By Walter Fenton-
Widespread acts of ecclesial defiance, General Conference, and the launch of the Wesleyan Covenant Association are just a few of the major developments in a very tumultuous year for The United Methodist Church. Here’s a recap, in more or less chronological order, of the year’s five biggest stories.
From the Rev. Cynthia Meyer’s January announcement to her Kansas congregation that she was in a partnered relationship with another woman, to the Rev. David Meredith’s same-sex wedding service in Columbus, Ohio, three days before the convening of General Conference, ecclesial defiance reached new heights in 2016.
Meyer, who had only been with her small Edgerton, Kansas, congregation for six months, timed her announcement to help kick-off the Reconciling Ministries Network “It’s Time” Campaign. The initiative was geared to sway General Conference delegates to liberalize the church’s sexual ethics and its teachings on marriage. Meredith’s wedding, actually a political stunt, since he and his partner were officially married in December 2015, was timed to rally LGBTQ+ advocates on their way to General Conference.
In between these acts of defiance, several conference boards of ordained ministry voted to ignore the Book of Discipline . Deciding they were right and the rest of the church was wrong, two boards recommended for commissioning and ordination, clergy candidates obviously out of compliance with the church’s standards.
And though General Conference showed no interest in changing its teachings on same-sex marriage and the practice of homosexuality, within a matter of weeks progressive U.S. annual and jurisdictional conferences thumbed their noses at the church’s diverse, global body, and continued to defy decisions reached through holy conferencing.
Central Conferences and U.S. Traditionalists Stand Together
Evident to everyone at General Conference 2016 was the ability of traditionalist delegates from Africa, Europe, the Philippines and the U.S. to thwart much of the
progressive agenda championed by U.S. liberals.
Some progressive commentators charged U.S. conservatives with instructing Central conference delegates how to vote and claimed they “hijacked” GC 2016. Although progressives work hand-in-glove with their institutionalist allies at the church’s general boards, agencies, and on the Connectional Table and Council of Bishops, it’s somehow wrong for traditionalists to work together. Progressives still fail to understand how insulting and patronizing it is to Central Conference delegates when people insinuate they can be told how to vote.
Members of the African Initiative made it very clear they have their own agenda and will not take their marching orders from anyone.
Commission on A Way Forward
When it became apparent at General Conference that any attempts to liberalize the church’s teachings on marriage and ordination, including the Connectional Table’s misguided “A Third Way” plan, had no chance of passing, a compromise – of sorts – was reached. Conservatives agreed to spare progressives the embarrassment of seeing cherished legislation soundly defeated by tabling all petitions on the church’s sexual ethics. In exchange, delegates agreed the Disciplines‘ teachings would remain in force, and the Council of Bishops would appoint a commission to bring a definitive resolution to the church’s decades long debate to an unprecedented called General Conference in 2018 or 2019.
Incoming Council of Bishops’ president Bruce Ough acknowledged the council is hopelessly divided. The very idea of a commission was the bishops’ way of acknowledging they needed an ad hoc body to resolve the crisis. Unfortunately, in predictable fashion, and even as the threat to the church’s governance escalated, it took the COB nearly five months just to appoint the commission members. Its lethargy pushed the called General Conference back to 2019, and even that is only a possibility.
Episcopal Election of the Rev. Karen Oliveto
Despite the compromise reached at General Conference, delegates at the Western Jurisdictional Conference ultimately decided to add fuel to the fire of ecclesial defiance. After 16 ballots, they decided to reject perfectly capable episcopal candidates with all the requisite progressive bona fides the jurisdiction typically requires, and instead elect a lesbian clergywoman they all knew was married to a United Methodist deaconess.
The UM Church now has a bishop of the whole church, leading the Mountain Sky Episcopal Area, who is willfully in violation of the church’s teachings on marriage, and who eagerly confessed to the New York Times that she has presided at over 50 same sex weddings during her clergy career.
The Wesleyan Covenant Association
In the meantime, United Methodists who staunchly support the church’s teachings, its polity, and its good order, met in Chicago to launch the Wesleyan Covenant Association. Over 1,800 people gathered for the hastily planned one-day conference on October 7.
It’s chairman, the Rev. Jeff Greenway said, “I am convinced God is doing a new thing among those of us who claim the historic, orthodox, evangelical, Wesleyan expression of our faith. I believe we are planting seeds today that – when full grown – will bear the fruit of a vital Wesleyan witness and a dynamic Spirit-filled Methodism across the globe.”
It was clearly one of the most momentous years in the church’s history, and sets the stage for disruptive change to come.
Walter Fenton is a United Methodist clergy person and an analyst for Good News.