Reflections a week after General Conference… #umcgc

As Psalm 146 reminds us: human leaders and human institutions aren’t everything.  They won’t save us.

We are finite and we make mistakes.

Only God is forever faithful.

Yet, any denomination or tradition comes from God’s followers attempting to live out their faith and their discipleship together.

Fully knowing that we are not perfect, we nevertheless seek to do the best we can to respond to God’s movement and calling in the world in a given place and time… based on where our forefathers and mothers have led us and based on where the Holy Spirit is calling us anew.

That is what we tried to do at General Conference.  Over 10 days, we attempted to be faithful to God’s leading and yet we are not God and our plans are just that… ours.

Over these last two weeks, we very nearly split our denomination into pieces.  Our differences are stark. Our life together is marred by conflict as much as collaboration.  And I’m going to be honest… I’m not quite sure yet what comes after General Conference.

We asked our Bishops to help us find a way forward out of our predicament and that way forward is still vague.

So rather than making predictions, maybe it would be better to share who we are and how we got to this place.  I think fundamentally, there are three key things to keep in mind as we wrestle with what it means to be the United Methodist Church.

 

First, I think it is helpful to understand that the United Methodist Church is a global church. 

We are the only protestant denomination that is worldwide.  Our churches span from Manila to Legos to Moscow. And, while the church in the U.S. has been declining, the global church is growing exponentially.

In the last ten years, the U.S. has declined in membership by 11%, while the church in the Africa Central Conference grew by 329%!

42% of United Methodists now live outside of the United States.

One of the most important things we do at General Conference is listen to one another, try to understand more about our contexts, and find ways to help ministry flourish all across the world.  And that is not an easy task.

But because of our global partnerships, we can do amazing things like Imagine No Malaria and our United Methodist Committee on Relief is the first to arrive on the scene of disaster and the last to leave.

And we can learn from one another.

I remember listening to a committee four years ago debate the process for closing a church.  A woman from Liberia stood and said that she was extremely confused as to what we were talking about… not because of a language barrier, but because she simply couldn’t comprehend why we would close a church. The church in the United States needs that passion for the gospel that is growing so fast we can’t build enough churches!

As we continue to debate the inclusion of LGBTQI people in the life of our church, I also heard clearly from our African delegates, like my new friend Pastor Adilson, that their contextual struggle is not with homosexuality, but with polygamy. Rather than asking if same-gender marriages are allowed in their churches, they are struggling with how to welcome and include a man who has four or five wives.  Does the church ask him to divorce all but one?  What happens to the other wives?  Or the children?  How is the entire family welcomed?

We are also learning to reframe our conversations to be more global than United States centric.  One of our debates this year was about a resolution for health care that referenced the Affordable Care Act.  When 42% of United Methodists live outside the United States, these kinds of statements need to be broader in scope.  It was hard to be talking about a system that only applies to some of us, when so many people in that room had little to no access to care, much less health insurance.

One of the realities of being a global church is that multiple languages play a role in all of our meetings. While we have four official languages as the UMC: French, English, Portuguese and Kiswahili, we had simultaneous interpretation in Russian, German, Spanish, and many others.

An ever present reality is also that in many of these global areas Christianity arrived along with colonialism.  “Most Africans teach their children that Jesus and other biblical characters are muzungu (Kiswahili, “white”) notwithstanding the fact that Jesus would likely have been dark complexioned because he was born in the Middle East.”  (http://unitedmethodistreporter.com/2016/05/11/are-africans-grown-a-response-to-bishop-minerva-carcano-dealing-with-wounded-united-methodist-church/)

We, as a church, have tried to combat colonial impulses by allowing the conferences outside of the United States to adapt our Book of Discipline to their local contexts.  However, that means that 42% of the church doesn’t have to abide by all of what we vote on… and that we need their votes in order to make changes to the rules only we follow.

 

Second, it is helpful to know how we make decisions.  

The roots of our church lie in England, but we were born during the American Revolution.  And our polity, our government is modeled upon our national government.

Just like the government, we have a judicial branch and a Judicial Council.

Our Bishops function as the executive branch.

And the General Conference itself is the legislative branch… just like Congress.

864 of us were elected as voting delegates to represent the worldwide church and we were half clergy and half laity.

The General Conference is the only body that can speak for the United Methodist Church and everyday people like you and me are the ones who make the decisions.

So those of us gathered there had the responsibility of pouring over legislation and making changes to our structure, rules, and positions… four years worth of work condensed into two weeks.

I believe that to discern the Holy Spirit, one has to be humble, empty yourself, and allow other voices to influence you.

