Praying Over the 2019 General Conference

  “I’m not praying only for them but also for those who believe in me because of their word. I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me.” -John 17:20-21   This week (Feb. 23-26), a special General Conference of the United Methodist Church will occur in St. Louis, MO. The General Conference is the top international legislative body that sets all organizational matters of the global United Methodist Church and its governing document, The Book of Discipline. Typically, United Methodist delegates gather every four years to set policy and give leadership to our denomination. At the last General Conference in 2016, the session tabled discussions on the church’s position on human sexuality in order to ask the bishops to present a way forward, since our governing body–and wider church–is so divided on human sexuality. The Council of Bishops created a 32-member Commission on a Way Forward, which has been meeting since January 2017 with a charge to “lead the church forward” amid the present impasse related to the church’s position on human sexuality and resulting questions about the unity of the church. The Commission on a Way Forward created three plans, and recommended “The One Church Plan.” The Council of Bishops supported this plan and are recommending it to General Conference session this week. The two other plans are “The Traditionalist Plan” and “The Connectional Conference Plan.” Others are bringing suggested plans to the General Conference as well. One Minnesota pastor explained these for his congregation in a way I find helpful: The REDEFINE Plan (or the One Church Plan): This plan ultimately redefines marriage and sexuality so various understandings of it can be taught and practiced within the United Methodist Church. This plan assumes that our differences over sexual ethics, marriage, and the ordination of clergy are not essential for matters of the whole church. It would strike the current social principles statement (that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching) and would allow each regional conference to decide whether to ordain openly practicing homosexuals as clergy. The RESTRUCTURE Plan (or the Connectional Conference Plan): This plan restructures the Methodist Church into different camps of belief and practice regarding marriage and sexuality. This is the most complicated and time-consuming plan, as it calls for the elimination of the current five geographical jurisdictions in the US, replacing them instead with three “theological” or connectional conferences. Regional annual conferences and local churches would have the option to identify with a conservative, centrist, or progressive connectional conference while remaining under the larger umbrella of the United Methodist denomination. The REAFFIRM Plan (or the Traditional Plan): This plan reaffirms the United Methodist teaching on marriage and sexuality and adds additional measures of accountability for those violating the practices outlined in our Book of Discipline. This plan will require church leaders to abide by church teachings regarding sexual ethics or face stiff penalties for violating them. It allows a fair and gracious way out for those individuals or churches who cannot follow these teachings. The traditional plan is a sincere attempt to restore good order to the church and to refocus us on our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Currently, The Book of Discipline says that all people are of sacred worth but that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian lifestyle.” For this reason, our denomination does not currently ordain gay pastors, and Methodist pastors are not permitted to perform gay marriages. In recent years, some Methodist leaders have disregarded this stance out of principle or anticipation that it will soon change. The bishops have been calling for unity of the church as we seek a grace-filled way forward. This is increasingly difficult as people are being polarized and entrenched in their views. Bishop Ough, the bishop of the Minnesota and Dakotas areas, has said that he thinks that there is no unity in our wider church on human sexuality. Further, it seems unlikely that no matter the outcome of this General Conference, there will be some schism. Some people and whole churches are prepared to leave the connection if a certain outcome is not adopted. For more information on the General Conference session, see resources here: http://www.umcom.org/news/q-a-2019-special-session-of-the-general-conference It pains me to think that the great United Methodist Church–or any part of Christ’s Church–is torn apart around the issue of human sexuality. This is not a core issue of the Church! The church is about Jesus offering abundant and eternal life to all people. But then, this may be why human sexuality has become so divisive. For many people, including human sexuality, human sexual expression is part of living abundantly. Therefore, it is a Jesus-issue for them. Further, I would argue that behind the positions on human sexuality, are the deeper doctrines of marriage and the authority of Scripture. The United Methodist’s current position on human sexuality is grounded in a biblical understanding that human sexuality is intended–and reserved for–celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in heterosexual marriage between two consenting adults. Further, Scripture clearly teaches that other expressions of human sexuality are not acceptable. The question, then, is how do you interpret those scriptural references. For some, they are to be understood plainly on face value. For others, they represent cultural norms or individual views. So, the way I understand much of the current dialogue, this is a conversation about the authority of Scripture.  Further, I assert, that there are faithful, authentic, Jesus-loving believers on all sides of this conversation. By conversation, I mean all the conversations about human sexuality, marriage, and the authority of Scripture. Sadly, the proposals coming before General Conference keep the discussion at the level of divided opinions on human sexuality. To me, they fail to breech the deeper issue of Scripture’s authority. Without this deeper conversation, we will not be able to move very far on human sexuality. We will continue to be entrenched in our various views, and we will not be able to have an honest discussion of how Scripture guides the life of the Christian or the United Methodist. Finally, Jesus’ earnest prayer for unity among His followers (John 17) reveals that we His church are not placing as great a priority on unity as He does. Our eagerness to schism around issues of human sexuality, and even the authority of Scripture, reveal that we are not taking seriously Jesus’ call to unity. This is clear in Scripture no matter on how you interpret it, and unity should unify all Jesus-followers! We will need to respond to whatever happens at General Conference. It is my desire that we will respond by the leading of the Holy Spirit. That means continued prayer and discernment, along with an unwavering allegiance to Jesus and His Kingdom’s work among the world. It also means a commitment to the unity of His body, the Church. So, I ask us all to be praying for General Conference. As we do, please pray using Jesus’ prayer found in John 17. May the Holy Spirit lead a way forward!   Pastor David