General Conference 2016 is behind us now, and I return with a renewed hope that God is not done with these people called Methodist. There was much anxiety leading up to the once-every-four-year’s gathering of the church’s top legislative body because of the diverse nature in which members who call themselves United Methodist view culture, the Bible and the nature of “doing” church. Many felt this would be a “watershed” shed for the church, and in many ways it was. Knowing that hindsight is supposed to be 20/20, let me offer my personal reflections of our time together.
Primary among the sources of anxiety was the question, “How will the United Methodist Church respond on the issue of human sexuality in response to the Obergfell decision of the Supreme Court in June 2015?” Many wondered if this would be the time the church changed its understanding of homosexuality, and open itself to full inclusion by ordaining homosexuals as clergy, and permitting same-sex weddings to be presided over by its clergy and conducted in its facilities. Many others wondered if the church would maintain its teaching rooted in Scriptural and traditional understandings of marriage. Protesters were present throughout the ten days of meetings, and did disrupt the proceedings with organized protests on three different occasions. Additionally, delegates and alternates were greeted each day (but specifically on Wednesday) with supporters of a change in the church’s stance, particularly the wording that says homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” In the end, though, the delegates did what United Methodists have too often done…they didn’t decide. And, that’s not a bad thing from my perspective.
Wednesday, May 18th was the pivotal day. Several petitions favorable to retaining the current stance of the church, as well as legislation designed to strengthen penalties for those who violated the Discipline had made it out of committee, and were ready to be presented on the floor of General Conference. I remind you, this is not something that has arisen in the last couple of years. This has been a forty-four year long conversation that has only escalated in the last decade because of the changing culture of the west. Please also understand, this is an issue that has no place for discussion among delegates and the church in Africa, Asia and other places where the church is growing. They can’t figure out why we’re fighting about it. They can’t figure out why they’re voting on it. They just think, “Those crazy Americans!” Yet, it is an incredibly contentious issue, and everyone thought this was the year it would be addressed. It was not. Let me explain.
The loudest group has generally been the most progressive segments of our church. Unfortunately for them, their numbers are shrinking. 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—the Judicial Council. Delay tactics by progressives was the only thing that kept more legislative items aimed at enforcement from being recommended.
But, there is a third player in the game—U.S. moderates. One colleague described them as “nice people, doing nice things, under high steeples, with above average educations.” These moderates are incrementally changing their minds on homosexuality. The pastor of our largest church, Adam Hamilton, is in the final stages of his transformation on the issue. He told a group of seminary students last 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.
The day prior, another moderate pastor took the floor following a night of rumors regarding a church split. He asked that the Council of Bishops meet, show some leadership, 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 bishops what to do. Our bishops said they would meet and consider it.
The next day, 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. The conference found itself in the embarrassing place of having asked our bishops to lead. Be careful what you ask for! The Bishops returned with a plan that just happened to coincide neatly with the wishes of moderates trying to buy time. Progressives breathed a sigh of relief that the legislative train steaming their way had been derailed.
I need to make a long story short. The debate on the bishop’s recommendation turned ugly, with one delegate charging the presiding bishop with being corrupt. Fortunately, we didn’t see much of that delegate the rest of the time. After several emotional speeches, the episcopal plan was adopted as legislation by the narrowest of margins.
The political machinations we witnessed that day were impressive. Congress would be proud. But, the end of it means we spent a lot of money and time without really deciding anything. Well, we decided to take a little more time to decide. Many felt it unconscionable, but I’m not that put out by the whole ordeal.
Yes, I would like to have seen the General Conference decide once and for all on the issue of human sexuality, but as it stands, nothing has changed. The same language the United Methodist had before General Conference is the same language we have now, and I believe that’s a good thing. As for the future, we’ll look to the bishops to offer the leadership they say they’re willing to undertake. We’ll see if there will be a special commission, and a special called session of General Conference to deal with the issue.
That’s not the only thing we did at General Conference. Here’s a synopsis of our time together:
- The Conference defeated motions to separate the American Church from the global Church by creating a new Central Conference.
- Additionally, the African Central Conferences will receive five more bishops over the next four years, thus solidifying the global nature of the UMC.
- Moreover, the General Conference voted to double the amount of theological education for Africa (from $5 million to $10 million) in the general church budget.
- In a surprising fashion, the General Conference voted (by a margin of 3-to-1) to disaffiliate the UMC from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. This represents a significant shift in thinking for the global Church, and reflects how significant is the shift toward a more orthodox church.
- The church continues to pursue important justice and mercy issues including human trafficking, stamping out killer diseases like malaria and AIDS, environmental stewardship, and the sanctity of human life.
- A separation-with-property proposal passed a committee vote, signaling support for a conversation about this issue. The proposal did not make it to the floor of General Conference, but expect it to be a priority of the Bishops’ special commission exploring the issue of human sexuality.
- The margins in the votes on key issues signal that the weight of opinion has shifted toward a more orthodox theology.
- Both the University Senate and Judicial Council received a number of new members who are more theologically orthodox. For the first time, the chair of the Judicial Council is not an American.
- A proposal was made and accepted requiring bishops to hold one another accountable for decisions in their individual Conferences.
- The UMC grew by a total of 1.2 million members in the last four years, mostly outside the U.S. The African church, growing at significant rates, now holds the power in our denomination. The Africa Central Conference has grown by 329 percent, while in the United States the denomination has declined by 11 percent.
I am blessed to have had the opportunity to serve as a delegate to General Conference. The days were long and I returned home weary (for more reasons than one), but the experience was one I’ll never forget and will always consider an honor.
Until next time, keep looking up…