Two Questions from St. Louis

Delegates pray together during the February 23, 2019, opening session of the Special Session of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church. Photo by Paul Jeffrey for United Methodist News Service.

In the aftermath of the special called General Conference in St. Louis, there are two questions that could point to possible misunderstandings of its outcome.

1)     Was the decision to affirm the church’s current position on LGBTQ ministry an answer to prayer?

The 2019 General Conference was the object of more prayer than any other church event in my lifetime. Church members undergirded The Commission on a Way Forward with concentrated, widespread prayer for 18 months. We felt and appreciated those prayers and notes of encouragement! The Council of Bishops instituted a “Praying Our Way Forward” effort that assigned each annual conference an opportunity to pray for the 2019 General Conference in an intentional, concentrated way leading up to February. Individual United Methodists engaged in weekly fasting and daily prayer on behalf of the General Conference for the nine months leading up to the conference. The General Conference itself began with a whole day of prayer for all the delegates and observers.

Yet many progressive and moderate United Methodists are treating the outcome of the special General Conference as if God ignored all the prayers. Could it be that the decision of the General Conference is in fact God’s will, an answer to the many prayers that were prayed?

It is wise not to speak dogmatically when speaking about how God answers prayer because there is a lot of mystery in how prayer works. God is perfectly capable of answering a prayer with yes, no, or wait. It is often difficult to draw a straight line from a particular prayer prayed to a specific outcome.

But it seems equally unwise to simply discount all the prayers on behalf of the conference and say that those prayers were not answered. It sounds like some people are saying that if God does not orchestrate a specific outcome they agree with, God did not answer the prayer.

When I look at the many roadblocks put in the way of the Traditional Plan before and during General Conference, I cannot deny the miraculous aspect to the passing of it in any form, even with its shortcomings. I detailed in another blog the many ways the deck was stacked against the Traditional Plan. Is it not possible, then, that the passage of the Traditional Plan was indeed an answer to prayer?

The implications of this line of thinking lead us toward a heart of peace and away from a heart of war. In my own prayer life leading up to General Conference, I had stopped praying for a specific outcome and instead asked for God’s will to be done. That prayer posture led me to have peace in my soul, regardless of the outcome at General Conference. I believe the passage of the Traditional Plan was the right decision, but passage of the One Church Plan would not have been a devastating outcome for me. I had confidence that a faithful form of ministry would exist, no matter which way the General Conference decided.

People on all sides of the questions involved can view the outcome of General Conference as an answer to prayer and still make their own personal decisions about how to respond. For some opponents, the passing of the Traditional Plan might have been God’s way of freeing them from a system they believe shackles them from fully living out their faith commitments. That is the way I would have viewed it had the One Church Plan passed.

If the decision of General Conference was an answer to prayer, then those who disagree might be better served to simply accept the decision as the decision of the church. They can then determine for themselves whether God is calling them to live within that decision or remove themselves from it. Such an approach holds promise for a healthier outcome for General Conference 2020 than simply returning to the same battlefield and fighting the same battle over again.

2)     Was General Conference 2019 called to finally “decide” how the church’s ministry with LGBTQ persons would be shaped?

The rhetoric used by some progressives and moderates for many years has been that General Conference needs to decide this question. The implication is that we had not yet decided, even though General Conference voted the same way every four years for 45 years.

Does that mean that something is not “decided” until the decision is one that I can support? Short of a favorable decision, must I regard every earlier conclusion as provisional or temporary? At what point is a question finally decided?

This line of thinking is very frustrating to traditionalists and evangelicals. We believe that the General Conference decided the question in 1972. Every General Conference since then has affirmed that decision. Is it right for those who disagree to never accept the church’s decision until or unless they can convince the church to change its mind?

What we now have is many leaders – bishops, superintendents, clergy, annual conferences, and now one central conference – that have simply decided that, since the result of General Conference was not to their liking, they refuse to accept it or live by it. Never mind that our church’s structure is built around decision making by conference (in this case, a global decision by the General Conference, the only body empowered to speak for the church as a whole). Never mind that the General Conference is the primary instrument of unity in The United Methodist Church. Never mind that clergy have vowed before God to abide by the teachings of the church and the enactments of General Conference, whether they agree or not.

For those clamoring for “unity,” the refusal to abide by the church’s primary instrument of unity comes across as the height of hypocrisy. That refusal leads to the interpretation that unity is only desirable when it fits my preconceived ideas of how the church should be. That makes the individual, not the body in conference, the final arbiter of what is the true teaching of the church. This is precisely the atomization of the church that opponents of the One Church Plan warned about. Make the individual (pastor, congregation, annual conference) the final arbiter of truth and one has a shattering of both truth and unity.

Since so many leaders and annual conferences have publicly vowed not to live by the teachings and requirements of the church, we can no longer pretend there is any interest in unity. Rather, we must acknowledge that the primary interest is in doing ministry as each individual sees fit (what is right in one’s own eyes). Only if each individual is allowed to do ministry in the way he or she sees fit could there be any hope of holding the organizational church together (the One Church Plan). However, that is not unity, but surrender to individualism and congregationalism.

Since the 1740s, Methodism has been built around the unity of the conference. Those who could not abide by the will of the conference either departed or were removed. This is how unity was preserved in the church, with organized separations happening in our church’s history about once every ten years for the first 150 years of its existence. The attempt to “stay together” despite an unwillingness to live by the decisions of General Conference is simply “un-Methodist.” It sacrifices the unity of the church on the altar of individual conscience.

