Pentecost in Portland: Reflections on General Conference

By Bishop John L. Hopkins

“When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place.  Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.” Acts 2:1-4 (CEB)

Pentecost in Portland saw the United Methodist Church gathered in one place, filled with the Holy Spirit, and speaking in other languages. Official translations were given in 10 languages, plus American Sign Language, but if you listened carefully, dozens more languages were used.  In Liberia alone there are 16 tribal languages.  When you add the many languages in the rest of Africa, Europe and Asia it is no wonder we have difficulty understanding one another.  And yet, everyone was given a voice. Everyone was able to testify to how Jesus has saved them and called them into the Church—the Body of Christ—for the transformation of the world.

The United Methodist Church is far more diverse than most of our members realize. Less than a half dozen churches even attempt to be governed by a body that is beyond their national borders.  The global nature of our church was apparent when many petitions or resolutions were discussed that related only to the United States.  As the General Conference discussed proposed changes regarding healthcare, the pension fund, and various social positions, many delegates wondered why these did not apply to their country.

Like the Day of Pentecost recorded in The Acts of the Apostles, those present heard “the mighty works of God in our own language!  They were all surprised and bewildered.  Some asked each other, ‘What does this mean?’ Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!”  (Acts 2:11-13)

Yes, there was some jeering and accusations, some political maneuvering, even some talk of schism.  However, in the end we remain committed to maintain and strengthen the unity of the church for the mission and witness of Jesus Christ.  It was like Pentecost where the Holy Spirit took over and unified us in our differences.  Our fervent prayers and powerful worship were not in vain.

The General Conference asked the Council of Bishops to help find a way forward on the divisive issues around human sexuality.  The Council responded with a recommendation to defer any action on proposed legislation and establish a commission to examine the issues and make recommendations back to General Conference in a special session if needed.   No changes have been made to The Book of Discipline regarding our official position on the matter of human sexuality.  The prohibitions outlined in our church Discipline still exist, but we have committed to explore options to help avoid further complaints, trials and harm while upholding the Discipline.

Our bishops met following General Conference to discuss the unity of the church and begin work on establishing the recommended commission.  There is a need to move the debate from adopting legislation to creating relationships that will allow us to engage in deeper global conversation.  The Letter to the Church is a summary of our work.

Although we have to work to find a way forward on divisions around human sexuality and how to be a worldwide church, we can celebrate the strength of our church in the following actions:

  • Committed to continuing our work in the four Areas of Focus, and adopted bold new goals for the next quadrennium for the next four years
  • Celebrated the collection of $68.5 million for “Imagine No Malaria”
  • Commissioned 29 missionaries, including Aaron and Mary Vandersommers from East Ohio, who are serving in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • Established new provisional annual conferences in Southeast Asia and Mongolia
  • Voted to create a new cloud-based United Methodist hymnal
  • Voted to fund five new bishops in Africa beginning in 2020
  • Voted to provide an additional $5 million for theological education in the Central Conferences
  • Heard a compelling statement for unity on behalf of the Young Adults Convocation that met in the Philippines earlier in the quadrennium.
  • Planned to present a new Global Book of Discipline and Global Social Principles to the 2020 General Conference.
  • Celebrated significant anniversaries:

60th anniversary of the 1956 General Conference vote to fully ordain clergywomen

200th anniversary of the death of Bishop Francis Asbury

200th anniversary of the African Methodist Episcopal Church

150th anniversary of United Methodist Women

40th anniversary of voting rights for the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference

30th anniversary of Disciple Bible Study

25th anniversary of Africa University

20th anniversary of the Order of Deacons was also mentioned

  • We created two new Special Sundays (without offering): “Women’s Ministry Sunday,” scheduled by each annual conference, and “Volunteers in Mission Awareness Sunday,” set by local churches. The “One Great Hour of Sharing” Special Sunday with offering will now be called “UMCOR Sunday.”
  • Passed a $604 million budget, slightly up from last quadrennium.

In our United Methodist theology, the Church is not optional.  Growth in Christ requires a community of faith to baptize us, offer us Holy Communion, preach to us the Word of God, and send us forth into the world for service.  The only question is how big or small do you think the Church—the Body of Christ—ought to be?  Do you want it to be where everyone is like you and agrees with your social, political, economic, and theological views?  Or, do you want a church that will challenge you as you hear what Jesus is doing in the lives of people you cannot understand without a translator?

The real miracle to me is that on Pentecost the Disciples, “followers” of Jesus, became Apostles, “messengers” of Jesus. That is, those who followed Jesus for their own benefit started telling others about what Jesus could do for them.  Rather than being victims without hope, they became survivors by the grace of God.

Regardless of what you read by the various caucuses and interest groups, there were no “winners” and “losers” in Portland.  We are all survivors who live by the grace of God.  We need the diversity of the Church to remind us that God is bigger than individual perspective. We need the unity of the Church to remind us to love those with whom we disagree.

The account of Pentecost ends with Peter preaching on the words of the prophet Joel and exhorting the crowd, “Change your hearts and lives.  Each of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.  Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  This promise is for you, your children, and for all who are far away—as many as the Lord our God invites.”  About three thousand accepted Peter’s message and were baptized into the church.  The scripture says:

“The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles.  All the believers were united and shared everything.” Acts 2:42-44 (CEB)

My prayer is that the Pentecost in Portland will lead to a worldwide revival by a unified church appreciating what God is doing with a diverse Church.