United Methodist General Conference 2016, good or bad?
Mostly on the whole, good! What had initially seemed potentially bad, the deferral of plenary votes on sexuality in favor of a bishops’ appointed commission, turns out likely to have been good. Plenary votes almost certainly would have ratified legislative committee recommendations to reaffirm the church’s teaching of traditional Christian morals, which are now anyway left in place untouched for another 4 years. Contentious and time-consuming debates, added to interminable parleys over parliamentary procedure, would probably have precluded the decisive votes disengaging the church from its over 46 years of abortion rights advocacy.
These decisive votes to withdraw United Methodism from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC) and from support for Roe v. Wade revealed an evangelical-orthodox legislative majority. Some of us before General Conference calculated a 55 percent orthodox majority among delegates. The RCRC and Roe votes were respectively 61 percent and 59 percent, while the vote against Rule 44’s attempt to replace legislative process with table talks about sex was 57 percent, confirming this calculation. Most of this 55 percent majority was the Africans, who were 31 percent of total delegates. As the African church grows by 800,000 to 1 million members each quadrennium (their total membership is already 41 percent of global membership) their delegate representation will grow.
By the time of United Methodism’s first General Conference outside the U.S., in Manila in 2024, and certainly by the first scheduled meeting in Africa, Zimbabwe in 2028, the legislative debate over sexuality should largely be over, as Africans in membership and delegate count will have a majority on their own.
The African delegates comprised about half the vote removing United Methodism from abortion rights advocacy, which was momentous, and separates our church from the rest of declining liberal USA Mainline Protestantism. The Episcopal Church, United Church of Christ and Presbyterian Church (USA) (through its missions board) remain RCRC members. United Methodism’s release from RCRC seems like a spiritual liberation from a very dark captivity arguably even more at odds with orthodox Christian ethics than redefining marriage and gender. Over decades of votes about United Methodist membership, the United Methodist Women’s Division fiercely and successfully defended RCRC.
Behold the fall of the once mighty and unassailable United Methodist Women! Not many years ago few if any contended politically against its denizens with any success. Few ever tried. Once having over 1 million members and boasting to be America’s and if not the world’s largest women’s organization, the UMW has lost over half its membership and is now largely a convocation of the elderly, its New York headquarters dependent on still large but dwindling endowments. For decades UMW officially focused on social action instead of evangelism and discipleship. Predictably, its membership has shriveled faster than overall United Methodist USA membership. I have many fond memories of my grandmother’s UMW circle meetings, with lots of baked goods, and gracious WWII generation ladies, who faithfully served their churches unaware of the UMW elites’ agenda. Alas, that generation is now almost gone, and was never replaced, which should be instructive for us all.
The intensely radical 1960s-1990s political activism (including support for Nicaragua’s Sandinsitas and other Marxist insurgency movements) of the New York-based United Methodist Women’s Division, when previously a component of the General Board of Global Ministries, motivated my own entrance as a very young man into United Methodist renewal work. This General Conference voted decisively to step back from some of the church’s intense political engagements. Besides the RCRC vote, delegates by a large margin urged Global Ministries and the Board of Church and Society to withdraw from the U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation, a group that exclusively faults Israel for Mideast conflict. Divestment aimed at firms doing business with Israel was decisively defeated in committee, not even reaching plenary. Hopefully, after decisive plenary rejections in 2012 and 2008, anti-Israel divestment is now dead for United Methodism. General Conference also overwhelmingly rejected divestment aimed at fossil fuels, despite a well OILED campaign. Many African delegates no doubt are aware that their own nations’ escape from poverty depends on reliable access to electricity, requiring mostly coal and oil.
Unfortunately, the Africans did not get proportional representation on church agency boards from this General Conference, so the church’s new emerging majority effectively remains disenfranchised in much of the USA-based church bureaucracy. But the Africans did get 5 additional bishops in 2020 and more funding for theological education. By all accounts, the Africans delegates, despite language barriers for many of them and lack of familiarity with USA parliamentary process, were more effectively legislatively engaged this year than ever before. A record number served as committee officers, joined by a possibly record number of USA evangelicals as committee chairs and other officers.
