By Bob Phillips
The conference began with worship, with singing by the lead group especially uplifting. Bishop Carter, President of the Council of Bishops, preached and made a gentle but clear appeal for his preferred plan. I have noticed virtually all use of pronouns referring to God have been scrubbed in song, liturgy and sermon. Now Psalm 23 did retain such as, “He leads be beside the still waters,” but otherwise, even contemporary songs that “He has made me glad,” were “God has made me glad.” Well, God hopefully does make us glad but, darn.
The Westboro Whacko Ensemble (WWE) gathered again across from the entrance to serenade us with screeches, groans, hisses and moans, mixing colorful metaphors with comments designed to anger and inflame. Delegates and observers alike, especially the clearly identified LGBTQIA+ folks at conference personally targeted by these clowns, responded with patience, humor and great class, which the WWE definitely found unnerving.
More ramp-up followed insofar as organization and method of voting. In early-mid afternoon conference delegates set the priorities for dealing with various petitions and proposals. Delegates were asked to vote high or low priority for each of the nearly 2 dozen items. Leading the list for high priority were a couple of petitions from Wespath, the denominational pension agency trusted by all. The Traditional Plan proposal and two gracious exit proposals were next, with 55 percent or so. The One Church Plan came next with 48.7 percent, and other items dropped off from there. The Connectional Conference Plan received a tad over 12 percent high priority, basically dead on arrival. International delegates especially felt it was too complicated and difficult to get passed.
In the interest of transparency, this delegate placed high priority on the pension-gracious exit-Traditional plans. The pension proposals were a no-brainer. The gracious exit proposals deserve plenary discussion. The Traditional plan also deserves discussion, as the plan that brings essentially no change to church teaching and tweaks (in increasingly modest ways) accountability for the numerically small regions of the church that ignore existing teaching. But it also is important for the plenary to hear several voices on implications good and bad should some version of this approach pass. I did not vote high priority for the OCP because that was the one proposal absolutely guaranteeing a formal split in the church. Hearing from delegates of at least two nations (and not at a special interest group gathering) that the United Methodist Church would collapse in their nations if the OCP passed added to my reluctance...and I am not talking about Africa. I also realized that OCP would receive enough votes, perhaps a majority, such that it would be considered (rightly) in plenary session.
The ‘straw poll’ delegate preference clearly stunned some delegates and observers and bishops who had absolutely no doubt the OCP was the preferred popular choice. No one favoring the Traditional Plan ‘spiked the ball’ or let out whoops; the news was greeted with respectful, or shocked, silence by the plenary. OCP and Simple plan advocates/observers were not pleased but their 10 minute chant to “Choose love, not hate,” did not upend the process. And given their complete surprise at the straw vote (I emphasize this was not the final vote), they reacted much better than some had feared.
Rev. Joe Harris then was elected to oversee the balance of the committee work that this team of 864 must pursue until the Tuesday plenary convenes for final decisions. He was the preferred choice of the traditional folks but has a reputation for gracious and even-handed ministry, combined with deep faith. He demonstrated it shortly into the process of going through specific petitions. It was very clear that advocates of the OCP were stalling by peppering the no-brained pension petitions with questions and picky points without a point. Their hope, understandably, was to stall until adjournment at 6:30 p.m., leaving an hour to dribble the ball and run out the clock. The effort was defeated, but rather than continue to force the next priority of petitions into consideration at 5:45 p.m., Rev. Joe suggested the delegates break for the night, giving all a chance to rest and regroup. A partisan zealot would never have suggested this, but a leader who marries personal conviction with graciousness and common sense has no such problem.
Nothing is settled. I won’t speculate tonight on what might happen, for in 48 hours all will know. I closed the evening with a meal with (my wife) Christy and the clergy and lay delegate from a Central European nation. Theirs is the largest UM church in their country. The budget for this church located in the nation’s capital is $18,000...per year, including the pastor’s pay, utilities, repairs and programming. Like so many faithful UM pastors around the world, the meaning of sacrificial service has a content we cannot easily fathom. As you might guess, questions surrounding American sexuality are not their main challenge.