By Joseph F. DiPaolo
Now that General Conference delegate elections in the U.S. are over, perhaps it is time to consider what it all means for the impending General Conference to convene in Minneapolis in May 2020.
It is clear that progressives made some gains, displacing perhaps 15-20 percent of the U.S. delegate spots held by traditionalists during the last quadrennium. Some progressive communications have been downright euphoric about this, but it’s time for a reality check. With the continued shift of delegates away from the U.S., early analysis suggests that a traditionalist majority across the global United Methodist Church will probably be maintained in 2020, and the Traditional Plan is likely to be sustained.
But let us, for the sake of argument, imagine that somehow progressives are able to muster enough votes to eke out victory in Minneapolis. Suppose that, with a thin majority of 50 percent plus a few votes, the results of St. Louis are overturned, and our United Methodist understandings of marriage, ordination standards and sexual ethics are redefined. Do we imagine that immediately after the vote tallies come up on the screen, everyone will suddenly embrace, begin singing Kum Bah Ya,and then march off, arm in arm, in happy compliance with the new Book of Discipline?
Even if the UMC holds together after that (which is doubtful), traditionalists would undoubtedly begin their own campaign of defiance, following the precedent established by the progressives. And then we will gear up to do it all over again four years later when GC 2024 convenes in the Philippines. By then, continuing shifts in the global apportionment of delegates may well reverse the decision of Minneapolis! So the conflict will go on and on, while our local churches continue to shrink, as people in the pews walk away in disgust.
So, will it be a Mess in Minneapolis, followed by Mayhem in Manilla?
Albert Einstein reportedly said that the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over again, yet somehow expecting a different result.
Perhaps it is time to do something different, and stop the insanity.
It is clear that votes at General Conference will not settle our differences. The longer we continue this pattern of winner-take-all political brinkmanship, we simply accelerate our decline, compromise our witness, and undermine our ability to maintain our ministries.
Though it grieves me to suggest this, it is time to formulate an orderly, amicable and just plan of separation. Such a plan should allow for persons and congregations to follow their convictions, while also providing for ongoing support for those areas of common responsibility which will remain – like social service and relief ministries, pension obligations, and care of historic sites and archives.
I have long resisted calls to leave The United Methodist Church or see it divide. I was ordained and have served as a United Methodist pastor for more than 30 years, and have many friends on all sides of all issues. But I have come to the reluctant conclusion that we are now headed irrevocably toward a church split. History shows us that such divisions typically are marked by rancor, costly lawsuits, the collapse of cooperative ministries, and deeply damaged relationships.
It does not have to unfold that way. We do not need to conduct ourselves like a couple in a bitter divorce who bankrupt each other and alienate the children. We can choose the path of an amicable, cooperative, grace-filled process, for the sake of those in our care.
Perhaps we have come to a “Gamaliel moment.” In Acts chapter 5, Gamaliel, a respected rabbi and Pharisee, was a member of the Sanhedrin when that body was seeking to silence and legally sanction the apostles in their proclamation of Jesus as the crucified and risen Messiah. Gamaliel stood up and gave the following wise counsel:
…I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail.But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.” (Acts 5:38-39)
Perhaps it is time for the two sides to go our separate ways – to “let them go,” as Gamaliel said. Perhaps we should consider giving our blessing to one another and wish each other well in following the dictates of conscience into separate structures. Then we can see which vision for the future of the church passes the Gamaliel test and prospers, unstoppable because it is of God; while the other, having arisen from merely human sources, withers and dies, as the vagaries of culture continue to change and evolve.
It is clear that we cannot agree on what Jesus wants us to do about marriage and sexuality. But can we at least agree that he does not want us to continue the pattern of conflict, wounding and hurting each other over and over again?
It is time to do something different. It is time to stop the insanity.
The Rev. Joseph F. DiPaolo is an elder in the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church and a delegate to the 2019 special General Conference. He is also a member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association Council.