Tag Archives: Peggy Johnson

“Just Resolution,” Or Just Bullshit?

just resolution meme

In the United Methodist Church, we have a bullshit problem.  It’s been piling up of late.  Observe this trend:

  • In March of 2014, Bishop Martin McLee (RIP) of the New York Annual Conference set a precedent in announcing a Just Resolution of the complaint against UM Elder and former seminary dean, Thomas Ogletree.  This Just Resolution resulted in a day of holy conversation with representatives from across the theological spectrum.
  • In October, 2014, Bishop Peggy Johnson of Pennsylvania announced a Just Resolution against 36 clergy who had participated in a same-gender wedding.  The result: the clergy had to acknowledge a violation of the Discipline, but Bishop Johnson also “pledged” that future violations of a similar nature would “will be handled swiftly and with significant and appropriate consequences, which may include a trial, involuntary leave of absence without pay, or other significant consequences.”
  • A month later, in November 2014, Bishop Deborah Kiesey announced that a Just Resolution had beed reached against two Michigan clergy who had conducted same-sex marriages.  No comment on the complaint procedure was given by Bishop Kiesey, nor by the complainants, who remained anonymous. (The plaintiffs, in recognition of their victory, attended a public celebration shortly after the announcement.)
  • In January 2015, the Western Jurisdiction announced a Just Resolution had been reached in the complaint against retired Bishop Melvin Talbert, who had participated in a same-gender wedding ceremony against the request of both the resident Bishop in Alabama and the Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops.  The result of this Just Resolution was a one-page document which said nothing either interesting or significant.
  • Just last week, Bishop Trimble of the Iowa Conference announced a Just Resolution in the complaint against Rev. Dr. Larry Sonner.  The result was a relatively long and comprehensive document whose only real action item is a letter which Dr. Sonner is required to write that amounts to, “I’m sorry some people feel that way.”

Notice the trajectory developed in a very short period of time: from a resolution that called for a public event (something significant & costly at least happened), to a resolution which promised future consequences in exchange for avoiding them at present, and lastly to “Just Resolutions” that quite literally result in nothing happening.  (Other than the progressive wing of the church taking them for what they clearly are, despite all the administrative rhetoric to the contrary: unambiguous victories.)

To be sure, these Just Resolutions had much blood, sweat, and tears poured into them. Some of them even put up quite beautiful smoke screens: quotes from the Book of Discipline, soul-searching, hand-wringing, and apparently sincere language of “accountability” and “unity” abound throughout .  But as Henry Frankfurt says in his classic essay On Bullshit“However studiously and conscientiously the bullshitter proceeds, it remains true that he is also trying to get away with something.” (23)

Someone has to say it:

The Emperor Has No Clothes

In Hans Christian Anderson’s classic story, a vain and foolish king is tricked into going around naked because no one will tell him the truth: the clothes he thinks he is wearing simply don’t exist.  At the end of the fable, an innocent child, who has no need of the monarch’s favor, is blunt enough to say the obvious.

Emperors-New-ClothesIn that same spirit, let me suggest something many of us know instinctively, but which we’ve just been too polite to say: these Just Resolutions are neither just nor resolutions.  They are bureaucratic punts which are, at best, designed to avoid the monetary and PR costs of church trials   (To be fair, Bill Arnold saw this clearly at the outset, and said so in the NYAC panel.)  This may have been the intention at the beginning,  and it’s an understandable one.  At present, however, we are avoiding any tangible form of accountability and yet celebrating resolutions that are anything but; this means the resulting illusion of due process and a unified church under the Discipline is nothing short of bullshit in a precise, even academic, sense.  “It is just this lack of connection to a concern with the truth – this indifference,” says the Princeton philosopher Frankfurt, “to how things really are – that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.” (33-34)

I won’t argue that the Just Resolutions named above do not follow the letter of the law.  What I would suggest instead is that touting these as if they resolve anything, or as if they maintain the integrity of the church, is to engage in pure fantasy.  Again, Frankfurt notes, “the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony.” (47)

Bullshit vs. Lying

on bullshitTo be clear: I’m not saying we’re being lied to. I’m saying, with Frankfurt, we’re
being treated like we are idiots.  The Emperor has no clothes, but is prancing about declaring, “Resolution! Resolution!” when the things which are purported to hold us together are only further tearing the fabric of our fellowship.  The Discipline is followed, but it’s all smoke and mirrors because the church is no better for it:  “The bullshitter is faking things.  But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong.” (48)

Unfortunately, bullshit is actually worse than lying.

Worse Than Lies

In the case of the above complaints, a lie would be better than all of this mounting bullshit.  Tell me there’s been significant (but private) consequences.  Tell me due to personal illness, the complaint has been put on hold indefinitely.  Tell me it was lost in the mail.  All of these would show more respect for the truth than the bullshit resolutions that are currently in vogue. Frankfurt argues that the bullshitter

“…does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.” (61)

Legal Fiction or Covenant Integrity?

