Author: Don Wiley, Attorney & Alternate Lay Delegate, North Texas
“Great cases like hard cases make bad law. For great cases are called great, not by reason of their importance in shaping the law of the future, but because of some accident of immediate overwhelming interest which appeals to the feelings and distorts the judgement.” ―Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
I was reminded of this quotation from one of America’s greatest jurists and writers as I sat in a conference room in Zurich, Switzerland in October, observing the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church. The major matter before the Council was enabling legislation for three plans of action dealing with human sexuality9 from the Commission On A Way Forward. The Commission was formed by the Council of Bishops at the request of the 2016 General Conference when it faced the possibility of schism.
As I listened to the arguments presented by bishops, clergy and laypersons, I was struck by how the United Methodism’s half century struggle with cultural shifts regarding human sexuality and acceptance of LGBTQ persons was, for some, a great case, for others a bad case, but for all a sure source of bad church law. When one compares the United Methodist Discipline of 1972 – when language was first inserted regarding incompatibility of same sex relationships with Christianity – with that of 2016, it is stunning to realize how this issue has come to permeate the organizational rules of the denomination… and how so many have forgotten how contextual Christ’s ministry was.
As plans for “A Way Forward” were presented, I could not help but see not only the work of the Holy Spirit, but also the spirit of Rube Goldberg at work.
The Traditional Plan – Anything But Simple
Rube Goldberg, one of America’s great political cartoonists, was able to make his point with his sublime yet ridiculously complicated designs for everyday devices. In the Traditional Plan, the desire to appear to be both ‘inclusive’ and ‘judgment-free’ while incorporating “invitations” for pastors and laypersons to leave/separate and mandatory termination provisions struck me as Goldbergian mousetraps.
They certainly don’t look like mousetraps – they just ask someone to ‘certify’ allegiance to the Discipline and ‘certify’ that she/he “is not a self-avowed practicing homosexual”… until one looks at the Discipline and realizes that bishops, ordinands and Boards of Ordained Ministry are only being asked to certify one of the many vows and commitments an ordinand and clergy are called to uphold… and they just happen to revolve around same-sex relationships. Oh yes, and there’s that small matter of providing an easy way out of the denomination for us AFTER we change the rules…
While Traditional Plan supporters will say their goal is “Scriptural primacy”, they have conveniently cherry-picked their adherence from the cornucopia of “shalt-not’s” of Levitical, Gospel, and Epistle canon. It’s a painfully tedious process that ends up at the same place as simply saying “you are not welcome here.”
The Connectional Plan – “If We Could Actually Survive This ‘Not-A-Schism’…
The Connectional Plan, on the other hand, is an eight to eleven year-long process (if we are miraculously lucky) to schismatically (but not really) restructure the church into a loose confederation of interest-aligned faith communities.
By aligning in jurisdictions by belief/tolerance for differing views about a single subset of issues regarding human sexuality, these same separating-but-not-divorcing groups would somehow agree to work together when they have some confluent interests. Perhaps I am the one of less faith, but I see the steps to getting the Connectional Plan off the drawing board and into action as being as likely to work as the Rube Goldberg Self Operating Napkin. It was not lost on me that the presenter for the Connectional Plan to the Judicial Council was a self-identified Traditional incompatibilist. I’m thinking she didn’t really believe the string-tied-to-soup-spoons-flipping-crackers-to-parrot-spilling-water-in-bucket-yanking-lighter-lighting-rocket-tied-to-string-pulling-napkin-on-clock-pendulum that is the Connectional Plan will clean up anything.
The biggest problem with the Connectional Plan is the relationship schematic it establishes: splitting up over single issues instead of learning to work through and with folks with whom we have our differences. It is much like separating instead of divorcing, spending holidays together. You tell others ‘we’re still married’, but it is no longer a committed relationship. How is that remotely healthy or Body-of-Christ-like?
The One Church Plan – An Example of the KISS Principle?
(Keep It Simple, Sinners)
So… what of the One Church Plan? Simple? No. Simplest of the three? I believe so.
What is the One Church Plan’s (“OCP”) chief attribute? I believe the OCP calls us to be a community of faith. The OCP calls us to love and to trust each other as we strive to be the Body of Christ. The OCP keeps us as brothers and sisters in one family with one Father – whether we agree on an issue or not. Trust in each other, space to live out the ministry to which we are called, and faith in an active Holy Spirit moving among us space are the key components of the OCP.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is asked a question by a lawyer. After speaking of love of God and neighbor and quoting Deuteronomy and Leviticus, he adds a concluding statement: “On these two commandments hang all of the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22. 40). Jesus tells us that loving God and loving our neighbor are the two foundations for, and the anchors of, all the law. His answer, to those who were seeking to get him to contradict ‘established law’, was to establish a foundational question that must be answered before one even engages ‘the law’: are we loving God and loving our neighbor?
If we cannot answer that affirmatively – if we cannot stand with our actions on that foundation, we are lost. Righteous enforcement of rules, regulations and new Disciplinary standards does not recognize or leave any room for the amazing grace of which we are all beneficiaries and partakers. The One Church Plan leaves us room to be the best we are called to be to Christ’s special folks – those who do not yet know Him and the marginalized, the least, the lost, the lonely and the poor. It does not divide us, issue by issue, or by interpretation of particular Scriptures out of context.
I don’t know what my pewmates think about many issues… but as long as we are together, we can serve Christ in ministry and mission in the world. I will trust God to sort it out and use the Holy Spirit to guide us. We don’t need to invent contraptions to manage God. God is up to the task.