Tuesday, October 29, 2013

United Methodists - communication through press release?

It has been an interesting week in the United Methodist world of politics, to say the least.  It started several weeks ago when retired Bishop Melvin Talbert announced that he had been given, and accepted, the invitation to preside at the wedding of two United Methodist members, Joe and Bobby.  In his press release, Bishop Talbert relayed that he had talked with Joe and Bobby and knew them to be a loving couple that is very active in their local United Methodist Church.  However, their pastor had turned down the invitation to preside at their wedding because the UM Book of Discipline (our rule book) forbids UM clergy from presiding at a wedding of a same-sex couple.  (However, the Book of Discipline BOD also says clergy should be in active ministry with homosexual people).  The wedding date wasset for October 26 in Birmingham, Alabama.

A few days later, another Bishop made another pressrelease.  Bishop Debra Wallace- Padgett who is assigned to the North Alabama Annual Conference.  She had not talked to the couple, but wanted Bishop Talbert to rescind his decision and not preside at this wedding. 

Bishop Talbert told press that he would do the wedding.

The Executive Council of all the Bishops of the United Methodist Church met and wrote a press release asking Bishop Talbert not to do the wedding.

The couple wrote a press release asking that people talk to them, get to know them as faithful Christians and United Methodists rather than issue press releases about them.

Bishop Mary Anne Swenson (whose name was on the ExecutiveCouncil press release) issued a press release that she was not at the Executive Council meeting and wrote a dissenting opinion.  She encouraged the Bishops to break from the BOD’s “unjust” law.

The daughter of one of the groom’s wrote a press release about how wonderful her dad is and how happy she is that he is getting married to a wonderful man.

Have you written your press release today???

All of a sudden it seems like the church of Christian conferencing is now the church of press releasing.  When John Wesley told the American Methodists to conference together for making decisions and ordering our common life, I don’t think he had this blizzard of press releases in mind.     Whether you are for or against the issues of same-sex marriage, these last two weeks should teach us some valuable lessons for our UM Church and for our local churches.
From left, the Rev. Kevin Higgs, Bobby Prince, the Rev. J.R. Finney, Joe Openshaw 
and Bishop Melvin Talbert. (Photo by Greg Garrison/ggarrison@al.com

First, there is no such thing as relationship by press release.  Press releases inform the general public of what has been done or what is going to be done, for a stand you are taking or a decision already made – it is not a persuasive device for interacting with another person.  Learn the lesson from Sinead O’Connor and the “open letter” she wrote to Miley Cyrus.  Back and forth went the public “letters” with growing insults and threats.  No relationship was built there – nor is it possible.  An “open letter” is not true communication, it is a form of public shaming and only results in the object of the letter feeling attacked, belittled and disrespected publically.  The Executive Council of Bishops should not have publically written to Bishop Talbert asking him not to do the wedding.  Someone should have gotten on a plane or a phone and talked to him, Bishop to Bishop.  The press release should have stated that personal one-on-one communication took place and xyz was the result of the communication. 

Then the couple at the heart of the matter would not feel attacked by their Bishop, and Bishop Swenson would not have had her name on a document she did not concur with, and the couple’s daughter would not have had a need to protect and defend her dads.  It all starts and stops with real communication.

Second, this entire incident shows just how much of a failure our Christian conferencing has been around this issue of homosexuality.   I have to say that Iowa has tried very hard to have effective Christian conferencing around this issue.  We have had Annual Conferences where we talked together in small groups, where we allowed extra time for people to come to the mics and share their opinions and stories on both sides of the issue.   Both were admirable attempts at true conferencing beyond politicking and vote counting.
The year we allowed everyone who wanted to share an opinion get up to the mics and speak their 2 minutes was especially helpful, I thought.  And many of those speeches (on both sides of the aisle) stick with me.  Particularly, two lay women’s speeches against acceptance of homosexuality continue to speak to me about today’s situation.  One woman, in her 60’s, said (I’m paraphrasing)  “but what if everything that we have shaped our lives around and gave up for, now you change your mind and say its ok?”  She communicated the great barrier we have to overcome if the United Methodist Church is to change its stand – what about all the people who believed our teaching and gave up happy lives, or pushed away children or family members?  What do we owe them in the way of support, counseling and explanation now that we change our mind?  What spiritual work do we need to do for them? We who call for change can’t expect people to give up long-held beliefs without helping them to work through the implications of change.  How do we reunite families?  How to we apologize for making people live straight?  Live lonely?  How do we help them accept themselves when we have said for so long that they are not acceptable? 

Another woman, in her 40’s, came toward the end of the sharing time and looked at the Bishop and said (again paraphrasing), “I’m so confused about all of this, I’m not sure what to believe or what the Bible says, why Bishop can’t you lead us and help us to understand?”  Our Bishops are supposed to be our spiritual leaders, and they have made important spiritual and social statements on ecology and other important issues.  Yet, very few of them have spoken publicly on the issue of homosexuality.  I suspect that many feel their opinions would get them “in trouble” with their conference members.  Yet, there are so many laity and clergy who yearn for leadership.  Could our Bishop lead us through a Bible study on the scriptures used to condemn homosexuality?  Could every Bishop do this and explain while looking at the scripture why some feel Leviticus says this and why others feel Leviticus says that?  Doing this together at Annual Conference, at General Conference, would help us all to understand what the scriptures actually say and the points of view around them.  Then give the Bishops the right to state what they believe and why.  Let the Bishops lead us and share with us their views on scripture.  This is why our Bishops are elected for life – to take the risk of leading us even when we are mad at them.

Our present conferencing work has not done enough – Bishops staying neutral or silent has not helped our church.  We are at the point where, because conferencing has failed to bring us together, then some are going this way and other that way.  I believe we are seeing the first signs of a major rip in the UMC.  The question is, can we be healthier from here?  We must stop communication through press release and really communicate and be in relationship with each other.  Our Bishops must step up and lead us despite any blow back they may get.   Pastors, like-wise, need to lead and talk openly on this issue.  It is not fun to have someone leave the church, but I can honestly say that people who have left my churches saying it was because of my views on homosexuality always had other motivations as well.  Members that are truly seeking God’s will know when a pastor is also truly trying to seek God’s will and respond to disagreement with care and curiosity rather than rejection and hostility.  It really is all about communication and being in relationship with each other even when we disagree, knowing that only God has all the answers.

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