Two Questions from St. Louis

Delegates pray together during the February 23, 2019, opening session of the Special Session of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church. Photo by Paul Jeffrey for United Methodist News Service.

By Tom Lambrecht –

In the aftermath of the special called General Conference in St. Louis, there are two questions that could point to possible misunderstandings of its outcome.

1)     Was the decision to affirm the church’s current position on LGBTQ ministry an answer to prayer?

The 2019 General Conference was the object of more prayer than any other church event in my lifetime. Church members undergirded The Commission on a Way Forward with concentrated, widespread prayer for 18 months. We felt and appreciated those prayers and notes of encouragement! The Council of Bishops instituted a “Praying Our Way Forward” effort that assigned each annual conference an opportunity to pray for the 2019 General Conference in an intentional, concentrated way leading up to February. Individual United Methodists engaged in weekly fasting and daily prayer on behalf of the General Conference for the nine months leading up to the conference. The General Conference itself began with a whole day of prayer for all the delegates and observers.

Yet many progressive and moderate United Methodists are treating the outcome of the special General Conference as if God ignored all the prayers. Could it be that the decision of the General Conference is in fact God’s will, an answer to the many prayers that were prayed?

It is wise not to speak dogmatically when speaking about how God answers prayer because there is a lot of mystery in how prayer works. God is perfectly capable of answering a prayer with yes, no, or wait. It is often difficult to draw a straight line from a particular prayer prayed to a specific outcome.

But it seems equally unwise to simply discount all the prayers on behalf of the conference and say that those prayers were not answered. It sounds like some people are saying that if God does not orchestrate a specific outcome they agree with, God did not answer the prayer.

When I look at the many roadblocks put in the way of the Traditional Plan before and during General Conference, I cannot deny the miraculous aspect to the passing of it in any form, even with its shortcomings. I detailed in another blog the many ways the deck was stacked against the Traditional Plan. Is it not possible, then, that the passage of the Traditional Plan was indeed an answer to prayer?

The implications of this line of thinking lead us toward a heart of peace and away from a heart of war. In my own prayer life leading up to General Conference, I had stopped praying for a specific outcome and instead asked for God’s will to be done. That prayer posture led me to have peace in my soul, regardless of the outcome at General Conference. I believe the passage of the Traditional Plan was the right decision, but passage of the One Church Plan would not have been a devastating outcome for me. I had confidence that a faithful form of ministry would exist, no matter which way the General Conference decided.

People on all sides of the questions involved can view the outcome of General Conference as an answer to prayer and still make their own personal decisions about how to respond. For some opponents, the passing of the Traditional Plan might have been God’s way of freeing them from a system they believe shackles them from fully living out their faith commitments. That is the way I would have viewed it had the One Church Plan passed.

If the decision of General Conference was an answer to prayer, then those who disagree might be better served to simply accept the decision as the decision of the church. They can then determine for themselves whether God is calling them to live within that decision or remove themselves from it. Such an approach holds promise for a healthier outcome for General Conference 2020 than simply returning to the same battlefield and fighting the same battle over again.

2)     Was General Conference 2019 called to finally “decide” how the church’s ministry with LGBTQ persons would be shaped?

The rhetoric used by some progressives and moderates for many years has been that General Conference needs to decide this question. The implication is that we had not yet decided, even though General Conference voted the same way every four years for 45 years.

Does that mean that something is not “decided” until the decision is one that I can support? Short of a favorable decision, must I regard every earlier conclusion as provisional or temporary? At what point is a question finally decided?

This line of thinking is very frustrating to traditionalists and evangelicals. We believe that the General Conference decided the question in 1972. Every General Conference since then has affirmed that decision. Is it right for those who disagree to never accept the church’s decision until or unless they can convince the church to change its mind?

What we now have is many leaders – bishops, superintendents, clergy, annual conferences, and now one central conference – that have simply decided that, since the result of General Conference was not to their liking, they refuse to accept it or live by it. Never mind that our church’s structure is built around decision making by conference (in this case, a global decision by the General Conference, the only body empowered to speak for the church as a whole). Never mind that the General Conference is the primary instrument of unity in The United Methodist Church. Never mind that clergy have vowed before God to abide by the teachings of the church and the enactments of General Conference, whether they agree or not.

