Believe it or not, General Conference 2016 spent more than twice as much time debating a Rule of Order than the hot topic of human sexuality. After almost three days of considering an alternative method for discussing legislation, The United Methodist Church’s top legislative body referred its most difficult subject – sexuality — to a study commission and moved on to other matters.
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.
Returning to Ohio, delegates share their final thoughts on General Conference 2016
I had a peculiar feeling as I walked out of the convention center at the end of General Conference on Friday. I felt sad. But it was not what you might expect – sad for our church, sad for the business that did not get done, sad out of disillusionment, discouragement, disagreement. It was more like the sad I used to feel when I was leaving church camp at the end of a week of camp. It could have rained all week, been full of mosquitoes, and involved homesickness and awkward relationships – but a bond would have been formed. Something happens when we come together and invite God’s presence to be with us. During the closing worship I gazed over the gathering of people from all the world and felt … compassion and love. The feeling did not come from within me so much as from God within me. To be truthful, I am not so great at loving. I need help. God help us. God help the church. God help the United Methodist Church. Let us not go too far from each other, and from You.
Seven Concluding Reflections of the 2016 General Conference
1. Expectations for General Conference far exceed what General Conference can produce. Legislation has its limits. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit does not. The United Methodist Church’s greatest opportunities as well as its greatest challenges are not primarily matters legislation can address.
2. The worship services were like “the wind beneath our wings.” The demanding pace and work General Conference requires of delegates, staff, and observers would be impossible without worship.
3. A phrase which kept coming to mind during some difficult moments and painfully slow parliamentary process, was “meanwhile back at the ranch.” I was constantly mindful of the compelling testimonies, faithful and faith-filled ministries, and transforming mission done by the nearly 12 million United Methodists around the globe who were not in attendance at the 2016 General Conference.
4. East Ohio never looked better, especially after nearly two weeks of General Conference. I am renewed in my gratitude for the laity, clergy, and nearly 740 congregations that make up East Ohio. We are far from perfect and yet I maintain some of the greatest saints I have known are right here in East Ohio.
5. More attention needs to be given to what is good about our United Methodist connection rather than what’s wrong with the church. The United Methodist Church does have its issues and challenges and yet, somehow, some way, the people of The United Methodist Church are making an impact for Jesus Christ in the lives of countless people and the communities which they live. We heard and saw compelling stories of how our Church is faithfully and fully engaged in making disciples for the transformation of the world through beginning new faith communities (new places for new people), developing and educating principled Christian leaders (lay and clergy), engaging in ministry with impoverished communities and persons (here and around the world), and seeking to bring healing by stamping out killer diseases (Imagine No Malaria). Clearly our heart is at these points and I hope most of the attention can be focused on what we do well together.
6. Prayer made and makes a real difference. I certainly realized and benefited from the prayers of those who kept the General Conference delegates in constant prayer.
7. Finally, God is good all the time and all the time God is good. Before, during, and after General Conference, Jesus Christ is Lord of the church.
Dr. Gary George
On one hand I became aware that the divisions within our church are deeper than I ever imagined, but on the other hand we’re still talking. Ours is not a perfect organization but still one with God at the center and missions playing a vital role. If we can stay focused on those two, the things that unite us, I am hopeful for our future.
As I headed home from GC 2016 and settled down to simply unwind, I felt a deep weariness envelope my spirit. I realized that for two weeks I had been fully attentive to the workings of the people, politics, personalities and emotional/spiritual struggles of those engaged in both the work and lobbying at the conference. I felt that we have a deep distrust in the church that is fueled by the efforts of people who, in my opinion, have their own agenda which can try to sidestep God’s real agenda and purpose.
Since I attended GC 2012 I was prepared for the overt and covert manipulation but still found it distasteful. I wonder where the real LOVE is as I listened to speeches and amendments and then, when following the tweets and website evaluations, heard words like “we won” and “they lost.” Lord, have mercy, on those of us who see your church as winners and losers.
I am cautiously optimistic about the Bishop’s Commission and the work they hope to accomplish in the coming few years. I trust the bishops and recognize their spiritual leadership is essential in a time where people simply don’t trust one another as Christ calls us to. I know many are skeptical but I truly believe that something new and innovative must take place for the global church to stay united. The cultural and theological differences are so diverse that we cannot fit into one mold of being and thinking. Yet, I sense there are those who only see one way as the right way and they will persist in their agenda.
For me, I am going to follow Jesus and love God with all my heart AND love my neighbor. I want the church to be a place where young and old alike can come and experience the LOVE of God. I will resist name-calling and bragging and posturing and simply seek to be a follower of Jesus. I pray others can find a way to truly do the same.