The Just Resolutions are, increasingly, little more than institutional bullshit.  They substitute a concern for truth and adherence to reality for a mirage of accountability wrapped up in enough legalese to make a Church of Scientology lawyer weep.  This is not about the good of the church, it’s about maintaining an illusion of integrity while doing nothing.

“For the bullshitter, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false.  His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says.  He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” (56)

Finally, this trend represents what Rabbi Edwin Friedman called a “quick fix mentality.”  One of the characteristics of a “chronically anxious family” is this focus on a fast remedy rather than comprehensive change.  Friedman describes this mentality as, “a low threshold for pain that constantly seeks symptom relief rather than fundamental change.” (Failure of Nerve, p. 54) Read in the most charitable way possible, the present ubiquity of Just Resolutions has its origin in an aversion to acute pain (via trials) that manifests as a choice for a short-term faux peace instead of either a modicum of order or what Robert Quinn would call “deep change.”

A Personal Postscript: Cards on the Table

If you’ve hung in this far, there’s a good chance you think I’m a jerk.
That’s fine. You are, of course, free to think that.  But I’m actually not opposed to change in the church.  In distinction to many of my evangelical and conservative colleagues, I do not believe that the human sexuality debate represents a first-order doctrinal concern, which for me would be a non-negotiable.  I believe this is about people of good will bullshit-meter1with different hermeneutics who all love Jesus and want what’s best for the church.  Moreover, I believe it’s mostly about hospitality: the UMC needs the presence and witness of LGBTQ persons, and we need to figure out a way to welcome our neighbors better.  Moreover, we need to recognize serious burdens that our current polity places on ministry in some areas of the Connection.  (Those pushing for change should also recognize the resulting difficulties that this could bring for their colleagues and neighbors.)

I don’t have an easy answer for you.  I could live in a church that answers this challenge by recognizing the inherent complexities and granting some flexibility, perhaps by region or some other distinction in our structure.  But currently our Discipline is clear about what we as clergy are and are not permitted to do, like it or not.   In the meantime, it’s deeply problematic for our Bishops and other leaders to seek out and celebrate “Resolutions” which do an end-run around real accountability and instead amount to a de facto change in church teaching and polity, powers which lie with the General Conference alone.

And by “deeply problematic,” I mean it’s pure and simple bullshit.

no bs

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Who is at fault for #UMC trials?

highway patrol
NC Highway Patrol car, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Ownership: A Personal Account

As a leader, one of my habits is to attempt, as far as possible, to claim maximum responsibility for everything that happens in my life.  It is not fun, but it is, I believe, a path to sanity.  The alternative – to refuse agency in my life  and calling – is infinitely more unpleasant and dis-empowering.

When I was in high school, I played soccer for one fun but inglorious season.  I was the classic benchwarmer; I only played because I had some close friends on the team, and since I was at a very small school they let me on the team despite my lack of speed, athleticism, and knowledge of or interest in soccer.  In one of my rare appearances on the pitch, I was shoved hard from behind by another player, so much so that I somersaulted.  I was furious.  At my next opportunity, I threw up a very hard elbow and sent my opponent to the ground.  The ref promptly brought out a yellow card.

My friend and team captain came over and began to explain to the ref that I was new to the sport and didn’t really understand what I was doing.  He was about to talk me out of getting the yellow card! But I was livid, and I wanted the other player to know that I thought he deserved it. So I walked over to the ref and exclaimed, “I knew exactly what I was doing!” The yellow stood.  For better or for worse, maximum responsibility has been my calling card – of whatever color – ever since.

This memory crept up as the news came out a few days ago: the ugly specter is back in the UMC.   Complaints have been filed once more, this time against 36 Eastern Pennsylvania clergy who conducted a same-gender ceremony last year.  This is, of course, the same conference that recently de-and-refrocked Frank Schaefer.

The Scandal of Accountability

No one likes church trials.   More then that, no one likes to see clergy who breach the covenant have to face discipline in any form. Those of us who serve in churches where previous pastors have faced disciplinary procedures know the toll it takes on our congregations.  It is always unfortunate, and yet, the coherence of any community demands that some boundaries must be set and maintained.  Even the most secular professional organizations have strictures on what is and is not acceptable for its members; how much more should this be the case for the church, where our work is not some product or service, but the proclamation of the Kingdom?

Many denounce trials as, more or less, “unchristian.”  These days, the bulk of such calls come from progressive Methodists who tire of worrying about trials for those who run afoul of the Book of Discipline in terms of gay and lesbian wedding ceremonies and (however ill-defined) “practice.”  I do not recall most of these folks claiming trials, similar hearings, and other agents of “institutional force” were depraved, pseudo-Christian institutions when a Virginia pastor was put on leave for refusing membership to a gay man.  Nor did Bishop Carcano argue with the decision of our judicial establishment when Frank Schaefer was recently refrocked.  It seems we all dislike disciplinary procedures when they don’t go our way, but can’t praise them enough when they vindicate our position.  But I digress.

The distaste with trials is exacerbated because of the polarized nature of the church (reflecting the wider culture), our inability to discuss hard questions with prayerful charity and theological rigor, and the more general scandal that any exercise of church authority causes in the post-Enlightenment West.