For those clamoring for “unity,” the refusal to abide by the church’s primary instrument of unity comes across as the height of hypocrisy. That refusal leads to the interpretation that unity is only desirable when it fits my preconceived ideas of how the church should be. That makes the individual, not the body in conference, the final arbiter of what is the true teaching of the church. This is precisely the atomization of the church that opponents of the One Church Plan warned about. Make the individual (pastor, congregation, annual conference) the final arbiter of truth and one has a shattering of both truth and unity.

Since so many leaders and annual conferences have publicly vowed not to live by the teachings and requirements of the church, we can no longer pretend there is any interest in unity. Rather, we must acknowledge that the primary interest is in doing ministry as each individual sees fit (what is right in one’s own eyes). Only if each individual is allowed to do ministry in the way he or she sees fit could there be any hope of holding the organizational church together (the One Church Plan). However, that is not unity, but surrender to individualism and congregationalism.

Since the 1740s, Methodism has been built around the unity of the conference. Those who could not abide by the will of the conference either departed or were removed. This is how unity was preserved in the church, with organized separations happening in our church’s history about once every ten years for the first 150 years of its existence. The attempt to “stay together” despite an unwillingness to live by the decisions of General Conference is simply “un-Methodist.” It sacrifices the unity of the church on the altar of individual conscience.

We must let this current reality sink in deeply, if we are to hope for an alternative way to move forward. The widespread disavowal of the General Conference actions means there is no way to move forward together in one body. The original conclusion of some at General Conference 2016 that separation was inevitable now dramatically shows itself to have been correct. Since separation of some form is inevitable because we cannot live with others who practice their faith in ways that are deeply offensive to us (on both sides), how can we move into a new relationship with one another in the least painful and most Christ-like way? Or are we doomed to repeat history and continue to fight over power and control of an institution?

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. He is a member of the Commission on a Way Forward.

Comments

  1. John Loper says:

    Answer to question #1: Yes and No. It all depends on your view of what church discipline and polity should be.
    Answer to question #2: Decidedly no. Until we have some sort of church discipline that EVERYONE must follow with punitive measures for those who want to “do their own thing”we are no better for this conference than for any other that has taken place since 1972.

  2. A Commission For An Amiable Separation should have been formed in 2016, obviously. Unless the progressives announce their departure, a petition must be presented at the 2020 General Conference to create such a commission — one void of ANY bishop involvement in its creation, its work, and its presentation at the 2024 General Conference or a sooner special conference.

  3. Gary Bebop says:

    Thanks, Tom, for another dive into the GC2019 furor. Your reporting gets us close to the drama, the pathos, the dirty tricks. But also the majesty of the Spirit’s work. The devil tried to “turn” the United Methodist Church and failed. But there will be more deviltry in another season. Be alert.

  4. The height of hypocrisy is that if the One Church Plan had passed by even just one vote, the Council of Bishops and bureaucracy would be crowing about how the will of God had been done, loudly proclaiming that the issue is now fully and officially decided with no further dissent being tolerated!

    Sadly, our leaders do not understand either what holiness means, what it requires, or the truth that without holiness, no man will see God. “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.” (Matt. 23:27-28)

  5. The “United” Methodist Church is now Humpty Dumpty and cant be put back together again. The Institutionalists in the Denomination – a majority of Bishops, non-Asbury seminarians, most of the GC agencies’ executives and a significant percentage of ordained clergy – have no intention of adhering to our Book of Discipline, following the position adopted by General Confetence after General Conference, allowing the Traditional Plan to remain in effect, working for realistic enforcement procedures, or letting those with whom they disagree leave without onerous financial hardship at best or costly litigation at worst. Who is willing to lead us out of the wilderness in which we find ourselves? Certainly not the Bishops whose laxity and permissiveness have gotten us to this disfunctional point where faithful Traditional believers are maligned as “haters.” Will the leadership of Good News or the WCA step up and create a structure within which Traditionalist congregations or Conferences can move and safely carry out their missions of bringing people to Christ free from the vitriol we face in the disfunctional and constitutionally unworkable “United” Methodist Church structure? Can’t we still formulate a Wesleyan connectionalism within a new framework, just a different one than the current unworkable structure in which connectionalism is only relevant to the leadership in term of financial support? I am afraid the leadership of Good News and the WCA have their heads in the sand if they believe their work is done simply because the OCP was defeated and the Traditionalist plan prevailed in part yet again. Traditionalist in the rank and file laity are desperately seeking an alternative. I pray the leadership of Good News and the WCA offer us an alternative option or we will have no choice but to give up on the concept of connectionalism for the sake of our consciences. Please please lead us out of this mess in which we find ourselves.

