Nobody won this one. For though the One Church Plan was defeated and the Traditional Plan was adopted, the reality is that the Church itself had a terrible day here in St. Louis as the United Methodist General Conference concluded its special session.
It’s not just that we failed to enact the kind of amendments that were needed to make the Traditional Plan, as well as the Gracious Exit provisions, truly workable and meet church constitutional muster. It’s because the reason for that was the sheer duplicity and manipulative maneuverings of those who opposed the plan and were determined to eviscerate it if they couldn’t outright defeat it.
Every dirty political trick one might think of came out of the playbook today, from spurious amendments, non-stop points of order, emotionally charged addresses, pretending to speak for a motion while actually talking against it, gratuitous insults at evangelical leaders (and even some of the bishops whom they thought leaned in that direction), and perfectly timed speeches designed to fill up the three-minute limit and help “run out the clock.” And that doesn’t even count the loud and raucous demonstrations in the gallery and lobby that ended up with a double line of police sealing the arena and taking the delegates out a different way.
Indeed, those opposing the Traditional Plan and Gracious Exit provisions went so far as to accuse the African delegates of allowing their votes to be bought by promises of support from the evangelicals, demanding the ethics committee investigate that charge (in the three remaining hours of the conference) purely on the basis of “rumors” they had heard.
And the result was that though the media may report that United Methodists doubled down on our position on human sexuality, five days and three million dollars later, we’re actually just about the same place we were when we started the meeting. Only now those who were hoping for a change in the progressive direction have been wounded again and before we even adjourned, leaders in the Western Jurisdiction were given the platform to announce that they are going to continue to ignore our rules and defy our Discipline.
I put a lot of the blame on our bishops, for it was their decision to pull the Traditional Plan out of the mix being considered by the Way Forward Commission, only reluctantly agreeing to put it back in at the last moment at the insistence of the African episcopal leaders and a few others. For had the Traditional Plan, as well as the Gracious Exit provisions that the Commission originally envisioned, been given the same treatment and careful vetting by the Commission they would no doubt have emerged with far fewer, if any, constitutional hurdles.
Likewise, the much ballyhooed hype concerning the endorsement of the One Church Plan by 2/3rds of our bishops would perhaps have more meaning if the Council of Bishops was itself more representative. For when five bishops serve a region of less than 340,000 members, and bishops in Africa serve two to three times that many by themselves we obviously may have a bit of imbalance in that group.
In the end what makes me sad, however, is that while I still love the denomination I’ve tried to serve for four decades, I no longer have much confidence in The United Methodist Church and what is supposed to be our sacred connection. It’s a little like the character Doc Holladay says in the classic Western film Tombstone. Confronted by an obvious lie and obfuscation on his part, Holladay simply shrugs and replies, “It appears that there is no end to my hypocrisy.”
And so it would appear for many within The United Methodist Church tonight as well. To be certain, there is indeed some inherent hypocrisy in talking about one kind of sexual sin and not others. But Methodists Behaving Badly by turning “holy conferencing” into a holy mess must surely count as such as well.