United Methodists and many others followed the 2016 General Conference in Portland with fervent interest. Whether you watched livestreaming (a primer in do’s and don’ts of parliamentary procedure), caught a few random comments on social networks or read daily summaries from the United Methodist News Service or the UM Reporter, by now there are a lot of perspectives on what went down – and what didn’t.
Various interest groups immediately went into spin mode, from Reconciling Ministries Network to the Council of Bishops to the Institute on Religion and Democracy. Everyone wanted to attempt to claim a victory for their cause. On the other hand, the problem with grassroots internet communications these days is that hyperbole has become easy currency. Whatever position isn’t mine will immediately cause the End Of The World As We Know It. This isn’t a biblical perspective or even a sensible one, and it can be skinned down to random blanket statements or dressed up in semi-rational pseudo-arguments. Unfortunately General Conference for United Methodists coincides with the U.S. presidential election cycle, every four years. Heaven help us.
While there is context to everything, a few facts can be known about the gathering of United Methodist clergy and lay delegates from around the world, of United Methodist boards, institutions, societies and agencies, of United Methodist caucuses and interest groups, of various religious bodies, activists and news agencies that converged on Portland.
- The rules by which the conference will abide must be established at the beginning before business begins. Delegates spent three days at the beginning of the two-week gathering debating one new proposed rule and later lamented how short they were on time.
- Hundreds of petitions get voted on in committees for several days at conference. If the committee passes something, it can make it to the floor of General Conference to be voted on by the elected delegates. (Note: Much legislation never makes to discussion on the floor at General Conference because they always run out of time.) 2016 proved to be a year in which the global contingencies made their presence felt in voting. When a committee gathers, not only are elected delegates participating, but observers are present recording votes and communicating them to the groups who have particular interest in whether or not something passes committee. A reliable report from one committee communicated that there was screaming – actual screaming – during one long, strained committee session. (Committee sessions are not livestreamed.)
- Hours of plenary time is spent on what could be called diplomatic formalities: special presentations, video reports, a great deal of special music, greetings given and received, guests acknowledged, sermons shared. If anything could be acknowledged, it is that community worship cannot manufacture unity, nor can it “guilt” participants into agreeing with each other.
- It is the controversial practice of United Methodist communications to cut livestream during protests.
Protests by LGBT groups in the midst of conference business are expected, though not formally scheduled. Sometimes activists also hold press conferences in one location while business continues on the floor. The level and duration of disruption varies.
- Everyone – American and international clergy and lay delegates, presiding Bishops, supporting Bishops – everyone needs a short orientation seminar on the basics of Robert’s Rules and on how to track the various stages of a motion.
In the midst of all this, a few things happened. The Judicial Council was voted on and is now an extremely international and diverse body. The United Methodist Church delegates voted to end its relationship with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. Delegates also voted to double the amount of money put towards theological education in Africa.
However, delegates also voted to ask for leadership from the Council of Bishops before voting on anything related to human sexuality. When this happened, the Council of Bishops spent a night working on a proposal and presented it the next morning. Essentially the proposal suspended any business at conference related to human sexuality and proposed the creation of a commission to study Book of Discipline paragraphs related to the topic. It also proposed a possible specially called gathering in two or three years to meet about the findings of the commission. An alteration of the proposal failed. The original proposal then somehow passed. What was unclear was whether legislation related to reorganization or separation within the denomination was included in the tabling of discussion on human sexuality. Apparently it either was included, or caucuses decided not to pursue the question, because after that vote, no action was taken on proposals for dealing with the controversy in the denomination.
Response was immediate: some people breathed a sigh of relief to again avoid finally addressing the deep theological differences in The United Methodist Church (adoption of the Nicene Creed as a doctrinal standard failed in committee). Activists who have worked long and hard were devastated that votes on LGBT issues would not happen this year. Some traditionalists saw the commission as an opportunity to help form the conversation, while others were gut-wrenchingly frustrated that the conversation that needed to be had was not being had. A rather depressed pall hung over the plenary sessions after delegates voted to create a season of “discernment” or “kicking the can down the road,” depending on who you talked to. Protests were still being held, and votes on whether or not to divest from fossil fuel industries were held around the elephant that remained in the room, whether it was talked about and voted on or not.
Because of course whether or not it was discussed on the floor of General Conference, the theological differences and disagreements on petitions related to human sexuality were everywhere – in hallway chats, on the Twitter live feed, around cafe table discussions, on Facebook, in the news.
About five seconds after General Conference finally ended, not with a bang but with a whimper, Things Started Happening: the Northern Illinois Board of Ministry announced it would not act within the agreement of United Methodist life together (formally called the Book of Discipline), and would welcome candidates of any, all, or no sexual orientation for ministry. Then Bishop Scott Jones from the Great Plains Conference reiterated his position in the follow-up proceedings against a pastor that, while aligned with the Book of Discipline, is a completely different practice from northern Illinois.
A great number of General Conference recaps emerged, post-game analysis from scholars, pastors, and theological pundits dissecting what had – and hadn’t – happened, and why.
Which brings us to today.
In the context of all this, here are several of the best post-mortems of the 2016 General Conference of the [United] Methodist Church. All of them should be read with the awareness that United Methodism is not the only expression of the Wesleyan Methodist movement worldwide: hardly. Over 80 denominations in over 130 countries are Wesleyan Methodist. North Americans tend to be sentimental about the United Methodist branch of the family tree, because architecturally Methodist churches grew along with many Main Streets and downtowns, an expression of Americana, merging with the Evangelical United Brethren in 1968. But Methodism itself grows in a great many iterations, United Methodists being only one.
Here, then, are several recaps that stand out in their insight or the excellence with which their perspective has been put forward (and they cover a range of perspectives)*:
An appeal for change from Progressive activist Rev. Bill Mefford, “Liberation Delayed: A Vision for a Progressive Methodist Church”
From Next Generation Minister Rev. Jeremy Steele, a hope for unity, “Real Hope for the United Methodist Church”
From Asbury Theological Seminary President Dr. Timothy Tennent, “An Open Pastoral Letter to United Methodists”
From scholar Dr. William Abraham, a cerebral analysis of trends, “The Birth Pangs of the UMC as a Unique, Global, and Orthodox Denomination”
From scholar Dr. Bill Arnold, a survey of ecclesiological identity, “Yes, It’s Time: Time to Decide Who We Are and What We Believe”
*It is acknowledged that many United Methodist-related pastoral or scholarly blogs are written by North Americans, particularly Caucasian men. Many women and people of color may share opinions and viewpoints on Facebook or Twitter but do not necessarily publish their own blog. Consider following pastors on Twitter, like @LisaYebuah, @JenniferMoxley, @KimsNextStep, @joyjmoore, @CarolynCMoore, and @JessicaLaGrone.