Friday, April 18, 2008

UMC Divisiveness: An Annoying Buzz

Did anyone else notice how Andrew Thompson characterizes the "great divide" of the UMC in his most recent Reporter column?

He writes that there are "two parties" consisting of "those who want to keep the church's doctrine in conformity to Scripture and the broad catholic tradition, and those who insist the church should better reflect the pluralistic, individualistic culture of the wider American society." Now, he doesn't get specific about which "hot-button issues" he is thinking of, but I've got to ask about a few of his word choices.

First: Andrew sees only two "parties" in the UMC. However, in my experience, there are WAY more that two perspectives on every issue, and assuming an either/or outlook just contributes to the myth of divisiveness that so many people are working to overcome. As much as we might want the world to be neatly divided into conservative/liberal, red/blue, or whatever/whichever, in reality life is much more complex, and most of us are okay with that.

Second: Andrew assumes that it is impossible to come up with multiple interpretations of Scripture and tradition. He seems to believe that, if there is disagreement, it must mean that one perspective seeks "conformity" to Scripture/tradition and one does not. However, I have found that it is quite common for equally faithful Christians to study scripture, pray, think, and discuss; and nonetheless end up with different beliefs. Furthermore, it is possible to believe in a way that is grounded in Scripture and tradition, and also the real life experience of living in a diverse, complex, global society.

The column really isn't about divisiveness. His main idea is that we can't let the impending divisiveness of General Conference distract us from other, very important issues. I agree (though I do not agree with his take on those issues per se). But it strikes me that in his act of naming the divisiveness, he does the very thing he is cautioning us against. It's like walking into a room and somebody says, "Hey, do you hear that annoying buzzing noise?" And you say, "Well, not until you mentioned it - and now I can't not hear it."

What if we approached General Conference anticipating honest disagreements expressed graciously, with respect and love? What if we approached General Conference knowing that there would be a wide array of beliefs and ideas being expressed, and we could be okay with that? I read last week (don't remember where) that there is room in the church for disagreement, but not division. I think that is an important distinction to make.

General Conference doesn't have to be divisive, and the decision to make it not be so starts now as the UMC prepares. It starts with one person deciding not to buy into the divisiveness myth, and grows outward from there. It starts with one delegation saying, "Not this year," and setting a hopeful tone that will trickle over into the delegations sitting around them. It starts with one delegate relinquishing their fear and asking another delegate with whom they know they disagree about something to have a cup of coffee and talk about their favorite hobbies or sports or something.

We are not united by our beliefs - we are united by the grace of God. And that's where we will find a future with hope.


TN Rambler said...


Andrew C. Thompson said...

I think you make some good critiques of that column, and I pretty much agree with what you're saying here. There are, of course, many shades of gray on most issues and many nuances to individuals' views. And yes, it is possible to devote oneself to Scripture and tradition and still come to different conclusions than a brother or sister.

Part of the my own lack of nuance in the column is related to what it is possible to say in that amount of space (especially when, as you note, the column is not really about the "two sides" I refer to near the opening). Another part is related to what I am suggesting is and is not possible at the General Conference once it is in session - namely, that true communal theological reflection is next to impossible, and the only real changes in doctrine that should be made are those about which the church has already essentially come to consensus (I think we may find that the ordination candidacy changes are just such an example of the latter).

But as you also point out, the column is not really about the "two sides". It is about not allowing divisiveness to distract us from the work that we really can do. And there is the one point on which I disagree with your post: I don't think anybody needed me to point out the buzzing noise in the room. I have heard GC delegates talk about the piles of mail they get from caucuses and lobbying groups in the months leading up to the start of the conference. The very nature of the way petitions are introduced and supported sets the tone long in advance of the event itself. For the delegates themselves, my own words of warning were speaking to a phenomenon they are already experiencing.

Is it possible to engage in holy conferencing? I think so (and on that point I do agree with you). But it will take a lot more than a delegation with a renewed sense of purpose and a willingness to set aside the extreme amount of politicking that goes on. I suspect it will take a thorough revision of the form GC takes itself.

Anonymous said...

Andy, great post.

I wonder what would have to change at GC to make it into a holy gathering instead of a political one. We are talking about changing so many other things about the UMC.

Why not General Conference itself?

larry b said...

I agree with Andrew here.

There is at least one huge elephant in the room and when you have a system that allows the type of politicking and campaigning that goes on like it does, then you won't be able to move forward.

When you have a site called that is solely devoted to that big elephant, it should give you an idea that there is a huge divide being driven by political activists groups. And like it or not, that activism spills directly into the GC. The ordinary parishoner has next to zero influence.

Comments like:

"The United Methodist Church cannot enjoy true peace and unity while it engages in injustice and spiritual violence against some of its members. "

that are listed in a commentary on the official website specifically referring to LGBT people suggest that the church itself recognizes this divide as a divide.

I don't know how much longer the issue can be danced around, but as long as we do, there will not be much energy left for making progress on other issues.

Kyleinkc said...

Great website I encourage everyone to go to the site. Thanks for letting me know about it Larry B.

Andy B. said...

Andrew, thanks for responding. I understand what you mean when you say that the annoying buzz need not be pointed out, and I certainly am not advocating ignoring the elephant in the room. I'm just tired of hearing GC delegates bemoan how ugly and divisive its "going to be" when they themselves are the ones who can set a different tone if they so choose. The air of inevitability is disheartening.

mike sykuta said...

I appreciate both Andrew and Andy's concerns and desires for more holy conferencing, but I also agree with Andrew and Larry's comments about the degree of political activism.

In my (and Andy B's) annual conference, an unofficial UM caucus circulated "recommendations" for the GC delegate election process throughout the meeting area last year. I presume there is nothing in Discipline to prevent such electioneering, but it just further shows how GC becomes politicized long before delegates begin to arrive for the actual General Conference meetings. (Notably, if the self-proclaimed renewal groups did any electioneering, it was so far below the radar screen that I never saw it).

I don't know that any democratic republic can operate in an a-political manner. Even if we prohibited the kind of electioneering described above, it would still go on informally. It's the nature of the process...and the people involved in it.

I think many delegates--or at least many I know--are trying to approach the meeting with the attitude Andy has suggested. We can all pray that such an attitude prevails...and hopefully not be too shocked if God blesses us by working in the hearts of our delegates to accomplish it!