The first week of conference is largely spent in legislative committees and in those smaller groups some of that discernment could happen.  I had truly transformative experiences in my committee and the work felt good and holy.

But all of those relationships and trust falls apart when an item comes to the floor of the plenary session.  There, the decision making process moves away from consensus building and instead creates winners and losers.

On the FIRST DAY of conference… we spent hours debating the rules that we would use in order to debate. We used and we abused Robert’s Rules of Order.

And when we were presented with an alternative decision making process (what you might have heard as Rule 44) to use for particularly contentious issues, we debated it for two days and then voted not to use it.

But we did accomplish some things.  We approved the creation of a new hymnal for our church.  We strengthened our process for the affirmation of clergy.  We created new pathways for licensed local pastors.  And we added gender, age, ability, and marital status to the protected classes in our constitution.

 

Third, it is helpful to understand that while it appears that our conflict as a church is centered around the inclusion of LGBTQI people, our division is deeper.

Our church is a very broad tent and the likes of both Dick Cheney and Hilary Clinton call our church home.  This is one of the things that I love about the United Methodist Church.

But I think what came into focus for many of us at this General Conference is that our disagreements may no longer be sustainable.

Perhaps fundamental to our conflict is how we interpret scripture. For some, scripture is absolutely central and the only tradition, reason, or experience that matters is that which scripture can confirm.  For others, scripture is absolutely central and yet we have to interpret scripture through the lenses of our tradition, reason, and experience.  That shift might seem subtle, but it can make the difference between allowing women to be ordained or not in our church.

We also fundamentally disagree about whether we are a church of personal piety or social holiness. Of course, John Wesley thought it had to be both… but where we place our emphasis determines how we engage with the world and the moral stances we choose to take.

All of this difference is floating beneath the surface of any conversation about how LGBTQI people are included or not in the life of our church.

 

If you asked me a month ago what was going to happen at General Conference I would have been full of optimism. You see, I’m a bridge builder.

And so I went to General Conference with all kinds of hopes about how we would make decisions to benefit the church all over the world and how in spite of our differences we would find a way forward together.

I don’t think it was naïve to believe this going in.

But in the midst of our gathering in Portland, something shifted. Something shifted in my own life and in the hearts and minds of countless other delegates.

We realized that we could no longer keep doing what we have been doing together as a denomination.

We realized that our differences were tearing us apart.

And in Portland, we made a very conscious choice to avoid the end of our denomination through our votes.  We voted to seek unity, to try to find a way to remain together for the sake of God’s mission in the world. But there is a phrase we kept using that I think is important.  Unity does not mean unanimity.

As we look at our differences, particularly in the three areas I named, for many, we avoided the end, but are only delaying the inevitable.

Maybe our global structure is unsustainable.

Maybe our decision making process has to change.

Maybe  our fundamental disagreements will only continue to allow conflict to rule our work together and we would be better to split amicably and allow each part of our church to be the most faithful it can be to God’s will.

The next four years as United Methodists will not be easy.  We have asked the Bishops of our church to lead us in discerning a way forward and that might mean that in the next two or three years we will call a special gathering to decide how to move forward… on what it means to be a global church, on our structure, on our polity, and on our stances regarding human sexuality.

I have about 45 more minutes of things I could share with you and I’m happy to continue to have conversations about our work.  But I want to leave you with this one request.

Pray for our church.

Pray for God’s will to be done.

Pray that we might follow the one who is faithful forever, who as Psalm 146 reminds us…

defends the wronged,     and feeds the hungry. God frees prisoners—     God gives sight to the blind,     and lifts up the fallen. God loves good people, protects strangers,     takes the side of orphans and widows,     but makes short work of the wicked.

In spite of all the good and all of the mistakes that we made at this past General Conference, I take comfort in the knowledge that God’s in charge—always.

2 Comments

  • Tony Nester

    June 4, 2016 at 11:36 am Reply

    Katie, it’s so rare for me to discover an Iowa Conference pastor who is so honest, fair, and open to reflection on the issues conflicting our UMC, especially on LGBTQI issues. I almost never respond to my colleagues speeches or comments, but I find I can’t resist replying to you. You’re the kind of partner in dialog I can respect. So here are my thoughts in reply to your post.

    I concur with your assessment of the Global UMC. I personally don’t see how we can continue being a same-disciplined Church. This is obvious to me because our Discipline is now being publicly violated in the name of individual and group conscience, and many of our Bishops have consented to not enforce the Discipline due to their belief that the Discipline is wrong. The only way forward that I can see is to break up the denomination into groups with different disciplines (not based on geography but principled theology) or become a fellowship or association of different Wesleyan/Methodist churches. This latter is the option I favor but it means becoming more congregational in polity. I think is the price we pay for our lack of consensus. I don’t think the price is too high. We are a very ecumenical church – I see no reason why we can’t be in relationship with each other without having to be organizationally bound to each other.

