A Few Reflections on the 2019 General Conference

I wanted to get some distance from the General Conference before writing. It was an gut-wrenching experience, full of sadness and conflict. If you were a delegate, I can’t imagine how hard it was. I’m sorry for what you went through.

Since I returned I’ve been pondering a tweet by Chris Ritter:

I suspect this is true. Those who were in St. Louis certainly can’t.

Yes, the Traditional Plan passed. I am not surprised by this. The numbers simply weren’t there for the One Church Plan. Nevertheless, what did not pass was the piece on episcopal accountability. Without that, the rest of the Traditional Plan won’t fly.

For the time being, United Methodism will function on a diocesan model. In other words, every bishop will simply do as he or she chooses. Bishops who wish to follow the directives of the General Conference will do so. In the U.S., that won’t be very many. Other bishops will do as they wish. The notion of general superintendency has become functionally obsolete. We may or may not like this, but it is the reality in which we now live.

It is possible that the rest of the Traditional Plan could be passed, and even made constitutional, at the 2020 General Conference. Yet are we willing to go through again what we went through last month? I’m not.

The United Methodist Church was born as a project of religious pluralism. I doubt very much the architects of our denomination could have envisioned the radically different theological trajectories that have come to characterize our denominational life. The UMC was meant to hold difference, but not unlimited difference, not irreconcilable difference. It certainly wasn’t meant to generate what we saw in St. Louis.

During the conference I was confronted by another academic who told me that I did not want him in my church, and that if I actually favored unity, I would have supported the One Church Plan. I can see why he would think this, and I understand his anger. If the One Church Plan had passed, I would have been just as unhappy as he was. I would feel as if I could not stay in the UMC. Nevertheless I disagree with both of his assertions.

The question of the three plans before us at General Conference was not whether or not we wanted unity. Rather, each plan involved a different vision of what genuine unity would mean and how best to achieve it. Traditionalists and some progressives did not believe the OCP would generate true unity. The Uniting Methodists and progressives did not believe the MTP would generate true unity. No one seemed very interested in talking about the Connectional Conference Plan, though I think it had the best chance of keeping us all together in one denomination (regardless of whether or not that constitutes unity). Because we have not been able to agree on what unity is, our pursuit of different embodiments of unity only drove us farther apart from one another.

For years now I have believed we are not functioning as a single denomination. I wrote as much in 2015 in the United Methodist Reporter. Once bishops started openly to violate the decisions of the General Conference, it was essentially all over. When Bill Arnold and I wrote the “A and W Plan” years ago, we still believed that it would be possible to restore good order to the church. I’ll speak for myself only when I say that I was naive. The 2019 General Conference simply held up in dramatic fashion what has become increasingly clear to many: the divisions are so great that we cannot hold them within a single denominational container.

Dr. Kent Millard is exactly right: it is time to separate. He writes, “Therefore, with a heavy heart and deep regret, I personally believe it may be time for our leaders to find a way for United Methodist Christians to separate, so that we stop harming each other and each side can get on with the business of sharing God’s Good News with a hurting world in new and separate organizational structures.” There is, quite simply, no scenario in which anyone “wins” moving forward. There is no point in trying to force people to do what they don’t want to do. We argue with one another about whether or not our position on homosexuality will cause us to “lose the next generation,” but do you know what will absolutely, positively cause us to lose the next generation? Continued fighting, name calling, pettiness, and political maneuvering. We have lost the plot, and we are not going to find it by continuing to mirror the culture war raging in the Western world.

We have spent considerable time wringing our hands around the issue of “schism.” As my friend Kevin Watson has pointed out, for Wesley a schism was a division within the body, not a division of the body. By Wesley’s standard, we have been in schism for years. Perhaps were we simply to reorganize the UMC into two separate denominations, we could find ways to continue to work together in areas such as UMCOR, archives, and pensions. Were we not bound by a common polity, we would probably get along just fine. After all, we have solid ecumenical relationships with Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Nazarenes, and many other Christian groups. We don’t agree with them on everything, but, then again, we aren’t trying to live with them under a common set of rules.

I’ve lost friends in this battle. My professional relationships have in many cases become quite strained. I’m not willing to lose another friend if I can help it. I’m not willing to continue to put stress on my relationships with other academics and pastors. There are many progressive and centrist United Methodists that I care about a great deal. It hurts to be estranged from them. Some of these relationships are likely unrecoverable except by a miracle of God. As long as our denomination is locked in this death embrace, reconciliation will be exceedingly difficult. There is simply too much tension, too much disagreement.

There are things about which I am very passionate. This fight about sex isn’t one of them. I certainly have my opinions, but I am not called to focus my work or witness in this area. I am passionate about the proclamation of the Church’s historic faith. I am passionate about its Wesleyan expression. I am passionate about the value of human life–all human life, but particularly as it relates to people with disabilities. I am passionate about the growth of the church worldwide and the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. I am passionate about developing a clearer Wesleyan notion of biblical inspiration and authority.  These things I am passionate about are things I see pursued most passionately by the more conservative groups in the UMC. Once it became clear to me that the UMC had become untenable as an denomination, I began to put more of my energy toward the development of a new movement that shared more of my commitments. Many have seen the WCA as a political caucus. In the current environment of our church, no group of like-minded people can be anything other than political. There is certainly a political aspect of the WCA, and by supporting the WCA I have implicated myself in those politics. Nevertheless, my involvement in the WCA has always been about a retrieval of Wesleyan theology and practice, about holding up the treasures of the saints who have gone before us. The neglect of the Great Tradition has not served us well in the UMC. I don’t expect others to agree with me, with my decisions or alliances. I don’t begrudge them theirs. I would only ask they respect mine.

