The Church of Illusion: Framing the Schism spectacle

When it comes to the schism conversation in the United Methodist Church, we are being played and we need to stop playing the game.

Earlier this week, the Good News website ran a story about the previously mentioned FaithfulUMC 60 pastors who are seeking schism in the United Methodist Church. They are now 80 pastors including some theologians. They even included a black pastor as opposed to the solid whiteout of the previous press release. Well done.

But the content of their letter and the accompanying press release are less important than three other factors:

  1. The timing and depiction of large church pastors put pressure on the Bishops through celebrity and economics in order to keep them reacting from institutional fear rather than leading through the middle way.
  2. The continued presentation of anonymous support and leadership evokes fear.
  3. To paint the conflict as “us and them” and begin to shame people who “wound Orthodoxy” by not choosing a side.

The Power of Spectacle

I read Chris Hedges book The Empire of Illusion years ago, but I’ve returned to it in recent weeks as this schism spectacle drags on:

In The Republic, Plato imagines human beings chained for the duration of their lives in an underground cave…their gaze confined  to the cave wall, believing that the flickering shadows are reality…Plato feared the power of entertainment, the power of the senses to overthrow the mind, the power of emotion to obliterate reason. (Hedges, 14)

Like pro wrestling and big worship services, large church pastors are masters of spectacle. They know how to draw attention and do things that are a combination of intrigue and values-posturing. To state repeatedly that schism has already happened and we need to do this now now NOW uses emotion that large-church pastors and crafters of emotionally-manipulative mass services are masters of.

If the reality is that most of Methodism doesn’t want schism (and even The Watson couldn’t muster more than 44% of his tilted readership to claim it), then these large church pastors are using three emotional techniques to build up this spectacle as bigger than it actually is.

#1: A Sense of False Urgency

Why this week? Last week, the Council of Bishops met and there was no reporting of forceful action against any Bishop which had stopped trials or any meaningful direction other than the release of a book talking about the issue of covenant. Since they failed to act or publicly flog the right people, the schismatics acted to remind them of who they think really has the power in the UMC.

The press release is offered immediately after the CoB meeting so there’s the maximum amount of time apart from prayer and camaraderie and sense of isolation from the daily drumbeat of schismatic forces.

Remember that the focus of these releases is not primarily the public: it is the Bishops. The Bishops are the only ones with the actual power to stop the large church pastors. If they are paralyzed by fear or institutional preservation, then they cannot wield that power and the big guys win. By heightening the schism direction to ludicrous speed, the schismatics are attempting to manipulate the Bishops.

#2: Fear of Impending Doom

As well as urgency, the use of particular names brings up money money MONEY. Since we identified 9 of them last time, here’s what we had to say about their financial clout:

These 9 white men (3 from Texas, 2 from North Georgia, 2 from Western North Carolina, 1 Oklahoman, 1 Floridian) are at churches that pay a total of $4,217,547 in apportionments. That’s an incredible amount of cash but you need to categorize them to see the whole story. While in four of the conferences that amounts to 2-6% of their entire apportionment budget, the three churches in the Texas Annual Conference contribute 26.6% of their entire apportionments budget.

Remember like we said: you are not the target of these emotional manipulations: the Bishops are. Including these large church pastors was a brilliant way to remind them of the loss of money if these large church pastors separate. It’s a common tactic of Good News to hold money and people hostage which is why I find it odd that even Good News is not claiming direct support of schism yet.

And now including the chair of the Georgia Foundation? Brilliant. When I saw him, even I had a bit of fear and asked “Could a Foundation take the money from the Annual Conference?” They obviously can’t–but the facts are not the goal: fear is.

#3: Fear of Anonymous Waves

While the named pastors are fear-inducing, refusing to name the rest of the schismatics is a manipulative move as well.

The reality is that the named pastors are essentially triaged: they have already forsaken the connectional UMC. The nine identified pastors have an average tenure at their church of 18 years, including one pastor who has been at his church for 32 years. They do not represent connectional Methodism so much as congregational Methodism. If a split happens, those churches that are more congregational would likely split as well, they do not represent the churches that have a vested interest in connectionalism like the vast majority of the UMC.

