On May 22nd we took time to “decompress” or “wrap-up” the events of The United Methodist Church’s quadrennial (every four years) General Conference that took place in Portland, OR. The General Conference is the highest legislative gathering in The United Methodist Church with voting membership consisting of an equal number of clergy and lay delegates elected by the Annual Conferences. General Conference is the only body that can speak officially for The United Methodist Church.
As one who has a very strong background in technology, I followed General Conference in a number of ways including a live-stream of the major worship services and legislative sessions as well as various social media platforms. The General Conference evoked a number of responses from participants, observers, and both secular and religious news organizations, and the differences in what I read from those directly involved versus what I saw published from others helped me see that those who were present and participating have the clearest understanding.
And so relying on the experiences of my colleagues and friends, I will hope to convey a little of what took place in Portland, OR, for two weeks in the middle of May, 2016.
The Conference began – as always following Robert’s Rules of Order – with a debate on how the debates will be handled. And the contention began immediately with the ill-fated “Rule 44.” The intent of Rule 44 was to make space for “holy conferencing,” small group conversations to help enable honest and Spirit-led conversation. The vigorous debate on the rule took quite a bit of time and inspired its own social media hashtag (#Rule44) as well as a parody Twitter account (@Rule44, which seems to now be defunct and tweets hidden/deleted/expunged).
What seemed to be the underlying tension had to do with matters related to inclusivity of our LGBTQI siblings, as much of the legislation addressed to the General Conference centered on changing or removing the discriminatory language from our Book of Discipline (BoD). Before long, rumors began to circulate through social media and even some mainstream media agencies about schism in The United (!) Methodist Church.
Much of this was inspired not only by theologically conservative passion advocating for “traditional marriage” and “orthodoxy,” but also a number of statements and organized protests by theologically progressive voices advocating for full inclusion. On May 9th – one day before General Conference began – 111 United Methodist clergy and candidates came out in an open letter, risking their own credentials or candidacy. This letter was followed by an open letter from more than 500 openly LGBTQ clergy from other faith traditions in support of those who came out, an affirming pastoral response from 28 United Methodist Bishops, and finally a letter from over 2300 UMC clergy allies – including your own Pastor – pledging support and specific ways we will live out including our LGBTQI siblings.
In the midst of all these things were talks of schism on both sides of the ideological spectrum. Blogs and social media sites abounded with advocacy for a two- or three-way division. In response to the painful dialogue and rumors of division, the incoming President of the College of Bishops, Bishop Bruce Ough (Dakotas Conference) denied the rumors that informal talks of division were already taking place while acknowledging that even the Bishops were divided on issues of inclusivity. Even so, Bishop Ough advocated for unity.
Responses to the Episcopal statement were varied, though the result came in an unprecedented request from the body of the General Conference seeking leadership from the College of Bishops to move the General Conference forward. A formal proposal from the College of Bishops was ultimately – with vigorous debate – affirmed, and further debate on human sexuality was put on hold pending a special commission selected by the Bishops and ranging in ideological and cultural/regional perspective.
To be completely honest with you dear friend, I am torn. As your Pastor, I am conflicted. I feel strongly about including all of God’s children in the life of the church. I also feel strongly about unity and the idea that we can do more together than we can separately. I am hopeful that the Spirit will move, that we United Methodists will find a way to move forward as a United Methodist Church. Let us hold our Church in prayer…