By Rob Renfroe-
Contrary to what you might have heard, General Conference 2016 was a real success for traditional, evangelical United Methodists. Maybe because this was my sixth General Conference, I don’t expect the Kingdom of God to come in all its glory every four years when United Methodists gather from all over the world. I don’t expect all of our problems to be solved. I don’t arrive, thinking that traditional UM Christians will win every vote. But we came pretty close in Portland.
I know that’s not the perspective of many. Our office has heard from laypersons and pastors all over the country that they “have had enough,” they “can’t take it anymore,” and they are “looking for a way out.” If that’s you, let me encourage you to take a breath and look at what really happened.
The big story is this: The evangelical-African coalition now clearly forms the majority viewpoint within the UM Church. All five persons elected to the Judicial Council and the four elected to the University Senate were supported by the coalition. With only one exception, all of A Third Way’s “compromises,” supported by progressives and “centrists” regarding sexuality and marriage, were defeated in committee – and defeated so soundly that those who wanted to liberalize our position thought it best that their proposed changes not be brought to the plenary floor.
Furthermore, the vote to completely disassociate the UM Church from any affiliation with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, a radical pro-abortion lobby, was approved overwhelmingly. We began trying to sever our ties to the group almost 25 years ago. But at this General Conference, that victory was finally won!
By the end of our time in Portland liberal bloggers were beside themselves. Several wondered, “What has happened to our church,” and others bemoaned that The United Methodist Church’s commitment to “a progressive understanding of social justice” was coming undone. For the first time, some progressive leaders stated that it was time to consider separation. The liberals got the message that many evangelicals may have missed: the progressive agenda no longer has the power or the hope to liberalize United Methodism’s official stance on truly important social and theological issues, at least not legislatively.
With Methodism growing rapidly in Africa and declining in the United States, by General Conference 2020 there are likely to be more United Methodists living in Africa than in the U.S. Justifiably, the percentage of African delegates, who possess traditional, biblical views regarding sexuality, at the next General Conference will be even greater than it was in Portland.
The big story is that our denomination’s most important and powerful administrative body, the Connectional Table, put forth what it believed to be a solution to our differences regarding sexuality and marriage. Presented as a compromise, the plan titled “A Third Way” would have allowed each pastor to decide whether he or she would perform same gender weddings and each Annual Conference would determine if it would ordain partnered gay persons. It was a proposal that was promoted by many of our best-known and most influential pastors who had been pushing a similar proposal for two years. And it failed. In fact, A Third Way failed so badly that it was one of its supporters that proposed that all Third Way legislation be tabled.
No, we didn’t get everything we wanted. We did strengthen the Council of Bishops’ ability to hold its members accountable for their actions. And we were able to obtain an additional $5 million for theological education for the Central Conferences, primarily Africa. But some of the legislation we had hoped to pass was tabled.
Disappointing? Yes. A disaster? Hardly. Unexpected? Not really.
After six of these, you know you don’t get everything you want. But you don’t let that blind you to victories won and progress made. And you certainly don’t let it keep you from seeing the big picture – The United Methodist Church will for many years to come continue to hold a biblical, balanced view of sexuality that affirms the worth of all persons, defines marriage as one man and one woman, and states same-sex relations are contrary to God’s will.
Does this mean our troubles are over? No. Our problem has never been bad legislation; it has always been bad actors – pastors who don’t have the integrity to keep the vows they took, bishops who won’t enforce the Book of Discipline in any significant way, and now Boards of Ordained Ministry that flaunt their disdain for the church’s position. No matter what legislation we had passed in Portland, those aching to split the church through covenant-breaking acts would continue to do so.
I don’t minimize the chaos these growing acts of disobedience will create. I still believe that if we are one church, we cannot act as if we are two. If we are two churches, we need to stop pretending that we are one.
Growing acts of division and those bishops who enable or even encourage them will continue to wear away at our connection, raising loud and clear the question of whether we can remain one church. I am hopeful the commission that General Conference called the bishops to create will be an opportunity for leading progressives, centrists, and traditionalists to come together and have the unrushed, honest conversations that are necessary to determine if we may live together with integrity. I have been a part of several such conversations over the past four years and have been grateful for them. If the commission can find some way for us to remain together – a way that no other denomination has discovered – I’ll be all for it. If not, then perhaps the commission’s conversation can be honest enough to admit how deeply divided we are and to propose a different narrative than two sides fighting for the next 20 years to see who “wins.”
That is the big story from Portland. It will take progressives at least 20 years to change the UM Church. They will face two more decades of their not being able to minister to LGBTQ persons the way they believe they should. Two more decades of LGBTQ persons feeling disappointed in and hurt by their church. Two more decades of progressives believing they have lost their church. Two more decades of anger, fighting, and trials.
If the results in Portland can convince progressives that there’s a better way forward than doing the same things for at least the next 20 years while expecting different results – then GC 2016 will be a huge success, not just because we passed some very good legislation, but because it just might bring about a “moment of clarity” and change the narrative.
Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News.