A Word about the 2019 Special Session of The UMC General Conference

st louis

Dear First Murphy and Friends,

Today, Saturday, 2/23, marks the beginning of The UMC’s Special Session of General Conference.  I’ve already been seeing how The United Methodist Church is making various headlines, so I figured it was time I sit down and pull together an account of what’s going on.

While online and print news sources will be covering General Conference and may offer valuable perspectives, I want to encourage you follow reporting that comes from The United Methodist Church and those that are at the Conference.  UMC reporting and posts from delegates will include significance and nuance that is easily lost by writers who are not as familiar with The UMC–her theology, organization, and, mostly, people.

Some of what I share here may be familiar to you, and for others it may be new.  And for others, you’re somewhere in between.  With that in mind, I’ve tried to put together a post that you can bounce around in, looking for the bolded heading that speaks to what you’re looking for.  I’ll try to cover: What is General Conference, and why this one; What are the proposals; How can I stay informed; and What’s next.  **Wherever you start, I hope you’ll bookmark some of the links under How can I stay informed.

One thing I want to note here at the beginning: General Conference will begin with a day dedicated to prayer.  From 9am-3:30pm, the 864 delegates and countless other alternate delegates, volunteers, and observers will be praying for 1) this special session of General Conference and 2) increased effectiveness in fulfilling the Church’s mission.  Before you go further, would you pause and join those at General Conference in a few minutes of prayer?  In my own prayers, I’ve also prayed for the delegates representing Western North Carolina’s Annual Conference (to which we belong), as well as their families.  You might even remember Jesus’ prayer for his followers, “That they may be one, as we are one” (John 17:22).

Thank you!

What is General Conference, and why this one?

General Conference is the decision-making body of The United Methodist Church.  It is comprised of representatives (delegates) from every part of our global denomination.  General Conference usually meets every 4 years and does the work of governing the denomination and working to increase our effectiveness in ministry.  After each meeting, there is a new edition of our Book of Discipline, which contains our doctrines, theological heritage, teachings, and ways we order the life of our denomination and local churches.

This 4-day Special Session was called for in 2016 in order to receive and act on proposals of the Commission on a Way Forward.  This Commission is a 32-member group made up of clergy, lay members, and bishops, representing the global and theological diversity of our denomination.  The Commission was formed in order to help the denomination find a way forward through our apparent impasse around differing opinions and theological understandings regarding same-sex weddings and the ordination of gay or lesbian clergy.  You can find a summary and links to their full report here.

Currently the The United Methodist Church prohibits both the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” and the marriage of same-sex couples, and considers the practice of homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.”  In the years since The UMC officially adopted these statements (beginning in 1972), there has been growing tension around the difference in conviction and opinion around these matters.  Some within the denomination have expressed their intention to leave The UMC depending on the outcome of General Conference; others have already left.

This General Conference hopes to resolve this impasse, and chart a path forward that recognizes differing theological understandings while also maintaining as much unity as possible.  To that end, the Commission submitted 3 proposals:

What are the proposals?

Below are very brief summaries of each plan.  You can find a larger overview here, or read the full report and detailed plan here.

The One Church Plan.  This plan removes the restrictive language around homosexuality from the Book of Discipline and allows annual conferences to make decisions about ordination, churches decide whether or not to allow same-sex weddings and their preference for clergy, and pastors choose whom they marry.  There are protections for pastors and churches to follow their consciences and varying theological understandings in these matters.

The Traditional* Plan.  This plan upholds the current position of The UMC and adds further measures of accountability for pastors, churches, and annual conferences who might violate the Book of Discipline on this matter.  It also includes provisions for pastors, churches, and annual conferences to exit the denomination if their conscience and theological understandings do not allow them to follow these guidelines.  (*What is being presented at General Conference is actually a slightly modified plan from that which is in the Commission’s report in order to meet certain requirements of the church’s constitution.)

The Connectional Conference Plan.  This plan creates three “conferences” that are determined by theological understanding around this matter: a traditional, progressive, and unity conference.  Every clergy, local church, and annual conference would choose which conference with which to affiliate.  This plan includes the most constitutional changes and reconfiguration for The UMC.

In addition to these 3 plans submitted by the Commission on a Way Forward, there are many other plans that have been put forward by groups within The UMC which the Conference will be looking at.

How can I stay informed?

Several news outlets have already picked up on what’s going on in The UMC.  Some of these offer valuable perspectives and can help us who are sort of on the inside consider how others see the church.  I find this point particularly sobering.  Plenty of people are turned off by organized religion because they’ve been burned or worn out by rancor and argument.  I get that.  I think lots of our delegates do too.  So much of what I’ve heard and read around this General Conference is the hope that even in disagreement we might give people a glimpse of a church that’s learning to live into a “more excellent way” of love.

So while you’ll likely be able to read about what’s going on in a variety of ways, I encourage you to follow these sources:

  • The United Methodist News  will provide daily updates and articles, as well as archived information on the Commission and this General Conference.
  • The UMC homepage includes lots of information as well as ways you can follow the Conference via livestream.
  • Praying our Way Forward is an initiate designed to cover the conference with prayer, and they offer ways for you to join in.
  • First Murphy’s facebook page where I will share blog posts offering perspectives from delegates and others who are attending General Conference.

What’s next?

We expect the Conference to come to some resolution by its conclusion on 2/26.  While no one can know what that will be, we’ll make sure to communicate outcomes and opportunities to interpret and reflect on what they mean.

On Saturday, March 16, from 10am-12pm, retired Bishops Kammerer and McCleskey will be at Murphy First UMC leading a conversational panel to interpret the outcome of General Conference.

Last thing

Before closing out of this page, I want to ask you to pause again for prayer, not only for General Conference, and for God’s wisdom and heart to be shown there, but for our own openness to God’s wisdom and heart to be shown in us.

You know, the church is no stranger to division and argument.  We’ve been at it for one thing or another since the beginning.  Just read the New Testament; consider it “Exhibit A”.  That’s kind of the way it is with family, though.  We can only hope that we are learning to be the sort of family that bears with one another in love and humility, and that such a witness might give hope to the world.

Thank you for your prayers, and for your prayerful engagement with this season.

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