No one should be held responsible for what she or he writes in the 24 hours after a cyclone like the one that just tore through The Dome in America’s Center. So I’ll hope you’ll extend me that grace as I offer, before taking the next breath, some initial thoughts and reactions to the Called General Conference of The United Methodist Church just ended in St. Louis:
- A cyclone didn’t really hit the arena. It just felt that way. I should be clear about this, (though so much else isn’t.)
- Other outlets will offer you much more accurate information about what happened, and I’ll be sharing trusted sources as they come along, but in short, a “Traditional Plan” was chosen by a majority of the 864 delegates as a way forward for the denomination. The Traditional Plan retains the current language of The United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline, which forbids clergy from conducting same-sex marriages as well as the ordination of “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals.” It also adds some new measures of accountability for clergy, bishops, and annual conference boards of ordained ministry. The measure passed by a final vote of 438-384.
- The General Conference also adopted a new procedure for churches that wish to disaffiliate from the denomination.
- Having said that, all of these measures will be reviewed by the denomination’s Judicial Council, which reported to the Conference on Tuesday morning that a significant number of petitions, if passed as is, would be unconstitutional. Since most of the constitutional issues were not addressed by amendments, it seems that big parts of the Traditional Plan may not go into effect. In that case, we would retain the current language in the Book of Discipline.
- The One Church Plan, which was endorsed by a majority of the Council of Bishops, was vigorously debated but failed on a 374-449 vote. That plan would have created space for the ordination of LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriages without requiring any church or clergy person to act against conscience.
So that’s what happened, but what does it mean?
For progressive United Methodists, the outcome was a bitter disappointment and there were numerous acts of witness by LGBTQ activists and their allies reminding the delegates of the pain felt by those who have not had their gifts and their sense of calling affirmed by the church. My heart is heavy for laypersons and seminary classmates I know and love who do not feel welcome in our churches. I also grieve that the UMC will be defined in the eyes of many, especially the young, more for whom it excludes than for whom it serves.
For traditionalists, the passage of a plan that reflects their understanding of the biblical witness regarding human sexuality was welcome. But many of my traditionalist friends were also despondent about the constitutional obstacles to implementing their plan and frustrated at the tactics of opponents who used parliamentary procedures to prevent amendments that might have fixed the constitutional issues.
What could everyone agree on?
A change to the denominational pension program. Delegates did pass two petitions by a large margin that put the clergy pensions and benefits program on more secure footing.
Beyond that, I think most people on the floor, observing from the risers, and watching by livestream would agree that our method of conferencing at the General Conference level is broken. It is hard to justify how this can be a good use of time and money. Whatever we shall become, a major reform of our polity will have to be part of it.
Finally, I want to lift up two praises and two sins for which we need to confess. First, the praises:
- The Commission on A Way Forward is likely to be maligned or ignored in days to come but it should not be. The work of this 32-member group to come up with options to preserve our unity may seem to have ended with the defeat of the One Church Plan, but the spirit that seemed to prevail within the group, the integrity with which they went about their work, their earnest seeking after God and God’s will, their professionalism, and the transparency with which they went about their work was far more than we could have hoped for given the divisive environment we are in. We were all blessed by them and I do not believe their work was in vain. They provided us a model for what Christian (and United Methodist!) community can look like.
- Music is a miraculous healing thing. You will be surprised to know that in the midst of tensions that threatened to blow the roof off, a group of gifted singers and musicians had us singing and even dancing with joy. The high point of the conference for me was when a set of Caribbean-flavored gospel and praise songs brought the Virginia delegation on the floor and the Virginians in the risers to the edge of their boundaries in a spontaneous love fest. We danced and waved at one another across the 50-yard divide that separated us. It was, at once, a celebration of our common longing for a new day, and a lament at our struggles in being connected. Music held us close to God at this Conference.
But now the sins to confess:
- We have made an idol out of General Conference, giving it far more power than it ought to have. We believed it would lead us to THE plan. We believed we could wait on its work. But the mission remains as urgent as ever. At the Ascension, the disciples were caught looking up as Jesus ascended into heaven. It was the angels who had to snap them back to earth by saying, “Why do you stand looking up into heaven?” [Acts 1:11, NRSV] Why do we stand looking up to General Conference? It should not be the reason we are not at work.
- We have, perhaps secretly, harbored in our hearts the belief that if we did not have “the ball and chain” of “the other side” we could finally do effective ministry. In truth, God has gifted us already with what we need to do ministry. Progressives can welcome all people and support God’s desire for love and justice even though everyone is not included to the level we desire. Progressives can do that and we all should. Traditionalists can preach the gospel and call the world to holiness even though there are those who believe differently than we do on things we consider essential. Traditionalists can do that and we all should.
And finally, this promise from Jesus as he prepared for that Ascension after his resurrection: “Remember, I am with you always to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28:20]
There’s more to come and we’ll have more opportunities to gather, share, and learn. But it’s early yet. And I just want to breathe.