REPORT BACK FROM THE SPECIAL SESSION OF THE GENERAL CONFERENCE OF THE UMC
When I left for St. Louis my expectation was that the Traditional Plan would prevail. In the abstract or intellectual sense, this sensibility takes on some manner of dissociation. I saw that look on a number of people I presumed to be supporting the Traditional Plan. It was the effect of knowing and then waiting for an unwanted (in their case wanted) event to pass, without outwardly acknowledging it. At some point, these dissociated Methodists began to resemble Magritte’s bowler wearing businessmen, in his painting Golconde. For this surreal image of sameness view (with sound):
An interpretation of this painting which this video is certainly using, is splitting as in the psychological use of the word. It means splitting into black and white thinking. Arguably this is what the Traditional Plan is doing and hence its tunnel vision-like appeal.
On a personal level it was difficult being a skeptic while listening to waves of booming praise music. By skeptic I am more or less dressing myself in Montaigne’s garments as I take on certain presumptions. The cultural appropriation of the praise music and the mainstreaming of its music for this context is bizarre. The majority of American delegates- soon to support the Traditional Plan are from the historic Confederate South. These are delegates and their supporters who historically are more at home with D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation or if that is too strong an association, the opening scenes of Gone with the Wind, than Spike Lee’s Black Klansman. What was the music praising, other than the likely outcome of queer people being swept asunder? I found myself wishing the music had been from the nearby National Blues Museum, then at least it could speak in an idiom of pain and at times, joy.
I am attaching Ruskin’s painting as my take-away image of the Special Session. We think of Ruskin as an art critic not an artist. But here I am suggesting that those of us who attended the Special Session are indeed critics but also the hands of the artists of the UMC. Note how Ruskin’s painting has a spray of dead leaves and a blue background where (for me) the blues are heard and lived again. The spray is not the usual flowers but what is dead. It is fragile,impermanent but also a part of the mystery of the regeneration of life. Indeed what I found in this Special Session was a denial of our faith itself, not its affirmation. It is that incessant boorishnesst hat is so troubling, this trampling of the fragile and the loutish disregard for the mystery of our faith, that for me is the message of this conference. Other thoughts I placed in my journal that night, as we walked into downtown St. Louis at the conclusion of the conference:
Is this vacuous message the voice of today’s UMC?
Homophobia is a message that young people reject out of hand.
The UMC has essentially ceased to function and/or represent reconciling Methodists and
their allies, including young people who seek inclusion in the church.
It has lost its voice for moral authority and is once again on the wrong side of history.
To one extent or another these are thoughts I shared with those of us from Epworth in St. Louis and our Immersion Class from PSR.
My deeper concern going into St. Louis was for Our Theological Task and to what extent it would be undermined. For the people called Methodists, Our Theological Task role and is located in our Book of Discipline. Here is a key sentence: “Theology serves the Church by interpreting the world’s needs and challenges to the Church and by interpreting the gospel to the world.” To what extent would the Special Session be guided by Theological Task? My answer is there was no visible evidence of this theological task because of a willing deafness to the world’s needs and challenges. Consider too, that by closing the door to queer people in the church, we cannot expect the other doors to remain open:
Ordination of women
Voting rights for both lay and clergy
Robust social principles
Cutting loose the African churches, now that they have served their purpose.
As for interpreting the gospel to the world, curiously there was no witness of pre-Lenten reflection at the Special Session. It was an empty worship experience without tangible ties to the liturgical year or our own theology. I am including this link for you to read the preface to Theological Task, it gives context for what theology means in practice as a United Methodist: http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/section-4-our-theological-task
What happens next? Essentially we here in the Western Jurisdiction are under its protection and will operate under a one church plan. This means that the Traditional Plan cannot reach us here. The legal question(s) is whether we will create a new denomination; if the WCA will break off (and leaving a vacuum for progressives and moderates) to reformulate the UMC? However one still has the thorny issues of the African central conferences. I suggest this is all too little too late. There needs to be a New Methodist Church. Let’s get behind that movement. There is some urgency here because the UMC has been branded as a bigoted denomination. Where will we get our young families? Seminarians?
Epworth will have several announcements about follow-up information, including an after church event March 17 and a visit by the Bishop on April 7. There is also the Judicial Council meeting to review portions of the Traditional Plan on April 23-26. That review will include the Disaffiliation of Local Churches over Issues Related to Homosexuality AKA Petition 90066. For now I suggest looking at the following link for an update on next steps: https://www.umnews.org/en/news/gc2019-maps-uncertain-way-forward
In a final note, what did the people in St. Louis think about the issues concerning the convention? I am always curious about people and take the time to speak to them. My list includes Lyft drivers, wait help, hotel workers, people working concessions, cops, reporters, and since I was ill during my stay in St. Louis, my doctor and the nurses. The general consensus was along the lines of: “What is all the fuss about?” or “You came all the way here to do what?”
I had a hard time answering that question, as I didn’t really own the answer. I love those responses as they remind me that the meek inherit the earth. Another example was my taking a picture of my friend Alyss Swanson holding a sign in the lobby of the convention center, only to have the St. Louis Post Dispatch photographer take it as well- along with a story that ends up on CNN. Here she is talking with Bishop Samuel Quire of Liberia who is explaining his opposition to the one church plan, due to his fears of being murdered in his home country.
Our stories as you can see were shared in the small moments, but you can see where a small moment can become a larger one. The pastoral message for us here seems clear: share your stories. That is what I am trying to do so we can collectively share our liturgical and personal stories during Lent. In the weeks ahead we will receive more information about our collective identity and future. But more importantly we will be moving to the ancient movements of a liturgical calling, where even the stories will stop being told and we will simply watch and wait.