Why, yes, this DOES look a lot like Square One. That's what often happens when one experiences what we call an "epic fail."
Those who've been following the 2012 General Conference Follies – for so I've come to think of this year's legislative wave attempting to manipulate The United Methodist Church's future – now know it appears that the one trumpeted achievement of this year's session, eliminating guaranteed clergy appointments, has also failed. The General Conference secretary, the Rev L. Fitzgerald "Gere" Reist, has informed the Council of Bishops that the mandate to appoint all elders in good standing appears in TWO places in the Book of Discipline, and only ONE of those instances was changed by General Conference.
Can we all say, "uh-oh?" Or maybe that should be "sloppy."
More experienced General Conference veterans take this latest tempest from Tampa with a large boulder of salt in the teapot. As with a proposed change adopted back in 1996 that was ruled unconstitutional thanks to the analysis of two sharp-eyed "policy wonks" from Minnesota, Gere Reist has done the denomination a tremendous favor. By his methodical comparison of the relevant Discipline paragraphs regarding clergy appointment, Reist has brought to light the failure of General Conference to amend both necessary references, rendering the one legislative action null and void.
Reist's interpretation likely will have enormous influence on the fall session of the Judicial Council when the question of "security in appointment for clergy," as it's officially known, will be decided. This revelation has denominational leaders, especially bishops, pulling out what's left of their hair. The 2012 session has been labeled the Do-Nothing General Conference in many an online rant discussion.
Yet at least one wise soul has pointed out an equally valid perspective: Rather than "doing nothing," the 2012 General Conference averted making fear-motivated changes that could have had devastating effects on the entire denomination. These changes were crafted by a small group of insiders who, alas, are more out of touch with the culture both inside and outside the UMC than they know. In particular, the change agents failed to secure the participation of United Methodists beyond the United States in crafting adaptations, thereby ensuring their political demise at the first global assembly in which non-U.S. delegates made up 40 percent of the total legislators.
In short, one might even say that the 2012 General Conference was "occupied" by representatives of the entire people called United Methodist. Their motives may have been self-serving in flexing their political muscles, but what about politics isn't self-serving?
So here we are, back at Square One. What have we learned from this roundabout journey?
The UMC is truly a global denomination, and will have to start acting like it. How this is worked out will be anybody's guess, but it's almost worth the cost of a specially called session of General Conference focused on this one issue to determine a fair process. One way that comes immediately to mind is to harness the ability of technology to link widely separated people via video conferencing for both consultation and decision-making.
The UMC is tangled in the web of its own rules and regulations, and it will take an epic effort to get free. Attempting to revise the Book of Discipline piecemeal got us where we are today. Like Frodo caught in the web of the monster spider Shelob, the answer may well be a sharp sword that slices through the sticky skeins. If we truly favor radical change, one way to accomplish it would be to jettison everything except that which we are required to keep: the Constitution and the Restrictive Rules. (And even the Constitution can be amended). Then we could turn loose each geographical region of the worldwide denomination to craft a set of minimal working rules that reflect its own cultural needs, creating plenty of space for God's Holy Spirit to guide all else about our discipleship. This, too, would be worth the expense of a specially called General Conference.
The UMC's American leaders need to get over themselves. What brought the 2012 General Conference to its downfall was hubris, plain and simple, the same kind of hubris that sank the fabled luxury ocean liner Titanic a century ago this year. The African delegates were right: The United Methodist Church is largely the creation of American churchmen (and few church women, truth be told) who have used the delegates outside the United States to further their own parochial interests. Just as the Titanic had too small a rudder to turn in time to avoid the iceberg that killed it, so, too, is The United Methodist Church hampered by too small a rudder in the form of its political powerhouses.
As many, including me, have maintained consistently over the past year and a half, what ails The United Methodist Church isn't something that General Conference can legislate. In the words of the prophet Joel (2.13), we need to rend our hearts, not our garments, so that God's Holy Spirit can free us from the grip of our past sins and set us on a more sacred path. Even the hopes and dreams of younger leaders will be for naught unless and until we United Methodists remember that we are citizens of Heaven first and foremost, and start behaving like it.
Now, who'd like to respond first?
PS: If you thought this column was going to comment on the unprecedented personnel situation involving our North Texas bishop, W. Earl Bledsoe, I am not sorry to disappoint you. I have taken the wise counsel of my sister colleagues, the Rev. Dr. Rebekah Miles and Dr. Maria Dixon Hall, to say nothing publicly about this distressing turn of events.
I will say that, along with countless others, I pray daily at 11 a.m. (CDT) for the welfare of Bishop and Mrs. Bledsoe, their family, the conference and jurisdictional committees on the episcopacy and the North Texas Annual Conference. Your prayers also would be welcome. Indeed, we are all in need of great showers of God's grace and mercy at this turbulent time for The United Methodist Church.