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General Conference Debacle

 
 

On Pentecost I shared my initial feelings about General Conference; about Rule 44, which would have provided opportunity for delegates to talk about contentious issues outside of parliamentary procedure.  As I said, that’s what we Methodists are all about, right?  We gather and share – openly.  When it was turned down the spirit of the Conference was revealed.  We know that politics is a part of any conference in our denomination or any other.  But the mood of this Conference mirrored our Congress – going into the Conference people had decided that they wouldn’t budge and would rather not even talk to those on the other side of the homosexuality debate.

I think I have also shared about the changing demographics of the UMC.  We have striven to be a global church – which is a laudatory goal.  But as a result we are experiencing a conflict of values:  the value to be global and the value to invite LGBT people to participate fully in our Church.  Both values are rooted in a desire to be open.  However, the UMC has grown disproportionately in Africa and the Philippines; typically delegates from these places are less open to full inclusion of LGBT people. This has resulted in more delegates who want to retain the restrictive language in the Discipline.  With this dynamic one might expect that the progressives in our Church would suggest that we split, but it was actually the conservative wing that first initiated that discussion.  What t hat feels like to me is that they are recognizing that their power will likely grow as more delegates from Africa and the Philippines attend General Conference; they can simply dismiss the progressives.

Another event that alarmed and angered me was learning about the involvement of the Good News movement in the African delegation.  Good News is the largest lobbying group for conservatives in the UMC.  The African delegation met in Lubumbashi, Congo in January and then again in May in Portland, just prior to General Conference.  This is from the UMC website:  “Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, vice president and general manager of Good News, the unofficial evangelical caucus, attended the January meeting as an observer, and is handling logistics for the Oregon meeting.”  This is a kind of political activity that I have not seen in our Church.

I left Annual Conference more convinced than ever that some sort of separation is necessary.  I heard many words about unity and love but they felt hollow to me – when caucuses meet separately and unofficially with a whole delegation and then refuse to speak openly with others in smaller groups?  This feels like more than a matter of disagreement – this is a spiritual matter.  When people who vote to retain the restrictive language about homosexuality talk about love and unity I want to stand up and shout: you do not love!  I’m sure they are sincere, but sincerity doesn’t mean much in the fact of injustice.

If Rule 44 had passed and I was a part of it and we did have small groups I would want to ask people, who is Jesus for you?  What does it mean to follow him?  In our Adult Sunday school class, reading Robin Meyers book, Saving Jesus from the Church, Meyers believes that belief in substitutionary atonement – that Jesus died for our sins – has allowed many Christians to ignore the character and teachings of Jesus.  And, since the Reformation the image of Jesus has not been a source of authority for life and faith.  Rather, the focus has been on the Bible.  What conservatives will refer to in regard to homosexuality is not Jesus, but the few passages that ostensibly refer to homosexuality in the Bible.  This means our split is not just about homosexuality; it is about theology and how we interpret the Bible.  One thing that Bishop Elaine Stanovsky (former District Superintendent of the Puget Sound) said in her sermon on the final day that I liked is, “if you believe in the Bible and have not asked a progressive how he/she interprets the Bible you have to get out of that tomb.”  I would prefer that the subject be Jesus, but I would love to talk with them about the Bible – I’m ready!  But that gets us back to Rule 44 and the apparent unwillingness from the beginning, established at an unofficial preconference meeting that they just aren’t going to talk about it.  Dismissed!

So, here’s where things now stand.  The General Conference asked for the Council of Bishops to give leadership to the Church; this is actually unprecedented – bishops preside over the Conference but do not propose legislation.  Well, at this Conference they did.  Their proposal is to create a commission that will look into proposals to either restructure the Church or amicably split.  The proposal passed on the second vote – not easily.  I listened to one man from Texas speaking against accepting the bishops’ proposal say that we must say what we believe, right here and right now:  “Do not be afraid to say what you believe.”  It really didn’t make much sense to me other than, let’s vote on this and retain the restrictive language in the Discipline – put the progressives in their place and go on.  Fortunately it did pass.  The commission will work for two years.  During that time no charges will be brought against clergy who come out as LGBT.  It’s a breather and a sliver of hope that some change will come.

What I hope for is that the commission will recognize the conflict between the two values of being a global church and accepting LGBT people and that they will see that some sort of give on being global is needed.  A united church is the ideal, but it isn’t the reality and we must allow for more regional autonomy.  Adam Hamilton said in a talk to seminarians at General Conference that if we do not change the language in the Discipline we will lose a generation in America.  I wonder if the Good News folk realize that.  Keeping that hope for the next two years, I intend to carry on at Cedar Cross UMC.  I intend to speak even louder about the need to change.  And I really do believe in the long run, we shall overcome.  P.Jim

 

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