Every four years, our denomination sends clergy and laity from around the globe to General Conference for worship, prayer, discussion and eventual voting on petitions and resolutions. These actions result in a revision of the Book of Discipline (our denomination's book of law) and the Book of Resolutions (denominational policies on social issues).
The single most significant matter facing General Conference was and continues to be: how can The United Methodist Church be united throughout the world while still honoring different local, regional, and national perspectives? This time around, General Conference met at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, whose colossal building interestingly has two spires. Have you ever seen a church sanctuary with two steeples? Perhaps the meeting place innocently bespeaks the fractures already existing within The United Methodist Church. Florida Bishop Ken Carter recently wrote about General Conference: “It is clearly not a conversation between two parties; there are at least five points of view. Some are public, others are more private. Some are more confrontative, others more conciliar. Some have deep experience of exclusion, others do not.”
We continue to pray along with our Lord Jesus, that we all “may be one (John 17:21).”
So what happened? General Conference participants experienced inspiring worship in multiple languages, celebrated the incredible impact of “Imagine No Malaria,” established a $604 million budget, commissioned missionaries, and even set forward plans for a new hymnal! Regarding social principles, General Conference took steps toward supporting child adoption, battling racism, and caring for the environment. But of course, going into General Conference, so much deliberation centered on human sexuality. The conversations continued, including public demonstrations on behalf of the LGBTQI community and even private rumors about a possible schism.
General Conference eventually affirmed the Council of Bishops’ plea to defer all votes on matters related to human sexuality. Moving forward, the Council of Bishops will name a special commission to examine completely and possibly recommend revisions of every paragraph in the Book of Discipline related to human sexuality. The commission will represent different geographic regions as well as the varied perspectives of the church. A called General Conference may take place in two or three years to consider and vote upon the commission’s plan.
Some of our cynical friends may howl, “The UMC has simply kicked the can down the road.” Based upon what I have observed and read about General Conference 2016, that is not true. Instead, the Bishops have advocated for the unity of the church, and General Conference has affirmed the importance of finding a hope-filled future.
As you have heard me say before, First United Methodist Church of Salisbury needs to have “holy conversations” regarding all aspects of church ministry, including the matters we are reluctant to name. This includes human sexuality, gender identity, and marriage. Simply having these holy conversations is important; to have them lovingly is essential.
To guide our personal reflections, let me recommend some resources for you: