What just happened? (My take on #GC2016)

General Conference 2016 is now in the books. After a long season of great anticipation and some trepidation, our denominational leaders have now gathered and adjourned, leaving the rest of us to reflect on just what happened in those ten days of conferencing.

There were moments along the way that were downright embarrassing. At least once, I found myself weeping as I listened, wondering just how much more this corporate body could bear without breaking. Much of the proceedings were painfully stifled by the combination of Roberts Rules of Order and an obvious spirit of distrust.

And yet, beneath the surface a trajectory seems to have formed in Portland that is leading us forward in a surprising direction.

My prediction before #GC2016 was that on the most controversial issue to be discussed —  the language of the Book of Discipline — we would maintain the status quo, leaving our denomination without clear answers and many without peace and resolution. That prediction has proven true. What I would not have guessed, however, is what happened beneath the surface of General Conference.

It seems, from an analysis of multiple votes on various issues, that the United Methodist Church has taken a decisive step in a more orthodox direction, and certainly a more global direction. The presence of non-American delegates was more powerfully felt and from comments to reporters one gets the sense that our African members especially now have a stronger voice in the process. Our global connection has not only been retained but deepened.

Here is my take on what happened at General Conference:

  1. An overwhelmingly strong vote (75% to 25%) disaffiliated the UMC from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. This represents a significant shift in thinking for the global Church.
  2. The church continues to pursue important justice and mercy issues including human trafficking, stamping out killer diseases like malaria and AIDS, environmental stewardship, and the sanctity of human life.
  3. The language of the Book of Discipline around issues of human sexuality remains as it is. Other votes related to this issue were shelved in favor of a future conversation guided by the Council of Bishops after further study.
  4. The Conference defeated motions to separate the American Church from the global Church. The call to remain a global Church became one of the more important themes of the Conference.
  5. The body of the Conference requested and received the leadership of the Council of Bishops on the issue of human sexuality. A commission was formed which has been charged with studying the issue and developing a strategy for graceful exit and disaffiliation for those who disagree with its findings.
  6. A disaffiliation-with-property proposal passed a committee vote, signaling support for an eventual conversation about this. While that proposal did not make it to the floor of the Conference, it should be a priority of the Bishops’ commission to explore this option.
  7. The margins in the votes on key issues signal that the weight of opinion has shifted toward a more orthodox theology.
  8. Both the University Senate and Judicial Council received a number of new members who are more theologically orthodox. For the first time, the chair of the Judicial Council is not an American.
  9. A proposal was made and accepted requiring bishops to hold one another accountable for decisions in their individual Conferences.
  10. For the first time (or so it seems), those on the far left publicly discussed a possible exit, signaling that none of us on any “side” is ready to settle for the UMC as it currently exists.
  11. The strength of the UMC is now clearly in the hands of the global church. The African church, growing at significant rates, now holds the power in our denomination. The General Conference is scheduled for the first time outside the U.S. (in 2024 in Manila, Philippines, followed by 2028 in Harare, Zimbabwe).
  12. The UMC grew by a total of 1.2 million members in the last four years, mostly outside the U.S. The Africa Central Conference has grown by 329 percent, while in the United States the denomination has declined by 11 percent.*
  13. The charge to the Council of Bishops has no definition beyond the formation of a commission. No timeline or specific goals other than the discussion of human sexuality were assigned to this commission.
  14. Through two weeks of meetings, there was an obvious conversation about separation that needed to happen, yet no one presiding on the Conference floor was willing to step up and lead that conversation publicly. Consequently, that conversation happened at every level except on the Conference floor.
  15. There is a growing disconnect between the theology and ethos of the American church and the rest of the world. Rev. Jerry Kulah, dean of the Gbarnga School of Theology in Liberia, is quoted as saying, “The church has taken on strangely a new direction. People from the country that brought the Gospel to us are now preaching a different Gospel.”*

As the gavel fell on Friday afternoon, it seemed from this distance as if no one on any side of the conversation left #GC2016 with a clear path or encouraged spirit. Yet, many who have been deeply discouraged left with the realization that (as we say in the south) it ain’t over yet.

And what is ahead may surprise us.

 

* Emily McFarland Miller. “African Methodists Worry About the Church That Brought Them Christianity.” Ministry Matters: May 20, 2016.

Carolyn Moore

I follow Jesus within the communities of Mosaic Church, Asbury Seminary and the Moore household.

13 thoughts on “What just happened? (My take on #GC2016)

  1. Due to technical difficulties, Lee Fullerton was not able to add his response to this post. He kindly emailed me, so I am posting his response here on his behalf, with appreciation for his interaction with these thoughts — Carolyn.

