General Conference 2019: Myths and Realities
*By Bishop Forrest C. Stith
After attending 15 consecutive General Conferences, the special session of 2019 was the most unique and one that brought much frustration and disappointment. True,
Yet this conference had a mood of apprehension and fear, with half the body searching to find a way forward in unity, and the other half approaching each day almost like a “butcher attacking a tenderloin.” Seemingly, two agendas and goals. My personal frustration was not just the concluding votes, but, in deciding to adopt one of three options, we chose the only plan that rejected unity. The final decision could lead us towards a “never-never land” of cataclysmic proportions. I have spent much of the succeeding weeks searching for a silver lining, for my beloved church of 84 years.
My conclusion is that the process before, during and following the conference was punctuated with a number of myths, not consistent with reality. Whereas I lack the expertise to be precise, I share my critique.
The entire denomination prefers the traditional model over all other possibilities.
Our denomination is composed of some 13 million persons, none of whom participated in a referendum on the subject, and most members are unaware of the ramifications of the Disciplinary issues around human sexuality and our faith. Rather, a representative body of slightly over 800 persons, gathered together in a huge dome stadium, within a brief 4-day window, unknown to one another, speaking a number of distinct languages, from various cultures and experiences all over the globe. This body was given the task of receiving a report from the Commission on a Way Forward, with three possible plans or options.
The result: after one day of dynamic worship and one day being a committee of the whole with no small group deliberations, the body proceeded to take a series of votes, many on parliamentary procedures. Over two days, there were a number of crucial votes; one procedural vote passed with a four-vote margin; and the final vote In favor of The Traditional Plan passed by 57 votes. Who of us, in a local congregation, would decide on a major building expansion WITH 47 percent of the body against the project?
The church in the U.S. is equally divided on the question of full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church.
First, as a country, there are many dimensions
Schism is inevitable for The United Methodist Church.
Depends on what you mean by "schism." The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren (EUB) Church experienced splintering of individual congregations from their inception. That includes several black congregations that later evolved into the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) and AME Zion churches. The Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (CME) was not a splinter but an amicable divorce initiated by the white Southern church. There were many other divisions, based on the degree of lay participation, local church autonomy, and theology.
Another division was the separation of Churches in the Caribbean, and South America, which again
However, the most graphic and numerical schism was the separation of the North and South church based on slavery in the middle of the 19th century. This schism lasted 90 years before there was reunification, which placed African Americans on the sacrificial altar of unity, culminating in the (segregated) Central Jurisdiction for almost 30 years.
Up to the present, individual congregations have left, based on discomfort with
One of the models proposed at the special session was a Connectional Conference model, wherein semi-autonomous annual conferences would be created based on human sexuality ideology. Its rejection was mostly due to constitutional questions and logistics that, unlike the 1850 slavery issue which had a clear Mason-Dixon Line, geographical distinctions are not as clear on this issue. It is one thing to vote sympathetically for a model, but another to leave grandmother’s church.
Most African Americans reject the inclusion of same-sex orientation persons.
African Americans have never been homophobic or overtly rejecting of persons with different sexual preferences. Whereas many African Americans are uncomfortable with sexual expressions outside the norm, individuals, regardless of their sexual preferences, have always been affirmed and welcomed as full participants in all facets of the life of our congregations, if “they love the Lord.” However, few black churches are comfortable publicaly advocating for any special group, or being labeled a Reconciling Congregation. Ultimately, because of so many years of oppression, the black church tends to echo Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s words: “Justice denied anywhere is justice diminished everywhere.”
The reason for membership decline in North America is due to UMC public stances on sexual preferences and other social issues.
The church in the west has been in decline for several decades, due to a host of reasons, but not because of any specific reason. There are a host of issues facing the Protestant Church in America and Europe. Our basic dilemma is not who is leaving but that we are not replacing persons who depart for normal reasons like death, illness, relocation of jobs, marriage and family transitions, etc. New disciple-making is also difficult in a world of secularism, social media, gentrification,
Historically, Methodism flourished with small homogeneous congregations (200 or fewer). Small, monolithic congregations cannot afford full time credentialed pastors and find their survival difficult or limited. Conversely, we have not done well with heterogeneous, multiracial and diverse settings.
Major growth still occurs via a few mega-churches and other religions. Protestant churches that appear to be strong are dominated by gray-haired people of the same color and culture. Statistics show that ALL Protestant denominations are declining in numbers. Further, the Pew Research and other polls indicate that the next generation (millennials) reject religious institutions that are judgmental and exclusive. Future growth in this country is dependent on this very population.
Since the assumption is that a majority of the Churches in Africa voted in favor of the Traditional Plan, and assured its passage, it must have been in their best interest.
Actually, the African voters for the Traditional Plan might have “felt good,” but a deeper look shows it was not necessarily in their best interest, for the following:
- Both the One Church Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan intentionally used language to exclude the Central Conferences from the ramifications of any Disciplinary changes.
- There was nothing in the proposed language that was in contradiction to national laws or customs in Africa, Russia, or the Philippines.
