In the North Georgia Conference of the UMC document titled: “Disaffiliation Agreement Pursuant to paragraph 2553” appears a number of “Standards of conduct” for churches seeking disaffiliation. Among these standards is this statement: “…Has provided to the Annual Conference all informational documents regarding the effects of disaffiliation that have been distributed to the members, and that it has not held any secret meetings of the membership of the Local Church for the purposes of discussing or voting on disaffiliation without the knowledge and consent of the applicable District Superintendent.”
At first blush this appears to guarantee a fair and open process in the congregation. Bring everything into the light so all can see. Right? Make sure there are no nefarious secret meetings. Isn’t that a good thing? How could this be harmful?
It is in the ambiguity of the statement where the problem exists. What is an “informational document regarding the effects of disaffiliation?” Is that a statement of the punitive costs associated with disaffiliation? Is it the options available to the church subsequent to disaffiliation? Is an article simply copied from a non-conference source which discusses the causes for disaffiliation? Further, what if we misunderstand this ambiguous statement and fail to provide what they decide is the described document we failed to provide? Will that give the Conference Trustees reason to deny the application to disaffiliate? Will this requirement be used for punitive purposes?
However, the more troubling part of this ambiguous paragraph of “Standards of Conduct” is this statement: “and that it has not held any secret meetings of the membership of the Local Church for the purposes of discussing or voting on disaffiliation without the knowledge and consent of the applicable District Superintendent.”
What exactly does that mean? Is a “secret meeting” a Sunday School class that has an informal discussion of disaffiliation in their class? Is a “secret meeting” a covered dish meal where the subject is openly discussed? Is it a meeting hosted by a member of the church to which some are invited to hear a presenter discuss the reasons and processes for disaffiliation? Is a “secret meeting” a group of choir members who stay after a choir practice to discuss the current crisis and disaffiliation process for their church?
In the case of a Progressive pastor who will not allow a meeting to discuss disaffiliation, if a group of folks meet to discuss the problem, is this a “secret meeting?” If a small “One Board” structure has been stacked with Progressives sympathetic to the Progressive pastor prevents any public meeting to even discuss disaffiliation, and a group of the majority Traditional members hold a meeting to discuss their options, is this a secret meeting?
Further, given the ambiguity of the definition of a “secret meeting” will punitive action be taken by the Conference Trustees against a church which it determines violated the “secret meeting” of the Standards of Conduct. Is the ambiguity intentional? Or is it simply the result of imprecise language in the legislation? Further, who can the local church believe if they ask for clarification?
The most obnoxious added requirement of the new Standards of Conduct is this: “without the knowledge and consent of the applicable DS.” There are a few specific meetings which the BOD authorizes to require the consent of the DS. Other than those special provisions, there is no provision in the United Methodist canon law that requires that meetings of a local church be open. ¶722 of the 2016 Book of Discipline is currently the only provision that deals with open meetings, and the Judicial Council in two separate decisions, JCD’s 869 and 899, has ruled that this paragraph applies only to bodies created by the General Conference and does not apply to bodies like the Council of Bishops, local churches, and annual conferences. Moreover, it offends at a basic level, making the annual conference look like Big Brother. It is totally unreasonable to require or even expect that a local church should refrain from having any conversations about its options to which only its members are privileged. This is NOT a meeting of the SPRC which may not meet without either the DS or the Pastor in attendance if the DS or pastor wishes to be included. The Trustees are making this look like a discovery process in a court proceeding, and if they want to have discovery, they have to go to court to get it. This is an egregious and illegal act by the Board of Trustees and should be rescinded immediately.
One might say the issues I raise here are simply a “straw man” constructed to undermine the work of the Conference Trustees. However, the reality is the questions posed above regarding “Standards of Conduct” are questions put to me by lay folks in a variety of churches. The ambiguity has them frightened that they might unintentionally violate said standards and reap punitive action against their church.
The lack of trust currently present in the annual conference is unprecedented. For one who served 50 years in the UMC, it is astounding and sad. It is running through the whole fabric of the church. It is affecting long standing relationships among church members and fellow clergy. Further, churches are not trusting their pastors as well as pastors not trusting their lay folks. District Superintendents are suffering from this lack of trust. For example, one church member was commenting on the replacement DS and lauding the appointment by saying, “At least the new DS has a history of being fair.” Why was that important? They had experienced the opposite from their previous DS. Another said, “At least this one has a record of competence, contrary to our last two DS’s.”
There has never been the depth of distrust against any sitting bishop that even comes close to the current situation. While every bishop had opposition and some folks did not trust them, the escalation of the lack of trust has been exponential. And many believe it is caused by the lack of trust exhibited in the actions of the bishop. Trust is further eroded when the institution tries to allow light to shine only from their point of view.
Hence, what might have in the past have been excused in the ambiguity of the “Standards of Conduct” is now viewed as deceptive, even punitive. Is it a trap? No one knows. However, just the posing of the question reveals the severity of the deficits of trust.
This causes one to ask, “Why?” Why did these “Standards of Conduct” even need to be added to the document presented in the June, 2022 Annual Conference?
Further, what is the Annual Conference afraid of? Shouldn’t more light shed on the whole issue help everyone, increase trust and move us toward amicable solutions? Particularly if the information begin given by the conference to members is fair, open and well done, why would it want to limit what others might say?
Light is what is needed, not secrecy, right? Light reveals imperfections. Light helps understanding and comprehension. Light clarifies and purifies.
Yet these “standards of conduct” do not open the shades for more light to shine in. No, if anything they pull the drapes over the windows of openness and threaten to act punitively in the darkness. An overstatement? Perhaps. However, the ambiguity and the trust deficit makes such a statement plausible.
I would submit that what is needed is more light, not less. And since there are at least two sides to this whole discussion of disaffiliation, light demands illumination from both sides in equal parts. Trust is further eroded when the institution only allows light to shine from one direction.
One might suggest the limit on discussion is in fact a limit on the light, an attempted controlling of the narrative. Controlling the narrative is a political tool used by those in power to maintain or advance their political agenda and secure their positions of power. This is true in every institution. It is certainly true in the church. Why did the church execute the first people who worked to translate the Bible into the language of the people.
In 1401, Archbishop Arundel yelled at Wyclif: “The pearl of the Gospel is scattered abroad and trodden underfoot by swine. […] This pestilent and wretched John Wyclif, of cursed memory, that son of the old serpent!” Wyclif only escaped martyrdom by dying just in time. His Oxford colleagues however were all burned alive. Even 40 years after his death, his bones were dug up, burned, and thrown into the River Swift.
Control the information. Control the narrative. Block out the light. It was attempted in 1401. It didn’t work then, nor will it work now.
The One who is the light will shine his light on his people. His work will be done in the light. Even when some “loved darkness more than light because their deeds are evil.”
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.
The bishop, the trustees and the cabinet should withdraw the entire new paragraph 1(b) of the Disaffiliation Agreement Pursuant to ¶2553 that was added and introduced during the 2022 annual conference session.
I call on Traditionalist leaders, especially those who have already disaffiliated and thusly are beyond any punitive reach, to help get the needed information to the people in the pews who have been denied access to the light. Let your light shine.