Over the years I’ve tried to frame my public arguments about the UMC respectfully and in ways that were intellectually sound. To the extent that I have failed in either regard, I apologize. To the friends I have left who are centrist or progressive, I want to remain in Christian friendship with you. The politics of our denomination endangers that. I will not support any “plan” going forward that continues the current fighting. We must bless one another and pray for one another. Yet standing within a common polity is not working. In fact, it has become disastrous.

We cannot unsee what we saw in St. Louis. For all the confusion that whirled about, one thing became clear: this madness cannot continue. May God forgive us for allowing our life together to descend to this point, and may God guide us into a future of peace, rather than war.

77 thoughts on “A Few Reflections on the 2019 General Conference

  1. The words added to the UMC Social Principles in 1972 did not exist in the 1968 church. They were inserted as either a virus, which spread chronic sickness/pain and flared acutely in the St Louis GC 2019, or a balm to calm the concerns of conservative fundamentalists who became afraid of what the freedom their absence allowed would wrought. I was sad to see how the Simple Plan was dismissed, easily. Clearing the body of the virus was never considered viable. From the sidelines where my view is now set, what is left appears so mean and punitive that it bears no resemblance to the love by which they would know we are Jesus’ disciples.
    Students of Hitchcock will recognize that in the drama, it is only when all seems completely lost that resolution becomes possible. Maybe St. Louis brought the climax to this grand morality play. Regardless, the result of GC2019 is no good in and of itself. What we will see in the sequel will depend upon the players’ choices to tend toward healing or hurt. I hope for the former.

    • I think you made David’s point completely. What you just said, I heard in a meeting the week before conference. As long as one side sees the other a heretical, and the other side sees it as a regressive, out of touch minority, there will be no unity. It is best we identify thiae agencies that do not need our agreement to function, trnsfer the rest to the World Methodist Council, and split into two separate churches. Each can then join the WMC separately and become part of the grand cooperating fellowship with the other members.

      • Thank you. I appreciate your moderate reply and have been thinking steadily about it since first reading, trying to reconcile with its viewpoint. Yet, the implied false equivalency just will not let me go. Such a disengaged perspective, prevalent in moderate expressions I’ve read, fails to recognize the harm being done to the beloved community by the anti-gay (generally) forces. I was once aligned with Good News efforts. Nature’s reality, community nurture, Jesus love, and God’s grace taught me the error of that way as the Holy Spirit led me to a new and clear understanding of scripture and self. The Damascus Road day will come, I pray, when the scales fall from the prosecutors’ eyes. Then the realization will permeate the body that the persecution of some of the least of these has to stop. Then, we may all be one. It sure seems to me that separation in the meantime is not the answer to Jesus’ prayer. However, it may be all that can be done by these mortal souls in the meantime.

    • “I was once aligned with Good News efforts. Nature’s reality, community nurture, Jesus love, and God’s grace taught me the error of that way as the Holy Spirit led me to a new and clear understanding of scripture and self. The Damascus Road day will come, I pray, when the scales fall from the prosecutors’ eyes. Then the realization will permeate the body that the persecution of some of the least of these has to stop.”

      I think that sums up the current situation. A group says the Holy Spirit has shown them a new meaning in the scriptures that academics and theologians over the past couple thousand years have missed. Conveniently, that new, enlightened interpretation fits perfectly with the current trends in our secular society. The Church has been here before, many times.

      What hurts, though, is the presumption that since the Holy Spirit has not revealed this new interpretation to everyone, those who missed the memo must be evil people not worthy of the Spirit’s message. This imputation of evil motives is apparent in the use of phrases like persecution. Is telling an adulterer that he should stop cheating on his wife persecution? What about refusing to ordain a male bishop with a live-in girlfriend and a couple of kids? In the traditional view of scripture, all sexual immorality is equal.

      From a traditional view, you need to understand that this movement to de-list homosexuality from the “sin” category looks very cynical, along the same lines as trying to convince the cop that since the road is dry, flat and straight the speed limit shouldn’t apply and you don’t deserve a ticket.

      • I am not wanting to argue with you here. The points I made were my own, quadrilaterally based. Yet, by the false equvalencies you made with your comparative examples, I think you are making my point for me.

  2. Brother Watson, I’m a lay leader in a church in the BWC. This article was shared on a Facebook group for “traditionalist” believers. This is the comment that I posted there: Thank you, thank you, David Watson. You have completely framed what I believe, in a very comprehensive manner. I also believe, when we think about what our God could have possibly intended by that hot mess in St Louis, that He wants to wake up all parties to the real state of the church, both in the pulpit and the pew. This, brothers and sisters, is what we need to flesh out in the coming months. We will make better neighbors than housemates. Again, thank you.

  3. So, David . . . were you surprised that the Snake has fangs and is a liar, a deceiver, and a cheat?

    Whatever happens next, do not betray the Africans.

  4. I don’t agree with David on some things, and I’ve had a chance to express those disagreements. I do appreciate his honesty and honor his desire to move on to real ministry. And what I believe is genuine generosity in hoping for new relationships out of realistic re-structuring of those same relationship.

    I think our differences are fundamentally cultural differences, and that our polity is intended to manage theological disagreements within a single culture. In particular we could manage “ethnic minorities” and distant, small, and relatively powerless central conferences. What we can’t manage is two nearly equally powerful cultures in fundamental disagreement over issues where there is no room for differing practices. I suspect some of the unfortunate aspects of our discourse arise from the frustration of trying to figure out what we’re even talking about when we speak out of such different cultural understandings of everything from authority to providence. Its frustration, and that never leads to good.

    In theological education robust discussion over fundamental theological issues can be helpful to increase our skills at self-understanding. In pastoral ministry they are too often merely divisive. And ours is finally a church, not a seminary.

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