I wanted my time at General Conference 2016 to be about something other than what it ended up being about. I wanted it to be mostly about congregations: My love and hope for them and discerning if and how this highest body of United Methodism could be a better aid to them in some way.
Instead, it turned into something else. Somehow, over those two weeks, I was shaped in a new way, into a stronger advocate you might say, and it happened over bacon. Very good bacon.
As part of the Western Jurisdiction delegation, I was asked to attend the Good News coalition breakfasts that happened each morning of General Conference. When we got into the legislative part of our time, our delegation wanted to know what guidance they were giving folks about which legislation. I wasn’t super excited to do this, but I was willing.
The legislation part wasn’t, in the end, all that interesting. They publish their voting guides just like all the rest of the groups do. In the breakfast, you did get to hear some commentary not in the guide, which at times was enlightening. Mostly, though, even that was variations on “if this passes people will give less money to your churches.” Fear mongering, pure and simple.
No, the truly interesting part was the daily devotional time. This was where the real messages they wanted to communicate were shared. For now, I just want to talk about the last two that I saw from Wednesday and Thursday of the second week (I didn’t attend Friday). I plan to cover others later.
Wednesday was Maxie Dunnam. This is apparently someone you are supposed to know, but I had no clue who he was. I learned later that he’s an important figure in the Good News movement and former president of Asbury Seminary. In a sermon with enough self-deprecation to move it from charming to desperate feeling, he laid out his feelings about the current impasse the church finds itself in. He didn’t name LGBT issues specifically, but in this room he didn’t need to. I won’t dig too deep into his message since I recorded it and you can watch it below if you want. For me the money quote comes about in the middle, around 7:45 mark, where he says:
“We [meaning orthodox, conservative, evangelical, etc] are going to demonstrate that our loyalty and commitment to unity is not through structure and intuition, it’s through doctrine, discipline, and mission. Rather than support for structures and apportionments. I ought to get an Amen from you on that.”
I remember very clearly sitting in my seat thinking, did he really just say that? He did. And yes, they gave him an Amen.
Thursday was Rev. Kenneth Levingston from Jones Memorial in Houston, Texas. Now Thursday is the day after the Howard motion passed and took all human sexuality petitions off the table and opened the door for a special General Conference in 2018/19. So, this morning it was becoming clear that the stalemate around human sexuality in the church would continue. I went into this breakfast very interested in hearing what would be said about this. Then Rev. Levingston spoke, and if I was surprised at what I felt was being so clearly communicated from Rev. Dunnam, this guy wasn’t even trying obscure his intentions.
Drawing on the stories of Abram and Lott and Paul and Barnabus, he laid out the biblical imperative for separation. No words minced here. Towards the end, around the 7:45 mark, he says,
“Sometime we have to spend some time apart so that maybe down the road God can bring us down together.”
Again, if you are interested, you can watch the whole thing below.
So let’s think through what this means. Who was going to speak, and when, was announced back at the first breakfast. They were obviously invited well in advance and had obviously prepared their remarks beforehand. These were not off the cuff messages responding to the events of the previous days. These were intentional messages delivered at intentional times.
Basically, it felt orchestrated. Now, perhaps there was a Plan A / Plan B arrangement depending on how legislation went. That is very possible. But there is simply no way some part of this wasn’t determined ahead of time. It’s also important to consider that if this is what they are willing to say publically, where even people like me can hear, what is being said privately, in rooms where nobody else is listening?
Now, add to this, this announcement from the same people who put on this breakfast, announcing the new Wesleyan Covenant Association. The purpose statement from their own website about this new association starts with,
“In these times of great uncertainty about the future of The United Methodist Church, the Wesleyan Covenant Association stands together as an alliance to advance vibrant, scriptural Christianity within Methodism.”
Great uncertainty about the future of The United Methodist Church? You do not need to read between the lines too much to see what is happening here. If remaining in the United Methodist Church becomes too unpalatable where do you go? How about simply building up the association you’ve already created.
Then, this happens: Conferences from my jurisdiction nominate two openly gay pastors for Bishop and a conference from the the North-central Jurisdiction does the same. After creating near perfect conditions for schism, the Good News folks now also have the perfect scapegoat.
I need to say now that I’m not normally a conspiracy person. I don’t believe the world is controlled by secret councils or a cartel of bankers or anything like that. I also don’t really think what we are seeing unfold here is even a conspiracy. What I do think is happening is that one side in this debate has dug in so far, and put all their chips down on one position, that they don’t have anywhere else left to go. Irresistible force meet immovable object.
So, where do we go then? Well, next week will be jurisdictional conferences across the United States. I will be attending, and voting, at mine. We will prayerfully consider who is best called to fill our one open Bishop slot. My brothers and sisters in the North-Central Jurisdiction will do the same. My guess is both of these elections will be very closely watched.
To be fair, I really don’t know what is going to happen. But I write all of this so that we can all have our eyes a little more open. Let’s not pretend that groundwork isn’t being laid right now for a massive “I’m taking my ball and going home” moment in the life of the United Methodist church because that is exactly what is going on. Let’s also not pretend that those who have the most to gain, those who would be the leaders in this new Orthodox Evangelical Methodist Church, aren’t the ones fanning the flames the most.
Let’s drop the pretexts and just call a spade a spade. Let’s have the integrity to stop hiding behind rhetoric about covenant and orthodoxy and say aloud what’s really going on.