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. Before we absurdly reduce the moral equation to whether we can “manage” the Africans, let’s not forget that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witness, not only the saints who have gone before, but the many who surround us now in other faithful, traditional, growing Wesleyan bodies (who are watching what we do). Beyond these Wesleyans there are Catholics and Orthodox and orthodox Anglicans and independent churches and more who have not yielded up sound moral doctrine to trending American culture. The Western Jurisdiction does not have a veto.

  2. I enjoy your participation in the Plain Truth podcasts, David, and I respect that you are coming from a thoughtful Wesleyan perspective. What confuses me is why we are not trying to find common ground more solidly within a Wesleyan framework. So many of the comments that I am seeing online seem to indicate that many supporters of the MTP seem to be coming from a theological perspective that is far less Wesleyan than it is Reformed Methodist – or, perhaps, just outright Calvinist.

    I agree that a church should not just reflect culture wars, but when a conservative U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, the war is over, for most of the nation, and we must accept that as part of our mission field. How do we acknowledge what is legal and accepted in U.S. culture in a way that honors scripture and our discipline? One can split – but any church can do that – or we can come to terms with an emerging global mission field that is increasingly urban and cross-referenced to U.S. urban culture. This is what Wesley did, ultimately – he took the fields as they were, not as he would have liked them.

    Suggestions: 1) replace references to homosexuality with the phrase “sexual abuse, sexual addiction, sexual slavery, sexual exploitation, sexual coercion, or sexual idolatry.” This would get us out of the identity politics business and into calling all people of all kinds to righteousness in non-hurtful sexual relations – something that all generations, especially the younger generations, expect. How awesome to think of what we could do in such a scenario. Then, 2) for marriage standards, why not enforce Article XXI of our Articles of Religion appropriately, and allow all clergy to marry according to legal standards. Where it’s legal, let it be. Where it’s not, then don’t disturb the local laws. Seems simple. So to speak. Be blessed.

    • Bingo. Thank you for this helpful insight and suggestion. For me, in order to preserve the sanctity of my marriage — when I could finally do so in my 15-year faithful partnership — I decided it was best to forgo my 38- year clergy UMC connection for the open hearts-open doors-open minds of the UCC. Such protecting my husband from the emotional and spiritual harm of the church is my testimony of God’s leading.

      • Kevin Johnson, I was saddened to hear of your choice, but I understand completely. How sad that our General Rules say, first, do no harm, and sometimes United Methodists have to be asked today, “What part of this do you not get?” Let’s remember that Paul came up with these passages in the middle of the very complex urban cultures, far beyond his comfort zone. He knew from his encounter with Jesus that the whole point of following him was love – the righteousness of God for God and all peoples – and that it would take a clear stand against hurtful actions in the middle of that culture. But he also made it clear that we are not here to harm people who try to love in the image of God – convenantally, as you and your husband do, forsaking all others, and committing to a life of sacrifice for the sake of this love. All humans should be encouraged to do this, within the laws of their nations, and, as with justice movements around the world have done again and again, to move the goalposts of those laws when we believe that the righteousness of God can be offered to more, even when and where it’s a bit of a challenge. Bless you.

    • “…but when a conservative U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, the war is over…”
      “2) for marriage standards, why not …allow all clergy to marry according to legal standards. Where it’s legal, let it be.”

      I don’t want to live in a society that stones people for adultery, so I don’t have a problem with cheating on your spouse being legal in the US. That is not, however, the standard to which we are held as Christians. One of John Wesley’s principles was to point out sin in others and hold them accountable. This whole nasty, damaging, hurtful and embarrassing fight revolves around one question – are homosexual acts sinful? Notice the emphasis on the act rather than the actor. All of us are sinful so I have no right to condemn or exclude an individual on any grounds. Please understand, though, that those of us who believe the bible says the act is sinful cannot in good conscience condone it. We cannot be a part of holding up as church leaders those who flagrantly and unrepentantly engage in it. I would not want a pastor or a bishop who did not treat his or her parents well. That’s not illegal but in my view it is a sin. I would not want a pastor or a bishop who constantly took the Lord’s name in vain even though that is legal. That isn’t me trying to be mean or “persecute” anyone. It is just the only way I know to try to live what I profess to believe.