We must let this current reality sink in deeply, if we are to hope for an alternative way to move forward. The widespread disavowal of the General Conference actions means there is no way to move forward together in one body. The original conclusion of some at General Conference 2016 that separation was inevitable now dramatically shows itself to have been correct. Since separation of some form is inevitable because we cannot live with others who practice their faith in ways that are deeply offensive to us (on both sides), how can we move into a new relationship with one another in the least painful and most Christ-like way? Or are we doomed to repeat history and continue to fight over power and control of an institution?



5 thoughts on “Two Questions from St. Louis

  1. Well said once again, Tom – thank you.

    If every effort at “unity” over 45 years only leads to further divisiveness and pain, isn’t it clear that we should find some way to separate?

    When the Methodist Church/movement made these difficult decisions in the past, both parties were able to refocus and re-energize their ministry, continuing church growth. Instead, our decades of disunity have only hampered our focus and energy, and our growth has obviously suffered for it.

    It is time to make real in our organization what is real in our behavior: we are two unequally yoked bodies, and we’re pulling the plow in different directions, making a mess of the field, and getting nothing planted or harvested.

    Separation may be painful, but it will open up future possibilities for both parties.

  2. “For those clamoring for “unity,” the refusal to abide by the church’s primary instrument of unity comes across as the height of hypocrisy.”

    I’m confused, hadn’t the WCA already established an exit plan prior to the General Conference? They weren’t looking for unity either, unless it fit their preferred outcome.

    It’s a shame that the UMC is going to split, but it honestly seems overdue. I was a fan of the Connectional Conference plan specifically because of this.

  3. Based on the email I saw from the Wisconsin Bishop and a DS and several pastors, all of whom supported the One Church Plan, I wonder how they thought it would work if they had ‘won’. Essentially, the One Church Plan would split every conference into two – one for churches and pastors who abide by the current Discipline and one for churches who want to live by a difference Discipline. Each bishop would then have to juggle pastors between churches within the two conferences. This assumes that there will be an equal number of pastors and churches of each type, which seems highly unlikely. This would also tear churches apart that are not 100% of one cut or the other. This also assumes that bishops could treat churches and pastors of both groups with equal care and love and leadership – the email I saw made it clear that would not have been possible. If the constraint on pastors regarding homosexuality is a huge problem, and it is clear the UMC will not change, why do the forces who want to change the Discipline persist in their attempts? The whole idea of The Way Forward was that ample time would be given to it, lots of thought and prayer would be applied, and the result would be accepted as the ordained will of God. From the progressive behavior in Saint Louis and the email and reactions since then, it’s clear that if they don’t get their way, they can’t accept that it was the will of God, which made a lie of the whole process. What was the point if they’re now going to disregard the result? There are plenty of denominations that already operate by the principles they want the UMC to adopt. Why must they remain in the UMC and be the source of such turmoil when there are easy solutions – they can change denominations. Saint Louis was their best chance – from here the American delegates lose numbers and delegates from more conservative countries will gain numbers because that’s where the growth is. You’d thin the progressives would wonder why it is that churches in conservative countries are growing and those in progressive countries are dwindling. Tom – I appreciate your insight and all the effort and love you’ve put into helping the UMC make disciples of all the world.

  4. Interestingly, I believe that the exit plan isn’t going to pass constitutional muster. It’s poorly written (and then poorly rewritten to try to make it compliant). Here’s the relevant text from “¶ 2553. Disaffiliation of a Local Church over Issues Related to Human Sexuality.”

    “… a local church shall have a limited right, under the provisions of this paragraph, to disaffiliate from the denomination for reasons of conscience regarding a change in the requirements and provisions of the
    Book of Discipline related to the practice of homosexuality or the ordination or marriage of self-avowed practicing homosexuals as resolved and adopted by the 2019 General Conference, or the
    actions or inactions of its annual conference related to these issues which follow. ”

    Focus on this part:

    “…for reasons of conscience regarding a change in the requirements and provisions of the
    Book of Discipline related to the practice of homosexuality or the ordination or marriage of self-avowed practicing homosexuals…”

    Nothing was changed as far as those requirements go.

    “…as resolved and adopted by the 2019 General Conference…”

    Uh oh, a qualifier. Since no changes were adopted by the 2019 GC, that pretty much makes the whole thing moot.

    “…or the actions or inactions of its annual conference related to these issues which follow. ”

    Any action or inaction by the annual conference would be depended on the changes made at the 2019 GC – and since there were no changes made to that particular part, this is moot.

    This was clearly written in expectation of one of the other plans being adopted (which WOULD have resulted in a change to the relevant sections), and thus was a out plan for the Traditionalist Plan core group. But they dropped the ball on this, and now individual plans won’t have an option to follow their conscience without severe repercussions (not that this plan was a walk in the park, but it was an easier path than the usual one).

    *slow clap*

    I can’t find the actual text submissions for the Traditionalist Plan that is being reviewed by the Judicial Council, but it’s fun to see that the exit plan is dead on arrival. I guess ye reap what ye sow….

    1. Thanks for your comment, JR. The exit path adopted by General Conference was written by One Church Plan supporters, with the idea that it would be included if the OCP passed.

      The aspects of the Traditional Plan that will be found constitutional do constitute changes to the Discipline enacted by the 2019 General Conference. Statements and resolutions by annual conferences that they intend to disobey the Discipline and act as if the OCP passed are “actions and inactions of its annual conferences.” So the exit path does apply (if Judicial Council rules it constitutional).

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