Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Why I Spoke Out at the Disciples General Assembly

(One of my seminary friends saw this picture and thought I had entered a spelling bee!)

In my last post (also printed in my church newsletter), I shared impressions about attending my first General Assembly--the national meeting of The Christian Church, Disciples of Christ in the United States and Canada. I mentioned that I spoke during a business session in opposition to a resolution that would change how controversial issues were dealt with at the assembly. I didn't share many details in that post/column, because I realize that not that many people care about the inner workings of a shrinking mainline Protestant denomination, but I share it here on my blog for those few church members who are interested and for any who saw me speak at the assembly and wondered who the heck was that guy?

Before I offer my take on things, I would refer readers to two articles at DisciplesWorld's web site about this issue. The first (in which I'm quoted and the lovely picture above is included) describes the first day's discussion of the matter where there was an attempt to refer the resolution back to the General Board of the denomination for more work. The second article tells about the second day's discussion after the motion to refer failed and the eventual vote concerning the change in policy which did not get the required 2/3 majority--meaning it failed. This article also contains a quote from former FCC St. Joseph minister Charles Bayer.

Here's my take on things. . .

The Disciples of Christ is a denomination without a hierarchy--which means there is no pope, bishop, presbytery or synod which holds authority over the local congregation. The power in the Disciples flows from the bottom up rather than the top down. Each individual believer in the denomination can believe essentially as he/she wills with the understanding that they exist within a covenant (a sacred agreement or relationship) with their fellow believers not only in their local church but with their fellow Disciples around the world. This is a great idea in theory--and I'd have it no other way--but it poses some real difficulties in terms of cohesion and identity. How does a denomination of individual churches made up of individual believers speak to its culture and world? Is such speech even possible?

Since the Disciples reorganized in 1968 into a form that more closely resembles other denominations, the body has tried to speak on important issues of a particular time through resolutions at the General Assembly or national meeting. The resolutions on an issue--e.g. war/peace, civil rights, apartheid, the priorities of the church, etc.-pass or fail according to a simple majority vote of those eligible voters at the assembly. The resolutions can be proposed by churches or any of the various groups or agencies that are a part of the denomination. The resolutions which pass are non-binding upon churches or their members; in reality they represent only the majority will of those present at one of the General Assemblies. However, they do provide a way for the Disciples of Christ to actually hold a position on issues that matter and to work with like-minded denominations and faith groups on those particular issues.

There are a number of serious problems with this way of doing things:

1. handling difficult issues by a simple majority vote is a messy way of handling things and can be divisive;
2. if a resolution passes by 51%, can you really say that it represents the thought and practices of the denomination?
3. those outside the denomination take a resolution as the position of all Disciples which is rarely if ever the case;
4. there have been some real battles over particular resolutions and there are some longstanding wounds by both winners and losers;
5. the limited time for debate on the floor of the General Assembly does not allow for real dialogue and education between people on different sides of an issue.

Given these problems, you may wonder why I would propose changing this system? I'm all for changing it if someone will take the time to come up with a better alternative. What came before the General Assembly this year offered a solution to many of these weaknesses in the current system but it also created worse problems. I really believe the committee that drew up the proposed new way of doing things--Calls for Action--acted with the best of intentions and had some really good ideas, but they failed to see the weaknesses in their own proposal.

Now I would refer you to the proposal itself (business item 0925) and a supplementary document of Frequently Asked Questions.

At first read, the new proposal seemed like a good one to me. At second read, I felt like it could easily be misused. Instead of opening up more dialogue and debate on critical issues, these changes could be used to ensure that certain issues never make it to the General Assembly for dialogue and education in the first place. Some would call that a cynical perspective, but I call it a realistic one--however I might wish it otherwise. As pointed out by Charles Bayer (former FCC ST. Joe minister) on the comments section of the resolution page, we only need to look at how the denomination has handled issues of inclusion of GLBT persons. When that debate got too heavy, study committees and commissions were formed and no action was ever taken. The issue stalled and a group was effectively excluded. The really pressing issues of our times will always be controversial and there will always be some who would rather avoid them for the sake of preserving harmony and unity.

