Immediate Measured Reaction to Decision 1264

Bishop, I respectfully request that, if this continues, that the chair would call the body to make a decision regarding our going into executive session. This is not a circus; we are not a debating society. We are working for the well-being of this church, and, if necessary, I would submit that we would have a closed session of this General Conference to consider this issue prayerfully and in much prayer and supplication.

A General Conference delegate on May 2, 1988 (1988 DCA, page 447)

Recently I’ve been reading American Methodist history. Specifically, I’ve been reading about the 1844 General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. One summary I’ve read is in this early work of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. From what I’ve read of the debate in the 1844 General Conference, I don’t like either side of the debate.

The debate involved slavery. Quite a bit of my dissatisfaction might stem from the absence of any voices of those who were subject to slavery. Even allowing for that, the debate consists of men — no need for inclusive language here — talking past each other.

The Southern position seemed to come down to: Bishop Andrew didn’t violate the Discipline at that time, and the General Conference had no authority to depose or suspend a bishop without a judicial proceeding. The Northern position seemed to be that the General Conference had absolute authority over bishops, regardless of any actual violations of the Discipline. (The Discipline of the time conditionally allowed ministers to be slaveholders.)

Lest anyone think that the Northern position was automatically on the side of the angels, it is worth considering the appeal of the Reverend Harding from the Baltimore Annual Conference. He had married a woman who owned five slaves. The Annual Conference suspended him until the five slaves were freed. The Reverend Collins represented the Baltimore Annual Conference in the appeal and said in part (regarding a Maryland law permitting wives to hold property separately from their husband):

The law of 1843 is a strange and singular law. Its fundamental feature is against the law of God, for that makes man the head of his wife, and this law takes from him the position assigned to him by the Supreme Being. And I am satisfied that this law will work such evil, that as a matter of necessity it will have to be repealed. I hope, therefore, that you will not judge us by this law. We cannot answer for the tergiversation of the laws of Maryland, and cannot conform to all their changes. As they have gone so far as to pass a law deposing man from his rightful place in the domestic economy—a place assigned to him from the beginning of time by positive divine injunction, they may pass a law requiring him to obey his wife. (page 5, Google Books link above)

Today most Americans do not question the immorality of slavery. I also realize that discussing slavery is not an abstract question for those who find bills of sale for their ancestors. I am struck at how difficult it was (and is) to find a place for myself in all of the debates of 1844, those debates within power and without power.

The above is my awkward way of saying that while I agree with Judicial Council Decision 1264 (April 2014), I do not therefore automatically agree with everything that is going to happen at the next General Conference in 2016. That previous sentence will need some explaining. (I’ll describe a detailed reaction to Decision 1264 in a post later today.)

My understanding is that there have been protests/disruptions during General Conference plenary sessions on behalf of LGBT persons for at least the past decade, probably longer. This is well known in certain United Methodist circles.

Let me try to be clear on what I am not saying:

  • I am not telling anyone whether they should or should not protest. That’s up to others to decide for themselves. (Any consequences are theirs as well.)
  • I am certainly not telling anyone that they need to protest in a way that makes sense to me. (I’m not in the protestors’ primary audience anyway.)

There’s no polite way to say the following: what might feel like “loving defiance of an unjust human law” can look  “smug and/or clueless” to others.

  • There are likely Central Conference delegates who think “those people are a danger to law and order.” Then “those people” disrupt General Conference.
  • For every American who cares deeply about what General Conference says, how many more Americans just don’t care what General Conference says about anything?
  • One issue at stake is who the General Conference declares as Christian. It’s difficult to challenge this declaration without implicitly assuming that the General Conference has this power. (For anyone who insists that only “the practice” is condemned: why hasn’t General Conference precisely defined what “practice” is condemned? It’s only had since 1972 to do so! A “global book of law” needs to clearly define what it is condemning. If it doesn’t, then it isn’t a global book of law.)
  • Another issue at stake is whether the “winner” will listen to other perspectives.

I’m sure I could continue.

Here’s my attempt to summarize this post: the 2016 General Conference is shaping up to make the 2012 General Conference look like a genteel tea party. Perhaps the 2016 General Conference will provide for an “executive session” option in its Plan of Organization and Rules of Order. Perhaps not.

However 2016 General Conference unfolds, activist groups will want to consider their message(s) to the worlds outside of American United Methodism. There are two years to consider their message(s). If connecting with  “outside worlds” is an afterthought, I think these “outside worlds” are perfectly justified in treating these activist groups similarly.

Time will tell.

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