Their failings are not shocking but they are both disappointing and, for many, many people -- and ultimately for the churches themselves -- disastrous.
Both churches just completed important meetings -- one at the Vatican, one in St. Louis -- to determine the road ahead. For the Catholics, the focus naturally was on the long-running sexual abuse scandal in which some priests molested children and some bishops protected those priests but not the children.
For the Methodists, it was finally, in the 21st Century, trying to answer the 20th Century question of whether LGBTQ folks can be ordained to ministry and whether Methodist clergy can participate in same-sex weddings.
Catholic leaders left their Vatican gathering without any serious new plan for handling future abuse cases or for bringing some kind of healing and resolution to previous cases.
Pope Francis said some of the right words about all this, and the meeting did put the issues into an important international spotlight. But it's pretty clear that the institutional changes that will be required to get at the roots of the problem are not even officially on the table, including bringing women into much more prominent positions of leadership, perhaps even as deacons and priests.
So, for now, the Catholic Church seems just to be running (or maybe just walking) in place -- not quite backwards but certainly not forward much, either.
As this Atlantic magazine online analysis noted, "The conference might have finally made some prelates, especially from the Global South (and the Vatican), aware of the depth and scope of the crisis, but it marked an even greater chasm between the Vatican and the United States. 'He absolutely doesn’t get it. This is a catastrophic misreading of the faithful,' Anne Barrett-Doyle, a co-founder of BishopAccountability.org, a Boston-based advocacy organization that keeps detailed records of abuse cases and their outcomes in civil courts and Church tribunals, told me. She meant the faithful in the United States. 'He spent the bulk of his speech rationalizing that abuse happens in all sectors of society. This is one of his favorite diversionary tactics.'”
As for the Methodists, they wound up at their St. Louis meeting divided between a misplaced allegiance to traditional anti-gay policies that are rooted in a misreading of scripture and a misplaced allegiance to the idol of church unity at the expense of doing what is right by LGBTQ members. In the end, the Methodist traditionalists won the day, though not without a spirited debate. The debate was all kept within the bounds of strict, heart-dead parliamentary procedure, but that did nothing to undo the suffering of people who have been oppressed for a long time.
It's true that a large minority of United Methodists come from outside the United States, especially Africa, where it's going to take much longer for church members to abandon misguided traditions that denounce homosexuality as sin. But that shouldn't mean that it's necessary for the whole church to compromise with evil for the sake of unity, which is what the "One Church Plan" backed by leading Methodist bishops would have done. That plan was defeated by a vote of 449-374. Then, the so-called Traditional Church plan was adopted by a vote of 438-384. This is especially disappointing because, as this Pew Research Center information shows, in recent years Methodists have been moving toward more acceptance of homosexuality as a natural condition and away from the idea that it's a sin.
The Rev. Adam Hamilton, founding pastor of the huge United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan., worked hard for the One Church Plan, which he saw as a reasonable compromise that would have let the church hold together and live together in open disagreement. When the Traditional Plan (that kept the anti-LGBTQ policies in place and even strengthened them) passed, he tweeted this: "Very painful for many people. Lots of conversation will ensue and judicial reviews." At the end of the conference, Adam tweeted this: "We’re looking at holding a meeting with key leaders in the UMC -- bishops and other key leaders -- at Resurrection after Easter to discuss where Methodism goes from here."
I have known Adam a long time and have great respect for him. But I strongly disagree with him on what I think of as his unity-above-everything approach. I believe the desire to have church unity should not trump the desire to treat all people -- regardless of sexual orientation -- equally and with love. The historic and historical failure to treat people in that way has damaged the church universal. Perhaps support of slavery is the most obnoxious example of this kind of church failure.
In fact, I view this Methodist decision as that church's 1857 Dred Scott decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court set back the anti-slavery cause so much that, in effect, only a Civil War could undo the horrific judicial damage that ruling did. I'm not predicting the equivalent of a Methodist civil war, but it's now clear that only something dramatic and traumatic can fix the damage that the church has done to itself and to LGBTQ people.
If you want to know more about Adam's position, here is a link to a sermon he gave about all of this the Sunday before the St. Louis gathering.
And here is a blog entry by Adam about this same matter, written before the conference. And here is a column I did in 2017 explaining how Adam was trying to prevent his denomination from splitting apart.
At the St. Louis meeting itself, Adam spoke on the final day against the Traditional Plan, making the correct case that the Bible says almost nothing about homosexuality but concentrates on many other matters deserving of attention.
"Centrists and progressives" among Methodists, he told the assembly, "never wanted a divorce." In the Bible, he noted, "(the apostle) Paul says more about the role of women -- keeping silent in the church, praying with their heads covered, women not teaching men, women submitting to men, women not wearing jewelry -- than he says about same-sex acts in the New Testament." And yet Methodists have made many accommodations to Paul's time-bound teachings, including allowing women to be pastors and to hold other offices of church leadership. Adam was pointing out what from the outside looks like hypocrisy among those who want to focus on the few passages in scripture that seem to (but don't really) condemn homosexuality.
Another speaker on the last day of the Methodist conference was the Rev. Emanuel Cleaver III, pastor of St. James United Methodist Church in Kansas City. He complained that the Traditional Plan focuses on LGBTQ questions but ignores many other matters, including the church's failure to have fair processes that would allow women and African-Americans to hold positions of clerical leadership in the church.
And Mark Holland, a Methodist pastor who is former mayor of the Unified Government of Kansas City, Kansas, also spoke against the Traditional Plan, saying he and others would propose amendment after amendment to fix it until the end of the gathering. But, in the end, the conference ended without the outcome Holland wanted.
Will the decision made Tuesday lead to actual schism? Will Methodists who want to do the right thing and allow ordination of otherwise-qualified gays and lesbians and allow pastors to lead same-sex weddings leave? My guess is some will, just as some churches in my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), left when we chose in 2011 (way later than it should have taken us) to allow openly gay pastors and to allow those pastors who wanted to perform same-sex weddings to do so.
Schism is hard. Schism is an acknowledgement of some kind of failure. Schism, however, seems to be in the Protestant bloodstream. But as difficult as schism can be, a false unity that allows the church to treat certain people as second- or third-class citizens is a dire failure of the church and all that it should stand for. And it must break the sacred heart of Jesus.
How Catholics and Methodists proceed from here is unknown, though the divisiveness is far from over. And when speaking of LGBTQ issues, let's not let the Catholic Church off the hook. No matter what Pope Francis might say about not judging when he speaks off the cuff on the papal jet, the church itself still officially describes homosexuality as "objectively disordered." (See item 2358 in the document to which I just linked you.)
What is clear is that both churches are setting a terrible example for how religious traditions rooted in love, justice, mercy and compassion should act. And it breaks my heart.
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SCHISM SEEMED ALWAYS IN THE CARDS
To continue this theme today, here is an interview with retired United Methodist bishop Will Willimon, a really smart guy who now teaches at Duke University. He thinks the future of the United Methodist Church was destined for schism even before the St. Louis meeting started. "We need to remind ourselves," he told Yonat Shimron of Religion News Service, "that what’s passed for church unity for the last 40 years in the Methodist Church is a kind of bureaucratic, rule-driven, top-down, corporate-America type unity. If that unity is disrupted, that puts us back to where we’ve always been: That’s a gathering by Christ of all kinds of people that make up the church." Well, that unity has been disrupted. So we'll see what's next.