our 40 years wandering in the wilderness,” some said, “and it’s time to cross the Jordan and enter the promised land.” Others moaned about the suffering and longed to return to the days of stability and certainty found in Egypt. In the midst of the divided visions of how to travel, the Council of Bishops came forth and called for a time to allow some spies to scout the land ahead and offer the right way forward. But of course, like a child straining for Christmas, it’s hard to wait.

Of course, in the face of the call to wait, I’m confronted with the words of Martin Luther King Jr.:

For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
–Letter from a Birmingham Jail

That may be the problem with the action of the General Conference — the inability to affirm our season of “Wait” not as one of “Never” but rather as the final chance to either find reconciliation between two radically different theological streams or to define the terms of an amicable separation. Maybe the General Conference should have been clearer in saying “This is it! There is a deadline. Yes, wait one more time but there is no waiting beyond.”

In any case, for certain segments of the church, waiting of any kind was no longer acceptable. One side of the divide took actions and created structures to position itself for the split to come. The other proclaimed that the rule of life designed to hold us together is no longer valid and can be ignored without consequence. While both sides would deny that their actions were designed to precipitate a church split, those decisions further eroded trust, and the inability to wait for the Council of Bishops and the possibility hoped for by the General Conference torpedoed their work before it had time to leave the harbor.

Now I confess that I am much more of a pastor than a prophet. I am one to always hold out hope for the power of conversation, for I believe the failure to communicate more often than not leads to the demonization of the other rather than facilitating relationship. “When we see others as the enemy,” Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “we risk becoming what we hate. When we oppress others, we end up oppressing ourselves. All of our humanity is dependent upon recognizing the humanity in others.” Painting the other with broad brushes (as was seen often in Portland) ignores the hurts and fears that are the cause of our brokenness. We have to be willing to invest in the conversation (trying to understand the fears and pain behind what divides us) for without it the task of reconciliation becomes harder and harder.

And yet as King reminded the white pastors of Birmingham in his letter, there comes a point where negotiation seems fruitless. “Lamentably, it is a historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.” Given that tendency, a “way forward” as a unified church may indeed be impossible.

What seems clear to me is that more and more folks on both sides of the aisle are done with talking, and ready to call in the lawyers to facilitate the divorce. My hope is that there could be patience so as to allow the Bishops to find the appropriate mediators to facilitate and amicable separation. But in our demand for “change now”, the breach gets wider and wider, and the ability to find common ground becomes narrower.

Several years ago Radney Foster and Bill Lloyd wrote a song that describes our situation today:

When the buzzer went off in the back of my head
We were twelve feet apart in a King size bed
I was hanging on the edge and you were doing the same
Love was long gone, I thought I heard the fat lady sing

We spent the last six months,staying out of our way
and talking ourselves out of something to say.
I thought a line went dead, but then the telephone rang.
It was love on hold. I thought I heard the fat lady sing.

It’s hard not to think that the corpulent diva isn’t singing for the UMC today. Maybe, just maybe, the torpedoes are duds, devoid of the power to sink the ship. Or maybe the ship needs to be sunk, broken up for scrap to create several leaner and swifter speed boats. 

In either case, the times they are a changing…

 

 

Jay Voorhees, Former Executive Editor

The Rev. Jay Voorhees is the Executive Editor of The United Methodist Reporter and the Chief Creative Officer for CircuitWriter Media LLC which operates this site and MethoBlog.com. Jay is an ordained elder in the Tennessee Annual Conference. Jay has written on life and the practice of faith in The United Methodist Church at Only Wonder Understands since 2003.

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4 Comments on "Commentary: Wait . . . or maybe not"

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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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Scott Fritzsche
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Some who were there at the WJ decision spoke to me about how they discussed numerous possibilities about what could happen due to their decision. My point being this was an eyes open choice on their part. That is only to say that they knew the potential of this action. Whatever the results end up being, the UMC as we know it will forever be changed, for good or ill is to be determined. What I find sad is that 88 votes (the final tally) will have such a huge impact on a body of 12 million or so.

Kevin
Guest

If the bishops had been given a deadline maybe. But waiting for an unnamed commission to meet at an undetermined time to come up with more pablum is pointless. Is there anyone who thinks the Western Jurisdiction would have waited?

Floyd L.
Guest

It’s best to evaluate the situation in terms of mathematics. It’s a simple equation, really.

“UMC = Toast”

There you go, nice and easy. All figured out, folks!!

Bruce Davis
Guest

In toxic times across the globe and our own nation, I hate to see the United Methodist Church adding to the polarization. Oh well, Hooray for our side.

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