But including 70ish unnamed pastors makes the schismatics seem more impressive than they likely are.

There’s two primary reasons for hiding a membership list: fear of retribution or using anonymity as intimidation. Like any movement, they seek to hide their membership so they are not pressured until they are further in the process. Or if the process doesn’t get a foothold, then their constituency is not lost. If they really believed in being forthright about their process and people, they would release the names.

Mark my words: their conference in July will be in a secret location.

Closing: Repetition of a false reality

In [the world of illusion], all that matters is the consistency of our belief systems. The ability to amplify lies, to repeat them and have surrogates repeat them in endless loops of news cycles, gives lies and mythical narratives the aura of uncontested truth. We become trapped in the linguistic prison on incessant repetition…and within these narrow parameters, all complex through, ambiguity, and self-criticism vanish. (Hedges, 49)

The schismatics believe that by being the loudest they can convince the world that Methodism really has everyone in two different camps and it’s time to split. Despite what John Wesley says, to preserve Methodism we must render it asunder.

The more of us that grant the schismatics a free platform and reward their work in the shadows is to commit the error of any anonymous letter to a church office complaining: if you reward the anonymous writer, you get more anonymous letters posturing without accountability. Let’s do what any reasonable pastor in a local church would do: ignore them until they name themselves and present their ideas for conversation.

There’s Methodist ways to express discontent: anonymity and fear-mongering aren’t them.

Because of their emotional manipulations, until the schismatics name themselves, present their ideas for public debate, and step into the sunlight, we should stop giving them oxygen, start praying with and engaging our Bishops, and continue focusing on making disciples of Jesus Christ to transform the world.

Thoughts?

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Comments

  1. Don Saliers says

    This development mirrors the current political situation in the Congress and the general atmosphere that fears genuine mutuality and a sense of “commonweal”. The strategies and tactics are strikingly similar. Of course there are persons of strong theological convictions here, but the theological dimensions of the issue are subordinated to other unresolved cultural (and class/economic?) issues. Here we must confront the ambiguities and inherent instabilities in UMC ecclesiology. While rational arguments are not likely to dissuade the forces in favor of splitting, I am convinced that we must hold to the promises of baptism and eucharist…to the divine faithfulness in spite of our weaknesses. I pray that our episcopal leadership will resist the “easy way” of division–no easy “tensionless” Christian faith in the Body (has there ever been?)

    • The Rev. Holly Boardman says

      Thank you Jeremy and Don. The use of secrecy as a political tool is inappropriate in a Christian church, and should not be tolerated. Unfortunately, secrecy and private meetings seem to be built into our polity. I am convinced that that the the Devil loves closed doors, closed meetings, and secrets–they are a primary tool of the Evil One. Unfortunately, I think most successful large church pastors are in their current position because they are skilled at wielding this unholy tool.

  2. JT says

    Jeremy, I have to disagree. I’m not saying you’re wrong that they’re being manipulative: they blatantly are. But I don’t think the sense of urgency is false in their mind: I think they know they’ve lost.

    This statement was the creation of a group of aging pastors who can read the same demographic trends as the rest of us, and who therefore know that if they don’t take away anything they can from the UMC today, tomorrow it will belong to a very different, welcoming and inclusive UMC; because that’s what millennials are going to turn the UMC into.

    I’m not saying this because I think all American millennials are progressive. I’m saying this because almost every study suggests that the majority of millennials, liberal and conservative alike, want to stop treating gay marriage as if it were a controversial issue. This generational change is going to diminish the power of these ‘traditionalists’ into near-nothingness and I think it’s an awareness of this impending deadline, conscious or unconscious, that’s driving this urgent call for separation.

    • Jim Knowles-Tuell says

      While I would not go so far as to disagree with Jeremy, I also agree with JT on the point that this seems to be the tactic of those who are afraid that they are “losing.” What really brings that out for me is the “traditionalists” discussion about “agreeing to disagree.” Hasn’t there been the motion at General Conference for several quaddrenia to change the language regarding homosexuality to say exactly that – “We agree to disagree”? And who has fought such language the hardest – why, the traditionalists, of course. Now they are suddenly saying that is what we should do, although such an agreement to disagree causes them to consider schism rather than unity within diversity. They finally admit to our diverse understandings when to do so seems to garnish them some advantage if and when there is a schism.

