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Groundhog Day

By Keith Boyette

June 28, 2019

Delegates to the 2020 General Conference of The United Methodist Church in Minneapolis might just feel like they are starring in a sequel to the classic movie “Groundhog Day.” Bill Murray, as a weatherman named Phil, inexplicably finds himself living the same day over and over again. From May 5-15, General Conference delegates will be forgiven for questioning whether St. Louis, the site of the 2019 special General Conference, has simply been renamed Minneapolis and the experience of three days of vitriol cruelly extended to eleven.

Delegates’ lots have been cast by the recently concluded elections in U.S. annual conferences. Those who would reverse the UM Church’s teachings on marriage, ordination, and sexual ethics are euphoric over the election results that saw many of their endorsed candidates elected. What they fail to realize is that the outcome will likely produce the same result as they experienced in St. Louis. They will likely witness a majority of General Conference delegates yet again affirm our denomination’s teachings.

The Wesleyan Covenant Association and its allies are guardedly optimistic the 2020 General Conference will uphold and even strengthen the UM Church’s teachings on sexual practice and the character of those set apart to be clergy as it has done for the past thirteen General Conferences. It appears likely a coalition of traditional delegates from Africa, Eastern Europe, Eurasia, the Philippines, and the U.S. will have sufficient votes to uphold our Book of Discipline and enact additional provisions that would restore order to the chaos and disobedience that marks our church presently.

When U.S. delegates gather in Minneapolis with their international counterparts, U.S. “centrists and progressives” are likely to find that their voting block is almost exactly what it was in St. Louis. To be sure, centrists and progressives have made some gains in the U.S., perhaps electing 12 to 16 more delegates than in 2015. The problem for them, however, is that because of the shrinking size of the church in the U.S. its annual conferences were apportioned 22 less delegates, while Africa received an additional 20 and the Philippines an additional two. Consequently, just as U.S. “centrist and progressive” delegates constituted approximately 41 percent of the whole body in St. Louis, they likely will represent the same in Minneapolis. And it is likely the international delegates who so overwhelmingly voted to uphold and strengthen the church’s teachings in 2019 will do so again in 2020.

Some assert that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The depth of the divide between irreconcilable positions on the definition of marriage and our ordination standards has only deepened in the U.S. as contrasting positions have become entrenched and adherents of different positions have become more polarized. Delegates from outside the U.S. are not similarly divided. And their votes determine the outcome of these recurring debates.

The polarization in the U.S. portion of the church is further underscored by a divide between U.S. clergy and lay delegates. U.S. lay delegates, overall and in a number of annual conference delegations, are far more traditional in their positions than their clergy counterparts. One wonders how long this disconnect can be sustained. Will laity tolerate clergy who decide to willfully defy the teachings of the church?

The pressing question demanding an answer from U.M. leaders in the U.S. is whether they will continue to engage in the same conflict over and over again only harming our witness, regardless of which side of the question they are on. Traditionalists proposed legislation at the 2019 General Conference which would have permitted those who wish to change the church’s teachings to withdraw from the UM Church – with all their property and assets – and pursue their vision for ministry. “Centrists and progressives” opposed and blocked the advance of that legislation.

At the recent meeting of UMNext, a new advocacy group for centrists and progressives, attendees reported that 57% of those present voted in favor of working toward a plan that would allow new expressions of Methodism to emerge from the UM Church, otherwise known as separation. Momentum is building for such a solution to our intractable conflict. However, institutional elites in the bureaucracy of the UM Church and in some large-membership churches who want to avoid having the discussion in their congregations have a vested interest in blocking such a sensible resolution to our decades-old conflict.

While we believe the traditional position will prevail in Minneapolis, the Wesleyan Covenant Association maintains now is the time for opposing perspectives to work for a fair plan of separation rather than continuing to fight and rend the UM Church. We would have warmly supported such a plan in St. Louis, but unfortunately the vast majority of U.S. Bishops promoted a winner-take-all proposal that only heightened the level of conflict in the church. And the continuation of that conflict will only accelerate its rapid decline in the U.S. and impair the advance of our mission globally.

When delegates gather in Minneapolis, their attention will once again be dominated by a debate which has paralyzed our church for almost 50 years. Some seem intent on doubling down in the battle that will only extend the cycle of vitriol further. Others are ready to find a solution which will bless one another in our parting and seek to create an environment where all will prosper in their witness to the Kingdom of God. Let’s stop living the same day over and over again; it is time to create a new story.

The Wesleyan Covenant Association dreams of a church with unity in its doctrine and ethical practices, significantly reduced institutional bureaucracy, global in its relationships and commitments, and passionate in its mission to introduce people to Jesus, helping them to become his fully devoted disciples. Join us in praying for leaders across the church, for delegates to General Conference, and for God’s purposes to be fulfilled in the church.

The Rev. Keith Boyette is president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and an elder in the Virginia Conference of The United Methodist Church.

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