The United Methodist Church is founded on the Wesleyan idea that when people talk and pray together something sacred happens. John Wesley famously said, ‘there is to holiness but social holiness,’ and part of what he meant by that is that when a group of human beings are gathered to speak to before God, something sacred occurs. Wesley brought this message to Christian and non-Christian people alike. He gathered people together to listen, pray, and talk about God and life together. He gathered them in churches, town squares, open fields, meeting rooms, and in people’s homes. In these groups people shared their most ardent hopes for their lives and the world. In these groups people shared the testimony of their hearts, their faith, and the experience of God.
This ‘social holiness’ is deeply ingrained in the United Methodist way. Today we call one aspect of social holiness ‘Christian Conferencing’ or ‘Holy Conferencing.’ It is the idea that something profound and sacred happens in these groups where hearts and lives are shared. When people share their beliefs and experiences learn about each other as well as learning about God. As we are transformed by the stories in our bible, so we are also transformed by how God works in the stories we hear from each other. In speaking before each other and God about our struggles, our trials, our hardships, as well as our happiness, our joys and our hopes, we are truly participants in conversation in Christ.
The power of the group experience is obvious to us when we talk about prayer groups or worship. But Wesley extended this idea to the whole work of the church and Christian person, including our administrative work. When it came to church ‘politics,’ one of Wesley’s rules was that if you wanted to vote on a matter before the church, you had to be present to do it. You couldn’t send in a letter for someone to read for you, or tell a friend to vote for you a certain way. You had to actually come to the meeting and hear the matter discussed if you wanted to have a say.
This is because only then would you have gathered with the Spirit in the midst of your fellow brothers and sisters and heard the truth spoken between and among them. Only then would you have been moved to laughter, anger, tears, or contrition. Only then would you become a witness to the truth within the truth that is revealed in Christian testimony.
As all of us who have participated in Holy Conferencing knows, something important and holy happens in Christian Conferencing. Something that moves hearts and minds. Something that converts souls. Something that changes the views we have of ourselves and our neighbors.
At its heart, all United Methodist administrative conferences are Holy Conferencing. At the local church level, this includes committee and Church Council meetings as well the Charge Conference. Holy Conferencing happens in the wider regional church, such as at Annual Conference where once a year all the churches in a wide geographical area meet. It happens globally, as well. General Conference which happens every 4 years, is a global gathering.
Even at a gathering as enormous as General Conference, real holiness breaks through the administrative work and ‘political’ maneuvering. This is true even as we deal with contentious issues. Over the last 15 or so years the General Conference has struggled with diverse voices and opposing views on women’s rights, gay rights, human rights, and other teachings. As United Methodists, no matter what we think the rules should be, we are called to the holy conversations that reveal our differences as well as bringing us closer together.
In agreement or disagreement, our holy conversations transform us into friends and neighbors in part simply because we have prayed together, wrestled bible together, and heard each other’s stories.
During the last number of General Conferences a single issue has pushed through as being one that seems impossible for the body to resolve—the issue of human sexuality. Each General Conference there is hope that some resolution can be found.
As the church has wrestled with this subject, so has our own American and global culture. In some places in Africa and Asia, homosexuality is a subject that is shameful and taboo to talk about. For American, European, and many others, an understanding of homosexuality as part of human sexuality has become part of our civil laws and everyday life. We have talked about this subject as a culture so much that we now understand human biological diversity to be fairly complex, a complexity that includes persons who identify as male or female or LGBTQI.
Church law and human law has split apart, and although ‘same sex’ weddings are perfectly legal in the United States, it is not permissible for a United Methodist pastor to perform such a wedding. If they do so, they risk losing their job, their status as elder, and their calling.
For decades United Methodists have been caught in a quagmire over this. Despite years of attempted legislation, the issue is not resolved. It has become so fraught and fractious that our energies as a denomination are hijacked by this issue. Instead of spending our time at General Conference talking about salvation and dealing with world hunger, instead of that, we end up hurling anger and weeping over the injustices and laws dealing with human sexuality. Holy Conferencing—the very hallmark of Wesleyan faith—has all but become impossible in the legislative context. Some of us care more about winning the argument than winning lives to Christ. As such, we have effectively stopped listening to each other.
There were many things we talked about and celebrated at conference. Our ministries in the Congo, ministerial education, social climate justice work, prayer, worship, and Imagine No Malaria. But the elephant that trumpeted in every room was the one question on everybody’s mind, what are we going to do regarding the issue of human sexuality and the church.
This year’s General Conference began as the last few had, all the remedies proposed and discussed were defeated. Though there were sincere efforts to find a ‘third way’ to remedy the stalemate, all these efforts failed. Our own bishop, board of ordained ministry, and many clergy in the Pacific Northwest and Oregon Idaho support changing our book of discipline to allow our ministers to perform same sex weddings and allow gay clergy to serve openly. Leaders in our conference affirm that every child is a child of God—no exceptions.
But as a Global body, we could not all agree. This year it became clear that the issue was intractable and the legislative body had failed, and would continue to fail, to find a remedy. Things began to escalate as hurt and anger were visible everywhere. If we were going to proceed forward as a church, we needed a new option.
Rumors spread that the Council of Bishops were meeting in secret to see if they could help discern what could be done. We learned through leaked and open conversation that one of the discussions on the table was an agreement for the denomination to split.
Word about the secret meetings became quasi official late Monday night, May 16th, when a statement was made to a Love Your Neighbor Coalition meeting prior to their late-evening communion service. The twitter and facebook storm followed within minutes. Many United Methodists were up late that night trying to figure out who was doing what, and what exactly was going on.
