Despite what you may have heard or read or seen in the media, the 2016 General Conference was not all about sex, or human sexuality, or homosexuality. Those kinds of topics attract lots of media attention, some demonstrations, and an explosion of social media – but the recently-completed General Conference was about much, much more than that.
Among the important things that happened at General Conference:
- Worship – lots of worship, with global diversity, but also a strong Christ-centered focus.
- Prayer – lots of prayer before, during, and after General Conference. We prayed at the beginning of each session, many times during each session, and at the end. The prayer room was busy. I think even a casual observer would have to admit that prayer was a constant reality at General Conference.
- Global growth – we celebrated how our UMC is growing globally, including the presence of an increasing number of delegates from outside of the U.S. That made for challenges of language and culture, but it is a wonderful sign of the movement of the Spirit in our UMC.
- Still too much U.S.-centric legislation – we have not yet learned how to structure or discipline ourselves to keep our U.S. issues from dominating General Conference, but we are making progress.
- Technology helped and hindered – some of the newer technology allowed us to communicate better, but at other times it seemed that technology got in the way. The new electronic system for seeking to speak on the floor of General Conference helped in some ways (easier to identify persons wanting to speak), but it hurt in other ways. People who entered the electronic "Queue" to speak seemed to assume that they had the right to speak – with some of the same people constantly seeking the floor. In the "old days" of waving a card to speak, the presiding bishop could never call upon everyone, and everyone seemed to understand that fact, but our new technology gave some people a sense of "entitlement" to speak. And some abused that.
- Good conversations around tables, over lunch, and in the halls – but it is difficult for a group of 850 people to be a "committee of the whole." Some people didn't seem to understand that we delegate to smaller legislative groups and sub-groups, so we need to trust them.
- A reasonable budget – the General Conference adopted a budget for the next four years of $604 million – less than the current four-year period, a little more than was originally presented, but a reasonable budget. It also includes a "global apportionment" so that Conferences outside of the U.S. all participate in giving to support the budget.
- Many "glory sightings" of God at work – celebrations of new missionaries, new communities of faith, new efforts at ministry and justice – every day we heard multiple celebrations of our UMC at work around the world.
- Mostly courteous and caring delegates – even though we had a few difficult people, most of the delegates present seemed to be committed to working long hours, seeking God's will, and conferencing with one another.
- On-going work – the work of our UMC continues, and the things adopted by the General Conference will take months and years to continue. General Conference is never the end of our work, it is a step along the way.
So, why was there so much attention on human sexuality? Because we have new challenges here in the U.S. where same-gender marriages are now legal. Because we have a variety of contexts for ministry around the world, and that makes it hard to adopt rules that apply everywhere. Because our Wesley Quadrilateral of Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience is providing us with mixed results. Many of the passages of Scripture we relied upon in the past are facing new interpretations by sincere Christians. Tradition has been nearly unanimous in condemning same-gender sexual activity (that is what our Social Principles mean when we state that it is "incompatible with Christian teaching" – it is a statement of historical fact), but many today are reminding us that the Church has changed other long-held traditions like prohibitions against women in ministry. Likewise, Reason reveals that there are new scientific studies of sexuality which inform the Church, and more and more people have had Experience with genuine Christians who happen to be gay or lesbian. Rather than having a simple answer from Scripture as interpreted in the light of Tradition, Reason, and Experience, we are struggling as a UMC to find God's will for our global realities and a changing culture.
So, what did General Conference do with all of these challenges? It maintained our current language and rules about sexuality, but it also took the unusual step of asking the Council of Bishops for help. We bishops responded by proposing that we name a commission to study, pray, and seek solutions to bring back to General Conference. Hopefully what a group of 850 people cannot do in 10 days, a smaller group can do in a series of meetings over the next several months. Will that work? I don't know, but it seems like a good way to move forward.
It must also be said that even when the General Conference talked about sexuality, that was not always the real issue. Other issues entered into the discussions – like power, and authority, and political competition. We are going through the growing pains of becoming a more global church where our U.S. issues cannot be our only agenda. Those on the "left" and the "right" are vying for control of our church. "Accountability" is a word often used, and it seems to mean that we want OTHER PEOPLE to be accountable, but not ourselves. In the midst of these struggles (which are only partially about sexuality), sinful impulses can easily enter into our midst. We saw some of that at General Conference, and it was sad to see.
So I came home tired, discouraged in some ways, but reassured in others. Christ is still the head of our UMC, and we saw lots of evidence of that truth. Thanks be to God.
Now what? My advice to United Methodists here in Indiana is a poster I saw and shared which says: "Keep Calm and Disciple On."