After the first week of the United Methodist General Conference, I was tempted to write a Dave Barry-esque column on the sometimes ridiculous petitions submitted to the committee I observed (Church and Society A). You know, the “I’m-not-making-this-up” type of stuff. I could be light-hearted because I knew, for instance, the petition to reunify Korea was only wishful thinking on the part of the petitioner.
As a petition came to Church and Society A to stop using fossil fuels, a delegate from Liberia facetiously asked, “You want us to turn off all the lights and air conditioning in this building?” gesturing to the massive Oregon Convention Center. “And how will I get home?” The committee passed the petition.
I was struck by comments from fellow observers, mostly in favor of the progressive petitions brought before the committee. I gently offered an opinion to one woman who clearly thought Israel was the primary villain in the Middle East. “Situations like this are messy and not always easy to sort out,” I cautioned. She set her jaw and said nothing.
When the vote for a petition to accept Just War theory as a means to protect the innocent in a subcommittee I monitored, I saw the chair look at a former Church and Society staff member and current board member. The man shook his head. The committee voted by concurrence to reject the petition.
The conversation that struck me the most came from a delegate who was a long-time Church and Society and UMW supporter. “We don’t trust each other,” she said. “We need to trust the Board [of Church and Society] and the staff.”
I partially agreed with her. We don’t trust each other—many times with good reason. I am of the opinion (shared by many orthodox and evangelical Methodists) that on a number boards and agencies, long-time staffers with a progressive agenda behave as if the church should follow their lead. When petitions arose about agenda items for the agency, staffers and observers brought up finances and the need “not to micromanage” the staff. It is an understandable concern. However, the agency staff do not seem to accept direction well.
For example, the General Conference passed a resolution calling for several agencies to remove their organizations from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), a radical group that supports abortion for any reason and at any time. Afterwards, I saw on my Twitter feed a screen grab of supporters of RCRC. They said they would defy the conference’s directive.
Adding to the mistrust, protests staged by LGBTQ and Black Lives Matter protesters disrupted delegates’ discussions. Rumors of a secret meeting among the Bishops and interest groups seeking a way to divide the church spread like wildfire. The Council of Bishops denied the rumors and proposed taking decisions about sexuality away from the General Conference delegates, and placing those decisions in the hands of a committee the Bishops would nominate. This would likely involve an extra General Conference in 2018 when delegates would vote on the commissions’ proposals. This proposal passed in a close vote.
No wonder we do not trust each other.
After fuming about this for a time, the thought came to me: When an individual or a body of believers loses the need to abide in Christ, the need to repent of sin regularly and the need to rely on the power of the Holy Spirit, that person or entity loses its/his/her way.
Acts of mercy grow out of “should,” instead of joyful obedience. Testimonies of the work of the Holy Spirit in individual lives and in the church as a whole are held up to ridicule. (I personally witnessed this from a group of progressive seminary women attending a Renewal Coalition breakfast.) Prayer is seen as merely a litany. No answers are expected.
One observer tweeted that, based on most of the issues the church discussed, maybe we should remove the word “church” from our name and become a simple non-profit.
That said, wonderful things happened at General Conference that have been recorded elsewhere. I am more optimistic about the future of the UMC than I have been in years. Those who expected a progressive juggernaut were disappointed. Evangelicals were able to demonstrate grace in challenging situations. A friend at my local church, who had been praying faithfully and earnestly during General Conference, told me Sunday morning: “The Holy Spirit reminded me that the people who oppose us are our mission field.”
Sara Anderson is an IRD Board Member and serves on the UMAction Steering Committee.