It is a challenging time for that portion of the Body of Christ called the United Methodist Church. The upcoming special session of the General Conference (held in St. Louis from February 23 through February 26 and called specifically for the purpose of making significant decisions about what our denomination’s way forward will be related to the matter of human sexuality) has generated a sense of anxiety throughout the district that I superintend and, I suspect, throughout the connection. For some, this anxiety is linked to the fear that the denomination will change its current teaching. For others, the fear is that it won’t. As both a District Superintendent and a delegate to the General Conference, my heart and mind are fully engaged in the work that is before us.
864 General Conference delegates from Africa, the Philippines, Europe, and the United States will travel to St. Louis for the event. We will be joined there by hundreds of other visitors, observers, volunteers, marshals, and pages (some from Western Pennsylvania), many of whom will be there on their own dime and time, simply because they believe that the work of the church in St. Louis demands their very best efforts and attention. Bishops will preside administratively over the General Conference’s plenary sessions, but will not have a vote (which is United Methodism’s way of ensuring the necessary separation of ecclesiastical powers and processes).
General Conference, which ordinarily meets every four years (but can be specially called between quadrennial sessions, as is the case this year), 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 survive and thrive if its primary governance body included over eight hundred people and met 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 dictate the priorities and policies of our church. Rather, our portion of the Body of Christ finds its legislative governance in a praying, searching, occasionally quarrelling, sometimes divided, frequently doxological 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 connectional responsibility.
At various points, we will worship vibrantly at General Conference throughout the course of the upcoming session. I am convinced, in fact, that worship and prayer will be the grandest part of what we will experience together.
We will also turn our attention to weighty and controversial legislation concerning the denomination’s teaching on human sexuality (in general) and the practice of homosexuality (in particular).
For clarity, the denomination’s current position, expressed in the 2016 United Methodist Book of Discipline, is that, while all people are of sacred worth and created in the image of God, the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” As a result of this institutionally-affirmed incompatibility, the United Methodist Church is not currently permitted to ordain self-avowed, practicing homosexuals. Likewise, United Methodist clergy and congregations are not currently permitted to conduct same-sex marriages on their church property.
A variety of proposed plans and modified plans for a way forward will come before the upcoming session of the General Conference. Some of those plans (Such as the One Church Plan, the Connectional Conference Plan, and the Simple Plan) would remove the restrictive language related to the practice of homosexuality from the United Methodist Book of Discipline, thereby making it possible for individual churches, Boards of Ordained ministry, and pastors to discern personally and contextually what their policies and practices will be concerning marriage and ordination. Many believe that the adoption of one of these plans is urgently necessary in order for United Methodism to become a more just, compassionate, and inclusive church.
Alternatively, there will be other plans coming before the General Conference (such as the Traditional Plan and the Modified Traditional Plan) that would protect and fortify the denomination’s current position on the practice of homosexuality. Many believe that these traditionalist plans are the only way for the church to sustain its Biblical theology of human sexuality.
There will also be legislation advocating for a gracious exit from the denomination for those churches and clergy who cannot in good conscience abide by whichever plan is adopted.
Not surprisingly, there is a great divergence of thought throughout United Methodism concerning which plan represents the healthiest and best way forward. Often, the differing viewpoints lead to a painful sense of division. I have experienced portions of that division up close and personally.
To generate much-needed perspective, however, it should be said that our challenges are probably no more severe or complicated than some of the other seasons the church has faced in its history. I seriously doubt, for example, that the first century church’s dramatic impasse over the practice of circumcision was any less divisive than our current conversations. Likewise, the denomination’s fracture over slavery in the 1800s illuminated just how divided the people of God can be. The challenge of ecclesiastical conflict is not new, but it never stops being hard.
Throughout the last several months, I facilitated many conversations about General Conference and “The Way Forward” in the churches across my district. Some of these conversations occurred in regularly-scheduled church conferences. Others occurred in meetings that were specially called. I tried my best to have an open heart in all of those conversations, listening as attentively as I could, responding as compassionately and engagingly as I could. I am sure that I did better in some of those conversations than others, and I certainly bring a spirit of heartfelt repentance to wherever it is that I failed.
I can still see the faces of people I encountered in those important and high energy conversations. Some asked probing questions, looking to expand their comprehension of the proposed plans. Others asked rhetorical questions, primarily to give expression to their own deeply-held convictions. Some wanted to get to know me personally and to hear about my personal perspective. Others, perhaps driven by a sense of unique urgency, simply wanted an opportunity to inform a delegate of how they wanted him to vote.
And now, here we are. The General Conference is less than two weeks away. My heart is…what?
All of these, I suppose.
In my next post, I will share some of the personal values that I carry with me into General Conference. In the meantime, I will invite those of you who care deeply about these matters to engage in three specific disciplines.
First, stubbornly resist the temptation to become cynical or resentful about these matters, especially if people attempt to take you down a negative road. In my experience, a spirit of cynicism and resentment often leads to a heart that is cold, a temperament that is dismissive, and a discernment that is clouded by a distorted sense of absolute certainty. The United Methodist Church deserves better than that.
Second, be intentional about reminding yourself and others that our denomination’s difficult conversations about human sexuality are not debates between people who love Jesus and people who don’t, or between people who believe in the Bible and people who don’t. Rather, the current disagreement is between devoted Christ-followers who have come to significantly different conclusions about how parts of the Biblical narrative are to be interpreted, honored, and applied. Remembering this can help us avoid the temptation to demonize those who are on the other side of a debate.
Third, pray without ceasing. Dare to believe that prayer is a sacred and mystical conduit through which the redemptive activity of God makes its way into human circumstances, sometimes transforming the circumstances and other times reconfiguring human hearts so that the circumstances can be more creatively managed. I am inviting you to believe in the power of prayer with me and to pray urgently for the United Methodist Church and its General Conference. Pray for Western Pennsylvania’s delegation and all the delegations. Pray for the Bishops as they preside. Pray for the safe travels of all who will be making their way to St. Louis. Pray that people will treat one another with respect and patience, even when emotions run high. Pray for the protection of tender hearts and the nurturing of right priorities. Most of all, pray that the Holy Spirit will flow through the complicated rhythms of General Conference in order to help the United Methodist Church to bear witness more vibrantly and faithfully to the always-beautiful heart of God.
I am grateful to be part of a church that refuses to turn away from hard and important conversations. Likewise, I am humbled to be part of a church that believes that Jesus does good and redemptive work, even in the messy but necessary conferencing of his people.