Posts Tagged ‘Florida United Methodist Annual Conference Liberal Conservative Debate Issues Resolution Way Forward’

​By Matt Horan

I’ve been reflecting lately on our most recent Florida Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, held in early June.  I was filled with hope and encouragement because of so much that I saw and heard there.

One element, however, opened my eyes in an unusual way.

Discussions of the resolutions are usually the points at which disagreements between holders of traditionally “conservative” and “liberal” or “progressive” viewpoints are heard.  I think it’s safe to say that the most vocal, vigorous energy coursing through the large room usually surged in the direction of the traditionally liberal/progressive positions, such as opposition to a pro-life resolution, support for driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, etc.

(I normally detest the way we use the words “conservative” and ” liberal” because of the way we use them to attack, generalize, insult, and dehumanize each other, but I use them here in the spirit of naming the issues with clarity.)

The energy surged in a similar way last year and the year before as well, but for whatever reason, I noticed it this time.  In the moment, I found myself posting about it on Twitter.

I felt that anyone who stood to speak for a traditionally conservative viewpoint was stepping into a situation reminiscent of a World War I “no man’s land” between warring trenches.

First, there are no generals walking into no man’s land, because if you go in there, you’re probably going to die.  Generals are fighting the war back away from the gunfire and explosions, working in bunkers using maps, binoculars, and reconnaissance reports.  If you’re stepping into no man’s land, you probably have less training and experience navigating such a space and finding a path ahead than most of the other participants.

Second, there are land mines everywhere, but it’s hard to figure out where they are. If you spot one, there are three others you’ll probably step on as you carefully tiptoe past the one you know about.

Third, there is a trench ahead of you full of people who have been trained to see you as a villain with an evil, self-serving agenda.  They’ve practiced their aim time and time again with those on their side, and they’ve gotten pretty good.  In fact, some of them are even eager to try out their aim, so they can return home from the war with a story to tell about how they did their part in vanquishing the evil.

Finally, the time comes for you to look back to your trench, to raise a fist and rally the troops: “C’mon everybody! Who’s with me?”  You find, however, that your brave stand did not inspire your side to make a valiant charge into battle.  Instead, watching you take machine gun fire and step on landmines inspired them to sink back into the trench to ask, “What’s the point?”

The speakers for conservative viwepoints were often really nervous, and were largely not well prepared to coherently or effectively participate in a process operating according to Robert’s Rules of Order.  They were also not prepared to articulate theologically, Biblically, or ecclesiologically coherent courses of action–which is sad since there are indeed such suggestions that could be made.

I listened to each speaker with anxiety as they stammered and searched for words that would get their point across without sounding insulting.  They all knew that there were commonly acceptable ways of talking about these issues, with lexicons of approved and rejected words and phrases.  They hadn’t yet mastered this new language, however, and so they tiptoed forward, often pausing to search for the right words, and frequently apologizing because they felt called by God to stand and speak up on the issue and wanted to give God their best, but were embarrassed by feeling that their public speaking presence wasn’t up to the job.

It certainly didn’t help them when they would step on a land mine and select a word or phase from the rejected lexicon, and hear the groans and snickers and “Did you hear what he just said?” gasps from those nearby.  Those in the other trench took aim with their yellow cards loaded and ready to fire back.  

A big difference for “liberal/progressive” speakers stepping out of the trench is that they sent generals.  Resolutions were sponsored and spoken for by well respected leaders taking polished theological, Biblical, and ecclesial positions on the issues, and then they looked back and asked “Who’s with me?” When they did, people poured out of the trench to vote in large numbers.

(The camera angles on the large video screens this year was interesting, because when a vote was called, the camera angle would switch to look back at the body of delegates from the vantage point of those on the platform.  We were able to see hands quickly shooting straight up high for the liberal/progressive side of each resolution, but when the conservative side voted, a scattered smattering of palms sheepishly appeared at about nose level, and then disappeared quickly from view.)

Admittedly, I happened to hold a traditionally liberal/progressive position on most of the issues raised by the resolutions this year, and while the vote went the way I voted most of the time, I really felt a sense of loss.

Those holding traditionally conservative viewpoints that attended the Florida Annual Conference were shaped in the context of their local church.  They looked to pastors and Sunday school teachers and small group leaders and authors that they saw as heroes of faith–extensions of the arms and voice of God through which he reached and taught and shaped them.

