Photo by Paul Jeffrey, UMNS
By Chris Ritter
United Methodism is born again as a global church. Like most births, the process was fraught with anxiety, excruciatingly painful, messy. The tears will dry and healing will happen, but this can never be undone. We are not sure what we are right now. But we know a bit better who we are.
It is always true of General Conference that delegates go home not knowing exactly what they did. This is probably even more true of General Confernece 2019. We passed the Modified Traditional Plan 438 to 384 (53% to 47%) without all the desired perfections that were intended. The One Church Plan took its final gasp today in a failed attempt at substitution, 449 to 374. This was to the pain and dismay of Progressives and the never-ending consternation of American Centrists and bishops. Many annual conferences loaded their GC2019 delegations with LGBTQ clergy and laity, so the emotion in the room was raw. This was personal.
The plan we voted to approve has constitutional issues, but the plan will hold. The Traditional Plan was never a single idea but a menu of accountability measures aimed to enforce the simple idea that marriage is the union between a man and a woman. These will go individually to Judicial Council but we already know the court’s opinion on most of them due to two previous rulings. The heart of the plan, a sorting mechanism for conferences to move into a self-governing status, was never acted upon. To the best of my knowledge, these are measures we passed that are also constitutional: (This summary is adapted from a source I deem reliable.)
It was a tough day for exit provisions. The following information is based on my best understanding and has not been verified: A provision was successfully added to the Wespath pensions petitions that allows annual conferences to assess amounts in addition to a fair share of the pension liability. This could be used punitively in some cases to make the price tag for exit much higher. Also, Judicial Council Ruling 1377 applies constitutional paragraph 41 to churches seeking disaffiliation. That means a 2/3 majority vote would be required at a charge conference, a congregational meeting, AND at the annual conference session. This is an extremely unwieldy process for churches seeking to exit the denomination. The Taylor Disaffiliation petition was approved as a minority report and I am trying to obtain the final language.
The Global Council of the Wesleyan Covenant Association convenes tomorrow in St. Louis to talk about what happened and what happens next. African delegates will go home and share the news that they successfully defending the church’s teachings on marriage. Representatives from the Western Jurisdiction made an announcement today that is open to interpretation. (They either said they are rejecting the actions of General Conference and invite others to join them, or they said they are starting a new connection and inviting others to join them.) Adam Hamilton announced his intention to call a meeting of bishops and other key leaders at the Church of the Resurrection after Easter “to discuss where Methodism goes from here.”
Bad things happened today with respect to what we said and did to one another. Holy conferencing gave way to bare-knuckle politics. I sat at table with friends as we cast votes that hurt one another deeply. This is a night of mourning for many who came to St. Louis with hopes of a much different outcome. We all have folks at home that tuned in and watched organized religion at its most dysfunctional. They cannot "un-see" what they saw. I spoke with pastors already receiving messages from church members saying that they are leaving the church. Others are receiving messages of congratulations.
Love it or hate it, this is the first page of a whole new volume of Methodist history. My guess is that it will include more than two new groups moving to capture some of the good in United Methodism. I see a very Progressive form of Methodism growing out of a base in the Western Jurisdiction. Another flavor may develop under leading lights like Adam Hamilton, Matt Miofsky, and Tom Berlin as a moderately progressive/evangelical heir to Mainline Methodism. The mechanisms for new groups to form are not in place, so we have navigated off the map.
Most difficult to predict is the future of evangelical Methodism. What does a dog do when he finally catches the car he has been chasing? We evangelicals never really wanted to inherit the institution, we were just contending for the faith.
The UMC is a house past due for a major remodel. I expect the crisis of the next couple years won’t be wasted and a very different wineskin will form. One little-known fact is that the Wesleyan Covenant Association has received many overtures from autonomous Methodist churches seeking a re-connection of the scattered heirs of Wesley throughout the Americas and beyond. There is the possibility of an orthodox Methodist global convergence that would be be both exciting and challenging to help foster.
I expect the first questions that will need to be answered are: (1) Who plans to come to General Conference 2020 and (2) for what purpose? The next few weeks will tell that story.