Saturday, May 21, 2016

General Conference: What now? #umcgc #umc

General Conference is over, thank God. The United Methodist Church is still, technically, United. We arrived as one church, and we leave as one church.

I am trying to decide how I feel about the last eleven days. I am having trouble describing this feeling. I'm sure I will have more to say in the coming days, but I leave General Conference with renewed love of the local church, renewed hope for the work of God, and utter confusion about what in Heaven's name just happened.

I have read a number of recaps about General Conference today. You can follow up here, or here, or here, or any number of places across the Methoblogosphere. There seems to be a sense of relief that General Conference is over. I certainly feel that relief, as General Conference has felt from the beginning like it was just something to survive. At a cost of $10,500,000 ($1,500 a minute, as Bishop Coyner reminded us), you'd think I would have had higher hopes than this. But for reasons that Darryl Stephens describes here, we're seeing a situation play out that had, in its genesis, no planning or preparation, nor did it give any thought to contextual structures for ministry.

So I'm leaving General Conference without any clarity about what the future holds, as we prepare to hear from the Bishops as to the make-up of their Commission on Human Sexuality and as we wait to learn if the scope of this commission will move beyond a theology of sex (something we desperately need) to discussing ways we may structure ourselves to continue our shared mission and ministry. We don't even know when we will gather next, as there exists a significant possibility for a called General Conference before 2020.

I do know that God desires a united church, but not a church that becomes so bitter that it can talk about nothing more than its divisions. I remain hopeful that the church may be unified, as I continue to believe that we are better when we are together, but this unity must be deeper than just our name, more significant than something we talk about to make ourselves feel better. And we must face the fact that we are deeply divided over matters of sexuality.

I also know that this issue of sexuality is not going to resolve itself. Rob Renfroe, the head of Good News, shared a very interesting video to wrap up General Conference. I do not appreciate the "battle" language he used, as it contributes to the idea that doing church is more like war than, you know, loving your neighbor or whatever, but he does acknowledge that those who oppose full inclusion of LGBT people are realizing that the full-inclusion folks are not going to leave. There was a petition offered at General Conference that would have allowed those who disagreed with the Discipline's stance on sexuality to leave the denomination; though it barely passed committee, it did not make the floor. If it had, I would have voted against it. I'm not going anywhere.

We don't need separate churches. We do need more flexibility in our church structures to allow for missional disciple-making. This flexibility is not going to come without the bishops' leading. If I am convinced about one thing as to our predicament as a church, it is that nobody within the voting bar can lead us out of the morass. Our bishops need to lead the way. If they don't, we're going to fall into a million pieces, as if someone took a hammer to a glass bowl. That's not a schism; it's a shattering.

This was a strange week, for sure. I leave with a certain amount of disgust, at the inability of good Methodist people to work out their differences, instead falling into childish name-calling or declaring war on the other "side," as if the only way for us to live is to banish everybody else.

But as someone who has worked for church unity, and who prays for it regularly, I also leave with a certain amount of hope. For when things seemed the most knotted up, God made a way. Perhaps it is but a stay of execution. Maybe it's a waste of time and money. But even if the crack in the wall is thin, and jagged, it's a crack, and it's enough to let in some light.

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