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

Not as soldiers but as Christians

In the wake of St. Louis, my reading through some of John Wesley’s works fell upon his tract, “The Principles of a Methodist Farther Explained.” It is part of a series of writings Wesley put down in response to critics of the early Methodist movement and Wesley in particular.

In the beginning of this document, he explains why he has been reluctant to enter into disputation and controversy with his critics.

Fear, indeed, is one cause of my declining this; fear, as I have said elsewhere, not of my adversary, but of myself. I fear my own spirit …. I never knew one (or but one) man write controversy with what I thought a right spirit. Every disputant seems to think, as every soldier, that he may hurt his opponent as much as he can; nay, that he ought to do his worst to him, or he cannot make the best of his own cause. …

But ought these things be so? (I speak on the Christian scheme.) Ought we not love our neighbor as ourselves? And does a man cease to be my neighbor because he is of a different opinion? nay, and declare himself so to be? Ought we not, for all this, to do to him as we would he should do to us? But do we ourselves love to be exposed, or set in the worst light? Would we willingly be treated with contempt? If not, why do we treat others thus?

As we move forward from St. Louis as a church, these words resonate with my spirit.

If we examine ourselves, we know that we often should share Wesley’s fear, although too often we dismiss it, taking up rather the contrary position that the rightness of our cause purifies the viciousness of our methods. Too often we Christians — we Methodists — look no different from the world in the midst of our disagreements and our self-justification of our methods.

No, not all of us are guilty of this offense, but enough that we should all take time to reflect, repent, and reconsider how it is we talk to, with, and about each other. We will not need to look far to find excuses to continue to rend at each other. I hope and pray that we might be instructed by Wesley’s words of caution and heed the words of Christ.

I am not leaving

The United Methodist Church will have a special General Conference next weekend (Feb. 23-26) that may have profound impact on the future of the denomination. No matter how the vote comes out, I will not be leaving.

I don’t make this declaration lightly.

If the One Church Plan is adopted, I suspect that the UMC will experience what other denominations have after adopting similar measures. We will see a large exodus of people, clergy, and congregations, which will shift the denomination further to the progressive side. The net effect of these changes will be that I will find myself a minority in a denomination that will grow increasingly less tolerant of my theology. I am not naive about the way evangelical clergy are treated in progressive conferences already. I have heard the hostile language used by “centrists” toward evangelicals in the last year. I have read the words of a bishop of our church who accuses those who support our current Discipline of being merely interested in power and oppression rather than fidelity to Scripture. I know that staying in an increasingly progressive UMC will not be a path of ease. Indeed, I may face expulsion at some point down the line, despite the promises of the OCP to protect the conscience of clergy.

If this is a possible future I imagine, why stay and why be public about that intention before the votes? I have a few reasons.

First, my sense of call has not waivered or changed. God called me to serve in the United Methodist Church. I have prayed quite a bit about whether that is still God’s intention for my ministry, and the only answers I have received are “yes.” Although I had no awareness of the looming crisis in the denomination when I answered my call more than 10 years ago, God was surely aware. Absent a strong leading from God, it would be unfaithful for me to abandon the call.

Second, I can’t shake Jeremiah 32. I believe God has put that piece of Scripture in my mind. In Jeremiah 32, God tells the prophet that the Babylonians are coming and that to resist them is pointless. Instead, Jeremiah should buy a field in Anathoth and seal the records away in a clay jar where they will surive a long period because God’s promise is that one day the people will return to the land. I apologize to my colleagues who hear in this passage a comparison to the Babylonians. I merely share what is on my heart. Staying even if the denomination takes a vote that I do not support is my version of buying a field in Anathoth. At least, I think that is what God is telling me by keeping this passage so clearly before me.

Third, I interpret John Wesley’s instructions as a counsel for unity. In his sermon “On Schism,” Wesley argues that the only biblical grounds for separation from a church of which I am a member is if the body requires me to do something the word of God forbids or prohibits me from doing something the word of God requires. On its face, the adoption of the OCP neither requires me to do something the Bible forbids nor prohibits me from doing what it requires. Yes, in time, as the denomination changes that may also change. In the meantime, however, I lean on the wisdom of our movement’s founder. Wesley has been a profound spiritual teacher and guide for me. I continue to turn to him for guidance in matters such as this.

Finally, I cannot as a matter of personal integrity continue in the process of ordination that I am in if my plan is to leave the UMC if it votes contrary to my understanding of the Bible. I know some people land somewhere else on this. For some, the vote changes things and changes the analysis. I fault no one for that. In the coming days, however, I am hoping to hear that I have been approved to move forward to track 3 of my conference’s ordination process. I have had to persevere under some very difficult circumstances to get to this point. I have in the past two years wondered whether the UMC was trying to tell me it did not want me to be an elder, but I have pressed ahead because I believe this is the work God is calling me to do. I simply do not feel that I can with integrity ask the conference to vote me forward in the process, but plan to leave if the General Conference goes a direction I do not support. I know that statement may sound incoherent to some. I can only offer that it feels like an issue of integrity to me. I cannot accept the polity of the UMC and refuse to accept the outcome of its politics. Others do not share my view. I understand.

This is where I stand as we approach the General Conference.

My prayers are with the delegates who will gather, discuss, debate, and decide. I cannot imagine the burdens they carry.

My heart is already breaking for the church general because I know that no matter what happens the pain and difficulty will continue. I am also carrying grief because I know that the vote could lead members of the congregation I serve to cut ties with the UMC.

These are heavy days.

In these days, I hold on to the hope of Jeremiah and I trust that God is at work in ways that I am too small to comprehend.