- The Central Conferences have the privilege of writing their own book of Discipline as long as it does not violate the Constitution. As a result, the conferences in Africa utilize their own rules relative to clergy recruitment, qualifications, standards, credentialing, and the election of bishops.
- The fast-growing church in Africa, while exciting, will continue to be dependent on a strong American church’s resources and support.
- Specifically, the heartbeat of our denomination is the apportionment system. Anecdotal gifts of a personal nature or a pet project is just the beginning of huge financial outlays for Central Conferences.
The apportionment system covers board meetings, translations (written and oral), international travel, per diems, 10 million dollars quadrennially for Africa University, 10 million voted recently for African higher education, bishop’s salaries and support, Central Conference meetings, and other items that guarantee the function of the Central Conference’s ability to be a part of a global church. The apportionment system is the regular giving of 8 million United Methodists in America and Europe.
It behooves the church in Africa to have a strong, united church in America, with positive morale and positive relationships with all churches, not just a few caucuses.
- A review of denomination giving in apportionments, Advance specials, and Africa University are especially strong in areas of the U.S. where the One Church Plan was most popular. Specifically, a recent report by GCFA revealed that the Northeastern Jurisdiction, long berated for its minimum growth, led the denomination in Apportionment giving; all but one conference paid 100 percent.
- The issue of human sexuality is not on the agenda of the typical African Church, as it is in many churches in the West. African church leaders do not have to address complaints, angry letters, demonstrations, trials, and time-consuming discussions as in the West. Far more important in Africa are issues of authoritarian politics, tribal divisions, tropical diseases, natural disasters, limited transportation and communications, and equipping and training pastors. So African leaders spend little or no energy on human sexuality in their areas unless Americans export the discussion for political reasons
- Finally, the church in Africa needs to be careful that it does not create an inverted or reverse colonialism. Could it be that one of the unconscious motivations at General Conference by many African church leaders was to demonstrate a kind of moral superiority, like unto what the West did for so many years towards Africa? Another word for that is COLONIALISM.
It is ironic that the West has struggled to eliminate the vestiges of COLONIALISM (that is, importing Western culture upon the secular and spiritual life of Africa. So it was almost a humorous irony to observe what I perceive as “reverse or inverted colonialism” occurring during the General conference
Colonialism was the method over the last hundred years, whereby Western civilizations dominated African peoples. Millions of God’s children were enslaved and brought to the West, especially the southern American states. The West took the land, minerals, and resources of Africa for their own benefit. Almost simultaneously sincere and faithful Western missionaries brought the gospel to the hinterlands of Africa. Not only did they bring the good news of the gospel, but often the missionaries were unable to separate their western culture and dogmas from the Good News. As I said to some of my friends from Africa, “it’s ironic, that “what goes around comes around.”
Yet the secret of church growth in Africa occurred in the 20th century with the indigenization of the faith, which only Africans could do. In a similar way, what may be problematic in the U.S. can only be fixed by we who know our culture best.
The Traditional plan represents the tradition and history of Methodism
In a 235 year history, a decision made in1972 cannot be seriously called a tradition especially since every General Conference since its inception has had close votes on its continuance.
For many years the Methodist church struggled with instituting a “laundry list” of sins ordained pastors were prohibited from committing. These included alcohol consumption, cursing, gambling, infidelity, tobacco, use, with the final one, tobacco in any form, eliminated only in 1972. Bishop William Lewis reminds us of the irony that 1972 was also the year that a specific sin was re-introduced in the form of homosexuality. Bishop Lewis also offers the irony that tobacco use is the cause of death, illness and family breakup many times more than any ramifications of
The only true Wesleyan principle is not hurling Bible quotes “out of context” against each other, but understanding that the Wesleyan method of understanding is based on the Quadrilateral, that is on four sources: Scripture, tradition, reason, and Christian experience.
The Holy Spirit is no longer appropriate for our time, and the only hope for The United Methodist Church lies in its legislative parliamentary maneuvers, annual conference debates, strategizing, caucuses, the Judicial Council, and individuals who rail against each other.
So where is there hope? First, TIME is our friend. As Isaiah said, “they who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength….” Or as Dr. King loved to quote another philosopher who said, “The Arc of the Moral Universe Is Long, But It Bends
The book of Acts is a great story of how a group of dedicated and spirit-filled Apostles had to grow beyond their own limited thoughts and experiences, and allow God to do a new thing.
Peter and Paul came to terms with the fact that the gospel was for all of God’s creation, not just circumcised Jewish men, but women, Gentiles
It would be
Once, in our first experience teaching at Gbarnga School of Theology in Liberia, I saw a Palaver Hut (Gazebo) and asked a friend about its purpose. He explained that it was not a rest stop, but rather when the elders were faced with a difficult decision, they gathered together in the Palaver Hut and would not leave until they reached a decision, not by vote, but by consensus.
My hope is that in 2020 we will find some way to do Holy Conferencing and go to the Palaver Hut and find a way to finally MOVE FORWARD. My hope is not built on human words or strategies, or the wisdom of a Judicial Council, but rather, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest
Bishop Forrest C.