Reflections on the Special General Conference

Amidst all the swirling reactions to The United Methodist Church’s special General Conference in St. Louis, Missouri, it is easy to overlook what actually happened and mis-remember what did not happen (more on this later).

The Votes

Despite the strong support of the majority of U.S. bishops the General Conference delegates declined to endorse the One Church Plan (OCP), a plan that would have liberalized the UM Church’s sexual ethics, teachings on marriage, and ordination standards.

On three separate occasions the plan failed to gain support from the majority of delegates. During a prioritization phase, when delegates were given the opportunity to categorize as “high priority” as many plans and petitions as they liked, the OCP ranked fifth receiving support from 49 percent of the delegates. When it came to actually voting the plan up or down, it was defeated 53 percent to 47. And in response to a last ditch effort to resurrect it: the delegates opposed it by a margin of 55 percent to 45.

Instead, the delegates steadily if narrowly supported the Traditional Plan, a proposal calling on the church to reaffirm its teachings on the matters before it and to enhance its accountability standards. During the prioritization phase, 56 percent supported the plan. And in two more votes it received 56 and 53 percent respectively on its way to becoming the church’s officially endorsed plan. Not surprisingly, it faces a barrage of legal challenges from some bishops and others hostile to the church’s long held teaching on these matters.

Analysis

Since the close of the conference national news outlets have reported that the close votes demonstrate how deeply and almost evenly divided the UM Church is over its sexual ethics, teachings on marriage, and ordination standards. One can understand how they arrive at their interpretations. On final passage, the Traditional Plan’s margin of approval was by just 54 votes, had 27 of the 822 voting delegates decided differently the plan would have failed.

However, for a variety of reasons one wonders how well voting at a General Conference actually reflects the will of rank-and-file United Methodists, and so how evenly divided the church actually is over LGBTQIA+ inclusion.

For starters, half the voting delegates must come from the ranks of fully credentialed UM clergy. In the U.S., surveys have consistently revealed clergy members tend to lean more progressive than the people in their pews on theological and ethical issues.

Also, the arcane rules and formula for apportioning delegates across a globally connected church are tilted in favor of United Methodists living in the U.S. For instance, the number of fully credentialed clergy in a given annual conference figures into how many delegates it receives. Higher incomes and more advantageous avenues for securing educational credentials result in far more fully credentialed clergy in the U.S. than in Africa, the Philippines, and parts of Eurasia.

And finally, in a recent United Methodist Communications commissioned survey, 44 percent of United Methodists in the U.S. self-identified as conservative/traditional regarding their religious beliefs, while 28 percent identified as moderate/centrist, and just 20 percent as liberal (eight percent were unsure). Chuck Niedringhaus, a UM Communications researcher said, “I don’t think you can add the moderates and progressives and say that’s where the church is. Theologically, many (moderates) are more traditional.” (Kudos, by the way, to UM Communications for commissioning the informative survey).

And again, this was just a survey of United Methodists in the U.S. Logistical challenges made it impossible to include United Methodists in Africa, Europe/Eurasia and the Philippines (now representing nearly half of all UM Church members worldwide, and soon to surpass UM membership in the U.S.). There is little doubt that had United Methodists from these regions been included the survey would have revealed that rank-and-file United Methodists are predominantly conservative/traditional. In fact, it is not unrealistic to estimate that perhaps three quarters of all lay and clergy members across the global UM connection affirm the church’s sexual ethics, teachings on marriage, and its ordination standards.

In light of the foregoing, it is more correct to observe that while the General Conference delegates are closely divided, the global church they represent is solidly conservative/traditional. So while local UM churches and pastors in the U.S. are doing a lot of hand wringing, one suspects United Methodists in Africa, the Philippines and parts of Europe and Russia have already moved on. They are focused on how and where to build a new college and seminary in Liberia, helping brothers and sisters gain access to clean drinking water throughout Africa, and are considering where to plant a new house church in Russia. As is so often the case, many UM church leaders see matters through the eyes of the U.S. media and western, liberal elites.

This is not to suggest the church should become a pure democracy; there is received wisdom in our polity and our traditions as the General Conference attempts to discern God’s will for the church. (One must observe though, that all is for naught when some of its leaders immediately call the conference’s decisions into question, announce they will defy them, and refuse to maintain the church’s good order.) Nevertheless, UM Church leaders would be well served by acknowledging that not only is the global church quite conservative, but that even traditional/conservative United Methodists in the U.S. are still in the majority, and quite possibly still in ascendancy.

