I’ve been traveling and ministering in United Methodist Churches for 45 years now. In recent years, it’s been incredibly frustrating that the people entrusted to lead the denomination have pursued a liberal, progressive agenda, consistently ignoring what the people in the pews expect them to do. Indeed, most of the people I worship with each week have no idea of the things the Church is saying and doing on their behalf, and they would be horrified if they did. Every four years, the UM Church holds a General Conference where these battles are fought anew. I went to the Conference in Portland this year, expectant that the denomination would begin to more accurately reflect Biblical truth in all areas of leadership.
“The Showdown in Portland”
The dust is settling from what became quite a showdown. This General Conference certainly lived up to all the pre-meeting hype! The conservatives hoped to maintain the stance on human sexuality that has stood fast now for over four decades, despite regular and forceful attempts to change it. In recent years there have been many very public efforts to disobey the Book of Discipline, so they also hoped to tighten up the language to provide for a new level of accountability. The progressives came with the agenda of finally overturning that language and “moving the denomination into the 21st century,” as they put it. They were emboldened by the recent shift in public opinion engendered by the actions of the Supreme Court. Surely, this would be their year!
The first week was when the committees met to discuss proposed legislation and was a real wakeup call for the left. Those who sought a shift in our positions were met with a virtual conservative tsunami. Almost every petition that called for maintaining or strengthening our present stand (all are of sacred worth, but homosexual behavior is incompatible with Christian teaching) or calling for stricter accountability passed with majorities in the various committees. In addition to that, there were petitions that called for the UMC in the US to separate from the global church and form its own central conference, which would have allowed it to “adapt regulations as the conditions in the respective regions may require.” This would effectively negate the impact of Central Conference (all outside the US) voices who are overwhelmingly conservative. All these petitions were soundly defeated. The final firewall was a rule (rule 44) that would have taken the sexuality votes away from the parliamentary process and put it in the hands of small groups and delegated representatives. After heated debate that also was defeated.
It is clear that the United Methodist Church is no longer controlled by the more liberal elements of the US church.
Couple that with the evangelical sweep in the election of members of the Judicial Council (the Supreme Court of the UMC) and the University Senate, and it was becoming clear that this denomination is no longer controlled by the more liberal elements of the US church. We have become a global evangelical voice for orthodoxy!
Much of the credit for this seismic shift goes to the African UM Church which continues to grow exponentially. The next time General Conference meets, they will near a majority of the delegate count. Their presence was keenly felt in many of the decisions made in the first week of GC2016. The worship experience on Sunday was amazing as the Africans filled a large room in the Oregon Convention Center with thunderous, passionate worship.
In the background, all of the drama above was happening as conversations were being held in secret. A small group of bishops were meeting with representatives across the theological spectrum. These meetings actually started the Monday before General Conference convened. It’s not clear what was said, but there seemed to be discussion of the inevitability of some kind of schism. Whether that statement came from the bishops or others in attendance is not clear. Once that rumor hit the floor of General Conference, the bishops were forced to address it. They tried to distance themselves from the talk of schism and framed the discussion around “unity.” At this point, the delegates asked the Council of Bishops to meet and formulate a plan for going forward.
The next day, that plan was laid on the table in the form of a recommendation from the Council of Bishops. You can read that letter here. The general gist was that all petitions related to sexuality would be set aside and the bishops would be tasked with forming a commission made up of representatives of the global church and the various theological perspectives to try and find a way forward. After their work is done (in 2 or 3 years), there would be a special General Conference to deal with their findings. In the meantime, the bishops promised to try to limit charges and trials while upholding the Discipline. (I’m not sure how they will pull that off.) In my next post, we will look at how the General Conference dealt with the proposal, and what it could mean going forward.