Rev. Hannah Bonner’s critique over at UMC Lead (a blog which seems to be pretty clearly picking sides now) is illustrative:

“It is hard to hear the words church and trial put together. The church is the body of believers who are to show the world who God is through their love for one another and to continue Christ’s ministry of reconciliation. A church trial is an act of institutional force – becoming necessary when individual dialogue has not brought about reconciliation. While we can use the language of “tough love” and covenant, the reality remains that a trial is simply not the place where the body of Christ is presented in the best light. The words themselves trigger for most people images of the Salem Witch Trials and the Inquisition. And it seems that the further removed we are in history from church trials, the more painful and illogical they seem to us. The reality that trials are conducive to further division and damaging to our witness – and not cowardice – is the reason why many of our Bishops are seeking to find different paths forward through this struggle.”

Of course a trial is “not the place where the body of Christ is presented in the best light.”  No one wants them.  But trials are present as a final step when just resolution (or “reconciliation”) fails.  The BOD is quite clear that this is not the preferred outcome.  And yet those who have a distaste for trials seem to think only the church or “the system” is at fault for them: if only we didn’t resort to trials, our witness would not suffer so and we could come to a real “Christian” solution.

Credit Where Credit is Due: A Parable

But are trials only the fault of our (admittedly defective) system?  Pastors, at least, know the stakes.  As clergy who have taken vows which state we have studied and approve of church law, we know what we are welcoming if we flaunt it.  I’m not saying it’s right.  I’m not saying it’s pretty.  But at some point, pastors who knowingly play loose with the covenant should receive a share of the ire for putting the church through the cost and controversy of more trials.

To put it another way: imagine you are driving your car, and you just happen to have a CB radio tuned to the police band.  You get on the horn and announce to all the police in the area that you are about the speed on the highway.  You then get on the road and proceed to do 105 in a 70.  Not surprisingly, you are pulled over.  Because of the egregious nature of the speed violation, you are given a ticket with little discussion.  You will face court costs, an increase in your insurance rate, and possibly a suspension of your license.  All kinds of government resources will be used in holding you accountable: police time, magistrate salaries, a judge’s attention.  What a miscarriage of justice!  Wasted resources abound! You harmed no one. You were just speeding.

Would anyone blame the speed limit laws or the cop in this case?  No.  You announced to the world, and especially to law enforcement, what you were going to do.  Whether or not speed limit laws make sense is beside the point.  Their job is to enforce those limits, and you told them you were coming.  The onus, at least in part, is on you.

A crude analogy, perhaps, but is it that different from those who flagrantly disregard the Discipline and then balk at accountability?  I respect prophetic witness, but true prophetic witness means being willing to face the consequences.

Conclusion: On Owning Choices

Poster encouraging support for the EPA 36. A thought: pitting "Biblical" vs. covenant obedience is a false dichotomy. We are always called to obey Christ through his Body, not choose one or the other.
Poster encouraging support for the Philadelphia 36. A thought: pitting “Biblical” vs. covenant obedience is a false dichotomy. We are always called to obey Christ through his Body, not choose one or the other.

I don’t disagree that trials are damaging to our communion and our witness.  Unfortunately, the reality is that the only thing that may erode the glue holding together our denomination faster than church trials is the avoidance of trials and any semblance of meaningful accountability.

Furthermore, I am convinced it is not the role of bishops to seek “different paths forward” through these struggles.  Such direction is given by the General Conference and codified in the Book of Discipline. The bishops are called, as the executive branch, to order the life of the church in part by enforcing policy made by the General Conference and supporting our doctrine and order as agents of church unity.

We may not like what the “current path” holds, and indeed, I hate that so much energy and resources must go into trials, especially for  the reasons before us.  (I would not be so remorseful if we had trials for more crucial matters, like doctrine.  Oh, if only we would put rebaptizers and unitarians on trial!)

But the only thing worse than the trials may well be not having trials.  Part of the Christian life, as lay and clergy, involves making and keeping promises to one another.  We clergy have all agreed to live by a certain Discipline, and when we fail to do so – whether by momentary lapse of judgment or conscious, intended effort – there must be a response that recognizes that failure. A gracious response and oriented towards restoration, of course, but a response nonetheless.

And yes, church trials bring up some of the worst parts of Christian history, those things with which the New Atheists love to fill up their screeds: inquisitions and witch hunts.  But not every church trial is an inquisition, no more than seeing blue lights always indicates something like the Rodney King incident is going to occur.

We will find trials unpleasant. We should. They are always sad.  And I sympathize with fears that more trials will threaten to rend our communion past what it can bear.

But the only thing that might be a more serious threat, that might endanger our life together even more, is the refusal to hold pastors accountable when they choose to flagrantly violate the covenant and show no willingness to stop doing so.  We all know this is a delicate time.  Our church is imperfect, including its accountability structures.  But I can’t help but think that those pastors who flaunt the Discipline – regardless of the nobility of their cause – like the Eastern Pennsylvania 36 , are also at fault.

Part of maturing is owning our choices and the consequences that they bring.  Don’t tell the police you’re going to break the law, and then complain when you get pulled over.