By Roger Ross
On the first day of General Conference, I bumped into someone from a former church. Surprised to see her, I asked what brought her here. She said, “For years I grew up in a church where all the decisions were made behind closed doors. Now that I’m United Methodist, I think it’s amazing that we make decisions out in the open. I just wanted to come and see it.”
See it she did. I’ve been coming to General Conferences as a delegate or reserve delegate since 2000, and I have never seen what we collectively witnessed yesterday. It was an historic and emotional day that left most of us drained and dumbstruck.
It was historic because the Conference, functioning for the day as a legislative committee, recommended to the plenary session two petitions for what is now being called, “Disaffiliation.” It’s more commonly known as a “gracious exit.” The petitions are designed for churches who for reasons of conscience can no longer stay in the United Methodist Church. The debate over these petitions sobered the Conference.
For years, people have talked about creating a fair and gracious exit ramp for churches who wanted to leave. But these conversations happened between friends, in small groups and in the blogosphere. Yesterday, we talked about them in our living room. As we met face-to-face, a delegate talked about our need for a “good divorce.” Others debated over the financial terms of separation. For those who have been through a family breakup, it felt eerily familiar. And sad.
That discussion and recommendation was followed shortly by a vote on the Traditional Plan. With some amendments, it was approved by a 56 to 44 percent margin. Although the decision was not a surprise given the way the Conference had prioritized the voting for this plan, the decision brought a sense of pain to a large section of the room.
In the afternoon, there was a significant debate on the One Church Plan created by The Way Forward Commission as a result of the 2016 General Conference. Much attention has been given to this plan. It had been recommended by a large majority of our Bishops and supported by approximately two thirds of the US delegates coming into the Conference. But the vote to recommend this plan to the plenary session today was 386 in favor and 436 against.
As the numbers came on the screen, a stunned silence fell across the room. For a moment, it felt like time stopped. Like me, most people assumed the One Church Plan would at least make it out of the legislative committee for a vote on the Conference floor. It did not, although it will likely come before the body today as a minority report. The chair of the proceedings, Rev. Joe Harris (who did a phenomenal job all day and should be recommended for sainthood), quickly continued with the next item on the agenda, but most of the room were still reeling, trying to make sense of what this now means.
In ways many did not foresee, the United Methodist Church took a historic turn in that moment. It could be called a tipping point. We discovered we are no longer an American denomination.
About 45 percent of the delegates to the 2019 General Conference come from outside the United States, and for years, people have been saying that we need to listen to our brothers and sisters in Christ who live and minister under very different circumstances. Yesterday, we did.
Our urgent issues in the US are not theirs. Their lives and ministries are intertwined with poverty, persecution and suffering in ways US Christians can only imagine. And they have a different Biblical and theological perspective on human sexuality than the majority of US delegates. They are also the part of the United Methodist Church that is growing while the US church continues its decades long decline. If the denomination stays together, there will soon be more delegates to General Conference from outside the US than within.
This seismic shift comes with a lot of pain for people within the LGBTQ+ community and their allies. Although I don’t know what it is like to be gay, I know what it is like to not feel valued or loved. In my heart of hearts, I don’t believe any of our delegates intended to communicate that. But I know for many, that’s how it feels.
The truth of course is God’s love is immense for ALL. We know this because Jesus died for each of us. His love is written in blood and is not dependent on what we do or do not do. It’s simply received by faith. In that love, the broken places in all of us can be restored, and we can be transformed into new creations—people we could never be apart from the true power of grace.
That’s the journey we are all on as followers of Christ. Our challenge it to figure out how to help each other on our way forward.