Every four years, the United Methodist Church (UMC) holds our General Conference (GC). This May, the GC was held over a 10-day period in Portland, Oregon. I had the privilege of attending and representing the Arkansas Conference of the UMC as one of our delegates. Many members are unaware of the GC, but this important gathering is an opportunity for our denomination to re-visit and speak about matters of how our church interacts with the world and to examine how we go about making disciples.
The UMC is a global church and as such there were delegates from all across the world. In fact, attending the GC is somewhat like being at a United Nations gathering. It is a common sight to see delegates wearing headphones. No, they are not listening to the newest iTunes download. They are actually listening to translators who are helping everyone understand the comments, questions, presentations, and preaching that are being spoken in a variety of languages.
One of the stark observations about the UMC is that it is declining at a rapid pace in membership in the United States. But, we are seeing an almost reciprocal growth in membership in the areas outside the United States with the majority of that growth concentrated in Africa. At this point in time roughly 40% of all United Methodists are from Africa.
At this GC, the delegates from Africa came very prepared, participated fully, and greatly impacted the outcome of legislation. In general our African members are very conservative and evangelical.
For those of you who are plugged in you will know that seemingly every four years and more and more frequently it seems, our denomination continues to struggle with how to address differences of opinion and scriptural interpretation over human sexuality. This GC was no different. The language in paragraph 161 of the Book of Discipline addresses the institution of marriage and in this section says, "...The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching..." In addition, the Discipline says that "...self-avowed and practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church."
The issue of human sexuality has led to splits in several mainline Protestant denominations over the last few decades. Even though it has remained an issue for over 40 years, the United Methodist Church has not wavered from its position. And, the position of the UMC remains unchanged following this GC as well.
This GC was a little different though regarding how the challenges with human sexuality were handled. About 10% of all the proposed legislation dealt with this topic. About half would have strengthened or maintained the Discipline's stance and half would have softened the stance. It is noteworthy that no legislation that would have softened the UMC's current position made it out of legislative committees while many that would have strengthened the position did. This was largely bolstered by the voting patterns of our African brothers and sisters.
At GC, our Bishops have no voice or vote. In fact, their only role is to preach and preside over legislative sessions. However, a motion was made and approved to ask our Bishops to provide a statement of leadership and direction for our denomination on the matter. They met overnight and came back the next day with a statement that included three proposals:
That no legislation dealing with human sexuality would be considered at the GC.
That a special commission be appointed to review all parts of the Book of Discipline dealing with human sexuality and make a recommendation on how to move forward.
That a special called General Conference would be convened in 2-3 years if the commission developed plans to consider.
Initially, a motion to support this plan was defeated. But, a slightly varied proposal with the same key components did pass on a tight 428-405 vote.
So, what does this mean? I honestly don't know, but in talking to many people with varied view points, there is a desire to see our denomination stay unified, but there is also a strong sentiment that the likelihood for that to happen grows increasingly unlikely. In fact, talk of a split or schism in the church is picking up momentum as various conferences and pastors in the church are blatantly violating the Discipline's current position seemingly with no re-course for their actions.
As churches, conferences, and pastors try to navigate through these challenging and controversial waters, I think it is important that we not lose sight of the fact that God is in control and regardless of the direction in which our beloved denomination is taken that Christ is still King and that we will still worship Him each and every Sunday at Central.
There were a number of other matters that arose at GC as well. I will address those in a separate forthcoming blog.