Guest post: Of Millstones and Misunderstandings

NOTE: The following is the text of a column that the Rev. Beth Ann Cook posted on her Facebook page and sent out by e-mail with her reflections on the recently completed 2019 General Conference. It is reprinted with her permission and edited lightly.

Fear of the LORD is the foundation of wisdom. Knowledge of the Holy One results in good judgment. Proverbs 9:10

February 28, 2019

General Conference 2019 is over. I’m still exhausted. I’m also reflecting on what a mess it was and how we got here.

I’m convinced that one of the problem is that Progressives and Centrists do not understand what motivates those who voted for the Traditional Plan at GC. In the Indiana Delegation we have had lengthy, difficult, and even painful conversations about our positions and why we can or cannot support certain things. The Commission on a Way Forward did this well. I wish that people through out the church had done the same.

Case in point: Dorothee Benz of New York went to the microphone and said that a delegate from Pennsylvania had said gay people should be drowned. That is not what she said — although I’m sure it is what she heard. The delegate from Pennsylvania quoted Scripture:

But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea. Matthew 18:6, NLT

The Pennsylvania delegate was saying it would be better for us to be drowned in the sea than vote for the One Church Plan. We are setting the official teaching of the denomination. One day we have to stand in front of God and be held accountable for our actions.

United Methodists who support the church’s historic position on marriage believe that changing the definition of marriage would be wrong. They believe God will hold them accountable for these actions because if we endorse it we are teaching people false teaching.

Conservative delegates were begged, cajoled, threatened and allegedly offered bribes to change their vote between the Legislative Session and the final vote. Tom Berlin told us that passing the Traditional Plan was the equivalent of giving the church a fatal virus.

But conservative delegates did not budge. Why? The answer is Fear of the Lord. We simply could not do so. We believe that we will be held responsible for this and that it is something that goes against the will of our Lord and Savior. We know we will stand before him some day.

These actions were not remotely understood by the Council of Bishops, Adam Hamilton, or progressive leaders. Part of the problem is that we live in silos. Those in places like the Western Jurisdiction rarely have real conversation with people who believe what I believe. Even in places like Indiana and West Ohio where we are theologically diverse we tend to talk mostly with people who agree with us.

They were convinced that based on their influence, charisma, or positions of power they could force OCP. At one point during a meeting in the Indiana Annual Conference I said I felt like a goose being fattened for foie gras — force fed something I couldn’t swallow.

In the run up to GC2019 Wesleyan Covenant Association, Good News, Confessing Movement and Africa Initiative leaders reached out to the Council of Bishops and Progressive Leaders. Chris Ritter did everything he could to talk people into trying for the Connectional Conference Plan even though it required constitutional amendments. There was zero interest.

The effort to pass a gracious exit even stalled when Uniting Methodists and Mainstream UMC leaders such as Jim Harnish and Mark Holland doubled down on “no exit provisions should be passed.”

No matter how much the voices like mine said “you are heading us over a cliff,” we were ignored. Bishop Scott Jones, who leads the Texas Annual Conference, spoke loudly about this and was not just ignored but vilified for it.

Those who believe what I believe went into St. Louis knowing that we likely had enough votes to block the One Church Plan and pass the Traditional Plan.

I talked with Kent Millard, president of United Theological Seminary and retired elder from the Indiana Conference, after the prioritization votes. He asked if I was surprised. I told him that we were about 1-2% stronger than I expected, but the vote was pretty close to my expectation. He told me the Centrists/Progressives were stunned.

Honestly I was stunned that they were stunned.

They kept citing this statistic that 2/3rds of US United Methodists supported the One Church Plan. I never believed this is an accurate statement. I think their poll numbers were skewed. The United Methodist New Service published a recent poll that shows that more United Methodists in the US identify as theologically conservative than progressive.

Yet the Council of Bishops is much, much more progressive than the average UMC church. They were so sure that everyone would line up behind their leadership.

I wonder if the Council of Bishops and Progressive/Centrist leaders are willing to listen now that we’ve inflicted so much pain on each other in St. Louis?

Can we now try to understand each other?

Can we now try to find an actual way forward we can vote for without violating our deeply held convictions?