I've listed the problems with the current system of resolutions, but I should also mention its strengths. Thanks to resolutions the Disciples of Christ have spoken out in support of Civil Rights, in opposition to the Vietnam War, apartheid and capital punishment, in favor of a civil debate over abortion and a rejection of any imposition of theological beliefs regarding the beginning of life upon others, and so on and so on. The votes were some times close and rarely more than 2/3 majorities--sometimes barely simple majorities--but in general Disciples have been on what I consider to be the right side of history when it comes to issues of peace and justice.

On the first night of the General Assembly, I attended an open meeting called "Justice Advocacy After Session: The Future of Prophetic Witness in Our Church." After hearing the concerns of people at that meeting and representatives from the Disciples Justice Action Network and the Disciples Peace Fellowship, I had made up my mind to oppose the changes. I spoke with several from that meeting who suggested that I speak in the business session and helped me clarify the points I would make. Here are the points I made in less than three minutes while standing at the microphone in Friday's business session:

1. I acknowledged that the current system of dealing with critical issues could stand some improvement and I acknowledged that there were good ideas in the proposed Calls for Action.
2. I stated that despite the need for change, the proposal had some serious flaws.
3. The first flaw is that the proposal centralizes too much power and authority in too few hands in an "un-Disciples-like" manner. The General Board decides what issues will be dealt with at a General Assembly and it becomes their product alone with no need to confer with the original authors of a resolution or proposal. Also, it is the Office of the General Minister and President alone that decides how issues will be dealt with and in what format, also the GMP is the first speaker on a subject and decides who will be the other speakers on it. There is time for Questions and Answers but no time for debate or presentation of alternative points of view--at least not explicitly mentioned in the proposal.
4. The language regarding what happens after a General Assembly if a Call for Action is affirmed speaks only to Disciples congregations and bodies. There is no mention of speaking to our culture, nation and world. At least with the current system of resolutions--however inadequate--there was a way for us to speak prophetically our understanding of the Gospel.
5. I reminded the group that we are the denomination that chose to take no stand on slavery because doing so might infringe upon congregational autonomy and individual belief, but we are also the denomination that spoke out in support of Civil Rights and against apartheid. I declared that our voice to the wider world is too important to risk over a flawed process.

Now, I should mention here what I did not have time to mention at the microphone. I like and respect Sharon Watkins, our current General Minister and President. I like a lot some of the stands she has taken--speaking out on health care reform is the most recent one. I believe she would act with integrity and I also think that the General Board as far as I know acts with integrity as well.

However. . . I think the temptation to choose unity over prophecy is great. I also think that it would be natural for even the best people to avoid a controversial subject--especially if large churches make threats to leave the denomination. I believe an issue that should be faced head-on because it is consistent with God's justice could easily be set aside for other less difficult issues.

Also. . . just because I like our denomination's current leadership does not mean I will respect or trust future leaders.

I really wish that a better proposal had come forward, one that allowed for more voices to be a part of the process and didn't provide such easy ways to duck, avoid or silence debate on important yet controversial issues. I long for a process whereby my denomination could ensure that anyone can bring forward a resolution on an issue that matters to them AND where there were opportunities for dialogue, education and debate at the national level. I think any process that does not allow the Disciples of Christ a way to speak to our culture, nation and world risks making us even more irrelevant than we already are.

If you've read this far, you have my thanks.

Grace and Peace,



Patricia said...

I've heard it said that trying to lead disciples is like trying to herd cats. Maybe that will help to explain the problems at the General Assembly in dealing with uncomfortable issues.

Pattie Trapp

Anonymous said...

I really like when people are expressing their opinion and thought. So I like the way you are writing