  3. says

    I liken the secretive behavior of schismatics to those pitiful folks who park behind a tavern or strip club. If you can’t go in without your head held high – don’t go. Having productive dialogue can be difficult but first one must show up. “Anonymous”? Grow up.

  4. Mark says

    Actually I think your analysis is pretty good here..

    I am for schism for reasons completely other than the ones you make central to your argument. So I remain willing and ready to vote for split should i be given the opportunity.

    I believe our denomination is so broken and so mired in what is essentially a modernist paradigm of institution, theology, and ministry vision that it would be easier to start anew (Wesley) than it would be to reform what exists.

    For me this is not about a retread or conclusion to the culture wars of the ’80′s (thanks Boomers!) but is rather an opportunity to seek resurrection out of the much needed death of what is so clearly dying.

    When I read what you write I hear in my ear a voice say “Let the dead bury the dead” but I feel it is worth saying that one can be for schism and that reflects not a response to your list of issues but rather a dream of ministry that we find in prayer, reflection, and local praxis.

    peace

    • says

      I think I’m feeling a similar way to Mark on this one, Jeremy. I’m not gonna dance on the grave of the UMC, but I’m beginning to wonder if we’re just an institutional dinosaur. At GC in 2012 I started feeling like the LGBT question was really just a front. People kept saying, “The world is watching here today.” The world wasn’t. Even most UMs weren’t. The reality is our structure hasn’t really changed since even before there was a UMC; there is very little money left and nobody seems willing to admit it; very few people know what most of the Boards do; etc.

      Sure, Millennials largely want to stop fighting about marriage and ordination and acceptance. But I think we’re also skeptical of top-down church models, outdated ecclesial structures, and a focus on institutional survival. And I’m not sure anybody is really addressing any of those concerns.

  5. says

    Jeremy,
    Like the folks at Fox News, the folks at Good News know that manufacturing a false narrative along with a sense of urgency is very effective in taking control of the conversation.
    “People are saying…” is a great way of claiming that it’s not just us, when in fact, it is just us. If you can find a minority to sign on, so much the better. We are a covenantal community, pledged to serve this church. That makes this different. These voices border on chargeable offenses in the cause of intimidating bishops for not charging others.

    • says

      Yup. One side has learned from nonviolent protest movements. The other side has learned from the propaganda complex. When we look at our history, we know which side prevails.

  6. says

    I don’t understand. When you use the word “schismatics” are you referring to those who continue to disobey church law, breaking covenant, and pridefully so, or those who have been calling the church to stay faithful to the biblical and historical position on sexual morality?

    • says

      Like my friend Ed right above you, Chad, it’s amazing how the narratives we use shape our questions. ;-)

      Regardless of the narrative framework, the difference for me is that one side is forthright about all that they do (within the polity or against it) and the other lurks in the shadows.

      If they stand with the whole of the apostolic church, with Jesus Christ himself…what possible reason do they have for not standing tall and openly?

      • Mark says

        Actually the way Chad choses to frame it makes me think both sides are the same.. Which Is why I find that framing so unhelpful in understanding what is actually happening…

        • Ben Hanne says

          The amount of mental gymnastics I have to do in order to make adultery fit into the context of this issue is so significant I have no other choice than to call this out as the red herring that it is.

          I think the mistake we all make from time to time is that we want to group people together too much. It feels compelling to turn someone into a caricature of their position by grouping them with others who’s behaviors or beliefs seem to diminish the credibility of their argument. Take the great “red” hunt of the McCarthy era: it wasn’t just a problem if you were a socialist, but if you had a friend who was, or had just gone to a meeting, or they had a friend who had….

          In the modern context we often look to diminish another person’s argument by pushing them to their ideological extreme.
          “Oh, you’re a progressive? How can you support universalism?”
          “You’re a conservative huh? Why don’t you think women have the right to speak in church?”

