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General Conference: Can We Stay Together?

Saturday, I had another delegation meeting for the NCNY delegation to General Conference. The UM Reporter blog has a good set of interesting articles out right now about General Conference. John over at Locusts & Honey has a conversation going about this pastoral letter from Foundry UMC. And I've got General Conference and our future as a denomination on my mind and in my heart.

At our delegation meeting, we talked about the Pre-General Conference Briefing that delegation heads attended last month. They reported back about church leaders really hoping that we can focus on ministry concerns at General Conference, specifically "four areas of focus: developing principled Christian leaders for the church and the world; creating "new places for new generations" by starting new churches and renewing existing ones; engaging in ministry with the poor; and fighting the killer diseases of poverty such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS." I would love if General Conference and our work focused on these issues, with other matters as small aside issues. But, having been to General Conference before, I'm skeptical.

Can we stay together? Work together? Move forward from this place? That's what's on my mind. Our deep disagreements over human sexuality issues, and, at core, theological understandings, scripture authority, biblical interpretation - these divisions are killing us as a denomination. Sometimes, I think both 'sides' wish the other sides would just leave the denomination. Sometimes both 'sides' say just that. Sometimes, 'liberals' (I know, labels, labels, but for lack of better words) wish 'conservatives' would just realize that eventually our position on issues of same-sex relationships will have to change. Sometimes, conservatives wish liberals would just realize it's never going to change. Any way you look at it, I feel like we're all losers in this situation.

Is there a way beyond our division? I'm no fan of confrontational arguments on my blog as you might know, so I'm not really looking for whether you think ordination/holy unions/etc. for gay and lesbian persons is OK or not. We've all done our "drawing lines in the sand." We've all heard the arguments for and against. What I'm wondering about it: do you see any possible way we could move forward from where we seem stuck as a denomination? I guess if we could answer that question, we'd not be stuck here anymore. But I'm looking for a little inspiration. Or do you think things are just too far gone?

The United Methodist Church is such a theologically diverse denomination. That diversity is so frustrating sometimes. I can't deny I've occasionally wished for a denomination where everybody thought mostly like me! Seriously, if we had more common ground, I feel like we could spend our energy for God in such more constructive ways. But I've also been richly blessed by our theological diversity, even in my frustration. I'm not willing to give that up so easily. What do you think?


Anonymous said…
Well, I get the UCC national newspaper. Their issues are pretty clear. They seem pretty united.... not at all like us.

I seriously think sometimes we just need to divide. And I don't think that it's terrible to talk about a split. We seem to care more about unity than our theology. And that unity often comes across as a false unity. And I think we all know it.
Pastor Bill said…
Hi Beth,

Interesting question and no simple answer. With the growth of the percieved Conservative Evangelical Internatonal Church and what seems to be their growing power, and the gap between the liberal / conservative sides, I do not see our denomination making peace around these issues. I believe that if the votes ever turned in the issues you call "Our deep disagreements over human sexuality issues, and, at core, theological understandings, scripture authority, biblical interpretation -" the conservatives segments of our denomination would leave immediately. It has honestly amazed me over the years that the liberal segment has stayed in a denomination that denies rights that seem fundamental to their faith. I do not believe the conservatives would stay if the roles are reversed.

So, without arguing for either point of view I believe that we are at a point of irreconcilable differences. Sad for me too, because I love this denomination and I know you do as well!

Love Bill
Unknown said…
Beth, great question and perfect timing in asking it. What I love about the UMC is our diversity and I think it gives a wonderful picture of the Kingdom. Yet I too get frustrated about the UMC is our diversity and our inability to make decisions and move on. This will be the third or fourth (not quiet sure) general conference where homosexuality will be a main focus. I would hate that this sole point would divide a denomination but how do we move forward? I don’t have an answer but I’m in prayer and I think that is the best we can do at his time
Bryan Hooper said…

I suspect that the United Methodist Church will find a way to stay together. Despite the rhetoric, there are considerable forces holding us together, and I have a hard time believing that anyone really wants to split this monster up, when we all know that we'll just patch it back together in another forty years when the whole thing looks silly.

What I don't think will happen: I don't think the church will ever "settle." I think we will always struggle with divisive issues that threaten to tear us apart. I think we will always be a negotiated, compromised church, composed of contentious and contradictory opinions. We might resolve one issue or another, but emerging challenges will always present themselves. I guess I want to make peace with the discord of the church. That is, I think the only real way forward for us.

And, frankly, I think we can even learn to celebrate that, if we can tolerate it. One of the things that attracts me to our church is our diversity, pluralism, etc. We have historically been very open to new ideas, new demographics, new communities. That opennes brings with it some considerable challengs. But from one perspective, the discord is a wonderful image of what it means to be human.
Ken Lowery said…
Bryan Hooper is really onto something there. The divisiveness can hurt the heart, but I prefer that to a church with a single "groupthink" approach to everything.

When you willingly step away from all divisiveness -- a move that, to me, feels like "escape" in its most negative connotations -- you disengage from the great Abrahamic tradition of struggling with the tough issues and questions that must be dealt with. I'd go so far as to say the struggle is what defines us... and allows us to remain a relevant force in the wider world.
Gord said…
COming from the UCCan perspective I have to ask what United means. (Seriously, after all we haven't got a clue much of the time -- the common typo Untied Church of Canada seems all to apt at times)

WE have in our denomination a wide spectrum of thought on a variety of thelogical, political, and social issues. I suspect the UMC is the same in that regard. SO part of the issue is to ask how diverse we can be and still be unified.

