CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith and Life for the Years of Winter--
That’s a rather unwieldy title, but a title should give the readers a reasonable chance of knowing what the subject is, and that’s the best I could come up with.
Here is the main point: Most American Christians are conservative. They are in favor of punishment for crimes, but not for sins, and the conservative, anti-gay movement in the United Methodist Church did not count on that in the 2019 special UMC General Conference when they garnered enough votes to keep “The Traditional Plan” for the church, in which we do not allow gay marriage or gay ordination. Now they are surprised at the strong backlash.
I don’t mean that most Christians are “conservative” like the current definition of “evangelical,” people who have sold their souls to white supremacy or Trumpism in irrational ways. I mean just regular Christians. They prefer change to come slowly, if at all. They don’t want the boat rocked. They are “law and order” folks, who are glad to punish folks who are, or might be, guilty of criminal activity.
But they are very reluctant to punish fellow Christians for trying to be sincere followers of Jesus, even if they don’t agree with them. They were fine with The Traditional Plan—homosexuals are people of sacred worth but they shouldn’t be married in the church or be pastors. But they balked at throwing bishops out of the church for ordaining gays or throwing preachers out for doing weddings for them, add-ons to The Traditional Plan at the 2019 GC.
[Everything beyond this paragraph is explanation of the point just made, so it will be boring to read, for there are none of my usual almost-humorous asides, so read further at your own peril.]
Our friend, Paul Baker, a sociologist of religion before becoming Illinois State University’s Distinguished Professor of Education, said that you always know a church is failing when they build a new steeple. [He meant that both literally and figuratively.] It’s a last attempt to rally the congregation into thinking it’s succeeding by making an add-on to something that has really already failed. The harsh and stringent punitive add-ons to The Traditional Plan is an add-on to failure. The anti-gay movement in the UMC and the public in general has already failed, for the vast majority of Christians know that homosexuality is a born-with condition instead of a choice, and that the idea the Bible is against homosexuality is just a smoke-screen for not wanting to face the “ick” factor.
I think the evangelicals in the United Methodist Church overplayed their hand on the issue of whether to allow gay marriage and gay ordination in the denomination, by including stringent punishment provisions for those who break the rules of what they call “The Traditional Plan,” including throwing them out.
There are hateful individual Methodists, who get satisfaction from punishment of others, and there are hateful congregations and entire denominations that are punishers, but Methodists in general are non-punishers, be they conservative or liberal. I think that is true of “mainline” denominations in general, such as Presbyterians and Disciples and Lutherans and the UCC, etc.
Close to half of UMC members, if not more than half, are “conservative,” but they feel ill-at-ease with punishing fellow church members who are sincere in their beliefs, even if those beliefs are different from their own.
The Wesleyan Covenant Association and other backers of “The Traditional Plan” for excluding gays from the church, at least from marriage and ordination, counted, correctly, on enough church members being anti-gay that they could get a majority vote for the continuation of the traditional ways. But the UM exclusion of gays from ordination and marriage in the church up until 2019 did not carry a punishment provision, other than the general punishment provision for anyone who broke any church doctrine. The WCA and its fellow-travelers did not count on so many fellow conservatives being unwilling to go along with specific severe punishments of bishops who ordain gay clergy and pastors who marry gay couples. There is a blatant hypocrisy in singling out that particular breaking of the rules for severe punishment and ignoring other rule breakers.
There is a huge backlash against the Traditional Plan as passed by the special 2019 General Conference of The UMC, and a lot of it is from folks who would be quite happy to continue to refuse church marriage and ordination to gays, but who are not willing to be punishers. That’s a hopeful sign for the future of the church, regardless of what happens next in regard to church organization.
The UMC is basically a center-right conservative bunch, but it is not hateful. Neither our liberals nor our conservatives are punishers. That’s a good start on being Christian.
John Robert McFarland
“There is no greater pathos in the spiritual life than the cruelty of righteous people.” Reinhold Niebuhr