I can not imagine the turmoil that the delegates to this General Conference faced. Watching and listening from home, I felt some small part of it and could only be thankful to be close to my support systems. I can not imagine being for far from them. What is there to say really? There was legislation, some liked it others did not. Going into detail about any one piece seems a disservice, yet also impossible given the enormity of what occurred with the bishops’ recommendation. With all that in mind, I am going to try and reflect here about what my thoughts are on the General Conference and what happened there and pretty much ignore the legislation specifically as I do not think it paints the picture of what is occurring.
The first thing that we can say is that the United Methodist Church is becoming more conservative in the places where the church is growing and more liberal in the places where it is shrinking. This is not necessarily a cause and effect type of scenario, yet there does seem to be enough data to suggest correlation if not causation. If there was any doubt that this was the case, it should have been dispelled by this General Conference. It seems as if the center of Methodism has even shifted to be center right on most issues. Just my observation there. The fact is that United Methodism is shifting to a more conservative denomination. Some think it is good, some think it bad, but whichever it actually is, it is true.
The second thing we can observe is that we trust each other less now than even four years ago. The accusations toward a presiding Bishop demonstrated in a public way what has been happening in private for a long time. Conservative and progressive are no longer descriptive terms used to simply reference theological positions, they are pejoratives. Fundamentalist is now the favored term for anyone who supports following the teaching of the church, followed a close second by homophobe and bigot. There is no civil discourse. It simply does not exist on any large scale. As I am typing this, I was just called a homophobe and bigot. That ends conversation. That shows there is no trust and even less understanding.
The third thing that can be taken away from is that there is a deep desire for some sort of unity, but no one agrees on what unity looks like or means. Mind you, there are unity through the middle road folks. They are fine with allowing for a great deal of theological diversity and a more localized structure for the church theologically. There are those who are for full inclusion period without any allowance for traditional understandings of sexual immorality and they want unity through that. There are traditionalists who favor the historic understandings of sexual immorality and they want unity through that. Everyone wants unity, and very few seem to know what that means. Fewer still seem willing to submit to the authority and teaching of the church to have it. It shows how deep our problems actually are.
The fourth thing that can be taken away from the conference is that it is not over. Maybe it hasn’t been for many years. If it were over we would be discussing where the church is and how excited we are to be going in the direction we are. There would be hope and unbridled joy that we have a vision and focus for what is to come. There is not. There is cautious optimism at best, and outright disappointment and rage at worst. Yes, I am sure that some believe that the Bishops plan is the proper way to move forward and it will result in something workable. To most (it seems to me) it is the last desperate attempt at saving something. To me it seems like trying to have a baby to save the marriage. A desperate attempt to save what is already ended…often with tragic results. All that said, I remain hopeful as there is a Truth that can work in all of this. Jesus is Lord. Because of this there is always hope. Because Jesus is Lord, the impossible becomes an option. But we really have to allow Him to be Lord. I admit I am having trouble seeing that in the United Methodist Church right now, but I am trying to. I am even committed to. I admit it is difficult to see hope, but I have faith that it is indeed there and will become clearer.
The final thing is that we are very different groups of people. We come from different cultures, with different histories and have different views. The one thing that has the capacity to unite us is the church. In fact, it is the only thing that can. Are there things that rightly cause separation within the church? Yes, if there were not Methodism would not be here after all. Is sexual morality one of those things? Maybe, time will bear that out. IS sexual morality even the thing that we are arguing about? Probably not, but it is the symptom and just like a doctor, all we can treat is the symptom when the disease is unknown.
What can we take away from the General Conference of 2016…we can take away that it is not really over yet and will not be until there is an answer. Because it is not over, there is hope no matter how it appears. Because it is not over, God can work by the moving of the Spirit. What can we take away? Jesus is Lord, and if we let Him be, we will find our path.