      • I appreciate that you’re trying to provide a constructive comment, but I think it goes a little bit deeper than the level that you’re suggesting. Adultery may be legal, but it’s grounds for divorce. Adultery is a hurtful sin. Marriage is not a hurtful sin. It is a covenant that is supposed to reflect the love of God in people’s devotion to one another. It is a novel thing in our culture, to be sure, and that challenges us. But if people Covenant and God’s love to be dedicated to one another, then our United Methodist discipline seems to suggest in our theological task that we need to adapt to this possibility, and to search the scriptures, as John Wesley suggested, and understand them more deeply for a revelation of God’s will in novel circumstances. John Wesley would have been understood this best of all I think, since he was a Greek scholar, and would have appreciated all the research into culture in the time of Paul and other early Christians that sheds light on what was actually considered a sin and those times such that Paul mentioned. What Paul seems to mention our sins very similar to those that Michael Jackson committed, what type of sin that was sadly very common in Greek culture. we need to recognize that people of all sexual identities and orientations can sin, while also acknowledging the different cultures except exactly what that means in different ways. The standard is love expressed to the world in Jesus Christ. If we do not break a reed, in dealing with our sexuality, then who are we to deny the love of God in Jesus Christ to a couple? With that said, I uphold the discipline oh, such as it is, based on my understanding of scripture.

  3. Pingback: You Keep Using That Word: Is a New Form of Unity Inconceivable? | Wesleyan Way

  4. David I have already expressed my deep appreciation for your well articulated views on this debate. What I miss though is the implications of this debate to the Central Conferences written from the perspectives of the three regions of the world where Central Conferences do exist. These are : Africa, Eurasia and the Philippines.
    I will attempt to give a limited African perspective because of space and the often ignored fact that Africa is so huge that one can not speak for it without running into dangerous generalization. The issue of Unity of the Church is indeed so dear to many Africans. They do not want to split into national churches that will indeed put them back into colonial boundaries that the United Methodist structure and POLITY enabled them to bypass. Africa University is the concrete monument of this unity on the Continent. This also explains why most African Bishops appeared to support the One Church Plan even though most were in fact for the traditional plan as evidenced by their insistence that it (Traditional Plan) be included on the Report from the Commission on the Way Forward. However what was not realised by many was that Africa is ideologically and theologically Evangelical. The Liberals missed this point by seeing alignment of Africa and the Traditionalists as a horse rider relationship where as this was really reconnection of Africa with the Gospel she received when the first missionaries stepped onto the African soil with the Gospel. In fact it was a hope REVIVING connection for most Africans who otherwise no longer believed that there were still Americans who take the Bible seriously.

    If the United Methodist Church is to divide today be rest assured that Africa will go with the Evangelicals. This is a painful fact that most of my Liberals friends my not want to hear . The belief that we can unite in mission dispite our deep theological and moral standards will not hold for long in Africa. Religion is not something one can separate from everyday life in Africa. There is no clear line between the Sacred and The Profane. Everything is religious. So expecting Africans to receive “missionries” from everywhere will not go far. Africa shall be “choosy” as they want to protect their Children and families from behaviour they see as Sinful and threatening their very religious future.
    Once more thanks David.

  5. ‘There is no point in trying to force people to do what they don’t want to do.” This thought cuts right to the heart of the issue. The Israelites were called “stiffed necked” because they placed their wants over & above God’s commands. They simply did not want to do what God asked. Jesus teaches us that faith & obedience go hand in hand. Jesus does not force faith & obedience but those that choose his narrow road pray to the Father “Thy will be done” not “my will be done.”

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