In 2012, my spouse, Stacey, and I were preparing to lead a team to Uganda to work with the HUMBLE School and district superintendents in the East Africa conference who were training local clergy leaders. I have to say, I have rarely been so moved as I was watching the sacrifices made by those training to become clergy and--in particular--the district superintendents, who accepted an extraordinarily difficult assignment despite the fact that it carried with it a paycheck of $0.00.
One of the requests we received in advance of our trip was for 2008 Books of Discipline (BOD) of the United Methodist Church, and this in spite of the fact that immediately following our trip, the 2012 General Conference would functionally render the 2008 BOD moot. The request from the East Africa conference office acknowledged this fact, but conference leaders wanted the 2008 BODs nonetheless, deciding that slightly outdated church discipline was better than no church discipline.
I find it fascinating to be reminded of this memory on the day that I travel to St. Louis, where 863 other delegates and I--along with scores of observers, staff, volunteers, and reserves--are gathering to discern a way forward for the United Methodist Church, despite our different understandings of human sexuality. Ostensibly, the purpose of the conference is to discern a way forward on human sexuality. The truth is that the conference is necessary because we are desperately trying to figure out how to be a global church.
I love the global nature of the UMC. Some of the most committed Christians I have seen in my life exist outside my own national context. I am carrying with me, this week, one of my most prized possessions: a wrist watch which was purchased for me at a used goods store outside of Kampala by a district superintendent with whom we were working. The watch has never worked, but it does not need to remind me of time; it reminds me of love. When I received the watch, I had just given this DS my copy of the Pocket Book of Worship of the UMC. I had another copy at home, so I did not think twice about it. His response, upon receiving the pocket Book of Worship, was to break down in tears and immediately find a way to offer me a gift, as well. All these years later, I am wearing the watch at General Conference. Love is greater than time--or distance.
The business of being a global church is very difficult. 30% of the 864 delegates who will gather for General Conference are from the continent of Africa. 60% are from the United States, with the remaining percentage primarily from the Philippines and Europe. Human sexuality is understood differently in these different contexts, just as many, many matters of life and faith are understood differently in different contexts. And if, as it existed for many years, the United Methodist Church were still a church primarily located within the United States, the matters the 2019 General Conference will be discussing would have been decided already.
I certainly do not mean to say that the United States context ought to be privileged above others. I just mean that the driving issue of the 2019 conference is not human sexuality, as we often discuss it. The driving issue is how to be an international church in a time of great change.
Count me as one who is grateful for the international nature of the United Methodist Church. I worked professionally in Christian missions before accepting my call as a pastor. I do not desire to be a part of a church that privileges its own context above all others. But it remains the fact that too often, the church has used its own international nature to further the goals of its more ideological segments, while ignoring the fact that the United States is just as much of a context as, say, Uganda.
I know that one of the core issues before General Conference is whether marriage can be a contextual issue, or if it is--at its core--doctrinal. I understand the deep concern of my more traditionalist siblings on this matter, having changed my own mind about LGBTQ people and relationships along the way, subsequently becoming a supporter of full inclusion. My only response is that if it is true that the polity of the United Methodist Church is a fundamentally democratic one, involving elections of clergy and laity and quadrennial gatherings which form church law, then all of our theology outside of that which is enshrined in our church constitution is inherently contextual, as it is dependent on quadrennial votes by delegates who represent not all areas of the world, but those areas where the United Methodist Church is present. If our theology were not contextual, why on earth would we need to apportion delegates by size of annual conference and gather every four years?
I do not mean to suggest that human sexuality and the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church are not central to the coming four days. But I do hope that we will remember that these conversations do not happen in a vacuum. We continue to discern how to be an international church in many different contexts: a worthy goal, but a significant challenge.