Monday, April 30, 2012

What I meant to say...

What I meant to say...

Apologies if my last write up on the Methodist divestment debate left people feeling like the cause was lost (or if I simply left people bewildered).  Realizing my mistake in referring people to 50-page documents to understand the background of what I was talking about, I’m going to try to sum up the debate so that everyone has some context regarding what’s going on this week at the Methodist’s Tampa Conference.

While I still recommend you read Rabbi Poupko’s Looking at Them Looking at Us in full (or at least Section II on Mainline Protestantism), the relevant general points to remember regarding Mainline Protestant churches in America (which includes the Methodists and Presbyterians, as well as Episcopalians, Lutherans and the UCC) are that all these churches face the same twin crises:

* Attempts to put aside their doctrinal differences and join together in Ecumenical communion (which began in the 1950s), while sensible if you think about church perception that they were threatened by rising tides of secularism and competition from growing evangelical churches, left them washing away their spiritual distinctions and gravitating towards secular politics as a means of finding something to unite around.

* Despite these drift towards Ecumenicalism and secular politics (or possibly because of them), church membership has dropped by 20-40% during this period, much of this drop involving new members not joining the churches (which means decline will continue to accelerate as the current Mainline cohort continues to age and too few young people join).

Keep in mind that in addition to grappling with spiritual and political matters, these churches are also huge corporations with substantial land holdings and multi-billion dollar investment and retirement accounts under management.  So as dues-paying members and contributors decline, these churches face financial and organizations crises.  Sometimes this plays out in the form of ongoing financial and organizational restructuring (a major component of this week’s Methodist discussions and debates), although in other cases you can see ugly fights over property and assets unfold when a church decides to leave the umbrella organization over spiritual or political disagreements.  

Within this broader Mainline story, the Methodists have some unique characteristics, notably:

* They are, by far, the biggest Mainline denomination with 8.2 million US members in 2005 (down from 10.6 in 1960) vs. 2.4 million Presbyterians (down from 4.2 million 1960 members)

* The church also has a substantial international population, most notably 1.2 million members from African churches

This latter group has always been a wild card in church debates, especially since they tend to think (and vote) more conservatively than their US colleagues on issues such as gay marriage.  They also tended to break largely against divestment when the church voted on this issue in 2008.  Which is why BDS advocates have put so much resource into winning them over, translating their literature into African languages and making every effort to play up the angle of race and racism, hoping Africans will fall into line through such an appeal.

Divestment (and all other issues) come to the floor of the conference through an resolution process with resolutions on all matters being submitted by individuals or churches, then passing through subcommittees and committees for recommendation and amendment before moving to the conference floor for a final vote.  If you look here, for example, you will see dozens of resolutions coming before the group on Middle East issues which include implementing divestment, rejecting it, supporting Israel, condemning it, or condemning Israel’s enemies (such as Hamas).

Most of these resolutions get combined, consolidated or eliminated before a single (often largely amended) compromise resolution is passed onto the Conference as a whole with a positive or negative committee recommendation.  And the major divestment resolution left standing after this process is 21071, originally a stark call to divest from Israel immediately, which (if you look at the amendments listed in the Legislative Committee Report) seems to have been transformed into a more general call for positive investment and prayers for peace.

To a certain extent, this is already a good sign (best testified by the negative reaction by BDSers to amendments made in committee).  But, as we have seen in the past, anything can happen once a resolution comes before voters.

At the very least, this will give individuals and groups within the church who have been driving divestment debates (and their allies) the chance to grandstand on the issue before a large audience.  But it also gives Methodists who don’t care for church anti-Israel policies the chance to air their opinions and concerns. 

The question remains what will happen with those delegates (which I suspect includes a majority of American and international representatives) who have concerns about suffering in the Middle East (as do most of us), who do not automatically feel those concerns must be translated into a divestment policy which – no matter how much you sugar coat it – comes down to the Methodist Church putting its name and reputation behind public condemnation and blame directed against just one party to the conflict.

As committee work wraps up, general conference votes will begin to be taken this week.  So stay tuned to see if the Methodist church manages to avoid the trap that’s been set for them, or if they will have to suffer through the same upheaval that visited the Presbyterians when they flirted with BDS (and the BDSers) in 2004 before eventually coming to their senses.