And as a result of 5 new Judicial Council members elected by General Conference, an African for the first time chairs the church’s top court, which adjudicates many controversies over the church’s prohibition on same sex rites and clergy sexually active outside male-female marriage. All five were quickly elected with support from evangelicals, leaving only one clear liberal on the court of 9. It’s also the most diverse Judicial Council ever, with a Liberian, Mozambican, Congolese, Filiipino, and Norwegian, comprising its first ever non-USA majority. Two other new members supported by evangelicals include a Vietnaese-American pastor and a female law school dean and former federal judge. This Judicial Council majority willing to uphold enforcement of United Methodist law will be very important in the years ahead.
Africans and USA evangelicals were also elected to the commission that organizes General Conference, previously the nearly exclusive preserve of USA liberals, who often tilted General Conference atmospherics, including the music and worship, in predictable political directions. Sermons by USA bishops at this General Conference often included barely disguised code aimed against evangelicals. One specifically chided Africans, prompting an African church leader in plenary to explain politely in response that the Africans think for themselves and are not, as USA liberals imply, the unwitting tools of USA evangelicals. Indeed, most USA evangelicals are probably less conservative than the Africans. Now a plurality among the church’s contending factions, the Africans easily outnumber USA evangelicals, USA moderates and USA liberals. They are the church’s rising power.
During the early part of General Conference a small group of leaders representing USA moderates, liberals and evangelicals, but no Africans or other non-USA persons, met with with two bishops, with the informal conversation raising the possibility of church division adjudicated by a commission and special General Conference. Before the full Council of Bishops could discuss it the next day, an LGBTQ caucus publicized the idea at a videoed rally, and prominent neo-orthodox Kansas pastor Adam Hamilton touted the idea at a morning breakfast for students, his version suggesting a three way split, with USA centrists like himself having the largest numbers. The bishops quickly rejected the idea, and the conversation ended.
The commission the bishops are called to establish for review of sexuality teachings, the latest of many in United Methodist history, is getting a slow start. On Saturday, the bishops convened but declined to appoint the commission, delaying until their November 2016 meeting, which means the commission at best won’t meet until early 2017, further making a special called General Conference less likely. If the USA bishops are true to form, they will appoint persons who will espouse what the USA bishops have touted for much of a decade: a new USA only central conference that can legislate without Africans and other internationals, plus some version of local option on sexuality. The 2016 General Conference, as in 2012, rejected the USA central conference idea, just as 60 percent of global annual conference voters, including 95 percent of Africans, rejected it in 2009, when two thirds were needed for passage. Whatever the bishops’ commission proposes is likely to face rejection by the 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis.
Adam Hamilton’s seeming embrace of a three-way church split, joined by several prominent liberals who blogged their oppenness to church division after the failure of any progress for LGBTQ causes at this General Conference, has resurfaced the idea of church schism. (Despite all the fears this year about disruptive LGBTQ demonstrators, who seemed to number in the dozens, their protests seemed smaller this year than at previous General Conferences.) At the 2004 General Conference prominent pastor Bill Hinson gained national headlines by suggesting schism at a breakfast for evangelicals, a segment of whom was typically almost alone in hoping for amicable separation, as USA liberals and moderates, plus Africans, opposed it. The idea went nowhere.
Before this General Conference I thought the chance of an eventual United Methodism formal schism was about 10 percent. After this General Conference, given the at least momentary, seeming support for it by some USA moderates and liberals, I think it is about 20 percent. It’s still very hard to picture two thirds of any General Conference, where delegates are typically very committed to the institution, voting for the constitutional measures required for full ecclesial division. Even the majority votes required to permit local churches to quit the denomination seem unlikely, although a measure to allow liberal congregations dissenting from church teaching on marriage, did pass in committee. It perhaps would have passed in plenary had the bishops’ intervention not tabled all sexuality issues.
Any church split would divide many thousands of local congregations (there are over 30,000 in USA), leaving lots of figurative blood on the floor, unseen since many Methodist church floorboards absorbed much literal blood when serving as hospitals during the Civil War. I don’t think it will happen, and I hope it won’t. A renewed, global church, even with a large USA dissenting minority, seems preferable to church warfare on the local level, much of it litigated in civil courts for years, which, after the smoke cleared, would leave many wondering if it were all worth it.
For now, United Methodism survives. This General Conference had several substative accomplishments and reflected the growing global orthodox majority, fueled by African church growth, and perhaps eventually joined by the small but growing new churches of Southeast Asia. It’s tempting to think that just as the republic is often safer when Congress adjourns, so is the church after General Conference closes. By my calculation, United Methodism’s over 12 million members globally make it perhaps the world’s 9th largest Christian body. May it persevere for the good of the whole Body of Christ.