Even at a Global conference, word travels fast. Some greeted the news with thankfulness. Finally, there might be some movement! Any movement! Others were angry, pushing back against the meetings and the bishops and decrying their presumption. All held their breath—was a split really the only way?
The Methodist Church had split before, over the issue of slavery. Pro-slavery and anti-slavery groups stopped talking to each other and the result was schism. From 1844—1939 we were a church divided north and south. It hurt.
With rumors flying the hall was filled with expectancy as Conference opened on Tuesday morning. Bishop Ough, president of the Council of Bishops, addressed the body and admitted to the meetings. He spoke of our deep division as being like a ‘broken heart.’ He said, “collectively we have a broken heart. Our hearts break over the pain, distrust, anger, anxiety and disunity we observe and experience in our beloved United Methodist Church.”
Accusations flew. Some accused the bishops of overstepping their authority and presuming to usurp the role of the delegates. In United Methodism, it is the delegates, not the bishops, that have legislative authority on the floor of General Conference. It looked as if this anger would prevent further discussion. But then something else happened.
That same morning, one of the delegates stood up and asked for the bishops to lead. Instead of telling the bishops to butt out, as some had, this gentleman spoke to the problem of the utter failure of the legislative body to come to any resolution. If the bishops could find a way forward, he argued, we should let them. There was a vote on the floor that passed narrowly, but it passed. The body had tasked the bishops to go and meet together, meet and talk and see if there is anything that can be done. What was our way forward, was a split inevitable? We wanted to know the truth.
No one knew what the outcome of that meeting would be, but there was a sense of hope in the wisdom and experience of the bishops. The gathered United Methodists of General Conference—and the thousands who followed the livestream and the news—wanted truth, even if it was that our troubles were irreconcilable.
That evening the bishops met together and I and many others were in prayer for what outcome the meeting might produce. It was a noisy night of speculation in Portland and globally. Undergirding the talk, talk, talk unwound a thread of hope.
The next morning the air of expectancy was high as the General Conference met for worship . The sermon was hopeful and rousing. There was conference business, but then, the legislative session of the day began. As the session was called to order, the bishops all rose from their seats and stood. Bishop Ough, president of the Council of Bishops stepped up to the pulpit. He was prepared to report back to the body about the task the bishops had been given. The two thousand plus people gathered fell silent to listen.
Bishop Ough read what became known as the Statement of Unity. He began with a quote from the Letter to the Galatians 3:25-29, and then proposed a ‘way forward’ that included a few things. First, there would be no more discussion about any of the rules regarding human sexuality on the legislative floor this conference session. Instead of arguing, we would take the whole concept in total under review. Next, a special commission would be formed to include the different voices represented globally. This commission would meet for two years. After that time, a special session General Conference would be called to share the recommendation that arose from this commission. And finally, some remedy, a cessation of church trials, was hoped for in order to stop the persecutions of LGBTQI people under current church law.
The most important thing that Bishop Ough shared during the statement was that although the bishops themselves were unified, they had not been in unanimous agreement. This statement was such a hopeful one. It was a reminder that brothers do not always agree on everything, yet they can still be brothers.
The Statement of Unity was followed by prayer and conversation on the floor. Delegates and attendees gathered in cluster to pray and talk together. It was a powerful time of sharing and listening—God was working on us! From there began hours of debate on the floor.
Many were buoyed by the possibilities that we could remain unified after all! Unity seemed to be the something many, many people wanted. Then, a delegate rose to make a key proposal that would have adopted a way forward based on the bishops’ recommendation. It was defeated. This defeat was the worst moment. It seemed that the bishops’ ‘way forward’ would die on the legislative floor just like all the other remedies had done. Yet the those in the ‘political’ middle were not ready to sit down yet.
One of those groups in the middle was our young person’s delegation. They rose to make a statement, saying “we have committed ourselves to loving, faithful discussion…We urge everyone to seek solutions that promote our global unity…rather than focus only on the issues that divide us, so that we may faithfully live out our mission…for the transformation of the world.” Finally, one more petition was made from the floor, a petition to simply adopt and follow the bishops’ statement itself. And that one passed—by 15 votes.
The bishops then, properly given authority to move ahead, no longer had to meet in secret. They will be meeting openly over the next two years. They will be engaging in some special and important Holy Conferencing on the issue of human sexuality over the next two years.
General Conference 2016 is over, yet it is not over. The work of Holy Conferencing was not finished this time around. We realize as a denomination that the time for healing hearts has come.
Even as the bishops begin the work of selecting a special commission, so we at the local church must participate in holy conversations as well. Our bishops—our wisest and most faithful leaders—believe we can move forward with unity. That hope stands out for us right now. To meet that hope we have work to do.
We at the local church are not bystanders but active agents in this work. We must talk openly, honestly, and with love. We must share our call, our witness, and our experience. We must be brave.
I will begin. I believe that LBGTQI people are beloved by God. I think they are created the way they are just as I am created the way I am. I am far from perfect. I hope to always do the best I can, and I hope for forgiveness when I make mistakes. None the less I am loved and called by God to be a vital part of God’s church. I know that I do not know everything. Yet I do know that I serve a loving God. I rest on that love, and the inclusivity as taught by Jesus in the scriptures, as I begin my journey forward. I hope and trust that we—together— will all find a way forward together.
But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. — Galatians 3:25-29