          Certainly there are small amounts of people in the UMC who hold these beliefs, but chances are at any particular moment we’re not actually talking to them. We each have persons or groups with whom we share some values, but disagree with their tactics. The most important thing is to only deal with the people in front of us. I’m not going to group you with the IRD (even though they’ve reposted your blogs before) because that’s not fair to you. You’ve got a story and a strong faith and have done good work for Jesus Christ and we’ll never get to a healing point if we don’t start engaging with that more rather than the shields of rhetoric and sensationalism.

          (If you’re not the same Chad Holtz I’m really sorry – I’m just working from memory here – although I’m sure you’ve still got a great story, faith and have done great work. Also – I would hate for you to feel like that last paragraph was an attack in any way – deeply sorry if it felt like it – and gladly retracted if factually incorrect)

          Likewise – calling out these 80 manipulative “leaders” for their tactics is not necessarily an attack upon them as people, nor their theological beliefs. It is – in its purest form – a heavy critique against what I believe to be a selfish attempt to control the discussion and inspire feelings of protectionism and fear.
          To reinforce – I am not calling any of them personally manipulative or selfish – but their collective actions are.

          We’re starting to resemble the cold war – with certain extremes at both sides seemingly threatening the nuclear option. We need to disarm from our assumptions, fear and hate because pushing that button will destroy everyone. It can’t be MAD that holds us together, it must be love and a deep devotion to our shared work as God’s people.

          Blessings.

          • says

            Ben,
            I think it’s only impossible to reconcile the two if you’ve already pre-determined that homosexuality is not sexual immorality. If you think same-sex sex is not sinful then of course it doesn’t equate to adultery. But if you affirm what both Scripture and over 2000 years of Christian-Judeo teaching (along with the current law of the UMC) has said about the matter, then it’s not difficult to see how they are related. One can no more be a practicing adulterer and expect to be ordained than one should expect to be a practicing homosexual and expect to be ordained. Both may have desires to do either one or the other, but Scripture calls us to crucify those desires under the Lordship of Christ, who bought our bodies with a price (1 Cor. 6:20).

            To my knowledge the IRD has only republished one of my articles. I agree with you that it would be nice if we would not group people together and thereby judge them.

        • Mark says

          Phenomenology is probably worth a look…I mean when we are not busy trying to pick fights for fighting sake.. speaking of which I’ll be in the alley out back… #pointless

          • Steve says

            Chad – interesting that you use adultery as your comparison, not divorce. Christians who use the Bible as a breastplate (or sword) often start with Jesus who said nothing about homosexuality but did speak of divorce. But we quit using divorce as an ethical standard when so many of our parishioners – and big steeple pastors – got divorced.

    • JT says

      Chad, I don’t understand. When you use the word “schismatics” are you referring to those who continue to disobey church law, breaking covenant, and pridefully so, or those who have been calling the church to continue paying their apportionment in order to uphold the universal mission and service of the church to the world, even in the midst of serious internal doctrinal disagreements?

    • says

      Would those people to whom you’re referring, the ones “calling the church to stay faithful to the biblical and historical position on sexual morality,” be the ones who prohibit divorce, and withdraw the orders of elders who divorce. Are the ones that call for strict adherence to the Levitical Code, like not having sex with their wives when they are menstruating? All of those are biblical and historical positions. I notice the only one you mention is the one on homosexuality.

      Just wondering if you ever preach from Romans, or just from those few passages in Leviticus? Because if you do use Romans (sometimes), try these verses sometimes. “2 One person believes in eating everything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 3 Those who eat must not look down on the ones who don’t, and the ones who don’t eat must not judge the ones who do, because God has accepted them. 4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servants? They stand or fall before their own Lord (and they will stand, because the Lord has the power to make them stand). 5 One person considers some days to be more sacred than others, while another person considers all days to be the same. Each person must have their own convictions. 6 Someone who thinks that a day is sacred, thinks that way for the Lord. Those who eat, eat for the Lord, because they thank God. And those who don’t eat, don’t eat for the Lord, and they thank the Lord too. 7 We don’t live for ourselves and we don’t die for ourselves. 8 If we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we belong to God…13 So stop judging each other. Instead, this is what you should decide: never put a stumbling block or obstacle in the way of your brother or sister. “

  7. Sharon Moe says

    Jeremy, thank you for your analysis, which I agree with. I’m not getting anxious, but I am watching, and I appreciate your leadership with this analysis. Also, a colleague who reads, follows Chris Hedges is entirely credible to me.