Can we seek some sort of Affiliated Autonomous arrangement?

I pray this is the case. I’m willing to work for this behind the scenes. If anyone from the more progressive side of the house wants to talk, I’m willing to do that. (Although I would like a few weeks off.)

I’m also crazy enough to pray that I get elected to go to General Conference in 18 months in Minnesota. I know Progressives in our annual conference are very unhappy with me. I’ve seen a lot of posts about Progressives and Centrists organizing for elections taking place at Annual Conference. So I have no idea if I can get elected again. But I feel called to it — even if I’m weary of the whole mess. (And as a member of the Commission on the General Conference and the Ethics Committee, I have to go to GC2020 no matter what.)

May the Lord help us overcome our misunderstandings.

I continue to pray Luke 6:31. Lord help us treat one another as we want to be treated. Help us be known as people who love.

Blessings and peace,
Beth Ann

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8 thoughts on “Guest post: Of Millstones and Misunderstandings

  1. Rev. Cook wrote: “Even in places like Indiana and West Ohio where we are theologically diverse we tend to talk mostly with people who agree with us.” I find it ironic that she would write this. Several years ago having never spoken with me she commented on a tweet I sent out something like (it was a long time ago): “The one thing that Rev. Mike Mather and I agree about.” I wrote a letter to her (real old school) – not something I’ve taken public until now, saying I found that hard to believe for several reasons – one, she and I have never spoken to one another before so we wouldn’t know what we agree about or don’t. I also said that as United Methodist Clergy in Indiana, having both been ordained in this conference, I assumed that she and I had a lot more that we agreed about in common than one thing. She wrote back and suggested we meet together sometime when she was making a hospital call or in Indianapolis for a meeting. I told her I would be happy to do that. She never followed up. So her complaint about the lack of conversation seems to be somewhat cynical or forgetful depending upon your point of view.

    1. I don’t experience her as cynical at all and know she has had just those kinds of meetings with others. Maybe you should follow up with her about that.

      And thanks for writing, Mike.

      1. John – I’m glad that has not been your experience with her. I would say I did follow up with it…which is why I wrote to her originally (after she had made a comment about me without ever talking with me). It seemed she was not at all serious about doing anything but sniping at me from the sidelines and this doesn’t urge me on to further conversation with someone.

        1. I do not deny that there are people who lob snarky comments from the sidelines. All I can say is that is not what I have witnessed from her. I think it was at annual conference a couple years ago that a progressive Bishop invited to preach to us called her out by name and noted that while she and Beth Ann disagree about a great number of things they respect each other. I have seen within our conference some of the cliquishness but I am happy to say that I think we have many people in our conference who really mean it when they say they want to connect across differences. I include you in that group, and thank you for this dialogue.

  2. I found Beth Ann Cook’s word to be refreshingly honest–and acutely accurate! This post should go viral, as they say.

    Before flights from St. Louis had arrived home in the Western Jurisdiction, the WJ had issued a memorandum which said: “This is where we stand, we are not moving, we are not leaving, and we are not changing.”

    So much for accepting democratic results: “We are not changing.” Yes, I get that. It’s what I expected to be told (and will hear it repeated over and over and over). The WJ sings but one tune: “Defiance, defiance, defiance.”

    But how banal and childish a refrain it is. The simplicity of it inspires the spectacle of celebrity United Methodists making fools of themselves for the record, coupled with the promise an uglier Minneapolis in 2020.

  3. What is meant by Autonomous Affiliation? I’m still learning all the appropriate lingo for this conversation. I believe I am a Centrist, but I also believe that we should find a way to stay as a unified body in Christ. I hate the idea of an even further divided Church.
    I appreciate your views about being judged particularly as a teacher of the Word. I teach several classes at my church and take that responsibility seriously. I will continue to study this issue and the UMC’s stance and pray we all continue the conversation and not just throw stones from a distance.

    1. Thanks for writing, Jackie. Rev. Cook would have a better answer about that than I do. We now have automous and affiliated bodies that retain relationship with the UMC but no formal participation. I believe the Puerto Rican Methodist church is one example.

    2. I like your question and following for an answer. What qualifies for an “autonomous affiliation” ?

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