    • John, if you have the time, please read the attached article by William J. “Billy” Abraham, who is an orthodox/evangelical professor at Perkins School of Theology at SMU. He lays out a way forward now that conservatives have taken the “next step” by adopting the Traditional Plan at GC2019. It contains lots of insights, much hope, but also a number of steps forward…none of them easy, but certainly necessary for us to recover from 50 years, really, of denominational dysfunction and internal division. There is hope; a new future is possible – but it will take a great deal of work by some of the groups you mentioned above (who I believe have been very faithful and been working diligently for us – thank you, Good News and WCA!), and other faithful leaders in our denomination (those who will faithfully uphold our Book of Discipline).

      Here’s the link – grab your first cup of coffee before you start – you’ll need two or three to get through it!

      https://juicyecumenism.com/2019/03/17/mountains-climbed-next-united-methodism/

    • Respectfully, oh no — their heads are certainly not in the sand, far from it! We can never repay them for the work they’ve already unselfishly done. By no means do they believe their work is done. May God bless and keep them. Thanks be to God. And, the least tangible thing we can do is provide them our financial support.

      There is a plan, the structure is in place, the groundwork is laid if it becomes necessary to work the plan. If the future follows the fact that some traditional churches have already left and are affiliated with the WCA, then that could end up being the ultimate answer to our prayers.

      http://wesleyancovenant.org/2019/03/14/the-dawning-of-a-new-chapter/

  6. Bill Fitzgerrel says:

    I have been blessed by Tom Lambrecht’s insights for the last 2-3 years, especially in this difficult time in the run-up to General Conference 2019. However, I must object to his wording of the two questions. He uses the word “ministry” in regard to the policies and polity of the UMC concerning LGBTQ people. I believe that the UMC Discipline has various statements regarding homosexual practice that really do not define MINISTRY to people involved that practice. We consider such practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We forbid the ordination of such persons. We do not allow the church to be involved in same-sex weddings. In none of those policies do we define how pastors, worship greeters, counselors, Sunday School teachers, deacons, and various lay persons in other capacities should MINISTER to and with such persons. We don’t forbid putting an arm around the shoulders, weeping alongside, having out for lunch, going for a long walk and talk, receiving and initiating phone calls of and to and with people caught up in a homosexual lifestyle. We certainly don’t forbid preaching the life-changing and liberating gospel of Jesus Christ, who died for my sins and the sin of the whole world, whose death is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, who offers, through faith in him, relationship with the Father and life eternal, who gives freely of the water of life. The fact is that, because our denomination has been embroiled in this bitter fight for decades and because the progressives and sought to box in and define every word and action of traditionalists as “hate speech” and action, because our denomination has been in a Babylonian captivity of liberal theology, because of all this and more, we have not adequately and effectively MINISTERED to and with people involved in homosexual practice. It seems to me that the next step for conservatives is to learn and teach and practice ways to MINISTER to these folks that they might live into the joy of Jesus and be set free from a lifestyle that is destroying them.

  7. For years the LBGT community has gone away from our doctrine and polity. The following verse from 1 John helps explain where we are today. 1 John 2:19 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us. If the LBGT community had been chaste and believers of the Gospel, they would not have wanted to defy our BOD and polity. Manifest means put under the microscope or spotlight from the orthodox Methodist Body of Christ. There reaction to the vote at GC2019 was with the gall of bitterness and in the bond to iniquity.

