Like everyone else, Raleigh Hayes saw the world, and the people with whom he was obliged to share it, through the kaleidoscope of his own colored designs. As the years turned the viewer round and round, the bits of glass fell into new patterns, but the perspective remained limited to Raleigh’s eye. (Handling Sin, Michael Malone, 1983)
Not everyone agrees with this premise, but I am of a mind that everyone sees the world, not as it truly is, but through a set of personal and unique filters that makes an individual worldview. As we encounter others, we bond most closely with those who share key elements of our worldview. This makes for a grand and glorious bell curve of subjective worldviews that we embrace as objective reality. The truth is out there, and each of us brush up against it, but none of us own it. It is through this kaleidoscope effect that we polarize and politicize and project. It creates the frame and forum for “us/them; we/they; right/left; right/wrong” thinking that defines our modern/post-modern U.S. culture in the early 21st century. This comes clear to me as I look at comments made about my reflections on the work of our General Boards and agencies of The United Methodist Church.
A common thread is the idea that our boards have an agenda they pursue in opposition of the will of the larger church: they are not honoring what we believe. But who actually is the “they/we” referred to? I worked for almost fifteen years at the General Board of Discipleship. During those years we presented well over a hundred petitions, resolutions, and proposals to General Conference. But not once did we do so in a vacuum disconnected from the larger church. Here’s how it works:
Board/agency staff and elected members engage constantly with individuals, congregations, conferences, and conference leaders across the denomination. A primary role is to watch, listen, observe and partner. Issues arise through these engagements and individuals and groups begin crafting legislation based on a consensus — while out system is flawed, those ideas, concepts and proposals that do NOT have wide support die early or get weeded out through the rigorous and cumbersome process of our connectional church. Very few proposals make it through the process without enormous pushback and debate, and many pieces of legislation go forward with their opposite number — yin/yang style. For example, our language and position on homosexuality — about an equal number move forward for both inclusion and exclusion. It becomes the will of the General Conference which will be adopted — and the General Conference is made up of delegates from our churches and conferences (not our board and agency staff).
I can speak from experience — our Boards and agencies work with church leadership at all levels to improve, perfect, change, correct, revise and redeem our Book of Discipline — but they simply do not, can not operate independently of the larger church. There is no “we/they” at this point — our Book of Discipline, including our Social Principles are OUR doing; it is all WE. I have had the privilege of working with Discipleship, Global Ministries, Communications, Church & Society, Finance and Administration, Publishing House and Higher Ed over the years and I can tell you quite honestly that no one is completely happy with everything contained in the Book of Discipline, but each and every one does everything they can to support the doctrine of our church and to provide resources that carry out the collective wisdom therein contained. They may not like it, but they do it, and they do it with integrity.
Most of the criticisms and complaints I have received are grounded in misinformation, incomplete information, ignorance, personal bias, or a simple matter of not liking what the larger church has decided. If you look at the majority of criticisms they line out this way:
- we disagree with how money is spent
- we don’t think we have responsibility for <insert group of people here>
- we do not want to accept/include <insert group of people here>
- our reading of the Bible differs from the majority interpretation (at this moment in time)
- we should not focus on non-Christians, those we deem “un-Christian,” sinners, or those who are significantly different from us who make us uncomfortable, insecure or who may force us to change.
Take just these five cases off the table and you eliminate 95% of the criticisms and complaints against our general church agencies.
We have a somewhat less than elegant system of legislative change in our denomination. We may not like it, but it is our current reality. It is a representative structure of governance (that all too many people confuse with a democracy — which we do not now, nor ever have we had) that relies on a legislative process designed to create winners and losers. Interestingly, for the past few decades we have leaned toward the kinder, gentler, more compassionate global acts of inclusion while being much more restrictive in the U.S. We vote liberal/progressive, but we complain conservative/exclusive. What drives me crazy is that this isn’t even a case of majority rules — the passionate extremes debate and criticize, but our majority at the moment is apathetic and disengaged. We are fast becoming a denomination of the scrupulously disinterested. On most of the “hot” issues in The United Methodist Church, between 54 and 63% of our membership have no opinion or don’t care which way things are decided. No matter what our doctrine or polity are at the moment, the issues are being decided by a splinter of the church, not the true consensus of the whole body. Our “critical issues” are essentially being decided 3-to-2 in favor with 10 abstentions. What are we going to do about that?
Reread the quote at the beginning of this blog. What will it take for us to lift the filters, realize that our kaleidoscope is not reality, no matter how pretty and “true” we think it is, and to begin operating more by grace than by Law, by tolerance than by judgment, and with a deeper appreciation that we can accomplish more by working together than by constantly debating which side we are on?