    Carolyn, as a clergy colleague and brother in Christ, I want to respond to your May 22 post in which you offered a read on General Conference. I was there in the Oregon Convention Center supporting and praying for our daughter Rachel and all the members of the North Georgia Conference delegation.

    I agree with you that the denomination’s trajectory is headed in a surprising direction. With the leading of God’s Spirit, wild goose that it is, we are often surprised where it leads us. I also agree with your pre-conference prediction that GC would not handle the hot potato of the Book of Discipline language about sexuality. I was hoping that we would make much needed changes there because we know so much more about human sexuality than we did in 1972 when our current language was approved. Unfortunately, we seem riveted to the debate over homosexuality, a gender orientation rather than lifestyle choice–even though adultery, divorce, child sex trade, substance abuse and HIV/AIDS cause far greater damage.

    My contention is with your writing that the denomination is headed in a more orthodox as well as global direction. What is orthodox? Is it belief in and adherence to the dynamic and ever changing doctrine of Wesleyan belief? Or is it more simply answering yes to Jesus’ invitation to “love one another even as I have loved you”? I’m not suggesting that doctrine isn’t important but some of my friends on the conservative side seem dangerously close to making orthodoxy, whatever that is, however we define it, an idol, a false god.

    On the global church thing—as a pastor-in-charge I use to brag to my congregations that we were an integral part of a global denomination. I was proud of that claim and bragging helped get the apportionments paid. In the last two years and then as an observer at GC, I no longer think that we are a functioning global denomination. Nor can we be. The communication gap and cultural dissonance are too wide. I do think that we are reaping the whirlwind of our long term paternalistic mission work in some regions, particularly Africa. Not to mention the unchallenged, un-studied, unprecedented knee jerk admission of unsubstantiated thousands (700,000 more or less) of new members when we brought the UM Church in Cote d’Ivoire into the connection in 2008. Does that mean that Africa is the only other voice we listen to? Such a membership gain does not make us a global Church. I believe that Christ has a global presence through the ministry and mission of the UMC in more than 135 countries. But that does not mean we are a globally fully functioning church.
    But closer to home, you wrote that by a strong vote GC approved to dis-affiliate from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. And that the vote represents a significant shift in thinking for the (not so) global denomination.

    I suggest that this vote, along with every other one on motions that contained the words “sex, sexuality, gender, orientation, or choice” that also were defeated mirrors the massive fear, distrust, and failure to communicate (or even respect each other) in the larger culture. If the Church is supposed to be modeling for the culture the power and presence of Christ’s love, it is failing.

    I also disagree with your statement that the Local Church legislative committee vote to approve a dis-affiliation property proposal signaled an eventual conversation about this issue. The vote on that issue was 32 to 31 so it was not a huge margin or a clear signal. Rachel Fullerton served on that committee and I was an observer in the room when that vote was taken. What I witnessed was a committee struggling to communicate, sometimes confused, and always divided. I did not see much consensus in that room nor in plenary. The Council of Bishops soon-to-be-appointed Commission (the last in a long line of commissions appointed to study human sexuality) was not specifically charged to report to the called GC on dis-affiliation; nor on re-organizing the denomination; nor on the ethics and etiquette of divorce within the connection.

    Carolyn, I am troubled by your and others’ language about becoming more theologically orthodox. Such language speaks of exclusiveness, not of open hearts, open minds, open doors. I know that you are writing more for the choir but the Wesleyan Church has always been a big tent kind of place, a sanctuary, a spiritual home for all people. To use language like “far left” and “more orthodox” reminds me of the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and priests that so bedeviled Jesus. I am reminded of Pilate’s word, “What is truth?” (John 18:38) Most of the Pharisees and friends were well intentioned and trying to strengthen the people of faith they were charged to lead. But Jesus taught a better way for all God’s people.

    Much of what I saw and heard at GC was a struggle for power and control of the denomination. I do not hear a lot of my colleagues calling for schism; I do hear a lot of them asking if parting ways amicably is the healthiest and best option for all. Conversely, I hear a strong call from the conservative side to bring people into orthodoxy and right thinking. I am thinking that only Jesus can accomplish this precisely because we all get caught up in who belongs, who is in control, and who is in power. And so throughout church history, we have gathered together and later parted ways, married and divorced, blessed and cursed each other. More recently, the fractures in our denomination began to show in the formation of the Confessing Movement ca. 1995, The Mission Society for United Methodists in 1983 (and on whose board I believe you serve), and the Good News movement. So perhaps you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, are right in calling for a parting of the ways. But even as it saddens me, it encourages me to keep at this faith business because God in Christ is not finished with me yet, nor with my denomination, fractious children that we be.

