Those of us who have attended General Conference have surely noticed that on the most contentious of our issues (e.g., where we invest our money, time and witness; where we throw our weight on various social positions; with whom we stand on matters of injustice) – each time there is a divided vote (which, by my calculations, is 100 percent of the time), the majority of the Church says, “here is where we stand,” and a minority says, “But that’s not where I stand!” In other words, “You don’t speak for me!”
After this General Conference, many people are left wondering if the United Methodist Church will continue to exist beyond 2020 when we are next scheduled to meet again in Minneapolis, Minnesota (there is a small chance we could meet sooner…). We are mired in discord over whether homosexual practice is contrary to Christian teaching. And honestly, I have a hard time seeing any Commission called by the Council of Bishops creating a plan that will be satisfying to representatives making up the wide theological diversity represented in our denomination. The idea of schism is scary to many. In fact when the rumors of schism were flying about earlier this week, I was worried too. But over the last 24 hours, whenever I picture the cloudy future for the UMC, I keep going back to the image of our delegation holding hands and intimately connected with our friends from Liberia. And as I go back in my mind’s eye and recall everyone’s faces full of joy, I see HOPE and an amazing FUTURE as we cling to the message contained in the hymn we sang together.
General Conference has officially ended, but the decisions we have made and the conversations which took place are far from finished. Not only is there to be a discussion about human sexuality, with potentially its own General conference session to come, but all of the things we voted for, voted against, or tabled, will affect how we act and relate as Methodists, at least until the next General Conference. Likewise, I have made many friendships, faced a few hardships, & realized just how powerful our connections as United Methodists truly are.
I will offer a more complete assessment of GC after a few days of digesting all that was involved. On the last Sunday in May and on the first Wednesday evening in June I will offer information and talk-back sessions at the church (Peoria First UMC) on what happened, from my person non-infallible chair. And thank you for the prayers I sensed surrounding the proceedings, the planning, and all that was part of this raucous, blessed, contradictory, rip-shorting (and occasionally rip-snoring) event. Jesus is Lord and while an individual church or collection of churches occasionally may not be in good hands, underneath always are the Everlasting Arms...
I’ve only experienced two marriages (in depth) during my lifetime. My parents and my own. With all loving respect to may parents, their marriage reminds me of our General Conference session. There were periods of major disagreement and explosion, and then long periods of what I might call “false peace” – an unspoken agreement to avoid the problems in order to get along enough to function day to day. We call it “sweeping the problems under the rug.” At least a couple things happen when we approach conflict this way. 1) Problems are not resolved – just avoided, and 2) Intimacy is sacrificed on the altar of false unity.
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.
My prayers for this General Conference were to get some clear direction on how to handle our differences, but it appears at this time it may not happen. However, a couple of verses have come to mind that I need remember.
In over 30 years as a pastor in this great Church, I have never seen any United Methodist body write such a BIG blank check for an initiative with so few details and no track record of success. After all, we’re Methodists. We got that name for a reason. I’ve seen more details outlined for a Confirmation retreat. But method was no hindrance to us on this vote. To literally bet the farm on such a sketchy process shows just how desperate we are to do something, anything to get out of the pain of decline and division we have felt for so long. I pray that it works.
I cried for the first time in a long time today… hard. My seat at “Table 10” just right of the center aisle in the General Conference plenary hall has literally provided a front-row view of our collective dysfunction in the United Methodist Church.
I offer these thoughts. (1) The conference asked the bishops to provide leadership on this issue. For the conference to ask for leadership one day and literally to reject it the next day would have been, well, odd. (2) All existing teaching of the church regarding human sexuality and morality remain intact. Over 50 petitions had been advanced seeking to modify the church's teaching; all of them failed in committee, so the outcome of this aspect of the bishop's offer was zero sum, or (to show off Latin) status quo ante bellum (status quo prior to the 'war'). (3) The same delegates for this GC would be at any other special GC held prior to 2020. I playfully suggested to some colleagues that US members should pay their own way to any special GC, since most of the votes for the added event came from them. I doubt there will be more demonstrations, since the GC action has eliminated any further need for debate or decision on this contested issue.