Early on last week, I wrote that I was appalled by the behaviors I was seeing displayed by my United Methodist brothers and sisters. Some wrote back to say they didn’t know what I was talking about — that no one was behaving badly. Since then, Gere Reist, Secretary of General Conference, has had to admonish the delegates not to threaten people physically, not to name call or use racial slurs, not to cheat voting multiple times with multiple voting devices, and to coerce or “buy” votes from other delegates (pay for meals then expect delegates to vote a certain way, specifically). This is good behavior? There has not been one day go by where I have not seen people engage in improper behavior (if the Apostle Paul knew what he was talking about, anyway) and to speak unkindly or insultingly to others. I have now been in situations where my southern brothers have used racial epithets I have not heard since childhood. Somehow, a segment of our denomination missed the news about civil rights and desegregation…
And it is getting worse instead of better. We are watching battle lines being drawn. My wife and I noted that during the heated debate yesterday around referring to our bishops a proposal to directly address our divisions over sexuality, about seven tables were completely empty of delegates. Where they were, what they were doing, and what they were talking about is anybody’s guess. The truly weird thing is that when votes were taken, the overall counts were not lower, even with 35+ people absent. I am sure whatever was being concocted yesterday will make its appearance today.
Watching the room — and we are in a marvelous place for watching: the very back row in the back corner, just inside the bar — we can see an ocean of people. As a handful of people rise to attack the presiding bishop, spout anger, challenge decisions, derail process, and embed the conversation in tangents and misdirection, it is telling to watch the faces and body language of the delegates. At the end of yesterday’s plenary, the word I would use to describe the body is “defeated.”. People look beaten down and beaten up. Some members of some delegations are apologizing for/about other members of my delegation. Someone I have known for years stopped me with tears in her eyes and said, “please don’t think we’re all like her. I just want to hide under a table every time she goes to the microphone!”
I am wondering what real good we can still accomplish this General Conference. A minority of delegates have managed to make our life together a personal and private vendetta, all about getting their way. And the body does not have a good process in place to deal with it as it happens. The bad behavior is prevailing because we don’t have a way to say “no, we won’t tolerate this.”. My sympathy goes to our presiding bishops, but with the exception of just a couple, they have done a poor job leading the business in plenary. Our parliamentarians are worse. We are held hostage by poor performance on the part of the leaders, and on highly skilled destructive behavior on the part of a handful of voices dead set on having their own way. And a silent majority sits in disgust.
We look back on earlier fights and scratch our heads and wonder what our problem was — what was the big deal? Lending practices almost destroyed the Methodist Church of the early 19th century. We wouldn’t blink an eye at the arguments of that time today. Then slavery. Then divorce. Then women in leadership. Then war. Then civil rights. Then Viet Nam. Then a blip of racism/sexism, again. Now human sexuality. Not only am I curious as to why we are letting this issue loom so large, but I can’t wait to see what we will come up with next. If this General Conference is proof of anything it is this: we are not happy unless we can make others unhappy. We cannot be church without something around which to draw sides and disagree.
I say again, sounding like the proverbial broken record, we are choosing to be like this. And, no, it is not just one side making things hard for everyone. In an open system, dysfunction is an act of collusion and abdication. If we want things to be better, they will be better. If we want harmony, we will create harmony. If we want unity, we will create unity. The majority truly can rule. But what we have is what we have created for ourselves, what we sustain for ourselves, what we fuel for ourselves, and it is the outward and visible sign of who we really are and where our values truly lie. Indeed, “They Will Know We Are Christians By Our __________” but what fills in the blank is anything BUT love.