    I do disagree with labeling our sexuality debate as centering on the “inclusion” of LGBTQI people. When I pastored churches, we almost always had some gay and lesbian people included in our membership. The issue isn’t about inclusion; it’s about full, complete, acceptance and affirmation that same-sex attraction, same-sex relationships, and same-sex marriage is just as right, proper, and holy as heterosexual relationships can be, and that these relationships are to be judged by the same standards of love, commitment, and faithfulness. Using the word “inclusion” or “full inclusion” masquerades the theological issues that are at stake — i.e. our theological understanding of gender, identity, and marriage, and sexuality. To argue for “inclusion” prejudices the debate in favor of those who want to revise and redefine fundamental understandings of these vital elements of our theological stance.

    For a long time I used to think as you do now that our fundamental debate was about the quadrilateral, and that conservatives want Scripture to be truly “primary” (as the Discipline says it is) while progressives want a much greater emphasis placed on what we learn from human experience. I still think there is much truth here. But I’ve moved on to regard the issue more simply in terms of the two Great Commandments: Love for God and Love for Neighbor. Conservatives, I think now, want the Great Commandment to be truly First. I take that to mean that we can only truly know what it means to love others when we our priority is to love God — in this love for God we learn what love means and we discover God’s will and purpose for the Creation.

    I find progressives wanting the reverse. They believe that only by loving others can we truly love God. There is, of course, Scripture to affirm this. But on the whole I find progressives falling prey to the conviction that love is defined by others rather than God — i.e. if my gay neighbor tells me he doesn’t feel loved by my Christian stance on sexuality then ipso facto I’m not loving him. This makes the culture the final arbiter on the nature of love — how love looks, talks, acts, and works. To cite an example of what I find so egregious about “progressives” is that we have numerous clergy who now tell us that they lied during their ordination ceremony — assenting publicly to the polity and beliefs of our Church while keeping secret their sexual orientation and their disagreement with our Discipline. I cannot understand how anyone can seek to establish their ministry on such a deception. I have full respect for those who leave the UMC over their disagreement with us on sexuality issues, but I can’t respect people who are deceptive at the very point of ordination. And yet, I suspect, such people and their advocates justify their action in the name of love.

    The main failing here is that progressive appear to me as believing that Love is God rather than, as Scripture affirms, God is Love. Progressives have made us into a Second Commandment Church. I know Jesus kept the two commandments together; we no longer seem capable of doing that.

    Thank you for you comments. I hope you continue to offer leadership on these issues. I value your thoughts.

    • salvagedfaith

      June 8, 2016 at 1:05 pm Reply

      Hi Tony,

      There is a lot to continue to be in conversation about. I want to first simply respond with a thank-you for engaging and being in dialogue. I must also fully admit that my brain is still weary coming back from General Conference, then Annual Conference, with all sorts of catch up to do in my local congregation.

      So, I want to sit with your comments a bit before I engage them, but I am grateful that you are willing to be a conversation partner. There is much in what you have said I agree with and some I would characterize differently, but that’s what conversation is all about.

      For the moment, I’m wrestling (at the encouragement of another colleague) to think about and define what I mean by love, by discipline, and by covenant. Sometimes we use these words in the same ways, and sometimes we are talking past one another because we have different operational definitions. Discipline is in particular a word that is at the root of the conflict you raised up about our vows in ordination. The third paragraph of the preface to our Social Principles states:

      The Social Principles, while not to be considered church law, are a prayerful and thoughtful effort on the part of the General Conference to speak to the human issues in the contemporary world from a sound biblical and theological foundation as historically demonstrated in United Methodist traditions. They are a call to faithfulness and are intended to be instructive and persuasive in the best of the prophetic spirit. The Social Principles are a call to all members of The United Methodist Church to a prayerful, studied dialogue of faith and practice.

      The social principles are not the whole of our Book of Discipline, but do inform them. I understand part of our discipline as United Methodists to be people who are engaged in the kind of prayerful dialogue and ongoing perfecting that is demonstrated in this paragraph. Our Book of Discipline is also going on to perfection and it changes with legislative changes brought in the spirit of this paragraph as well. I am still formulating what that means, but this is an initial attempt to respond to your question about those who make their ordination vows while seeking to change the discipline.

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