The majority of our U.S. bishops (the “vast majority” of them according to Bishop Ken Carter, the Council of Bishops’ current president) championed a plan that has revealed just how out of touch they are with the vast majority of rank-and-file United Methodists, both here in the U.S. and globally. And some are responding to the special General Conference in ways that make plain they are still out of touch by essentially apologizing for its decisions.

They are making the mistake of assuming that because 60 to 65 percent of the U.S. delegates probably voted for the OCP (and surely half of those votes or more were from U.S. clergy), the majority of rank-and-file United Methodists in the U.S. must (or should in their minds) support it as well. This is speculative at best, likely wrong, and at worst it ignores where the global church is on these matters.

These bishops evidently made the sad assumption that many lay people do not read books, articles, essays and blogs about the presenting issues and are quite capable of following the learned arguments of a Richard Hays, Carolyn Moore, Tim Tennent, Jessica LaGrone, or an Adam Hamilton, Tom Berlin, Dorothee Benz, and deciding for themselves who is more persuasive as they seek to determine the best way forward. Many lay people are puzzled as to why their bishops have failed to make sustained cases themselves or engaged the detailed arguments of Tim Tennent. Too often, it appeared episcopal proponents of the OCP thought extolling the equanimity of the plan would convince people to forsake their understanding of Scripture and the teachings of the church catholic in all times and all places.

For the sake of the argument, one might acknowledge the bishops were right to champion the OCP, but this is still cold comfort for United Methodists looking for effective leadership. Despite considerable influence and power, the bishops failed to convince a majority of General Conference delegates to rally behind their chosen plan. Given that they are apparently out of touch with rank-and-file United Methodists and their inability to lead the church in their preferred direction, it is no surprise that over 60 percent of the General Conference delegates in 2016 voted to do away with lifetime appointments for them. The bishops are fortunate that the matter is a constitutional one, and therefore requires two-thirds support. It is possible the 2020 delegates will cross that threshold.

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Sadly, some have claimed that the reason the OCP failed to gain a majority was because traditionalists in the U.S. inappropriately influenced international delegates – particularly those from Africa – to vote against it. This charge is absurd; it never happened. Rumor mongering of this kind is beneath the dignity of any member of the church. It truly demonstrates how deeply out of touch some are with United Methodists beyond the U.S.

During a presentation at a Good News Briefing Breakfast (open to the public) the Rev. Dr. Jerry Kulah, dean of the Gbarnga School of Theology at United Methodist University in Liberia, said, “If anyone is so naïve or condescending as to think we [Africans] would sell our birth right in Jesus Christ for American dollars, then they simply do not know us.”

Kulah, also the General Coordinator for the UMC Africa Initiative, added, “Please hear me when I say as graciously as I can: we Africans are not children in need of western enlightenment when it comes to the church’s sexual ethics. We do not need to hear a progressive U.S. bishop lecture us about our need to ‘grow up.’ We Africans, whether we have liked it or not, have had to engage in this debate for many years now. We stand with the global church, not a culturally liberal, church elite, in the U.S.”

In the end, the special General Conference was a sad day for The United Methodist Church and the church universal, particularly in the United States where the conference was covered widely by U.S. media. The vast majority of our Council of Bishops pushed for an old winner-take-all plan that failed at the 2016 General Conference. They refused to include compromises in it like exit ramps that would have allowed traditional local churches to leave with their property and assets had their favorite plan passed. They failed to be transparent about which bishops actually endorsed the plan and which opposed it, instead using vague terms like “vast majority.” They misinterpreted their role in the process and had to scramble to off load the plan’s presentation to the Commission on a Way Forward. And many flogged the plan for months in their annual conferences, among General Conference delegates, through a website dedicated to promoting it, and during trips to Africa, the Philippines and Europe – all to no avail.

The vast majority of United Methodists now expect our bishops to fulfill the role entrusted to them by our Discipline and at their consecrations. They are to “guard the faith, order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline of the Church.” The General Conference, the only body that can speak for the UM Church, has spoken. In order to avert in Minneapolis (site of the 2020 General Conference) the fiasco that occurred in St. Louis, rank-and-file United Methodists justifiably expect our bishops to uphold the decisions of the General Conference faithfully, and without equivocation or compromise. If good order cannot be restored, we trust the bishops will, in a spirit of true compromise, support a gracious and fair plan of separation that respects the convictions of traditional United Methodists.

By Walter Fenton

March 8, 2019


The Rev. Walter Fenton is a retired clergy member of the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference and vice-president for strategic engagement at the Wesleyan Covenant Association.