Like many United Methodists (and others watching us), I have been trying to keep up with the details of the plans on offer to the 2019 General Conference. As alternate proposals and modifications are advanced, the picture both clarifies and gets more complex and confusing. As the King of Siam loved to say in “The King and I, “It’s a puzzlement.” Except it’s far more serious.
I won’t go over ground already well gone over by others, and maybe they have also already commented on what I’m about to say, but, as I began to work through the plans, I was immediately stopped dead in my tracks. The One Church Plan, which is the first the reader encounters, in its opening sentence, proposes to amend paragraph 105 of the Book of Discipline with these words: “We agree that we are not of one mind regarding human sexuality.”
With a little thought, this opening statement reveals itself as a stunner because it works on a volatile ambiguity. If “we” refers to the opinions of individual delegates or the positions of caucus groups, then “we are not of one mind” is blindingly obvious and superficially persuasive. But “we” also must include the General Conference vote as a whole. “We” in this second sense is radically different than “we” in the first sense, a distinction that makes all the difference. From the standpoint of General Conference decisions, individual opinions or group positions don’t ultimately matter. What matters is the final vote. That vote renders a decision. That vote represents the mind of General Conference.
In principle and in fact, when General Conference decides a matter, then General Conference by definition has spoken with one mind. It could not be otherwise. A simple majority is all that is required for the lion’s share of votes taken at General Conference. Regularly, delegates on the “losing” side are unhappy, disappointed, even angry, but no one starts yelling “We are not of one mind,” and calling for a “do over.” Imagine the scenarios if delegates did. Of course, they can and do take Parliamentary steps to reconsider decisions or make other moves to modify them. Such procedural moves are part of the Parliamentary process, designed to help a body function properly, not undermine its own decision-making function. When the process is abused and manipulated, nobody wins. Nothing good can come from it.
From a Parliamentary point of view, then, “we are not of one mind” is plainly false and should not be written into the Book of Discipline. The outcome of enacting this falsehood has been a long, costly, arduous and ultimately inconclusive process. I have read reference to members of the Commission on a Way Forward admitting, “No one’s mind was changed.” Mutual understanding? Yes? New friendships? Yes. Deep prayer and honest conversation? Yes. (All valuable, to be sure.) Movement on the question before them? No. Improving the likelihood of a decent and orderly GC 2019? No. Think of that for a moment.
In effect, then, a group of delegates at GC 2016 managed to avoid one more round of agonistic but probably status quo votes by procedural sleight-of-hand that trades on the ambiguity of “We are not of one mind.” Individual delegates clearly were and are not of one mind. But General Conference not of one mind? No. I am stating an obvious Parliamentary fact.
Consider this irony. The vote that set in motion the Council of Bishops’ formation of the Commission on a Way Forward and all that has transpired since GC 2016 was decided by only the slimmest of majorities. I myself heard a bishop who is enthusiastically promoting the One Church Plan say so. Think about that for a moment. By the logic of “We are not of one mind,” then that vote should also have been questioned, etc., ad infinitum.
Think about the ramification of writing this statement into the Book of Discipline. Any time a vote goes contrary to the way some bloc of delegates prefers, they can claim with good precedent, “We are not of one mind,” and call for an alternate process that buys them time for advocacy that might sway the subsequent vote. It fairly begs to be used whenever a group of delegates deems it necessary. Does this situation not look very similar to what is happening in the United States Congress? It is to our shame.
I hope an amendment to the One Church Plan removes this troubling statement from paragraph 105. But more importantly, I pray that we come to recognize how much “We are not of one mind…” tellingly (and again, ironically) diagnoses the disease of our body ecclesial.