How to Reconcile "narrowly passed" doctrines [G2008]

At GC2008, I got two flyers today: one from a renewal group and one from a caucus group. I was struck by two very similar statement from these very different groups.

From the renewal group regarding abortion:

After the 1972 General Conference narrowly approved legalized abortion...
And from the caucus group regarding gay inclusion:
In the 1970s, General Conference narrowly, and at the last minute, changed the language regarding homosexuality to that we have today.
We all know that General Conference is 50% + 1 for passage into the United Methodist Church. However, why do we use the language "narrowly" when it applies to legislation that we disapprove of? I can think of two reasons:
  • Such statements are used to discredit the language that is in the Discipline by emphasizing how narrow the "win" was.
  • Such statements are used to nuance that the Discipline is a political document. Most every line is the result of political wrangling.
It is important to emphasize the politics so that people don't see our polity as sacrosanct. However, to use language like "narrowly" evokes images of people claiming a 5-4 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court to discredit the decision. While it can be evoked by caucus groups to promote how controversial their issue is when pushing delegates at General Conference, but I feel it has limited benefits outside those contentious times.

But I guess I would question if it is really necessary to continue emphasizing narrow "victories" (see post on militaristic language here) of the other side to give credence to your issue's viability. Such language is meant to divide and question, not bring unity through diversity.

There has been a movement the past two GCs that I've been to that desires to put in "we are not of one mind" into certain areas of contention (abortion, gay rights, etc). That gets shot down by delegates who demand polity to be an instruction book with no nuance. I think this is a mistake because it does not speak to the divides to bring comfort to those who are not of "one mind" with the church. Perhaps by giving language that reflects the "unity in diversity" that so often permeates the Discipline decisions, we would find more cause to discuss them in civil natures, not relying on the language as the final word.

Any thoughts on this? How can we resolve language of "narrow" triumphs with "not of one mind" language...while balancing the need for doctrinal authority?


Jonathan April 29, 2008 at 7:45 AM  

If we say that we are "not of one mind" concerning homosexuality, should we also say that we are "not of one mind" concerning capital punishment. I am opposed to capital punishment. I think if we get 50% + 1 to pass a motion against capital punishment, then we should go on record as a church as being opposed to capital punishment (and not weaken our witness by simply saying 'we are not of one mind and leaving it at that). Of course, we are not unanimous in our opposition to capital punishment, but I think it is an important witness to make.

Rev. Jeremy Smith April 29, 2008 at 11:26 AM  

jonathan, great question thank you. That is exactly the source of the tension in my last line above: how to reconcile truth in polity while giving it authority? If we gave percentages or vote numbers by every line, we'd certainly remove substantial authority and weaken our witness against our positions on capital punishment (which I am in agreement with you).

I think perhaps more emphasis on the "Social Principles" as "Principles" would be a middle way. We as UMs value the sanctity of life, and therefore a majority of our body oppose capital punishment. Thus the principle is the sanctity of life, and the witness is opposition to CP.

I guess I want it both ways: I want nuance for controversial issues, but I don't want watered-down resolutions when it comes to social witness.

Sigh. How to reconcile this dilemma just became doubly harder due to your post, jonathan. Thank you? :-) Of course!

Nick Draper May 4, 2008 at 12:14 AM  

I've thought about this too. The conclusion I've come to is that I'd rather have honesty than a "strong witness" that 49% of the body disagrees with. If half the church disagrees with the other half, I don't want the half I disagree with speaking for me, so I should extend them the same courtesy.

Of course, I think we can do connectional ministry without doctrinal purity. For those that disagree with me on this, it's a lot harder to say "we're not of one mind" and stay connected.

Jonathan May 7, 2008 at 8:17 PM  

Nick, if we follow your logic, would it lead to this?

UMC loses its prophetic stand against torture - instead we just say that we are not of one mind concerning torture.

UMC loses its prophetic stand against war - instead we just say that we are not of one mind concerning war (including pre-emptive, unilateral war).

UMC loses its prophetic stand against capital punishment- instead we just say that we are not of one mind concerning captital punishment.

UMC loses its prophetic stand against environmental degradation. Instead, we just say that we are not of one mind concerning environmental degradation.

UMC gains reputation as most inclusive church (but it is so boring that nobody notices or cares).

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