The 2019 General Conference of the United Methodist Church has just concluded. I think it’s fair to say that no one is walking away from St. Louis with a resounding victory for their respective cause. Yet I can’t bring myself to conclude that General Conference was a total waste of time and energy (I’ll say more about that later.)
So, just in case you’re still wondering what’s going on, the purpose of this gathering was to somehow move through our glaring differences over homosexuality. The United Methodist Church at this point is nearly divided in half between traditionalists/conservatives who uphold our current restrictions on marrying and ordaining lesbian and gay persons and moderates/progressives who want to make room for their full inclusion along with all LGBTQ people.
I had a hunch before this General Conference session that nothing certain and decisive would be accomplished. Why? It’s because we have been gridlocked in this debate now for 47 years. Our inner dynamics have not changed enough to make room for anything substantially new or different. Even though the Traditionalist Plan passed, basically keeping our current restrictive language on homosexuality while tightening the enforcement of our rules, our future is far from certain.
Now that said, there are two major narratives coming out of General Conference, and I believe neither of them are altogether true or helpful.
The first and most passionate narrative says that the United Methodist Church is now dead. We have closed the doors on LGBTQ people. We have turned away and turned off an entire generation of young people who fully embrace LGBTQ people. In so doing, we have set our church backwards, pushing it headlong into its grave.
In response, let me say that I too am feeling the brokenness, anger, bitterness, and despair with those of us who have wanted— and still want!— a fully inclusive church. Some who have been in this struggle a lot longer than I have are understandably devastated. What happened is not at all right. It’s unjust. It’s not righteous, loving, or Christlike. And I would say, it is blatantly unbiblical to be this discriminatory against our LGBTQ neighbors. I make no apologies for being that blunt. We are living under bad church law. Period.
BUT, I am not sounding the death knell of the United Methodist Church. Not yet. I’ll say more about that after dispelling the second narrative that is coming out of General Conference.
The second narrative, especially promulgated by the press, is that the United Methodist Church is now a far more conservative church who has severely tightened our grip on the ban of same-sex marriages and gay and lesbian ordinations. One headline I just saw says that conservatives have retaken the United Methodist Church!
This, too is not at all accurate. While it’s true that the Traditional Plan won the day, it has major flaws that could very well be struck down by our Judicial Council (the UM equivalent of the Supreme Court). So, this may result in one of two possible outcomes. The Judicial Council will either gut what was passed, leaving a badly truncated plan without much substance, or the Judicial Council could rule the entire plan out-of-order, leaving us where we started. In either case, it’s widely believed that at that point, the conservative bloc of the United Methodist Church will leave and begin a new denomination.
So what then?
If for nothing else, General Conference was a much-needed exercise in showing ourselves and the world, once and for all, who we are, who we aren’t, and what we’re we’re committed to. It was a sober reality check. For many people, including myself, it has given us stronger resolve to be the church in these trying days.
In summary, nothing right now is for absolute certain.
Well… nothing except for one crucial thing: we will press on to be the church of Jesus Christ. I find myself now in the same place I was before, perhaps more so. I am and I will be a shepherd of a church who fully embraces and includes all people, no matter their race, nation of origin, gender, age, ability or disability, sexual orientation or identity, economic status, or legal status. I make room for all people at my table, committed to nurturing them into the beloved children of God they are. And there is nothing— no denominational standard, no scare headlines, or dire warnings of doom— that will stop that mission. This is the mission of Jesus Christ. It’s the way he lived his life. And until the day he returns in glory, or I die and meet him in Paradise, I will walk in his footsteps.
As I mentioned yesterday, we stand in what Parker Palmer calls “the tragic gap.” It’s that expanse between cold, hard reality and the hopeful future we know is possible. Right now, that gap is feeling especially tragic. Yet I will stand in it, push ahead, and join hands with all people of goodwill who share my heart. Together, we will be the church for and with all people.