  8. Robert A Combes says:

    #1 yes and #2 yes. Both appear to be grounded in biblical understanding and tradition. Will more be revealed in the coming days? For the last week I have been on the prayer from John 17, the prayer Christ had for His followers then and for us now. As I read and look at it I must conclude we are doomed as the UMC going forward.

  9. Yes and No. Liberals will never be bound by any tradition or authority that that supersedes and transcends their deification of the self and what current societal fads support. So for traditionalists and most evangelicals do not be flummoxed or surprised when liberals will not accept history, tradition or logic that refutes and corrects their erroneous beliefs.

  10. Joe Webb says:

    Do Methodists really realize what the OCP meant? This article lays it out rather well. Each church going its own way sounds like Baptists, hardly Methodists (and Baptists aren’t bad, but they often can’t agree). The UMC is the closest to the Early Church in organization as any religious body today. Apostolic Orthodoxy was determined by Church Councils. So today by the Methodists. Keep it that way.

  11. William Harrison says:

    Amen. Very well explained. Now let’s move forward and structure all churches as the majority voted. For those that don’t comply simply release them from the United Methodist.

  12. As I perceive the current situation, most UM’s believe they have either won or lost, as a result of the special general conference. The WCA and GN may not have intended this perception, but this is indeed how people feel. Given that the UM was attempting to redress 50+ years of disagreement and animosity over the LGBTQ presence in the church, it should not surprise anyone that we have such a depth of feeling and angst over the outcome. It seems to me that we have to accept two realities, in preparation for next year’s general conference:
    1) The UM’s cannot go back or revise this decision. Attempting to over rule, minimize or unduly soften the Traditional plan would be the worst of all outcomes. The special conference was difficult and bloody and should never be repeated. The only appropriate follow up to the special conference would be to reformulate and present the amendments to the Traditional plan, which were unable to be presented at the GC, due to political intrigue perpetrated by the LGBTQ supporters. I believe the one overwhelming decision made at the GC was this: The UM church wishes to continue to honor the God’s Word as our singular authority for all matters of discipline, both now and into the future.
    2) Despite what we may wish, we are in a political battle. Traditionalists are facing a formidable group of bishops, liberal theologians, social activists and the gay community. I, too, wish there was a mechanism available that would either allow the dissidents to retain their properties and leave the church or find a church that is more akin to their spiritual convictions; however, as the dissidents wasted time at the GC with absurd political tactics, their last/best opportunity for that reality also wasted away. I do not negate the possibility of God’s intervention in the lives and affairs of men; however, barring His intervention, this is a political drama that needs to be resolved by passing the entirety of the Traditional plan at next year’s GC, enforcing a compliance to the UM discipline by bishops, superintendents, pastors, churches and members and moving to reestablish a renewed church in the strength of the Wesleyan tradition. We need to be very watchful of the COB and all other UM agencies that have not supported the Traditional plan. There is likely to be another attempt to diminish the results of the GC and it likely to be pursued through the Judicial Council.
    I regret that the nature of my comments are more political than spiritual, but that is the reality that has been forced upon us. May God somehow bring glory to himself, even through such fragmented and unworthy vessels.

  13. Most of us have fallen into the trap of using vocabulary that has been hijacked and molested by those who have practiced deceit in academic scholarship as a means to what I suppose they justify as “the greater good”. Such terms have not only lost their original meaning, but have actually been manipulated to such a degree that a word may function as its own antonym—one word oxymorons. Communication has become terribly difficult when so much of our vocabulary no longer means what it once meant. We must be careful to continue to define our terms and speak with consistency in meaning. I, too, have been concerned with the terminology used by traditionalists (which is another of those “terms”, but I am just trying to comment and I need to do other things today). Are we being honest, are we honoring Christ, when we say, “Let us minister our way, and the LGBTQI’s, and those that support them, minister their way, only under another brand?” Aren’t we really saying, “Let us, Traditiinalists (yeah, I know), continue on the narrow path, evangelizing where we are comfortable, and let those who are deceived and spread deceit continue to Hell on their separate path(s) with our smiles and fond blessings? We have become cowards in speaking the Truth, fear of being accused of horrible, hateful acts. I cannot say I am not guilty. When Christ’s love becomes offensive, should we then cease to share His love? I struggle to define what it means for me, or even the church, to “do no harm”, but I wonder if my greatest fear is what harm I will face if I were to boldly speak Christ’s Truth, His love, to those that have defined themselves as LGBTQI Methodists and followers of Christ.

