I am honored to be serving as one of the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference’s twelve delegates (six laity and six clergy) to the 2016 United Methodist General Conference, which will be held at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, Oregon from May 10 through May 20. I am praying about this event, even as I type these words. Truth be told, I have been praying for the work of this General Conference since last September. I know that many of you have been joining me in that prayer.
The members of Western Pennsylvania’s delegation have worked diligently, creatively, and strategically over this last year in preparation for both General Conference and July’s Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference. The members of the delegation regularly inspire me with how seriously they take the church’s ministry and how deeply they believe that the United Methodist Church still has something important to offer in the furthering of God’s kingdom.
The 864 General Conference delegates from Africa, the Philippines, Europe, and the United States will travel to Portland on or before May 10. We will be joined there by other visitors, observers, volunteers, marshals, and pages (some from Western Pennsylvania), all of whom will be there on their own dime and time, simply because they believe that something is about to happen in Portland that demands their very best efforts and attention.
General Conference, which meets every four years, is United Methodism’s highest legislative body for all matters affecting the United Methodist connection. It is the only entity that has the authority to make decisions for the entire denomination. That may strike some of you as woefully impractical. What corporation, after all, would ever be able to be survive and thrive if its primary governance body included one-thousand people and met only once every four years?
And yet, for all of the practical and strategic questions that may be raised in any conversation about General Conference, I am deeply grateful to be part of a denomination whose authority is not centralized. No single leader, bishop, or committee has the authority to govern our church. Rather, our portion of the Body of Christ finds its governance in a praying, searching, occasionally-quarrelling, sometimes-divided, frequently-doxological quadrennial body called the General Conference. It is this historical priority of “governance by conferencing” that has enabled United Methodism to retain its emphasis on both communal discernment and communal responsibility.
We will worship vibrantly at General Conference over the course of the ten-day gathering. Worship, in fact, is the very best part of what we will experience together. We will also turn our attention to some weighty and controversial issues, all for the purpose of doing our prayerful and discerning best to help the church to become more faithfully the church that Jesus Christ is calling it to be. These are some of the issues that we will address:
*As a General Conference, we will consider a variety of proposals related to the restructuring of the ministries of the general church. The proposal that seems to be generating the most conversation is entitled “Plan UMC Revised,” which revisits a conversation begun at the 2012 General Conference and aims to redefine the structure and the authority of the Connectional Table and to reduce the size of several general boards and agencies (while increasing representation from outside the United States). This type of legislation bears witness to our denomination’s struggle both to establish better institutional accountability on the general church level and to structure our boards and agencies in a way that mitigates institutional decline by the strategic reconfiguration of denominational ministry.
*We will make decisions related to the global nature of the United Methodist Church, including the continuing development of a global Book of Discipline. These decisions will hopefully enable the denomination to rid itself of its unfair and unrealistic US-centric bias in order to manifest a more comprehensive and expansive ecclesiology. Why is this important? Because, while American United Methodism has experienced significant decline in recent decades, the United Methodist Church in Africa has seen 200% growth over the last twenty years. There has been similar United Methodist growth in the Philippines. In its current structure and ethos, United Methodism too often functions as though it still believes that the American church is at the unifying center of what God is doing through our denomination. The news from around the world bears witness to a different reality than this. At this General Conference, we have a unique opportunity to make several decisions that will help our denomination to incarnate a more global and globally-strategic perspective.
*We will consider proposals related to licensed and ordained ministry, the most compelling of which is the “reshaping of the ordination process.” This “reshaping” would move ordination to the front end of the process (at the time a candidate for ministry is elected to provisional membership). I would imagine that this proposal will lead to some important and challenging theological conversations about the relationship of ordination to conference membership.
*We will make important decisions about what our church will teach about human sexuality (and, in particular, homosexuality). The church’s current position is that, while all people are of sacred worth and precious to God, the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” As a result of this discerned incompatibility, the United Methodist Church does not currently ordain self-avowed, practicing homosexuals. Likewise, United Methodist clergy and congregations are not currently permitted to conduct same-sex unions in their sanctuaries.
There is legislation before the General Conference that recommends a change in the denominational position on homosexuality—a change that the writers of the legislation believe would make for a more inclusive and compassionate church. Alternatively, there is legislation before the General Conference that would protect—and fortify—the denomination’s current position on homosexuality. We will also consider a “compromise proposal” that would remove the restrictive language from the Discipline and would leave the discernment to individual pastors, congregations, and annual conferences. Perhaps most alarmingly, there is legislation that outlines an “amicable separation” in the United Methodist denomination between those who advocate for a Disciplinary change related to the church’s teaching on homosexuality and those who wish to retain our denomination’s current position.
My prayer is that, as the General Conference makes important decisions related to the church’s teaching on human sexuality, we might resist the temptation to become so idolatrous about one side of the issue or the other that we lose sight of the fact that, for disciples of Jesus, human sexuality is not fundamentally a controversy to be debated. It is rather a sacred gift to be stewarded and sanctified in a way that bears witness to a dual commitment to sexual holiness and authentic compassion.
*We will consider a proposal for a new United Methodist Hymnal. The proposal is designed to maximize flexibility and usability by making the approved “canon of song and ritual” accessible in a variety of electronic formats. Also included in this proposal is the formation of a standing Hymnal Advisory Committee, the work of which would be to evaluate and recommend additional song and ritual resources for future inclusion. This will give to the hymnal the sense of being a perpetual work in progress. Historically, liturgical flexibility has been a difficult thing for an institutional church to generate. This proposal for an electronically-available and regularly-expanding hymnal may very well represent positive movement in that regard.
I hope to write and share posts throughout my experience at General Conference—if not for your benefit, then for mine (since this kind of writing is a form of public journaling for me, a cathartic discipline of praying and discerning and “working out my own salvation in fear and trembling”).
I know that many of you are already holding the General Conference, its volunteers, its organizers, and its delegates in your prayerful heart. I would be grateful if even more of you added your voices to the ministry of prayer that General Conference so desperately needs. Pray for the delegates and volunteers. Pray that people on opposite sides of a variety of issues will cultivate the ability to see the face of Jesus in one another. Pray for a spirit of deep discernment, patient attentiveness, and compassionate engagement. Most of all, pray for that portion of the body of Christ called United Methodism, that we might be a church that is as committed to holiness as it is to compassion; as devoted to justice as it is to love; and as passionate about sanctification as it is about Biblical truth.