Saturday, July 30, 2016

A Way Forward, Using Things We Already Have

When I was in elementary school, a well-known artist showed up at assembly one day and asked us to bring in things from our homes that weren't getting enough use. There were some guidelines--no couches, no cars, certain colors preferred--but he said little more than this.

A few weeks later, after we had collected what seemed like a mountain of things, he showed up again, took the pile outside along with some paint and a giant canvas, and created an enormous collage painting of a dragon, the school's mascot. The lesson for the students, we were told, is that we already have within us the solution to many of our problems, if we are willing to be creative with how we craft those solutions.

It strikes me that there is wisdom in this way of thinking for the United Methodist Church. We clearly are at an impasse, having "nearly cut up the church with a rusty knife" (to quote one of our bishops). The Council of Bishops is leading the way in helping us to find a way forward, whether that way includes schism, changing values, uniformity of covenant, or something else. The current way simply isn't working. Besides the fact that we are currently spending $10 million dollars on our quadrennial meetings, at which less and less seems to be getting done, the denomination is losing its influence in the USA, there are questions as to financial impropriety in places outside the US where audit practices differ, there are untenable structures that allow for cultural adaptation of the Book of Discipline in some places but not others, caucus groups wield unbelievable power, we compress four years of decision making--in a culture that is changing ever more rapidly--into ten days every four years . . . I could go on.

Something must give. Everyone knows it, and we do not seem able, in our current form, to do anything but behave like children without leadership. I would argue that General Conference felt less like we were about to cut up the church with a rusty knife and more like many delegates with ideological agendas were swinging hammers at the glass bowl of the church, hoping to collect as many shards as possible, not realizing that piles of sharp, broken glass are no good to anybody.

Something must change, but perhaps the solution is already baked into our polity! Within the United States (the location of our discontent), the church is already divided into jurisdictions. In fact, it is the existence of these jurisdictions that seems to be creating the most division in recent weeks, as the Western Jurisdiction has--for the first time, and in defiance of certain parts of the Discipline--elected a "self-avowed, practicing homosexual" to be a bishop of the church. We already allow the jurisdictions to perform a vital part of our polity--electing bishops--but when they pass statements of non-compliance, or do some such thing in opposition to the General Conference, we squawk and squawk about the breaking of covenant. The truth is that the covenant, as currently laid out in the Discipline, is untenable, for it allows regional expressions of polity in some ways (in recognition of the unique cultural environment of the central conferences--and in the election of Bishops in jurisdictions) while maintaining the General Conference as the only body that can speak for the church.

I am not intending to pass judgment on either side of this issue. There are plenty of people who feel strongly about the righteousness of the Western Jurisdiction consecrating Bishop Oliveto, just as there are plenty who feel strongly about the necessity of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. I am not one who feels strongly about any of this. Far from being wishy-washy though, my concerns are practical; clearly something ain't working.

The practical solution, I would argue, involves giving jurisdictions more power to function as they already are: as places to gather where we can actually know one another, build relationships, and work our way through, together. In my own jurisdiction, the Southeastern Jurisdiction, I have been extremely impressed in the ability of the jurisdictional delegates to work together in a spirit of unity AND diversity. When the SEJ elected five bishops in one day, we did not do so because some caucus group was pushing the elected slate. We may be a largely conservative jurisdiction, but we worked together across traditional theological lines because we value diversity AND because many of us actually know one another. We were able to come to quick agreement about who ought to be elected, both because of our shared culture and because of our already-existing relationships across annual conference lines. We elected five very different people as bishops of the church, with a range of ethnicities, genders, life experience, theologies, etc. And we did so with a sweet spirit that I continue to be sustained by. I may not have voted for all five of those who were elected bishop, but I am convinced that we elected the five that God would have had us elect.

Moving toward a jurisdictional focus would have three extremely practical benefits. First, moving this way would allow the delegates to know one another, giving more room for the Holy Spirit to work. Second, this approach would mirror the way the central conferences already work, removing a significant differential in the way our polity functions. Third, it would allow those in more conservative jurisdictions--my own, for instance--to worry less about what is happening out west and more about what disciple-making looks like in our part of the world.

There are also practical concerns to this solution. There would need to be reworking as to the relationship of bishops to the church. Currently, bishops are superintendents of the whole church; we would need to rewrite part of the constitution of the church to emphasize the work of jurisdictional colleges of bishops over and above (not not to exclude) the work of the whole Council of Bishops. We would need to discern what our shared mission as a denomination would look like; I could see us holding on to Global Ministries, Wespath, and other agreed-upon agencies. We would need to decide how the University Senate would function across the jurisdictions. Other General Agencies would need to shift to meet changing times. Most critically, we would have to ensure that we are not simply creating one more layer of bureaucracy in an already overly-bureaucratic church. Importantly, with the possible exception of the function of the Council of Bishops, these concerns are all changes that are needed in the UMC, regardless of our present conversation about sexuality.

The biggest practical concern, I believe, is that there are those who have turned the voting blocks present within the jurisdictions and the General Conference into weapons of power. Some of these groups identify as progressive, and others identify as conservative. Regardless of the agenda, it will not be easy for those who wield these weapons--nor will it be easy for their deep-pocketed donors--to turn loose these weapons. Perhaps this dynamic makes the Bishop's Commission a fool's errand in the first place. But I am not willing to let go of my great hope for unity within the church--an issue I have spent hours praying about and working on during my short ministry--without one more try.

Yes, these are real practical matters we would need to work through. But any solution is going to take "redefin[ing] our present connectionality" (to quote the Bishops), and it seems to me that using things we already have--namely, our jurisdictions--would allow the spirit of unity to continue in the United Methodist Church, giving flesh to our relationships, and allowing us to re-focus our efforts on making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

So what do you think? What are the barriers to moving towards jurisdictions as the solution to our present crisis? And what are possible solutions for each barrier?

(Image used by permission. (c) Christian Schnettelker.)

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