One month ago yesterday, attendees like me at the United Methodists’ General Conference (GC) headed back home from the two-week-long gathering in Portland, Oregon. My IRD colleagues and I viewed GC as a major success for biblical orthodoxy.
I shared my thoughts about GC and how it represented headway on issues like Israel, the sanctity of life, and marriage in the United Methodist Church (UMC). IRD President Mark Tooley wrote about the outcomes of GC: “Mostly on the whole, good!” Similarly, UMAction Director John Lomperis said that he was “beyond elated and thankful for the great things He [God] has done in this General Conference…”
Reactions from many progressives began emerging even before GC officially ended, and were more varied, ranging from hope and cautious optimism to grief and disappointment. Despite progressives achieving apparent success by delaying all petitions related to sexuality for at least two or three years, not all liberals shared this opinion. (As Tooley noted, even this delay may have been a blessing in disguise to orthodox Methodists, since it provided time to attain significant pro-life victories.)
Below are ten notable reactions by progressives to GC:
- Rev. Adam Hamilton, senior pastor at megachurch Resurrection UMC, denied that the Council of Bishops (COB) had engaged in “kick-the-can down the road” by proposing to create a special commission on sexuality. In a blog post on May 20, he said that the upcoming commission could lead to a “genuine compromise” that would “fundamentally reorder our life together as a church.” This compromise “may include a fundamental re-ordering of our life together as a people called Methodists,” Hamilton reiterated. While he didn’t get into specifics during his blog post, Hamilton had supported a plan at one point during GC that would “reorganize” the UMC into three separate parts – conservative, moderate, and liberal – based on congregations’ stance on human sexuality.
- Lesbian activist Dorothee Benz admitted that all efforts to undo the UMC’s stances on sexuality had come to naught at GC. During a sermon on June 5 at St. John’s UMC in Austin, Texas, she said that the “compromise proposals that so many moderates and institutionalists had set their hopes on went down in flames.” She also accused conservatives of “persecution” against LGBTQ people in the UMC. Highlighting how the Southern Baptist Convention supported the GC’s move toward orthodoxy, she concluded: “What more is there to say really?”
- Rev. William E. Alberts – who serves as a minister in both the UMC and Unitarian Universalist Association – expressed his frustration with General Conference in an opinion piece for the liberal website CounterPunch. He criticized Methodists for continuing to debate sexuality instead of challenging Islamophobia, racism, and “warmongering” in America. Having decried conferences for the last 28 years for not focusing on what he identified as more important contemporary issues, he said GC 2016 should instead have focused on Black Lives Matter, the “military/industrial/energy/intelligence complex,” and opposing Donald Trump. Undeterred, Alberts maintained that progressives would eventually liberalize the UMC’s stance human sexuality. He insisted that “the movement toward real inclusion in United Methodism is on the right side of history, and is ever growing, and will prevail.”
- Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and former faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, wrote in the National Catholic Reporter that progressives might need to abandon the UMC after a “disappointing” year at GC. He wrote that supporters of “LGBTQ inclusion” would be forced to choose “whether they can remain in a church that stands against such people” or “separate themselves” from the UMC. He said that progressive were in danger of “making unity an idol” by staying in the church, rather than pursuing their “calling to love.” He said that employing Scripture as a “warrant for oppressing LGBTQ people strikes me as a serious misuse of the Bible,” especially since it has “essentially nothing to say” about homosexuality.
- The Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN), a major LGBTQ coalition operating in the UMC, was not content with waiting two or more years until the special commission appointed by the COB officially made its recommendations on sexuality. Indeed, RMN started a petition asking the COB to “immediately halt all legislated harm towards LGBTQ people” before even forming a commission. The full text of the petition is available here.
- GC decided that the UMC should withdraw from the radical pro-abortion lobbying group Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC) after helping to found the organization 43 years ago. However, at least two high-ranking church officials were displeased with the decision, as my colleague Chelsen Vicari reported. Rev. Dr. Susan Henry-Crowe, General Secretary of the General Board of Church and Society, and Harriett Jane Olson, General Secretary and CEO of United Methodist Women, withdrew from RCRC in an open letter. Yet at the same time, they criticized GC’s decision and praised RCRC. “With many other members of the community of faith, we encourage the Religious Coalition on Reproductive Choice to continue its important work so that women have safe, legal and affordable access to the care they need,” Henry-Crowe and Olson wrote in their letter.
- Rev. Dr. Bonnie Beckonchrist, pastor of First UMC Arlington Heights in Illinois, wrote a blog for RMN entitled “Caring for those in grief after General Conference” on May 31. Pastoring at a Reconciling Congregation, she noted that for liberals after GC, “Grief is palpable.” She said that the decision to create a special commission on sexuality would prompt some LGBTQ Methodists to leave their congregations because GC had failed to halt the UMC’s “discriminatory policies and practices” against them. She encouraged Methodist pastors to be understanding of LGBTQ members who felt the need to leave.
- Human Rights Campaign, a high-profile LGBTQ activist organization, sent their Senior Faith Organizer Rev. Dr. Denise Donnell to General Conference. Donnell reported on May 25 about the special commission on sexuality. She quoted RMN Executive Director Matt Berryman, who said the commission “signals hope” for ending church discipline over sexuality. Donnell said it was “good news” for the LGBTQ community that the COB had “agreed to work diligently to avoid further complaints, trials and harm in order that the Church may live in grace one with the other” until the commission made its recommendations. “HRC is committed to keeping track of the progress of this Commission in the coming months and years,” she concluded.
- Bishop Elaine Stanovsky gave airtime to skepticism that conservatives had manipulated African delegates to vote along traditional lines during her sermon on the last day of GC. “If you believe that all African delegates are voting from somebody else’s game plan and are puppets to a puppeteer, you gotta get out of that tomb,” she said. Liberian delegate Rev. Dr. Jerry Kulah promptly denied that anyone was manipulating African delegates. He responded that “African delegates have game plan that are based upon the Scripture” while speaking on the floor of GC.
- The Oregon-Idaho Conference expressed skepticism or downright defiance regarding not one or even two, but three decisions by GC. Rev. Jeremy Smith supported the Oregon-Idaho Conference on these three issues in a story for The United Methodist Reporter (UMR) on June 20:
- First, the conference decided to ignore sexual orientation of candidates for ordination. While other conferences passed similar legislation, Smith noted Oregon-Idaho’s move was “unique,” because “other Conferences passed this statement in their Boards of Ordained Ministries, not the full clergy session.”
- Second, the conference voted to join RCRC. Among the reasons for doing so, they agreed that “the Religious Coalition supports the right of all persons to have access to a wide range of reproductive health services including sexuality education, family planning services, contraception, abortion services, affordable and quality health and child care…”
- Third, they passed two resolutions supporting the special commission on sexuality, but made clear what they hoped the commission would recommend. One resolution called for prayer and support for the commission, but stated that “we must also acknowledge the harm that grows with each passing day” while current discipline is enforced. The resolution also said the COB needed to ensure that the upcoming commission would “not ultimately result in failure as similar Commissions have in our past. We must not repeat past mistakes.”