By Chris Ritter
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.
My normal stoic exterior broke after a vote that actually went the way I thought it should. We had narrowly defeated a motion by Adam Hamilton to defer and refer to the council of bishops our human sexuality petitions. After the vote, a progressive lay delegate took the floor to attack the Tennessee bishop who had presided over the decision. To call the words and tone poisonous would be an understatement. She demanded the bishop remove himself. The bishop humbly called a brief recess to consult with others… and I lost it.
It had already been an incredibly tense day. I took the hands of the people around me and we wept together, praying over our corporate brokenness. It mattered not at that moment that we occupied radically different places on the ideological spectrum of our church. What we share is the mess in which we find ourselves. I will try to describe it for you.
Though General Conference 2016 convened in the shadow of the Obergefell decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, our divisions over human sexuality stretch across my lifetime. Rooted in differing approaches to scripture, the practical struggle, chronicled here, has been a forty-four-year-long legislative game of cat and mouse. Our rules have repeatedly been tightened in response to efforts at circumventing them. The result is something like a statutory sump pump… an ugly and worrisome thing that we have but wish we didn’t need.
The most recent trend has been selective enforcement of our rules by our bishops particularly in liberal conferences. Our episcopal leaders are endowed with considerable authority by the general church but elected and held accountable regionally. This has allowed the development of enclaves where the vow to uphold our Discipline has become nuanced to say the least. Divisions within the Council of Bishops run deep.
Progressive hopes were high as we approached General Conference. A second same sex wedding was officiated by a defiant retired bishop the weeks before Portland and an Ohio pastor married his male partner of 28 years in a public church wedding (before announcing his own aspirational candidacy for bishop). Over a hundred pastors and ministry candidates “came out of the closet” in a public statement. It was hoped this big splash would create a tidal wave of change. The Love Your Neighbor Coalition (LYNC) has pulled out all the stops with a myriad of carefully orchestrated demonstrations.
By Day Six of General Conference it was obvious that the democratically elected delegates had radically different thoughts about the future of the church. For all their volume, the most progressive segments of our church are shrinking numerically. Explosive growth is happening in the Global South, particularly Africa. A coalition of American evangelicals and international delegates ran the tables in the legislative committees and swept elections to our highest court. It was only delay tactics by progressives that kept more legislative items aimed at enforcement from being recommended.
Enter a third team on the field: U.S. Moderates. Think: nice people, doing nice things, under high steeples, with above average educations. These centrist United Methodists are incrementally changing their minds on homosexuality. Pastor of our largest church and a prolific author, Adam Hamilton is in the final stages of his metamorphosis on the issue. Shepherds and not prophets, he and leaders like him appreciate, I think, the cover our rules provide. Conducting same sex weddings would still be divisive in their congregations. But they would like to see the denomination move the needle a skosh on this issue as pressure from the left mounts. Hamilton told a group of seminary students this week that he would like the first same sex weddings in his Kansas City-area megachurch to be conducted by associate pastors so he can be available to pastorally soothe those who will be unhappy about it.
On this day when tightened clergy rules regarding human sexuality were to be considered, we evangelicals realized we had brought checkers to a chess tournament. The day prior, another moderate pastor took the floor following a night of troubling rumors regarding a church split. He forcefully asked that the Council of Bishops meet, show-some-leadership-for-goodness-sake, and bring forth a plan for fixing things. This was sweet music in the ears of delegates who have witnessed the council unable to police its own members, much less lead the church. We delegates enjoyed the opportunity to tell our bishop what to do. Our beleaguered general superintendents dutifully recessed to their conclave.
Today, our bishops came back with a plan representing the majority view of the council. They thanked the church for the invitation and expressed they would be willing to see the conversation on sexuality deferred, appoint a commission, and consider a specially-called General Conference in two or three years to entertain its recommendations. Hamilton was at the ready to turn this plan into a motion. The conference found itself in the embarrassing place of having asked our bishops to lead. Now they had… sort of. And the plan happened to coincide neatly with the wishes of moderates looking to buy time. Progressives breathed a sigh of relief that the legislative train steaming their way had been derailed.
While I had wept following the nastiness that ensued after the first vote, my African brothers and sisters broke into praises. They came to Portland with a strong mandate to restore integrity to our church and enforce our rules. Their focus is on evangelism, unity, hope-giving ministry, and meeting basic needs. Our deliberations in Portland must seem very strange indeed.
After another plenary recess, someone tried a motion to adopt the bishop’s statement directly. (Hamilton’s failed motion was merely based on the bishop’s plan we were told). After a few more emotional speeches, the episcopal plan prevailed as legislation and by the narrowest of margins. The sigh of relief by the bishops blew our hair back there on the front row.
The maneuverings I witnessed today were impressive in their own right. But they come at the expense of trust on a credit card that is already maxed out. We came to this $10 million gathering only to decline to decisively learn the final will of General Conference on our most pressing issue. This is unconscionable. The commission would have had much more information with which to do their work had we completed ours. If our legislative committees had recommended loosening our rules, this would have been hailed as a breakthrough and efforts to stymie them as evil repression of the will of the body. Why did we come all this way, do all this work, only to stop short of the finish line? This may become the second failed General Conference in a row for the UMC. Three strikes and we are out.
What happens now? I don’t look for a specially called General Conference. I look for the Council of Bishops to read the approval of their proposal as a mandate to reorganize the global church, segregating out the African vote from U.S. matters. Their proposals will come to General Conference 2020 with the weight of endorsement by their blue ribbon commission. I might be wrong about this. I sometimes have the fault of a suspicious nature.
The cost of General Conference 2016 was $1388.89 per minute, not counting the time and expenses of the individuals involved. Most the these minutes were spent debating how we were going to use them. That is the mark of a dysfunctional church if ever there was one. Even Adam Hamilton went on the record this week suggesting we divide the church into liberal, moderate, and conservative denominations or branches. This is the eleventh hour.
There are many problematic statements in the bishop’s document now accepted as a petition. It is so loose that it has been described by my friend Roger Ross as a “blank check.” What does “…including ways to avoid further complaints, trials and harm while we uphold the Discipline” mean? Our bishops do not have the power to prevent people from filing complaint when our rules have been violated. Hopefully they will encourage clergy adherence to our covenant.
What should concerned United Methodists do?
We are a seriously broken church, but there are many things that give me hope:
It takes a lot of ocean to turn a big ship like the UMC. Nothing that happened today changes my desire to stay on board and work to make sure the whole church is treated fairly as we work out our points of divergence.
A note to friends: As for me, I am fine. I feel your prayers. Though my heart went through the wringer today (along with the hearts of many), I have a sense of calm and peace. God is still on the throne. Jesus still saves and is the Lord of the church. I will give the next two days all I have and look forward to being home and doing the ministry God has called us to.