IT is hard to compare denominations because the polity issues are very different. For us in the UCCan there is a realization that unity can (and does) mean a wide difference of opinion. The question is how do we live out that unity then? I hunch that the UMC now is where the UCCan was 20 years ago--and mamy thougth the church would be irreparably fractured then. (whether it was or not is a matter of debate and interpretation)
Eric Helms said…
The question of whether or not the church is "united" is not limited to the "United Methodist Church." Ultimately at question how define the Christian community. It is not only heartbreaking for me to see division in the United Methodist Church, rather it is heartbreaking that denominations even exist. Our call to be the united body of Christ should be leading us to merge denominations rather than split and create new ones. How will the non-Christian world believe we have anything to offer--how will they "Know we are Christians By Our Love" if all we do every four years is argue and move towards division. For those among us who wish to divide, I think the unfortunate criterion that must be met is that the other side is no longer Christian in their beliefs and practices. Otherwise, we say, "I love you, I see Christ in you, but in instances X, Y, and Z, I disagree with you." Until then we remain united and seek to unite with all Christians that the Body of Christ may not be divided.
David said…
I have to say I am very disappointed with the ongoing conversation about split/schism. It seems to me that the early church had a fair share of disagreements, but did not feel the need to splinter at each disagreement, nor to turn each church into a clone of beliefs held by the others.
I look at the Catholic church and the myriad "beliefs" held under the same umbrella and wonder how we could be driving to divide when the call is always to seek ways to welcome one another, despite the faults and disagreements.
greg milinovich said…
i'm with david on this. i was at general conference in pittsburgh in 2004 on that friday when it seemed like all hell was about to break loose. i remember it so clearly and vividly, and what i remember most is a feeling of profound disappointment that we can't be who we say we are. we say we are God's beloved, that we are God's precious children, called into community with one another. and when we can't agree we just leave. its just a disappointing model.

its interesting that so many are arguing for something called 'the sanctity of marriage, but would those who are arguing for those really claim that a good model for marriage is 'splitting' when you don't agree? i think not. i strongly believe we are called to keep at this. even though it threatens to split us, we should not be afraid. we should be love.
klh said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
klh said…
I almost left the denomination over this issue. But I decided to stay, because I became convinced that if everyone like myself left, the denomination would continue to be called a "church" but would be on a path toward unfaithfulness that would reflect poorly on Jesus. I think about the question of whether or not to split in the same way. If we split over this divide, both sides will be calling themselves "church," but on [at least] one side, Jesus will not be well-reflected to the world. And so I think it is more important that we all stay and push toward what we believe to be faithful, in order that his name not be taken in vain. I also think, though, that we all (and I include myself here) need to approach the other "side" with a greater degree of humility. Jesus uses the church despite its messiness - Jesus uses all of US despite our sinfulness, despite the times in our own lives when EACH of us have closed our eyes to our own sins to the harm of others and when we have believed something false to be true. So its not like the other "side" in the homosexuality debate is alone in these things - we're right there with them. Having received so much grace from God, how can we not extend that to our neighbor?

One more thought - I think that the only way to actually make progress toward real reconciliation on this issue is for ALL of us to admit that we might be the ones who are wrong. I know, I know, I'm as confident as the next that I'm 'fighting' on God's side here. But I also know that when someone approaches me with their heels dug into the ground and demands I see things their way - particularly if it is with regard to something I feel they are wrong about with regard to God - I am the least inclined to let my opinions be vulnerable with them. On the other hand, when someone approaches me in vulnerability, suggesting that they might be wrong but want to work toward a mutual understanding together, I am far more likely to let down walls. Likewise, when I approach someone with vulnerability and a sincere "I might be wrong" attitude, the other "side" is much more inclined to listen, no matter how unlikely that might seem beforehand. I really think we all need to think about the possibility that God is speaking to US in some way to help US grow in our understanding through the "other side" - whichever the "us" might be. In the end, we share a lot in common - a common desire to glorify God, a common desire to live faithfully, a common desire to abide in Christ and bear much fruit. We should look for ways in which we can learn how to do that better through the other "side," extending the grace that God has offered to us and aware of our own ability to be wrong.
Andy B. said…
Eric said, "Ultimately at question how define the Christian community."

Right on target. As long as some define "unity" as "agreement," we will go round and round with this. But unity transcends disagreement, imho. Unity comes from the grace of God, not from uniformity of belief within the community.
Greg Hazelrig said…
Hi Beth,

I agree with you. I am worried about whether or not this issue of sexuality will destroy our denomination. I love our roots and am a Wesleyan at heart. I do wish we could work on some important issues that might otherwise get sidetracked by an argument where we just can't seem to get along.
Eric Helms said…
I already commented, but Greg Hazelrig just inspired another thought. How can we ever figure out how to be inclusive on an issues as contraversial and difficult as sexuality if we still have many churches that are struggling with how to include children, youth, and young adults regardless of sexual orientation?
TN Rambler said…
klh made a good point about how the different "sides" approach each other. Nothing is accomplished by folks digging in their heels and refusing to even listen to one another. We can see the results of this stance given that this issue has been on the front burner at GC every year since 1972.

Instead of taking our bibles and beating each other over the head we need to be spending our time trying to be the people that we are called to be. We need to be sharing the love of Christ with our neighbors and making disciples rather than deciding who is "in" or "out" based upon the laundry list of sins that we each carry with us. We need to allow grace to work and leave the judging to God. Grace can change hearts and change lives. We can do neither.

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