I read a lot. Daily and more often I read Scripture from The Holy Bible. As a researcher, most of the time I read professional peer-reviewed journal articles. Reading books is a luxury for me. When I have the chance to read a book, I start at the beginning with the dedication and take time to read through the acknowledgments. The acknowledgments list the angels who have made space in their lives to allow authors to use God’s gifts so that they can write.
At General Conference, I found myself reading people the way I read books. I listened for the acknowledgment of angels. I looked for the presence of The Holy Spirit in people as I met them, as we passed, when we worshiped together, when we spoke to each other or the assembled body, during fellowship, as we prayed – all the way through the two demanding weeks. The Holy Spirit was present, so very present. Unfortunately, the enemy was also present, making himself known by intolerance, insensitivity, attitudes of superiority, insulting others to their faces and behind their backs, assuming negative motives.
It was very painful to watch people set aside The Holy Spirit in service of the enemy, placing the judgment of people above the judgment of God. The process reminded me of Sunday morning Christians who worship together and leave the lessons of the worship service at the altar or in the pews, to be picked up and worn for another hour the following Sunday. At General Conference, we worshiped each morning and through Scripture after Scripture, lesson after lesson, sermon after sermon, hymn after hymn, praise song after praise song, prayer after prayer, we were invited to join each other and enjoy the diversity of the Body of Christ. As soon as worship was complete, some of the people in whom I had witnessed the presence of The Holy Spirit set aside that spirit and acted like they had never considered that all of us in the room are part of the very same Body of Christ.
The United Methodist Church is not very united. At the end of a General Conference, members of a united Church leave Joyful, exhilarated, excited, happy, feeling healthy in Christ and moving forward together on our journey toward perfection. People I spoke with at the end of the 2016 United Methodist Church’s General Conference were tired, exhausted, fatigued, sick at heart, frustrated, discouraged, unhappy…
Dear Lord, Your Church is in desperate need of Your healing touch. We gather in Your Holy Name, but focus not on the loving “div” of diversity but instead on the hateful “div” of division. You have taught us that You love all of us, not just those whom we arrogantly assume are like us. Your wonderful Son, our Lord and Savior, whom you sacrificed for our sake, taught us that we, all of us, are Your children, His Sisters and Brothers. Shine Your Light ever brighter, Lord, that we might be blinded to division and move closer to You and each other through the beautiful diversity that You and You alone have created. We ask for Your special healing touch on all those who were sickened in body, mind, spirit, and heart during this General Conference. Thank you for this and our many, many other blessings. We petition You in the Name of Jesus Christ.
When I left Tampa on May 6, 2012 at the conclusion of that year’s General Conference, I had a bad taste in my mouth and a sense of gloom in my soul. The Conference had been costly – both in terms of the dollars spent, and in the divisiveness created across the denomination.
As General Conference 2016 came to an end on May 20 I was hopeful – and so, too, was the atmosphere among most of the delegates inside the convention center.
I have to admit that this hopeful feeling surprised me.
For four years I had felt, and countless people had told me, that General Conference 2016 would be no different than General Conference 2012 – costly and unproductive.
Countless hours had been spent over nearly four years to improve the delegate experience at this year’s Conference. But when business sessions began in Portland we – the United Methodist denomination – did not put our best foot forward.
We began the session using an i-Pad at each table to get the attention of the presiding bishop, even though the rules in place when we left Tampa called for a placard to be used.
After delegates voted to allow the use of the i-Pads, the system didn’t always work and the delegates and presiding bishops had trouble using them.
At the times that a presiding bishop misspoke, some delegates pounced on the opportunity and questioned our Episcopal leaders’ knowledge of parliamentary procedure. There was even a request from one delegate for a presiding bishop to step down – the first time that had happened in the history of The United Methodist Church.
Sadly, my worst fears were being realized: the atmosphere in the plenary sessions was contentious and social media was abuzz with talk of an imminent schism in the Church.
My mood lightened on Tuesday when the Council of Bishops was asked to meet that day and to return on Wednesday with a plan for moving forward. The subsequently proposed plan was accepted by the body. With it came the creation of a yet-to-be-named special commission that will examine “every paragraph in our Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality.”
The decision did not please everyone but it seemed to accomplish three things: it tabled debate of human sexuality language in The Discipline – debate that has often been divisive; it offered the possibility of a special General Conference before 2020 to discuss such legislation; and it created time on the agenda to debate and decide other legislation.
We, again this year, spent more than $10 million on General Conference, and were unable to get to each of the proposed items on the legislative calendar – but I leave Portland hopeful. And I am not alone.
In her morning sermon on the last day of Conference Bishop Elaine Stanovsky of the Mountain Sky Episcopal Area reminded all of us that “we will not leave divided because God is not finished with us yet!”
That’s great news, thankful news, hopeful news.
By Rick Wolcott, East Ohio Conference director of Communiations