  14. Yes and No. Thanks for the inside view into the lion’s den.

  15. Jim Wolfgang says:

    Jim Wolfgang: Joe Webb’s 03-17 thoughts are right on the spot concerning the early church model of discerning the guidance of the Holy Spirit for the early church: it was through the authority of the Jerusalem Council- not individual congregations or individuals. The Apostle Peter had the matter of kosher laws and gentiles resolved this way,and the Apostle Paul had the matter of circumcision also resolved this way: these were momentous decisions that affect the global church today. Reading the Book of Acts, the teaching of Christ about His church being one flock many folds, and the Apostle Paul’s theology of the church as the body of Christ as ONE body of many parts leads me to believe the United Methodist Church (despite our current problems) is the truest expression of the New Testament church presently in existence- our theology expressed in the current Book of Discipline is very true to New Testament theology. The United Methodist General Conference is the equivalent of the Jerusalem Council for us. I am very alarmed when evangelical United Methodists talk of leaving the denomination: it is like crew members of a ship taking it upon themselves to abandon a damaged ship when it can yet be saved, leaving the work to “right the ship” to the faithful and courageous. The “traditional” United Methodists have again been upheld in the General Conference, we have more work to do to put accountability in place concerning those clergy who either lied or refuse to honor their vows to believe and uphold our beliefs. This placing of enhanced accountability will take perseverance, patience, and above all- faithfulness on our part. Why give up the ship? The Apostle Paul told the Philippians (3:17) to imitate him and those like him, they stayed on the right course for the church but it required perseverance. The Traditional Model is true, we need to continue to make the course corrections to keep it that way .Some United Methodists don’t like the Traditional Model: that is unfortunate for them, they need our prayers because they are the one’s out of step.

  16. While I believe that a decision was made in 1972 regarding LGBTQ being allowed full membership and connection, it like all other parts of the Discipline has not been enforced. We are at this point because while we said one thing we simply have never had the will or the support from pews to support it. We now have two groups now competing for the pew sitters support. One that is wanting the Discipline selectively enforced one way and another that is desiring it to be enforced another way. Neither camp is showing much if anything in the way of honesty or integrity. Growing up in the church I was taught that the Discipline was something you lived by. I actually believed that until I went to my first AC as a local pastor and saw the drinking, smoking, and other behaviours that were not in alignment with our teaching. Both camps were just as guilty. When I protested I have pulled aside and told that we couldn’t put that kind of pressure on pastors and leadership. That I needed to relax. I left that AC angry and frustrated. All I ask is for all of us to admit the obvious. We have ALL not adhered to or consistently enforced the Discipline except to support one political belief or another. I have 8 kids and not one attends a UMC church. They have all left the Church. I asked my eldest daughter why she had left and she made it plain that she as a member of the LGBTQ community was not welcomed. That stung. I have two little ones left. I have two chances left to convince two little ones that the Church still has integrity. I ask one thing. That if we enforce the Discipline we enforce ALL of it. Not a paragraph, not a few well-placed sections, but all of it. Yes, moderates like myself and progressives will continue to fight. That is the Methodist way. But integrity could be replaced if at least we saw defrocking for issues across the Discipline. That well-meaning traditional pastor with the divorce should be brought up on charges. That pastor with the drug or drinking problem should be defrocked. But to focus on one part of the Discipline strike me more as discrimination rather than upholding a moral core.

  17. Gary Bebop says:

    GC2019 provided a legal backstop for any wild pitches that may be forthcoming from the Western Jurisdiction (that has already gone into its windup). Tom and Rob are not oblivious to what is happening in the West. Our leaders know Methodism. Have confidence. Be Patient. Buy some popcorn.

Speak Your Mind

*

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.