Reflections on the 2019 General Conference

As we drove home from Georgia following the death of Scott’s
mother, the special called session of the United Methodist General Conference
was wrapping up its business. This conference was to receive and to act upon
the report of a special “Commission on the Way Forward” whose sole mandate was to
seek to find a way for our denomination to continue to work together in faithfulness
amidst significant differences in our understanding of the issues surrounding
full inclusion of LGBTQI persons in the church. The conference and its results
have been widely (and sometimes misleadingly) reported on local and national
news. Some have applauded the results while others have expressed deep and
abiding hurt. In either case, we at Seaside continue to seek to serve
faithfully, welcoming all persons in love and in the hope of God’s grace.

Over the past weeks, we have been leading a series of discussions on the work of the Commission on the Way Forward entitled “Courageous Conversations.” We held these gatherings as a part of our mission at Seaside, “Building bridges to connect people in a transformative relationship with Jesus Christ.” These events were well attended and included discussion of the three plans submitted to General Conference as well as reflections on keeping the focus on the mission of the church, the 5 (or 6) texts in the Bible that actually address homosexuality, and biblical interpretation in general. We encouraged prayer for our church and promised continued discussion as the results of the General Conference became clear.

The first opportunity for continued discussion will be this Sunday, March 3 at 3:00 pm at the Lake Waccamaw United Methodist Church in Lake Waccamaw and is sponsored by the NC Annual Conference and will be led by members of the General Conference delegation. We will meet to carpool (or take a bus) from Seaside at 1:50 (2:00 departure—don’t be late). Several of our 16 delegates to General Conference will be present to share their thoughts and experiences at the Conference. Other delegates will be present at gatherings happening at the same time in other parts of Eastern NC. A second opportunity will occur at Seaside on March 12 at 6:30 pm. This event will also include members of our General Conference delegation.

The results of the General Conference are, at best, confusing both legislatively and practically. At the most basic level and by a margin of fewer than 60 votes, the church approved what was called the “Traditional Plan” which reaffirmed the existing language in the Book of Discipline that “homosexual persons, no less than heterosexual persons are persons of sacred worth in need of the grace of God,” that the United Methodist Church does not condone homosexuality and finds the practice incompatible with Christian teaching, that United Methodist clergy are prohibited from conducting marriages between same-sex couples, that UM property may not be used for such services, and that self-avowed and practicing homosexuals may not be ordained or appointed to serve as clergy in the United Methodist Church. At the same time we affirm that LGBTQI persons, as in the past, are welcome in our churches and allowed full participation in the life of the local church’s ministry—short of marriage and ordination. None of this represents a change to the position of the church prior to General Conference.

What the “Traditional Plan” did change this week was the addition of significant “teeth” to the language across all levels of the church, extending to expulsion of bishops, conferences, clergy and even local churches who might choose to take a principled exception to the church’s official position. Additional steps were added which would allow United Methodist clergy and churches an opportunity to leave “voluntarily” if, as a matter of conscience they feel that they cannot, in good conscience, remain within the fold. What troubled many, including some who supported the “Traditional” plan is the punitive nature of these penalties and what appears to some to be an attempt to push out those who do not agree with the supporters of the plan rather than to find a way to live together even amidst differences. It is this that many suggest is at odds with how we have historically lived together as United Methodists–a people who historically and proudly practice an open communion table.

The plan as passed still faces significant hurdles in the months ahead. Prior to and during the conference, the petitions that made up the three proposals were submitted to the Judicial Council (our church’s supreme court) for a preliminary review of their conformity with the United Methodist Church’s Constitution. A significant number of the petitions related to the “Traditional Plan” failed this preliminary review. These constitutional errors could have been corrected in the final legislation but were not. This leaves the result vulnerable to being over-ruled by the Judicial Council either as a whole or in its various parts. The final act of the conference was to submit the approved legislation to the Judicial Council for that review. The Judicial Council will meet in mid-April of this year.

Additionally, the conference revealed some of the complications of being a global church. Of the 12 million United Methodists, 4 million (roughly 1/3) live outside of the United States including in Liberia, Cote D’Ivoire, Zimbabwe and other West and Southern African nations, the Philippines, Russia and Europe. While the approved legislation was passed narrowly by the conference as a whole, it was opposed by the US delegates by nearly a 2/3 margin. And the General Conference will gather again in April of 2020.

So how should we respond? When we held our “Courageous Conversations” gatherings over the last several weeks, we emphasized the importance of living faithfully WITH each other, even in the midst of difference. We stressed that how we treat each other matters. And, in the final session, we talked about the fact that whatever way the Conference turned out, there would be some who were pleased and others who may feel wounded and hurt by the result. There would likely be persons (and churches) who would feel the need to leave the United Methodist Church—or the church altogether. Our counsel then, as now, is this: If you support the result of the conference, do not gloat or celebrate—doing do could cause harm you would never consciously intend. If you do not support the results of the conference, do not despair—despair is often called a sin against the Holy Spirit. In either case, seek out someone whose response differs from your own. Listen to them. Hear them. Respect them. In so doing, may your friendships grow in the fullness of grace. And finally, join us on March 3 at Lake Waccamaw UMC or on March 12 at 6:30 pm at Seaside so that together we may grow in our own understanding of our church and of God’s grace.

May the peace of Christ be with you all

Scott & Mary Jane