    Although you and I may have different perspectives on a church we love and have devoted our lives to, I expect that we have more in common than in disagreement. I appreciate the opportunity to be in conversation with you and others who see things in a different light and to know that the light of Christ shines on us all as we journey on, guided by the holy wind that blows where it will.

    Blessings,
    Lee Fullerton
    June 1, 2016

    1. Lee,
      It is not lost on me that we grew up on the same street, though on opposite sides. We could spin that in a number of different directions. I like the thought of sharing a common road, if not a common “home.” I would agree with you that we probably have more in common than not. I certainly want your comments to stand as they are, and won’t contend with any of them here except to clarify a couple of questions you raise.

      You ask, “What is orthodoxy?” Interesting that our use of it is now being widely questioned, as if anything can or should be orthodoxy (we do the same with Wesleyanism). I would define it as conforming to the theological beliefs of the first five centuries. As a term, it doesn’t expressly address issues of human sexuality, but it does distinguish Christianity from universalism — a wide-door theological approach to salvation embraced by some United Methodists. See my post on that.

      You ask what it means to be global. When Methodism as a movement is happening all over the world, I call that global, I agree that we’re now too big for our current structure, but I’m not convinced the answer is in dividing geographically, when what binds us — or separates us — is theology.

      Probably the place where there is most confusion is in this impression that those who think conservatively are fearful or distrusting or worse, unloving. I definitely sense there is an undercurrent of distrust. I think of the man who stood up at General Conference and accused the presiding bishop of telegraphically communicating how to vote. And the woman who called for that bishop to step down. It seems to me that we don’t trust what we don’t understand, or maybe we don’t trust what we don’t agree with.

      I can’t speak for everyone on these issues. My involvement is far too limited. What I can attest to is my own experience. In my circles, conversations are not laced with fear, distrust or hatred. I’m in regular conversation with people across the theological spectrum and those conversations are without exception respectful and mature, deeply thoughtful. I realize, however, that I wasn’t walking the halls of General Conference. Those of you who were there were walking in a very intense atmosphere. You would rightfully have a different take on things.

      Jesus came into the world to testify to the truth. Those who sought to kill him were the ones who distorted it to fit their needs. May you nor I ever fall into that company.

      — Carolyn

      1. Carolyn,

        I think that we may be closer to one another than either of us realize.

        On the orthodoxy thing, I have the same issue with people on the “progressive” side of things when they use the term. They seem way fuzzy on definition. You have offered a definition which helps me understand and appreciate what you mean you when you use the term.

        I would love for us to be a global denomination. I’m just not sure how to structure that. While the North American church has been in control all these years, despite our family differences, a shift in the power dynamic toward the central conferences does not bode for us. No blame, at least trying not to blame, but again–the cultural dissonance particularly with the African church, made me wonder in Portland if there is any way we can make this thing work.

        And you are totally right that we don’t trust what we don’t understand–a universal deficit for all.

        Let’s keep the conversation going. I expect that it will be good for the church and for us as well.

        1. By North American, you mean American. Clarify for me: it sounds like you’re saying that when the American church had control, it worked for us who think like Americans but now that the power has shifted it isn’t working out for us. When the cultural discomfort was in their court, we were good; now that it is in our court, we’re not. Is that what you mean to say?

          1. I am comfortable with using the term “American church.” “North” is clearly my addition and simply describes the church in the United States. No, the church has not been working that well for those of us who live in this culture (not sure what you mean when you say, “think like Americans”). The way we are the church, the way we “do church” in this culture is changing very fast and that probably doesn’t have much to do with where the locus of power is in a given denomination. The transformation of the Church is a Spirit driven thing. I can’t speak to how much discomfort the African church felt or feels now about the locus of power. It does have issues with some of our cultural values. I also have issues with some of our cultural values. That isn’t my point. My term was not cultural discomfort but “cultural dissonance,” which was what I witnessed at General Conference. There were language difficulties but there was also that wide gap in our mutual understanding of the other’s culture. The result was discord, dis-harmony, confusion, and conflict–a fundamental lack of agreement. So my question is how do we learn to love and respect each other when we can’t get past the dissonance. Loving each other is hard enough when we all live in the same town and worship in the same church.

