A Church’s Lost Integrity

March 27, 2019

by Rev. Stephen Rankin,

DALLAS The Rev. Stephen Rankin, chaplain at Southern Methodist University, argues that resistance to the decisions of the recent General Conference illustrates a loss of integrity within The United Methodist Church.

Rev. Stephen Rankin

I recently tweeted that American United Methodism no longer has integrity. This observation came from reading a number of public statements by various United Methodist leaders and groups after General Conference 2019. (If you are trying to keep track of who is saying what, for my money the best and most up-to-date source is “UM Fallout: A Compendium,” at Chris Ritter’s blog, People Need Jesus.) A person asked me to flesh out my comment about lost integrity.

First, a definition: Look at a dictionary and you’ll see that “integrity” has two or maybe three meanings. One says something about moral uprightness and honesty, treating the word in relation to individual character. The other refers to organization or structure. “Integrity” in this sense refers to the quality or state of being sound or whole or undivided. It is this latter sense that I intended.

A building has integrity or does not. If the foundation is solid, if the frame is adequately squared and plumbed and the joints are solid, if the roof doesn’t leak, then one would judge that the house has integrity. A ship deemed seaworthy has integrity. A healthy body has integrity. In these cases, having integrity means functioning properly according to intended purpose.

By this definition, The United Methodist Church does not have integrity. Numerous bishops, annual conferences, agency executives, pastors, and lay people have publicly stated that they will effectively ignore the recent decisions of General Conference. By these reactions they indicate that the body that speaks for United Methodism no longer speaks for United Methodism. We are therefore split, not whole. The framework is not sound. No integrity.

Here’s a paradox: in order to keep their integrity as ministers, the signers of declarations, resolutions and open letters believe they must defy the church’s decision. And for just this reason, they demonstrate the fact that The United Methodist Church no longer has integrity.

Other even more grievous ramifications have surfaced. Opponents no longer trust each other (save, perhaps, members of the Commission on a Way Forward who have said repeatedly how opponents became friends even though they remained opponents; I wonder what they’re thinking now). All talk of goodwill and respectful disagreement has vanished. Things have gotten personal. Friendships have been deeply damaged. And I’m not only talking about relationships among voting delegates. Plenty of us have opinions and identify with one of the opposing groups. It is by no means necessary for one to have been a voting delegate to feel the sting of damning judgments.

If you don’t agree with my assessment, try putting the shoe on the other foot. Let’s say that you supported the One Church Plan and that it passed by a slimmer majority than the Traditional Plan, by a 51% majority. Would you conclude that the church had spoken? Take the exact same reactions we’re witnessing now from centrist and progressive United Methodists and put them on the lips and emails and tweets of traditionalists. How would you feel about the accusation that some small bloc of politically powerful delegates managed to steal the vote by nefarious means? How would you be feeling right now if you were reading some of the same things being said about your side? How does the organization recover?

The moral outrage embedded in the language of public statements announcing refusal to comply is often laced with thinly-veiled contempt for people who think about marriage in traditional ways. By the criteria used by centrists and progressives to characterize statements by traditionalists as hateful, their own statements qualify. Which makes me wonder: how is it that people who voice such feelings for traditional-minded folk expect traditionalists to be willing to stay in the same church? Again, reverse the roles. How would it feel to be on the receiving end of such disdain?

Imagine General Conference 2020. Unless by some stroke of divine providence that makes the way forward crystal clear, the vote is likely to be close enough that the “losing” side will be able to claim foul, dismiss the whole proceeding as illegitimate, and move to act independently of the decision. We now have the force of precedent.

Whatever you think of the outcome of GC 2019, public reactions following it show that, from an organizational point of view, The United Methodist Church has lost integrity. Denouncing the GC decision and refusing to follow it are tantamount to pulling the house down on top of us. Again, short of direct divine action, coupled with confession, repentance, and forgiveness, it may be time to recognize that the property has been condemned and move on.

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