May Petitions to General Conference Be limited?
I don’t recall who first told this sermon illustration. It goes like this. The round up was almost done. The cowhands had brought in every head of cattle but the prize bull. The two hands who had been sent out to get him came back saying the bull was too strong for them. They could get a rope on him but their horses couldn’t bring him in. So the foreman turned to the oldest hand to see if he could do it.
The old guy tethered a burro to his horse and went out to try his luck. He returned about an hour later with no burro, no tether rope, and no bull, to the teasing and jeers of the other cowhands.
The next morning, much to everyone’s astonishment, there was the bull in the pen with the rest of the herd munching hay next to the burro to which he had been tethered.
“How’d you do that?” the hands asked the old guy.
“When I found the bull, I just tied him and the burro together. The bull went wherever he wanted but when he didn’t know where else to go, the burro headed for the barn. The bull didn’t have anything better to do. So here they are.”
This story can be used to describe how God operates in evangelism, missions, or almost any other church endeavor.
My application will be different. By the time I’m done with this commentary, you’ll have to decide whether it is a conspiracy theory or an old-timer telling it like it is.
The 2016 General Conference was riven as have been every one since 1972 with rumors of splitting the denomination if it did not sustain the anti-gay laws in the Book of Discipline.
In typical bifurcated Anglo-Saxon politics, there really are only two politically oriented parties in our denomination, the “Bishop Wannabes’ and the rest of us. While that does not necessarily describe United Methodists from outside the United States, the influence of the culture of the British Empire, as manifest through the American “way of being” in which our denomination developed, provides the milieu in which this struggle over homosexuality is occurring.
And like in American politics, our two parties are made up of several special interest groups which are more or less organized, as well as the vast majority who tend to be occupied with our local concerns. The most organized in the Bishop Wannabe party is the Council of Bishops (the Bishops). Their foot soldiers are those who literally want to be bishops because of the power, privilege, and golden parachutes they have or because of their personal allegiance to bishops. The next best organized are the pro-gay caucus and the anti-gay caucus.
This is the fascinating and confusing part: each caucus has operatives among the Bishops and the Bishop Wannabes have infiltrated each caucus.
“Where is this poli sci mishmash going?” you ask.
I think it helps us understand the dynamics behind the Bishops’ request to the Council to rule in this case.
As I observed it, because of the pressure put on 2016 General Conference by the pro-gay caucus, the anti-gay caucus doubled down on its position and the Bishops, who prefer the status quo, saw no way to directly resolve the tension.
If reasonable, intelligent people can’t resolve an argument, it usually means they are arguing about the wrong subject. One of the ways to suss that out is to push dialogue between the conflicting parties. Locking the two sides in a room until they can reach a peaceful agreement is one way to do that. Another way is to make motions and vote their way through an issue using parliamentary procedures. A third is to use third party mediation. A fourth way is to set up formal dialogue over a restricted period of time, not as intensely focused as the locked room alternative. A fifth way is to have arbitration with a third independent party, what the Judicial Council is most often called upon to do..
The General Conference settled on giving up on the parliamentary proceedings, and, unsurprisingly, giving the task of reconciling the conflict to the Bishops. (If my view has any merit, there will be a clear but subtle connection between the Bishops and the makers of that motion.)
The Bishops then chose the fourth option noted above rather than the third. That would have given control of a study group to an independent professional mediator who would have been more objective in delving into the nature of the conflict and finding where the real conflicts lay and trying to resolve them. No, the Bishops kept control by choosing three of their number to act as the moderators of the process and eight more to stack the committee.
My observation of the process was that they allowed some periods of serious conversation which at least broke the ice for some of the study group’s members, though probably did not really allow sufficient time and opportunity to get to the bottom of the pending rift, which I suspect to be complete control of the denomination. If I’m right, that very elemental basis for the potential split would threaten the Bishops because they want that control! (This is my speculation. History will perhaps argue something else, but I doubt it.)
When the study group was asked for possible solutions, I believe the process of interpreting and culling the various options offered by the group members were carefully “crafted” to be summarized into three options (more would have been way more difficult to handle in parliamentary fashion) and one could be pushed forward by the Bishops more easily out of the three, the option that best protected the Bishops from change.
Please understand that I am not completely cynical here. Good things do occur occasionally when bad motives may be involved such as the Koch brothers giving to NPR and to the arts in New York City in order to project a more favorable public image. The Bishops’ intent to hold the denomination together is a positive value given the sad history of the 1844 split over slavery and the amazing ecumenical movement of the last century which included the 1939 and 1968 reuniting of some of Methodism in America.
But as is the case with those who hold power, the temptation is to disregard the rule of law if following the rules might jeopardize their control of a situation. So when the various “special interest groups” saw how restricted the Bishops’ recommendations were to the special-called 2019 General Conference (hereinafter the Conference), they began to press for petitions that offered a wider range of options for resolving the conflict. The Bishops, afraid of losing control over what was to be discussed in plenary at the Conference, asked the Council to rule that the focus of the Conference be their three options (my interpretation of the request for the declaratory decision).
The Council said that request was inconsistent with the Discipline and that any petitions relevant to the call for the special session were appropriate. Relevance could be decided by the normal processes of the Conference. – Warning to the Conference Secretary, Petition Secretary, and the Committee on Reference: beware of the Bishops’ and Bishop Wannabe Party’s efforts to subvert this decision of the Council.
Had I sent a brief to the Council in this case, it would have been in favor of allowing the petitions. I would have had two points in my argument. One was what the Council chose, that the Discipline allowed the wider range of petitions.
My other argument would have been more practical, that a relevant petition could be taken by any member of the Conference, be revised in terms of the best way to resolve some or all of the conflict, and be offered for consideration of the Conference. That is how in 1988 an obscure petition sent in by Leonard Slutz was amended and used to set up a study commission that introduced fair process into the way pastors could be removed from office.
The result of JCD 1360 is that the position of the Bishops and the Bishop Wannba party was weakened and the 2019 Conference will be more open to resolve the conflict. Unless there is a “failure of imagination,” that opening assured by the Council will allow the people of good will to take a step toward a positive resolution, or if nothing else, putting off a disastrous decision.
Let me warn delegates to the 2019 Conference. The tether still ties the burro (Bishops) to the bull (2019 Conference). Maybe the Bishops are the inadvertent hand of God in our struggle to be the best witness to our faith in Jesus Christ. My problem with that is that as a body, the Bishops actually think they are the hand of God! At least, pray that God is the burro and the Bishops realize they are as much a part of the bull as the rest of the 2019 Conference is.
Finally, let me add a response to the clarification of the case by Beth Capen. She is literally correct in her analysis. The wording of the various delegates and bishops at the 2016 Conference point in the direction of narrowing the focus of what may be presented at the 2019 Conference. If my premise that this “dance” was actually largely choreographed by the Bishops, then one can see the motivation behind why those actual words ignored the intent of the Discipline to allow a more open petitioning. Fortunately, the Council was not deterred from following what the law actually says.
Between her review of the situation and the review of the legislative action recorded in the decision, we have documentation of what happened, including who said and did what. Historians, journalists, and students will be helped to make an appropriate interpretation of what actually happened.