Friday, May 20, 2016
Update from General Conference 2016
There have been some interesting and important developments over the last few days at General Conference. Let me fill you in.
First: the United Methodist Church's General Conference - the denomination's sole decision-making body, which gathers every 4 years, made up of delegates from around the globe - is meeting in Portland right now. As always, one of the most prominent and contentious topics up for discussion at the conference has been sexuality: presently the UMC holds that "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching," though many United Methodists (especially in the US) are opposed to the church's position. The discord over sexuality has been so intense in recent years that many have feared a looming split in the denomination.
This week the General Conference took an unprecedented step in trying to address this conflict: the conference (a body of clergy and lay delegates) requested guidance from the church's Council of Bishops. The bishops have no official influence over the decisions of the General Conference: their roles are generally limited to preaching in worship services at the conference and presiding over the business of the conference in accordance with Robert's Rules of Order. They don't have input in the discussions on the conference floor and don't have a vote on any proposals. As I understand it, the General Conference has never officially requested the guidance of the bishops, but this issue has been so divisive and hope for unity moving forward so scant, that the conference is looking for wisdom and leadership.
The bishops' response came in the form of a statement, which you can read online here. Essentially, the bishops recommended that all proposals related to the question of sexuality be tabled, that a special commission be formed to "develop a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph in our Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality", and that a special session of the General Conference will be called before the regularly scheduled General Conference of 2020, solely to address this issue.
On Wednesday the General Conference approved the bishops' plan by a vote of 428-405.
(Read more about this from the New York Times.)
"Revising" the church's teachings and policies in The Book of Discipline could mean a number of things. According to the Council of Bishops, "We continue to hear from many people on the debate over sexuality that our current Discipline contains language which is contradictory, unnecessarily hurtful, and inadequate for the variety of local, regional and global contexts." To rectify this, the commission could recommend anything from rewriting and making more sensitive passages that have become painful to many after years of hearing them bandied about inconsiderately (like the famous "incompatible with Christian teaching" phrase), to a radical reversal of the church's stance (which seems unlikely); from a tightening of current rules concerning clergy that often go unenforced, to a restructuring on a denominational level to allow for diverging positions and practices, all under the sanction of the one, global church (for instance, see the "Love Alike Plan" that was proposed this year). Time will tell. Whatever the recommended revisions eventually do look like, the aim is to avoid a schism.
(Read United Methodist minister and author Jim Harnish's reflections on the Holy Spirit's surprises at General Conference.)
For now, this proposal (defer the conversation - commission - called General Conference before 2020) is the church's best shot at finding a way to accommodate the variety of deeply-held convictions on the question while maintaining the unity within the church body that Jesus himself desired and prayed for (see John 17).
And that's what's been happening at General Conference.