  8. says

    As always, Jeremy, you cut right to the heart of the real matter. This is clear and obvious fear-mongering.

    One more bit if perspective to add to the already fine logic you express here. To put things in terms of “game theory” (which some will appreciate and others will not) is that the conservative side has “won” every major debate on this issue since 1972. If anything, our polity has gotten *more* restrictive. (Bans on gay marriage. Bans on gay clergy. International delegate counts becoming seemingly insurmountable….seemingly)
    By all measures of our own internal polity, their side is still “winning.”
    (Btw. I loath the language of winning/losing and only use it to make the point…)
    And yet, NOW is when they call for split?!

    See, this doesn’t pass the smell test. Something else, as you say, must be behind *some* of this. Yes, I am sure that some are genuinely speaking their own sincere beliefs. But for others in this group of pastors, it reveals that it must be about some other “end game” here.

  9. Creed Pogue says

    Jeremy’s latest reminds me of “And the band played on” or “Just a flesh wound” (if we need a more modern reference).

    I will agree that having an anonymous group say anything is foolish and ill-advised. It would have been better to have had x speak publicly rather than this, but it does still seem like a work in progress.

    But a critique of that coming from people who don’t even pay for their own bishops while spending money on their own priorities who then profess concern for the “connection”??? That really takes the cake.

    When you talk about why people are using scare tactics, it would seem even more reasonable to ask why you condone the thuggery of Amy DeLong, Julie Todd and “Love Prevails” (talk about false advertising!)? They are the ones who are saying that they will leave if they don’t get what they want in Portland. Yet, anyone who can add can figure out that the African conferences and the Southeastern Jurisdiction will have 51% of the votes in Portland. So, how does anyone figure that gay ordination is going to get even 40% much less a majority? If triumph is inevitable, then why the bullying?

    Unfortunately, holy conferencing is dead because a fundamental requirement for it to work is that both sides can trust that whatever agreement is reached will be adhered to by both sides. Bishops deciding on their own which chargeable offenses don’t really matter simply makes that hopeless.

    The “middle way” seems to be that everyone do their own thing. Which is fine if everyone is going to pay for their own thing. But, like I said, forcing the rest of us to pay for Western Jurisdiction bishops who are playing on while everything is melting around them is just too much.

    • says

      Creed,

      Once again, your posts are “different topics, same tune” as you continually make the same error.

      It is an error to lay blame at my feet for the financial spendings of the Western Jurisdiction, which you’ve done since 2009, as I’ve only been here for two years. If you want to blame an Associate Pastor who has no votes at Annual Conference, well, then clearly I’m overly-inflated in your acrostic.

      If you want to continually harp on this, then you need to blame both the Northeast Jurisdiction (of which you are a part) and the South Central Jurisdiction, as I’ve served there too and clearly am the cause or product of many Methodist errors in your eyes.

      Thanks.

      • Creed Pogue says

        “same tune” describes all too many of your posts (logs, splinters and all that)

        you go into high dungeon about “intimidation” from one group but remain silent about thuggery on your side. That isn’t DreamUMC that is simply UMCnightmare. You do have the ability to deal with that.

        Just out of curiosity, how do you not have a vote at your annual conference???

    • Mark says

      Creed,

      I know it is a well used rhetorical tactic to accuse those with whom you disagree of less than savory tactics. But that is hardly helpful.

      In my conference which has been “reconciling” for more than 30 years we have plenty of conservative pastors… Many of whom I would call friends and all of whom I consider colleagues. Some of them chafe to be sure at our stance, but we need not be nasty to one another and have not for quite some time. We disagree and we are adults so we try not be to a-holes about it.

      At the general church level I can tell you that I have been invited to more than one fist fight, and in one case was actually cornered in a restroom and threatened with assault for having the temerity to differ from the party line. For the record those threatening assault were members with me on GBOD and have been representative of the “winning side” in fact you’ll see them quoted now and again…… That is not to mention how often (weekly at times, monthly in general) some anonymous person writes me threatening letters… But such are the time honored of the uses of power for those who hold it.

