I’ve been struck by two narratives in the #BlackLivesMatter conversation that seem to parallel movements for LGBT inclusion within the United Methodist Church.
#1 – Changing Polity, not Hearts…
When Hillary Clinton met with some Black Lives Matter activists (see video here), she said this:
I don’t believe you can change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate…
You can keep the movement going, which you have stated, and through it you may actually change some hearts. But if that’s all that happens we’ll be back here in 10 years having the same conversation because we will not have all the changes that you deserve to see happen in your lifetime.
We can debate the merits of the argument when applied to the movement for racial justice in the United States.
However, when applying it to the United Methodist Church, it’s a pretty good descriptor. As we’ve discussed before, the UMC sought gender and racial equality through structural change, not through changing hearts.
- The debate over women’s ordination led to a structural solution to license women to serve an agreeable local congregation, while denying connectional authority to them. This was the case from 1924 until full clergy rights in 1956.
- The debate over African-American clergy led to a structural solution to have African-Americans serve only in the Central Jurisdiction, a non-regional jurisdiction consisting of only African-American churches and pastors. This was the case from unification in 1939 until the merger with the Evangelical United Brethren denomination in 1968.
The Church maybe didn’t have enough hearts ready for women or African-Americans to serve, so they changed the way the system operated to allow women and black Methodists to serve in limited capacities. When more hearts were changed (or more accurately…a merger), then the system and our church polity reflected that new majority. There’s still many places where women and racial minorities are not welcome as pastors, but they are a dwindling minority thanks to a changed system that led to changed hearts.
…the “eh” plan for the UMC?
Today, the debate over LGBT inclusion has led to structural solutions as varied as as the local option to a re-embrace of the Central Jurisdiction–only this time for progressives and LGBT Christians. Most of these solutions have one thing in common: re-structuring the UMC to limit the possibility of a gay pastor to serve a church that rejects LGBT inclusion.
I’m not saying it is just; I’m not saying it is right; I’m not saying it will be even tolerable to all sides on this debate. I’m just saying that our Methodist pattern has been to change the structure slightly before the hearts were ready. Incremental steps towards a more just church have taken its toll on these errors of the past and present.
The question then is whether we will accept the incremental proposal before us from the Connectional Table, or whether we will break from the past and go for full inclusion now.
#2 – Setting the Boat on Fire…
On his April 28th show, The Nightly Show’s Larry Wilmore invited the Dream Defenders’ Phillip Agnew on a panel discussion. They had this exchange regarding the riots in Baltimore after Freddie Gray’s death in policy custody:
Wilmore: Do we think black people will only be heard if they burn stuff?
Agnew: Let me tell you an analogy. You are on a ship with a hole in it, and you end up deserted on an island. You scream, no boats come, no planes come. You write an SOS in the sand, no boats come, no planes come. You do a message in a bottle, no boats come, no planes come.
Now you look to that ship, and you say “I’m gonna set this on fire.” And people come to the island and save you and say “what’s going on? Why did you burn the boat?”
The issue that we have right now is that we tried multiple ways to get the word out about what’s going on in the black community, and nobody seems to listen until you burn something.
In the analogy, the rescuers cared more about the boat than they did about the people stranded on the island. For more unpacking of this analogy, you can read Agnew’s essay on the analogy here.
…and the Covenant in order to Save It
In response, the analogy I want to raise is that just as racial minorities are often only paid attention to when they burn a CVS, so also the Covenant for clergy in the United Methodist Church is only paid attention to when it is being challenged.
Beginning with the “Altar For All” movement in 2011, but reaching a crescendo in 2012 with the Biblical Obedience movement, the clergy covenant has seemingly been set on fire. People point to disobedience to the clergy covenant as reasons to leave the church, to advocate for more universal enforcement, to seek mandatory expulsions, and other ways to “strengthen the covenant.” The various covenants in the United Methodist Church has been used over the past 30 years to enforce conformity and to resist the movement of the Holy Spirit for LGBT inclusion.
What Covenants haven’t been used for is a mutual bettering of each other and the connection. Wisconsin’s Annual Conference, in their studies required after the Amy DeLong trial, discovered that you have to practice the covenant before you can enforce it. That means folks attending to their connection to each other in the Annual Conference, which is the only body charged with maintaining the clergy covenant.
In recent weeks, it’s been shown that the Covenant has become stratified in ways that harm the connection much more than a few pastors marrying gay people.
- The rough edges of accountability these days are the megachurch pastors who withhold their apportionments, and the licensed local pastors who have led two churches out of United Methodism in the past few weeks. If the clergy covenant is only being enforced to the “middle tier” of ordained pastors, then we are clearly losing the other ends of our accountability system.
- In his book Seven Levers, Bishop Schnase describes in chapter how he leads a peer-mentoring group exclusively with the large-church pastors. That’s great, but that’s not what accountability is about. Clergy covenants shouldn’t be horizontal to others on your same “tier”–they should be vertical across the connection. Look at your districts or clergy covenant groups: if there’s not small church pastors with the megachurch pastors in covenant relationships, or if the megachurch pastors skip out on district or conference events, then the covenant is not being practiced.
The question is whether the Covenant will be as important to people when the polity changes in the UMC regarding LGBT inclusion, or whether it was a convenient tool for a former age.
Where do we go from here?
The truth is that from the most radical LGBT activist to the most staunch Traditionalist, we all want a clergy covenant to be a just and holy way of relating to each other. What those seeking LGBT Inclusion see is that it has become a weapon that has been used to enforce unjust laws in the UMC, and for forty years the people have rebelled at times and acquiesced at times. Now, like a protest movement, the Covenant is being set on fire to show how porous it already was and how much better we can be with a better way of being together.
Only by removing the unjust laws and correcting the polity will we begin to find more changed hearts in our beloved Church. My prayer is that the delegates to our General Conference in 2016, even if their hearts are not open, allow the system to change to allow the Spirit to breathe new life into other areas –and maybe their own will be enlivened as well.