I was one of a dozen persons called together by the President of the Council of Bishops (COB) a day before the convening of the 2016 General Conference. He was concerned about the potential explosive nature of the conference, and fearful of what might happen. In his mind, the small group were leaders, and represented the diverse nature of our denomination.
We were all keenly aware that his concern was legitimate and that indeed our church was at a breaking point. Intentional and blatant violation of our Discipline was a regular part of the news. In April, preceding the conference, retired Bishop Melvin Talbert, who had previously performed a same sex wedding, defied church law again by co-officiating in a same sex wedding. More than 20 other United Methodist clergy also came to offer a blessing.
Bishop Talbert’s action and other deliberate public acts of violating the Discipline were dramatic witness of the divided state of our church as we entered the 2016 General Conference. As a delegate, I was as anxious as others about how the General Conference, which is our ultimate governing authority, would respond. Questions of whether we could sustain denominational unity were rampant. Aware of this schismatic situation, the bishop called the little group together to ponder where we were, what might happen, and how division could be diverted.
The primary word spoken to the bishops by the group the President had called together was, “exercise Episcopal Leadership!” I doubt if any of us had much clarity about what that leadership would look like. What was present and expressed was disappointment in the failure of bishops to lead. There was candid expression of distrust of bishops because of their failure to hold each other accountable to how we, through the only body that speaks with authority for the church (the General Conference), had defined ourselves as a denomination.
It was out of this group and the expansion of discussion with other bishops and leaders that The Commission on a Way Forward was approved by the 2016 General Conference. Among many, I have serious reservation if this action represented what we had in mind when we called for the bishops to “exercise Episcopal leadership.” It is clear in retrospect that this action of the bishops prevented the will of the 2016 General Conference for corporate discipline to be expressed.
The way the leadership of the COB has followed up on the “use” of the Commission’s report undergirds the fact that their action was an expression of fear and prevented the will of the General Conference to be expressed. Until challenged, and diverted by decision of the Judicial Council, Episcopal leaders have sought to restrict the action of the General Conference by bringing only one of three plans brought to them by the Commission to the General Conference and contending that no other plan could be considered.
The called “special session of the General Conference” in February, 2019, will be historic, the most significant event in our United Methodist History. Two of the denomination’s most experienced jurists, William Lawrence and Sally Askew, in a recent scholarly article, said, “Not only is the denomination on the verge of choosing whether it remains institutionally united; it is also on the verge of deciding whether a connectional church that is built with a constitutional polity is viable for ecclesiastical life anymore.”
Their concern is that events leading up to the 2019 General Conference have not only challenged our denomination’s unity, but have violated our form of governance to the point of near-collapse. Though scholarly and 50 pages, it deserves attention, especially by delegates to General Conference 2019 and the leadership of our church.
The popular figure of speech, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too,” is relevant here, literally meaning, "you cannot simultaneously retain your cake and eat it". Once the cake is eaten, it is gone. We will either have a constitutional form of government or we won’t.
I believe Scott Kisker has rightly described General Conference as “catholic”, that is, representing the whole of United Methodism, including proportional participation from global United Methodism. It seeks to reflect the “sense of the faithful” in that it balances clergy and lay participation. How can we think that that is not the setting where issues related to human sexuality and marriage are to be decided? Aren’t we in our current “on the verge of painful division” situation because bishops and other clergy started deciding they could pick and choose when and how to abide by our current stance on sexuality in relation to ordination and marriage?
I believe the General Conference has acted in a “catholic” way in decision making, but also in keeping with the “catholic’’ (universal) world in relation to the present issue that threatens to tear us apart.
As of 2010, Christianity was by far the world's largest religion. Of the 6.9 billion people on earth, 31% were Christian. A super vast majority of those 2.2 billion Christians believe that marriage is a lifelong covenant between a man and a woman, and the practice of homosexuality “is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
This fact alone should inform how we continue to deal with this issue. Are we going to be a part of a tiny minority that breaks covenant with the masses of Christians around the world, and the centuries of teaching on these subjects?
But also from another perspective. The total professing membership of our church is 12,557,214. That’s up from the denomination’s estimated 12.4 million members in 2013, the last time the secretary of the General Conference calculated delegations.
That means the 2020 General Conference will have 862 delegates — half clergy and half lay. Of those delegates 55.9 percent will be from the U.S., 32 percent from Africa, 6 percent from the Philippines, 4.6 percent from Europe and the remainder from Concordat churches.
Our Movement is growing rapidly in Africa. It won’t be long before our UM membership in Africa will equal that in the US. Africa is among the least accepting of homosexual practice of all the countries in the world. In sub-Saharan Africa, at least nine-in-ten in Nigeria (98%), Senegal (96%), Ghana (96%), Uganda (96%) and Kenya (90%) believe homosexuality should not be accepted by society. Even in South Africa where, unlike in many other African countries, homosexual acts are legal and discrimination based on sexual orientation is unconstitutional, 61% say homosexuality should not be accepted by society, while just 32% say it should be accepted.
Our present position on ordination and marriage was established by the General Conference long before the delegation from Africa was so strong. Why then should we entertain changing that position now? Wouldn’t that be a calloused disregard for our brothers and sisters who are spreading the Gospel with such passion and are committed to a “world” church?
I have one other “catholic” concern, our cultural witness. If the General Conference removes from our Discipline the language concerning our convictions about marriage and human sexuality, newspapers across the nation will carry the news front page: “Largest and most influential Mainline Church in America changes her position on human sexuality and accepts same sex marriage.” We will have bowed to secular forces and broken ranks with the Roman Catholic and the majority of Protestant, Charismatic and Independent Churches.
We dare not “backslide” now. From our beginning, the Methodist movement has always been counter-cultural. A few years after our founding, we had become the largest church in this country. We did not do that by adapting to culture, but by making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world…going to the people, staying faithful to Scripture and preaching the Gospel boldly; planting new faith communities, doing justice and loving mercy. We are uniquely positioned as a part of world Christian family, stewards of a great trust which we must not betray.