      We need not agree.. and we do not likely. But my experience is that it is those with power who are thugs and those on the outside who are abused more often than not.. You feel differently but don’t confuse that with the real material difference between those with power and those who lack it.

      Go in peace…

      • Creed Pogue says

        So, disrupting a lawful business meeting is what? You may not be comfortable with calling it “thuggery” but what else is it? Ask yourself what would be your reaction if it was done by those you DISAGREE with? This whole blog entry is trying to focus the concern on the “powerful” who have threatened rather than those who have actually acted.

        We don’t have a state religion in the USA. 97% of the people aren’t United Methodists and you would not say that we are a privileged minority either. Our leaders have done everything they can to blur the differences with other mainline denominations. So, other than we still have many more pulpits than the rest of the mainline and there are pensions, benefits and salaries on the line, why would anybody resort to disruptive tactics and do damage to the denomination rather than find a more hospitable home?

        When people are mugged, they really don’t care if it is someone who is rich or poor who did it. They simply say that they are mugged and it is nothing sort of moronic and insensitive to try to pretend that some people cannot be muggers because of their status.

          • Creed Pogue says

            You choose not to respond to what I write and I’m the one who is “not listening.” We are in trouble!

        • says

          The callout in this article, which you obviously didn’t read, has little to do with which position either side is taking. The topic in the article is that one particular group is using secrecy and anonymity as a tool to gain power through fear. That much is obvious, and not uncommon. “We have many people who feel as we do, but we can’t/won’t tell you who they are.” The business of church deserves to be done in the light of day. If those “secret” members of this group aren’t convicted enough on the topic to be named, then they don’t count.

      • Mark says

        I keep waiting to be charged on that one… If you need my DS’s address let me know…

        #comeandgetme

  10. says

    Thanks for this, Jeremy, and for the shout-out re: “ludicrous speed” – I thought a fellow nerd would appreciate that.

    Where is the thing about “wound orthodoxy” vis-a-vis the middle of which you speak? I can’t find that in the GN statement.

    I am also troubled by the anonymity, and I think the parallel to the local church is important:
    http://pastormack.wordpress.com/2014/04/03/where-is-the-good-news-or-please-stop-giving-money-to-the-caucuses/

    Peace,
    Drew

  11. Jon says

    Have been the church of illusion for far longer then the previous press release was even printed…it is those who break covenant speaking “biblical obedience” who are living and serving in a church of illusion. When the dysfunction is finally named — it will be those supporters of such dysfunction that push back the hardest and loudest…thanks for being such an example of family system theory.

  12. says

    I would agree with your analysis Jeremy. Along those lines I noticed language in their statement designed to galvanize the more conservative UM constituency into joining on with the traditionalists. I have observed that not everyone has chosen a side. For those that have chosen the traditionalist camp, not all of them would want schism either.
    It frustrates me because their statement on the Bible doesn’t strike one as Wesleyan at all. “Infallibility” sounds fundamentalist to me. The statement claimed that progressives, “believe that significant parts of the Scriptures do not provide an accurate understanding of God’s heart and mind and may be discarded as uninspired and in error.” That made me wonder if in fact these traditionalist schismatics have bothered to acquaint themselves with the breadth of opinion on the progressive side. Either they haven’t, or the language is designed to malign the progressive position. Thus I decided to challenge them in the comments (so it is a little too late for me to ignore them as you suggest, as I have posted a LOT of comments).
    The result?
    A least in that forum [ http://goodnewsmag.org/2014/05/regarding-united-methodisms-future/#comment-7280 ], almost no one is interested in dialogue. There is an unquestioned (will-not-be-questioned) belief that the traditionalist view is the only valid way to read scripture. So for all their talk of “years of dialogue and debate” I think they have never really listened to what progressives have to say, and they don’t intend to start now. They would rather split the church, because as one of your earlier commentators noted, the millennials (for the most part) aren’t going to be quite so sympathetic to the traditionalist position in the future–better to cut their losses now.

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