Holy Conferencing or Safe Spaces? Rule 44 & the Infantilizing of #UMCGC

I genuinely can’t tell if General Conference leadership is ignorant or if they’ve just decided to take sides in the denominational Hunger power games.

I do not say this lightly, but based on an observation: the proposed “Rule 44” is clearly designed to encourage a change favoring the progressive side in our present disputes over sexuality, ordination, and polity.  This is not Wesleyan holy conferencing. This is the infantilizing, regressive politics of the college campus under a thin veneer of Christianese. Let’s unpack all that.

umh 545Rule 44 is an alternative legislative process for “particular subject[s]” that is being proposed for Portland.  Some have argued this new process would be more fair for Central Conference delegates, who are often not accustomed to Roberts’ Rules. (Rather than assuming that Central Conference delegates cannot learn a time-tested method we have used for decades, it would be great if instead the focus was on the unjust lack of fair representation on the Connectional Table.)  But the more common argument is that Rule 44 hearkens back to core practices of Wesleyan spirituality.  Note this appeal from the leader of the governing body of General Conference:

“Christian conferencing is what General Conference is all about,” said Judi Kenaston, chair of the Commission on General Conference, as she outlined an alternative group discernment process that General Conference could approve for use on “challenging” conversations.

The proposal, nicknamed Rule 44 because it follows General Conference’s Rule 43, could be used with legislation on human sexuality if the rule is adopted.

Note that the clear intent of Rule 44 is not just for any possible subject, but for legislation related to sexuality.  Even the most casual observer knows what a “challenging” conversations means in today’s UMC.  And, as we were recently reminded by a couple of heavyweights, we mustn’t speak in code.

It is unfortunate that Rule 44 is linked to “Christian Conferencing,” because a leading Methodist historian made the case to the Council of Bishops in 2014 that polite conversation is explicitly NOT what Wesley meant by holy conferencing.

Here’s a description of that meeting with the Council of Bishops:

Watson also emphasized that Christian conferencing should not simply be seen as a way to have polite disagreement. Instead, he said, it should be seen as “the distinctive way that Methodists gather together to talk about their relationship with God in order to grow in love for God and neighbor.”

So, the person who *literally* wrote the book on holy conferencing (Wesley actually used the term “Christian conferencing“) says that the point is not polite disagreement, but growth in holiness.  (Besides which, anyone who has looked at the history of Methodism knows that such groups only serve that function over years and decades – not 10 days gathered together with strangers in a politically charged atmosphere.)

If you don’t think that the point of Rule 44 is polite (read: sterile) disagreement, look at the details of Rule 44 in the Daily Christian Advocate.  Something the early Methodists never had were outside observers (!) given the task of speech monitors:

Monitors—During this group process, monitors from the Commission on the Status and Role of Women (COSROW), General Commission on Religion and Race (GCRR), and JustPeace are empowered to observe the process and signal the group leader if they observe harmful behavior as determined according to the Guidelines for Conversation. (p. 94)

Monitors? Is this really where we are at as a church? (Joel Watts has made a good case that this represents not Christian Conferencing but paternalism.  Chris Ritter has outlined 44 problems with Rule 44, including issues with the monitors, in an excellent recent piece here.)  We are told that these monitors will determine what is and is not “harmful” behavior according to the “Guidelines for Conversation” listed in the DCA on p. 100, which includes this insanity:

If you hurt someone either intentionally or unintentionally, apologize clearly and without qualification. If you are offered an apology, accept it as a first step toward reconciliation and allow the conversation to move on.

Most adults know this already: unfortunately, there are people who routinely weaponize “hurt” as a power play.  To say a-priori that any expression of “hurt” must be met with an instant, unqualified apology is sheer madness.  No healthy organization bases its policies on its unhealthiest, most passive aggressive members.  Rule 44 clearly empowers such individuals.

Indeed, this proposed legislation has much more in common with growing dysfunction on US college campuses than anything from the Wesleyan tradition.  A brilliant piece in the Atlantic describes this as a shift from an honor culture or a dignity culture to something wholly new:

The culture on display on many college and university campuses, by way of contrast, is “characterized by concern with status and sensitivity to slight combined with a heavy reliance on third parties. People are intolerant of insults, even if unintentional, and react by bringing them to the attention of authorities or to the public at large.”[…]It is, they say, “a victimhood culture.”

The problem with such a culture (aside from being anti-intellectual) is that according to basic psychological principles it is actually damaging to mental health.  Some have described this as a culture of “vindictive protectiveness,” as described in this piece by an attorney and a psychologist:

You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.

Is this not exactly the kind of climate Rule 44 would create? The authors go on to elaborate:

Because there is a broad ban in academic circles on “blaming the victim,” it is generally considered unacceptable to question the reasonableness (let alone the sincerity) of someone’s emotional state, particularly if those emotions are linked to one’s group identity.

Courtesy Avsar Aras via Wikimedia Commons.
Courtesy Avsar Aras via Wikimedia Commons.
Note again the Guidelines’ demand for an immediate and unqualified apology for all claims of hurt.  And in case we have forgotten, incidents at Duke and the Connectional Table dialogues have taught us that simply stating the UMC’s position is deemed “harmful” by some in the church.

That’s why it is clear that Rule 44’s result, intended or not, is to empower a particular side in a long-standing ecclesial debate.  The sad thing is not the political gamesmanship involved, nor the false piety what wraps this legislation in Wesleyan spirituality, but that coddling folks in this way is actually not healthy for them:

Attempts to shield students from words, ideas, and people that might cause them emotional discomfort are bad for the students. They are bad for the workplace, which will be mired in unending litigation if student expectations of safety are carried forward. And they are bad for American democracy, which is already paralyzed by worsening partisanship. When the ideas, values, and speech of the other side are seen not just as wrong but as willfully aggressive toward innocent victims, it is hard to imagine the kind of mutual respect, negotiation, and compromise that are needed to make politics a positive-sum game. […] One of the great truths taught by Buddhism (and Stoicism, Hinduism, and many other traditions) is that you can never achieve happiness by making the world conform to your desires. But you can master your desires and habits of thought. This, of course, is the goal of cognitive behavioral therapy.

I would love for the DNA of true holy conferencing to be replicated throughout our Connection. Many “non-denominational” megachurches are thriving because they are using the playbook that Wesley developed and the United Methodists have abandoned.  But Rule 44 is not any kind of Wesleyan conferencing.  This legislation empowers those who wish to see change in the church’s position on sexuality, in that it so tightly controls the conversation that real disagreement (and thus, real progress in the conversation) is impossible.

Thus, General Conference leaders are proposing legislation that is anything but neutral. It is hard to say if this is because they want to see change themselves or because they are being unduly influenced by certain elements in the church and are unable to see the real purpose of Rule 44.

But make no mistake: this is ideological bias masquerading a Christian practice.  If we are incapable of having conversation without monitors, we should throw in the towel now. Schism is preferable to such a wholesale blessing of infantilizing disfunction.

As I’ve said before, I am not against change in the church. I would be in favor of us finding a way to live together by introducing some measure of flexibility in our polity.  There is room for a compromise here.

That doesn’t mean any method of achieving that end is worthy of the Body of Christ.  We must seek just and holy outcomes by just and holy means.  That requires, at least, honesty.  Sadly, the most ardent defenders of Rule 44 are not being honest, because the simple truth is that Rule 44 is an attempt to game the system.

P.S. If you still aren’t convinced that the General Conference leadership, in pushing Rule 44, might be taking sides, observe that they are focused on monitoring speech and controlling particular legislation, but have shown no desire to mitigate the disruptive and destructive behavior that we all anticipate in Portland.

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