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.