When sex is off the table
By Bob Phillips
So what do the delegates do at General Conference when sex is off the table? With the grand bargain struck earlier in the week with the Council of Bishops to offer specific leadership on this issue, demonstrators went home, media attention has lagged...and the delegates sent to a General Conference that costs $1,890 per minute began getting other things done.
As always, the day began at 8 a.m. with worship and ended at 6:30 p.m. with more worship.The African bishop who preached this morning, drawing from a variation of an old illustration used by great 1940's preacher Clovis Chappell, talked of a pilot seeking to land in a plane where snakes had gotten loose and were threatening the passengers. The tower ordered the plane not to land but to climb, up to a point where the snakes were snuffed by low oxygen and high pressure...folks were flying in bi-planes when this illustration first appeared.
The point? Listen to the voice in the tower, God and his word. And fly high, go high, aim high, seeking the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. With rousing words, business began.
The GC in some ways is the most traditional-conservative in years and years. The delegates voted to withdraw denominational presence from an established abortion-reproductive rights lobby based in Washington DC. While the organization lobbies for women's health issues, its refusal to oppose gender-based abortion, or late term abortion, or supporting any effort to legally include parents in decisions involving a pregnant minor daughter all combined led to the separation.
The UM church has a nuanced view (a popular word during the discussion), which is to say no one is completely happy with the view that refuses to declare any abortion for any reason at any point is murder, or to adopt views on the other side represented by this lobby.
The denomination also cut ties with an organization committed to what delegates felt was a one-sided moral critique of Israel in its ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. There is sin and injustice in the treatment of the Palestinians; there is commitment by the church to seek ways to make this clear and address issues pastorally and prophetically. But the delegates (again, as in previous conferences) refused to adopt an approach that censured and criticized and sought economic punishment and international condemnation only targeting Israel. The absence of balance in the boycott-divest-sanction movement against Israel was viewed widely as an approach destructive to effective ends. That said, a very lengthy petition that may felt confused any criticism of Israel with antisemitism also was defeated soundly. Thus did the GC take steps to assist our State Department, the UN and Secretary of State Kerrey in breaking the deadlock...not bad for 850 amateurs?
I heard some more woofing and snorting regarding the bishop plan to address sexuality issues. Some (not all) folks on the left were spiking the ball, relieved that the obvious and inevitable direction the GC was headed regarding questions of same-sex marriage have been delayed. The conservative/traditional folks ran the tables on the more liberal agendas in these areas by voting down roughly 100 percent of all proposals for change. So this approach buys time and enables the ongoing work of the Gallup poll, the courts, the media, the entertainment industry and persons of Christian conscience who want the church to shift to combine to effect such change.
And some conservatives (not all) were grumbling that the bishops would game the process, find ways to undercut the clear and growing majority will, enhance non-enforcement of the Discipline on sexual issues where they don't like what the laws of the church say, and thus make things impossible for true believers to remain.
So here is my cut. I voted for the plan because I am a UM pastor and also because of a long background in the military where you are expected to trust your leaders. The GC specifically asked the Council of Bishops to provide leadership; one one night's notice they came up with the outline of a process (plan is too specific a term for what they initially created) for forward movement toward resolution. 10,000 sets of eyes will be on them from angles left and right to ensure integrity in that process. To ask them to lead and then jerk the rug within 12 hours of that request would have been nuts. So I will join with many others in praying for their wisdom in months to come, for discernment, and for the full doing of God's will.
A last thought. I came here convinced that the main thing for the church is empowering us in making disciples. That conviction has not changed. The spiritual passion of our African and some other non-American delegates has inspired me. Some efforts have assisted in our way forward, such as affirming that resources in addition to UM Women and Men are perfectly fine in reaching out to modern men and women.
We do not fight or bicker over human sexuality at Peoria First. Of course there is not a unanimous point of view, though largely the more historic Christian sexual ethical perspective prevails. But folks don't chase each other or snipe at each other because the Great Commission as lived out at First doesn't allow time to pour spiritual energy and resources into such battles. We abide as a church by the teaching of the church for the sake of the gospel to be shared with the broken and dispossessed in our community, the obviously broken among the poor and those of sophisticated brokenness in the suburbs.
Well, I now know that there are folks who are perfectly willing to "destroy the village to save it"; nothing matters more than issues of sexuality. As your pastor I will guard against that kind of attitude taking hold at First. No crusades, no search-and-destroy. Nothing would give Satan greater pleasure than to see any church or denomination taking itself out of the spiritual war for the sake of a battle over this type of issue. "The Devil will hold the ladder for anyone who wants to climb onto the shelf for God" and out of the adventure of making a difference for Christ from the heart of the city.
When you read or hear lots of stories, do so with discerning faith, for many will be presented in ways designed to incite, polarize, or create a willingness to walk away (whether to the left bank or the right bank). The New York Times reporting on this story is a poster child example, and a reminder of Paul's warning that "The unspiritual person does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to them and impossible to understand because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Cor. 2:14). See if for what it is; speak the truth in love; and remember, "By this others will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another."