This evening I attended the Evangelical Fellowship banquet of the United Methodist Virginia Annual Conference in Roanoke. I have been attending the Virginia Annual Conference since I was 20 years old when I was my local church representative back in 1985. When I became active several years later in challenging the radical politics of our church’s General Board of Global Ministries, the Evangelical Fellowship of Virginia gave me their friendship and support. Even more then than now, evangelical clergy were on the outs with the conference’s “in” crowd. So their leaders were courageous and faithful.
Rev. Keith Boyette was this year’s speaker. I first met him over 20 years ago when he was still a Richmond attorney, not yet having accepted the call to full-time ordained ministry. Keith has become a great leader in our church. Besides his long-time pastorate outside Fredericksburg, he was elected in 2000 to the Judicial Council, our church’s highest court. There he and several other evangelicals presided over some of our church’s most contentious controversies, especially dealing with the church’s biblical teaching on homosexual practice.
The highest profile case regarded Rev. Ed Johnson, whom Virginia Bishop Charlene Kammerer removed from the pastorate for refusing to grant immediate church membership to an openly active homosexual who attended Ed’s church and whom Ed was counseling. The Judicial Council overturned the bishop’s ruling and returned Ed to his church, ruling that pastors have discretion on readiness for church membership. This ruling created an uproar, and the Council of Bishops denounced the Judicial Council, which was unprecedented, and virtually declared that church membership should be automatic for all applicants.
Thanks to the Johnson ruling, the bishops refused to renominate Keith and two other evangelicals to the Judicial Council. Thanks to the bishops and liberal caucus groups, these 3 faithful evangelicals were forced off the court in 2008. The bishops and their liberal allies tried to overturn the church membership ruling with a special constitutional amendment virtually mandating automatic church membership. This proposal passed at the 2008 General Conference but failed ratification among the local annual and central conferences. The new Judicial Council, although more liberal, also declined to revisit the church membership issue. In 2012, the General Conference elected several new evangelicals to the Judicial Council. In many ways, Keith and his former colleagues on the church court have been vindicated. Since leaving the court, Keith has served as chair of the Good News evangelical group, now based in Houston, while also giving leadership to evangelicals in Virginia.
In his speech to the Friday dinner, Keith described the 2012 General Conference as more tense and more polarized than perhaps any other in recent memory. But the large African representation was “exceptionally well prepared,” and their increased influence was “breath taking.” Although a lot of important legislation never got to a floor vote, Keith said the church can celebrate that its biblical standards on sexual behavior were sustained. He also noted that in the future resolutions will require 60 percent approval. And $5 million was voted for theological education in Africa. “God was active at General Conference,” Keith surmised.
“Who are we seeking to be the Lord of the church,” Keith asked. Recalling the contentious Council of Jerusalem described in the Book of Acts, he noted that the “Lord of the church had led them through that.” And he expects the Lord also will be gracious to United Methodists.