GENERAL CONFERENCE 2019 POSTMORTEM (PART 1)
By Riley Case
One would wish a report of the 2019 General Conference in St. Louis February 23-26 could be made that would go something like this:
The United Methodist 2019 special called General Conference is over. Charged with directing the church on a Way Forward and after nearly three years of discussion, meetings and prayer, the conference debated several options and finally chose the Traditional Plan as its directional path for United Methodism’s future. The plan calls for reaffirming the church’s historic stance on marriage and human sexuality but added several accountability features that should help to reinforce the church’s connectionalism in matters of faith and practice
The final decisions were painful for numbers of persons who wished the conference might have taken a different direction but there was a sense that because this conference was bathed in prayer, the decisions made represented God’s will for the church at this time. The conference closed with the singing of the Doxology and a commitment that United Methodism was now ready to walk in unity and direct its energy toward its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
That report, unfortunately, is not the one being made. It is true the conference was held after nearly three years of discussion, meetings and prayer. It is true the Traditional Plan was chosen. But It is also true that the General Conference decisions were not the decisions preferred by bishops nor Mainstream UMC nor the Association of UM Theological Schools nor the presidents of UM-affiliated colleges nor a number of church agencies nor various progressive caucuses nor the several thousand visitors recruited by gay advocate groups who were in the stands to celebrate what they believed would be the church’s new movement toward sexual permissiveness. These people and groups were (and are) unhappy. The unhappiness was expressed on the final day when progressives sought to create as much confusion as possible in hopes that the Traditional Plan would not be able to come to the conference floor for a vote. The unhappiness was also expressed at the close of the conference when, instead of singing the doxology at the close of the final session with a prayer of blessing on the church, the chair of the session honored an earlier request by the “leadership team” of the Western Jurisdiction to be given the floor of the conference. It was at that time the “leadership team” basically announced as a Jurisdiction they did not intend to abide by the decisions of the conference. With that the conference ended.
Time for reflection.
The conference from the evangelical or traditionalist perspective.
The church has reaffirmed its historic stance. It was under great pressure to go in a different direction but the center held. The secular press and others may even pronounce the conference as a victory for conservatives. In the church we ought not to be talking about victories and defeats. We want the church to unite and be Christ’s presence in the world. We do not wish to be known for our infighting. Having said that, it can be said that the historic moral and doctrinal teachings of the church are still intact. And that is a positive.
Also a great positive; we are demonstrating that we are a global church. United Methodism outside the United States is growing and is in the process of assuming more leadership in the connection. The African presence had much to do with the outcome of the conference. In that respect the future for United Methodism is bright.
The conference from what should be a general unbiased perspective.
If the truth be known; the conference never had a chance to fulfill its purpose to bring together the church in unity. The expectations were unrealistic. There was good talk about A Way Forward and finding a solution that all groups in the church could live with but the goal was an impossible goal given the present divisions in the church. The one solution that might have promised some hope was one that would involve some form of amicable separation, but the bishops would not allow that solution even to be considered. It is premature to assess the General Conference as a failure (despite the cost of 6 or so million dollars and much time and effort) since it is quite possible that out of the ashes of St. Louis there may now be a willingness to consider options that previously have been ruled off-limits. But that is not apparent at the moment.
Comments about the problem of The Gap.
I have written on different occasions (along with others) that there is now, and has been for many years, a serious gap between the leadership of the church and the people in the pews. At times we live in different worlds. This was so obvious to me over 60 years ago when I entered seminary. It was so obvious to me 40 years ago when I was involved in conversations on behalf of Good News with persons responsible for Sunday school curriculum. I see this now when I realize that United Methodists by political persuasion favor Republican over Democrat by a margin of 2 to 1 (some say 60-40) and yet our general boards, and specifically our General Board of Church and Society (and actually our whole corporate culture), operate from an ideology that is overwhelmingly progressive and liberal. At one time Methodism was a bottom up movement. Its social stances, its leadership, its moral convictions grew out revivals and class meetings and quarterly conferences and annual conferences. But in a world growing sophisticated that seemed inadequate. So a person like Borden Parker Bowne of Boston, Methodism’s most articulate modernist, could state as early as 1900:
The church has need of a body of scholarly investigators to do its intellectual work. They will have the function of formulating the spiritual life so as best to express it and keep it from losing is way in swamps of ignorance and superstition. They will have to adjust religious thoughts to the ever advancing thought of cultivated intelligence so as to remove endless misunderstanding.
Bowne’s philosophy helps to understand the 2019 General Conference and the events leading up to it. The bishops received three plans from a specially-appointed Commission On a Way Forward. The Traditional Plan which, it should have been known from the beginning, was strongly favored by the overseas UMs and probably by a majority of US church members (not the delegates but the people in the pews) was, evidently, never seriously considered by a majority of the bishops. Indeed, in what appeared to be a deliberate snub to conservatives, the bishops originally did not even plan to have it presented to the General Conference.
What the bishops preferred and wanted badly, and seemingly believed was the only salvation of the church, was the One Church Plan. This plan called for scuttling all negative references to restrictive sexuality in the
to bring the church in line with “the ever-advancing thought of cultivated intelligence.” The bishops needed a colossal sales job to promote their plan and they did their best. The presidents of UM-universities endorsed the plan, as did the Association of UM Theological Schools, as did the University Senate and many of the general boards and agencies. Of course the progressive caucus groups gave support as did many of the ethnic caucus groups. Then someone recruited “youth.” At the last minute 15,000 “youth” who responded to a social media appeal announced they favored ending hate and discrimination in the church by passing the One Church Plan. In annual conferences there were bishop-inspired “discussions” and “information sessions” which mostly were thinly veiled attempts to promote the One Church Plan. Then, a number of respected pastors (and a few laity) organized a lobbying group called Mainstream Methodists to promote even more. LGBTQ advocates recruited supporters from all across the country to come to St. Louis as a witness or a presence or to rally or demonstrate or rejoice when the One Church Plan was approved. While this was happening no bishops and no official agencies and no official institutions openly identified with the Traditional Plan and several who even attended the Wesley Covenant Association were criticized for doing so. The Africans’ concerns were not honestly dealt with. Common, ordinary UMs were hardly referenced.
The bishops (and others) badly miscalculated. The Traditional Plan was approved. There is much more to the church than the institutional establishment. What is surprising is that the bishops were surprised when the One Church Plan failed. How well do they know the church? That is why we reference “The Gap.” The bishops and others would have done better to have had conversations with and sincerely listened to the evangelical renewal groups. They especially would have done better if they had been sensitive to that fast-growing part of the church, the overseas UMs, which are not nearly as impressed with American secularism and gay advocacy groups as what we should now refer to as “the mediating elite.”
This is an early assessment. Much more is still to come. Those of us in The Confessing Movement are still committed to the proposition that the United Methodist Church has the polity and the doctrine and the world-wide structure that can make it a powerful force for the work of the gospel. There we continue to serve and live and preach and worship.