  2. Carolyn, thank you for your thoughtful post. I watched the live stream so I didn’t have a read on the “off line” discussions. I wonder if the Bishop’s proposed division will be like the geographical division that brought on the slavery division. If that’s the case I could see three central conferences being developed in the US. Western Methodists, Central Methodists, and Northeastern Methodists. Although, I’m not sure how churches, who find themselves theologically challenged by their geography, would adapt. I think a division would be a gift to all because I see the UMC in the US (Liberal view point): Biblical literalist/Progressive theology ; or (Conservative view point): Biblical authority/anything goes. I don’t like these labels because they are all divisive, hence the conflict we find ourselves in.
    I can’t see the current Bishops taking a stand that would completely divide the church because of our historical authority in the General Conference. The Bishop’s tone at GC 2016, conveyed the message that unity was more important than a divorce where both sides of the issue feel they have been unjustifiably harmed by the other. I believe this phenomena is killing the message of the church in the US.
    From the blogs I’ve read on both sides of the issue, people indicated they were leaving the UMC because of this debate. I think in the best interest of the whole church, separation needs to occur, but I don’t think our current Bishops will take the prophetic leadership to separate the church. Hence the continued decline in the US UMC.
    But I think it would be helpful for the sake of the mission of the church on both sides, if the church divided. 50 years from now, we may unite again, under what understanding of human sexuality, I have no idea.
    But for the love of the church and the message of God’s love for humanity, we must divide. It’s what we do, we are protestants.

  3. I find this encouraging. American Culture has influenced the UMC way too much in my opinion and I praise God for the influence of the African Church.

  4. #6#7#9
    Can you elaborate or explain these to me. What does #6 even mean. I’m only guessing about the other two.
    Thank you so much for this. I tried to follow some of it and it was totally beyond me.

    The UMC growing in Africa and shrinking in USA. do we see that same percentages in other mainstream Christianity Denominations or in the professed Christianity all together ?

    1. Bob, #6 refers to the relationship of the local church to its property. Because our property is held in trust by the Annual Conference, no local UMC is currently allowed to walk away from the denomination with its property. The proposal that passed through a committee vote at GC would change that. The proposal never made it to the floor of GC, so nothing has changed, but the simple fact that it garnered conversation and passed a committee vote signifies our corporate willingness to do things differently in the event of a separation than our friends in the Episcopal church. From the reports I received, a great deal of the conversation behind the scenes emphasized a loving and generous approach to separation, should that become a reality. This is great news for everyone.

      The difference between the UMC and other denominations is our global connection. We consider ourselves not just “affiliated with” churches in other countries, but in formal connection with them. That changes our dynamic significantly when it comes to discussing theology, and it also changes the conversation around any proposed amicable separation. In my opinion, the global connection is critical to the spirit of Wesleyanism, and should in no way be compromised.

      On the whole, Christianity is growing. Not in the U.S., but globally there are great moves of the Spirit, especially in places where there is also tension or outright persecution. The Church is growing exponentially in China and across much of Africa.

    2. #7 — While the UMC in the U.S. has seemed over the last 20-30 years to be moving in a more “progressive” direction, this GC reveals that globally we are not. It didn’t happen in any one big vote, but taken collectively it sure seems like the votes signal a shift.

      #9 — The Council of Bishops is made up of people who serve 66 different episcopal areas. They vary widely in their opinions on controversial issues, and tend to govern their own areas according to their own discernment. Consequently, a bishop in one episcopal area may treat an infraction to the BOD very differently than another, and to this point, none of them have felt they have any recourse when that happens. They’ve now resolved, at least publicly, to hold each other accountable to upholding the BOD.

      Hope this helps.

      1. Of course it’s important to recognize that the Book of Discipline does not prescribe specific consequences for infractions. So when a bishop chooses something other than firing a pastor, they are not disobeying any explicit mandate from the Book of Discipline. I think it’s really important for us to be honest about that.

        1. You are totally right about that. What I wonder is what will happen to repeat offenders? Everyone knows that that is going to happen. Also, what is going to happen when such trials suck tons of money out of the UMC’s spending money?

          It is really stupid to keep fighting like this. Nothing but harm is coming out of it. We all need to voluntarily ministering according to our convictions alongside others who are like-minded. It is time to do something different. We are talking to each other. When there is power and control involved, honest truth-seeking conversation is hard to have. We are wasting money, wasting time, and wasting precious days that could be spent doing good things in the name of Christ.

  5. Carolyn wonderful summation!
    Noting the decline in the US and the astronomical growth in Africa give me hope that the US church can continue to stand on the words of the book of discipline.
    I say to ALL come and worship with us but don’t push the culture on us.
    Must continue to pray!!!!

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