Thursday, May 19, 2016

It Could Have Been Worse (A Reflection on Our United Methodist General Conference)

Rev. Will Green protesting the exclusion of LGBTQI persons
from full inclusion in the United Methodist Church

Once Jesus was asked when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”
Luke 17:20-21

When Christians argue about belief, we generally argue about things that don’t make much difference. It makes no difference whether Jesus really “walked on the water,” for example. And it makes no difference whether or not Mary was a virgin. 

On the other hand, we pay little attention to whether or not we believe in things that really matter. It makes a great deal of difference, for instance, whether we believe in loving our enemies, or forgiving the person who wrongs us, or loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.

This passage from Luke’s Gospel contains one of those ideas that matter. It is in many ways a watershed question: Do you believe that, in fact, the Kingdom of God is among us?

If you believe that the Kingdom of God is among us, then you will see the world differently.

I have been thinking about this a lot as the events have unfolded at our United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Oregon, this past week.  An Associated Press story in the New York Times gives an excellent summary of what has happened and where we are.

In this latest episode of our forty-four year soap opera we continue to wrestle with whether or not our LGBTQ sisters and brothers will be fully included in the life of the church. There is good news and bad news. The good news, not to be confused with the Good News movement, is that we did not institute severe mandatory penalties against clergy who celebrate same sex marriages. The bad news is that the delegates actually voted in favor of the mandatory penalties and we were only saved by a Judicial Council ruling that mandatory penalties violated our church constitution. 

There was serious discussion of schism, dividing the church into at least two groups, one progressive and the other traditional, with options for more. As the rumors and reports became more persistent, Bishop Bruce Ough, the president of the Council of Bishops, addressed the body to deny the rumors and acknowledge that the bishops were themselves deeply and painfully divided about how we should move forward. 

"I have a broken heart in that collectively we have a broken heart," Bishop Ough told the delegates. "Our heart breaks over the pain, distrust, anger, anxiety and disunity" among the delegates at the conference.

As the committee votes against the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons piled up, advocates for inclusion staged protests, at one point standing around the outside of the conference session with rainbow colored duct tape over their mouths, and at another point lying on the floor with their hands and feet bound.

It was heart breaking. "People are walking down the street in tears saying, 'This is not the United Methodist Church that I joined,' " said Dorothee Benz, an LGBT rights advocate and a lay delegate from the New York Annual Conference.

After a roller coaster ride of voting and maneuvering the delegates finally voted 428-405 to accept a plan advanced by the Council of Bishops to delay all consideration of LGBTQ proposals, and instead to create a commission that will devote the next two years to reviewing our present policies and attempt to develop a plan to address our differences.

This does not seem like a very good outcome unless you realize that it could have been worse. It could have been a lot worse. If we had pressed for a vote on those issues it is almost certain that we would have lost every single one.

The reason that the United Methodist Church is out of step with other mainline denominations in the United States, like the Episcopalians, the Lutherans, the Presbyterians, and the Congregationalist (though each of those denominations has dissenting traditionalists), is that we are a world church. If the vote at General Conference were only among United Methodists from the U.S., we would have moved forward long ago.

As our church has evolved, the more liberal Methodist churches in South America, South Africa, and Great Britain formed their our indigenous churches and separated from what is now the United Methodist Church. Within our church, the traditionalist minority in the United States has almost unanimous support from the very conservative United Methodist conferences in Africa and together they form an immovable bloc. 

So after all of the tumult, we are left with a commission to study something that is already obvious to most of the people outside of the church. And, honestly, that is embarrassing.

But it should not surprise us.

When Jesus said, “the Kingdom of God is among you,” he was not speaking about the church. He was speaking about humanity. 

We pray that the Kingdom will come on earth because we know that it is not fully realized. And we know that we cannot point with certainty to an event or movement and exclaim, “Look, there it is.” 

But while the commission is conducting its study, more congregations will become reconciling churches, more clergy will conduct same sex weddings, more bishops will refuse to conduct clergy trials, and more openly gay clergy will be ordained.

The Kingdom of God is among us. And time is on our side.


  1. Thank you for this Bill. I will share it where ever I can. People forget that when Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God here there really was no "church" as we now know it. So of course it is Humanity to which he refers. I have been losing confidence and faith in the Church for some time now and the events of this week only push me further away... I continually see "the Kingdom of God" in the attitudes and actions of many non-Christian people and the charities and non-profits where giving and loving can happen. Makes me question the need for "church" - at least as it currently exists.

  2. Richard TaliaferroMay 19, 2016 at 10:42 AM

    What happens to clergy who have come out as LGBTQ in the meantime?

    1. Good question. I don't know the answer. It probably depends on which conference they are in. The path we are taking is not without many faults and much injustice will remain in place.