(photo by Paul Jeffrey, United Methodist News Service)
Sunday morning worship at General Conference today was richly evocative and unsettlingly thought-provoking. Bishop Kenneth Carter, President of the Council of Bishops, preached in a manner that built a creative bridge between the Biblical imagery of transformation and the present challenges facing United Methodism. Bishop Carter began the sermon in this fashion:
If you take a moment to look around the room, it will become clear to you very quickly that your story is not the only story…The good news is that God has a story too. It is the story of a God who salvages what we have discarded and redeems what we have labeled unclean…God’s story is about creation.
Bishop Carter went on to share his personal memories of how the churches that he served became contexts of reconciliation that bore witness to God’s ability to create astonishing unity amid stark diversity:
Some of the most conservative and progressive people I have ever known occupied the churches I served as a pastor. They sang in the choir together. They cared for the homeless together. They served on committees and studied the Bible together…And when they disagreed on the interpretation of Scripture (imagine that!), they looked for the heart of the person with whom they disagreed, reminded themselves of their shared dependency upon the saving grace of Jesus, and stayed together…Can God do this again? Can God abolish the dividing wall between two communities? Could these be three days during which Jesus might resurrect us and lead us into new life?
The cynic (and I can be one of those if I am not careful) might conclude that Bishop Carter was simply priming the pump for a conversation about the One Church Plan, which is the “Way Forward” plan endorsed by the Council of Bishops. But I experienced the sermon as something much deeper than a homiletical argument for a denominational plan. The sermon spoke a Biblical truth into my consciousness that I desperately needed to hear this morning—that the scandalous grace of Jesus has a way of keeping people together and connecting hearts across a variety of divides.
Bishop Christian Alsted, who serves as Bishop of the Nordic and Baltic Episcopal Area of the Northern Europe and Eurasia Central Conference, presided over the morning plenary. Bishop Alsted wisely and pointedly reminded us of the nature of our gathering:
This is not a football arena over the next three days [referring to the fact that we are meeting in the arena where the then-St. Louis Rams used to play]. No, for the next three days, this is Church, and we are a community shaped by the person and the work of Jesus Christ.
The rest of the morning was devoted to a presentation of the three denominational plans developed by the 32-person Commission on the Way Forward. As part of its presentation this morning, the members of the Commission reminded the delegates that the Commission’s role “was not to pick a winner or to choose a side but to explore new possibilities that magnify the United Methodist Connection.”
The three plans, already familiar to many of the people reading this post, are these:
The One Church Plan (the values of which are a generous and flexible unity, a contextuality for missional vitality, and a durable honoring of the connectional nature of United Methodism)
The Connectional Conference Plan (which is the most structurally complex of the plans but also the one that frames our future in a theology of connectionalism that envisions a “big tent” with smaller tents within it)
The Traditional Plan (which is built upon the values of unity in doctrine, consistency in practice, and an intensified accountability)
Following today’s lunch break, Bishop Hope Morgan Ward, Resident Bishop of the Raleigh Area, led the General Conference in a prioritization process, the purpose of which was to assist the General Conference in determining the order in which delegates will address the numerous legislative petitions. In this prioritization process, the 70-plus petitions were grouped based upon their content and purpose. Each “bundle” of petitions was then voted on by the delegates as being either “high priority” or “lower priority.”
The prioritization process resulted in the following “top five” legislative priorities for this General Conference:
1. Pension liability petitions from Wespath (United Methodism’s pension and benefits agency)
2. The Traditional Plan (and its related petitions)
3. A proposed disaffiliation process (i.e., a means by which to exit the denomination)
4. A second proposed disaffiliation process
5. The One Church Plan (and its related petitions)
Voices from around the Connection responded to this “top five” list in different and important ways. Some lamented the fact that a concern for unfunded pension liability, as institutionally significant as that issue might be, would top the priority list. Some celebrated the high position of the Traditional Plan, believing that this indicates a majority support for the plan’s emphasis on doctrinal orthodoxy. Others lamented that the Traditional Plan was prioritized so highly, believing that its place on the list signals a continued and institutionalized injustice against the LGBTQ community. Still other voices expressed concern and sadness that two disaffiliation plans made it into the list of top five priorities.
Personally, I am uncertain of what it all means. Perhaps I am still processing and pondering the way in which the dust is settling after a long and demanding day. What is abundantly clear is that hope and heartbreak are breathing the same air at General Conference, as are traditionalists, progressives, and centrists. We are a complicated, messy, global, often-divided, and strangely beautiful tribe. I long for an authentic and durable unity that reflects a shared subordination to the Lordship of Jesus and yet remains expansive enough to avoid both theological myopia and institutional idolatry. Our corporate vision for such a thing, however, remains painfully elusive.
Having cared for the pension liability petitions this afternoon, we will turn our collective attention to the Traditional Plan tomorrow morning following worship. I anticipate the kind of extensive deliberation that ushers the delegates through the complexities of parliamentary parlance and into the vulnerable territory of differing Biblical interpretations and disparate theological convictions.
As I prepare for tomorrow, I am thanking God for the way in which this long day ended—with a time of joyful interaction and bread-breaking, shared by most of the people who are here from Western Pennsylvania (delegates and volunteers, visitors and prayer warriors). These precious souls have taught me more about faithful discipleship than they will ever be able to understand. Their voices tonight reminded me sweetly…
…that Jesus is still saving the world…
…and that our United Methodist tribe is worth the sometimes-devastating struggle.
Tonight, that is enough.