A person trying to make a liberal/progressive point during a nuanced, in-person discussion of the issues would surely emphasize that no one is saying those heroic saints of our churches were wrong.  They, like others, have always done the best we could with what we had, and in so doing, God produced undeniable fruit in us through them.

Yet at the same time, good teachers hope that some day their students will move on and constantly learn new things and grow in the future.

Unfortunately, these nuanced, in-person, relationship-building dialogues between people on both sides of an issue are increasingly rare; and overgeneralized, blanket statements about the faceless “kinds” of people in that other trench are on the rise.  Therefore, the intersections that we do have, in “No Man’s Land,” are all about winning and losing.  They rarely involve dialogue, and almost never build relationships.

I couldn’t help but read the recent statement by the Wesley Covenant Association (WCA) (a group that advocates for United Methodists holding a traditionally conservative viewpoint on the issues of gay marriage and ordination leaving the United Methodist Church and forming their own denomination) in light of what I observed and felt at Annual Conference, and what I’ve heard said by soldiers who spent time in the trenches of World War I.

They crouched between walls of dirt in a far away country, trying to gain control over territory that someone who outranks them says must be saved from the tyrrany of their enemy; though everything they’ve seen of this territory says that it’s already destroyed, worthless, and abandoned by all who used to live there.  Even though their superiors say that the fight must be won, it gets harder and harder to see it as worth the risk.

They’re not deserters, so they faithfully stay at their post, but their prayers reflect their most earnest desire, “God, please just get us out of this somehow.”

Throughout much of the 20th and 21st century, many United Methodists influenced by “Fundamentalism” may have prayed this way, imagining the church as a trench and holding on to a hope that Jesus would come back and rapture everybody into eternity and let this hopelessly broken world burn over the kindling of it’s own sin.  Could schism perhaps feed that hunger instead?

The WCA, as well as it’s predecessor, the Good News Magazine, have long called for a separation or “schism” of the United Methodist Church over the issues gay marriage and ordination, and in that time have crafted the language that now appears in it’s statement.  They have frequently declared that the differences between United Methodists on the issue are really a symptom of a bigger problem: allowing gay marriage and/or ordination is a failure to accurately interpret, teach, and apply the Scriptures; and a failure to live by the Book of Discipline, which officially defines the covenant relationship United Methodists are supposed to keep together.

I just don’t buy it.  Sure, the generals see it this way through the maps, binoculars, and reconnaissance reports.  As for the people I saw at Annual Conference voting (or coincidentally swatting a gnat away from their ear during the voting), I think they’re tired of feeling like they’re in the trench, tired of feeling like they could step on a land mine any second, tired of feeling like everybody sees them as a villain, and tired of feeling shot at from the other trench.  They used to go to Annual Conference to enjoy a reunion of like-minded people.  They’re now tired of feeling like they’re surrounded by increasing numbers of people that don’t like them.

It was nice of the WCA’s leaders to create this statement, but if they’d simply set up a booth in the Annual Conference expo and give people a glossy 4×6 card that simply says, “Come join us!  We’re like you,” I have a feeling that’s all it would take to seal the deal.

So what now? I guess I’ve come to the point in the blog post where there should be some solutions, keen insights, or parting shots.  I’ve said many times that I think breaking the denomination apart would be bad for everybody, especially the world around us that we’ll neglect while we spend a year or two thinking about ourselves and figuring ourselves out.  Yet today, something holds me back from another call to unity.

What am I asking them to stay for?  Please come back next year so we can fight your rich, white, English-speaking, heterosexual American oppression again after not communicating with you at all since we did the same thing last year?

I’m not saying that this approach was in the hearts of any of the passionate speakers on the progressive side of the resolutions.  I am saying that, if it wasn’t a chargeable offense, I’d be willing to bet a decent sum that many of those with an eye on the exit would be far more likely to identify with the “No Man’s Land” metaphor than the theological depths of the WCA statement.

Wouldn’t that be something?  Maybe our future doesn’t depend on a back and forth give and take resulting in a statement of faith that enough people can live with.

Perhaps our future depends on whether or not we can remember how to be friends again.