Responding to Reactions to the Special General Conference
March 22, 2019
General Conference is the only body empowered to speak officially on behalf of the whole denomination. It sets the faith, order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline of the church, and its decisions represent the global connection as it discerns God’s will for the whole church.
When individual UM members choose to act contrary to the decisions of General Conference, whether of a theological or ethical nature, it is regretful. Our time-honored polity is designed to handle such transgressions by balancing justice and grace as we seek reconciliation and restoration. When our bishops – our chief executive officers, authorized to guard the faith, order, liturgy and doctrine set forth by General Conference – defy or call into question the work of the General Conference, they engender a constitutional crisis that undermines the good order and unity of the church.
Unfortunately, since the close of the special General Conference a number of bishops have acted or spoken in direct opposition to the work of General Conference. Here are just a few examples:
o Bishop Julius Trimble, of the Indiana Annual Conference, unfairly mischaracterized the work of the delegates when he wrote, “The United Methodist Church cannot be held hostage by votes at a General Conference or the wide chasm between those who read the Bible and see condemnation and others who read the Bible and see grace.” Orthodox evangelicals now justifiably wonder if their episcopal leader will fairly and faithfully execute the duties of his office.
o After he lamented the present state of the general church in an open letter, Bishop John Schol said, “We [i.e., the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference] are a One Church Conference where churches hold different beliefs and understandings and engage in different ministries with gays and lesbians.” Not surprisingly, many orthodox evangelical pastors and lay people interpreted his remarks as a tacit admission that he would lead the conference as if the One Church Plan passed.
o In remarks delivered at St. Mark UM Church in Atlanta on Sunday, March 3, Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson, of the North Georgia Annual Conference, said, “When I answered ‘yes’ to the vow, ‘will you renounce, evil, injustice and oppression wherever you see it – and boy have I seen it!” it was obvious to all in attendance she was referring to the work of the delegates at the special General Conference who passed the Traditional Plan. Her remarks here and in other spheres leave many in her annual conference unsure about her role as bishop of those who support the Book of Discipline and the decision of the General Conference.
o The Western Jurisdiction bishops accused the General Conference of being “incapable of making space for ALL of God’s children,” and lauded the jurisdiction’s willingness to defy to the UM Church by electing “the first out gay bishop.”
In addition to episcopal critique and defiance, some pastors, general church leaders, and church affiliated organizations have registered their dissent as well.
o Over 250 pastors in the Michigan Annual Conference have signed a statement declaring, “The General Conference, as an institution, is broken. We, therefore, refuse to accept the United Methodist stance that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. We can no longer abide by the restrictions the Book of Discipline has placed on inclusion of LGBTQIA people in the full life of the UMC.” Their defiance contributes to the sense of a church that is slowly, but surely slipping into chaos.
o In an open letter, New England Annual Conference Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar and his nine cabinet members wrote, “We are heartbroken by, and repent of, the harm caused by the recent Special Session of the General Conference and years of discrimination in the United Methodist Church to LGBTQIA friends, neighbors, and family members….” Devadhar and his cabinet also said they stood by the conference board of ordained ministry’s decision to ignore the Book of Discipline regarding a full examination of candidates for ministry.
o The Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe, General Secretary of the UM Church’s General Board of Church and Society, recently wrote, “The 2019 General Conference chose to further deepen the divide in The United Methodist Church. The plan adopted by a slim majority is punitive, contrary to our Wesleyan heritage, and in clear violation of the mandate given to us in 1 Corinthians 12.”
o General Secretary Erin Hawkins, of the UM Church’s Commission on Religion and Race, said the General Conference’s support of the Traditional Plan was proof of the church’s “comfort with sanctioned discrimination and exclusion.” Without offering any evidence, she also claimed there were “forces that corrupted the work of the General Conference.”
In light of these developments many pastors, laity and local churches associated with the WCA are asking some hard questions. Is it ethical to continue to financially support UM leaders, annual conferences, and general boards and agencies that have openly stated they will not abide by the church’s polity? And has the general church reached such a state of dysfunction that disaffiliation from it must be seriously contemplated by local church leaders in certain annual conferences?
The WCA Council understands why many traditional local UM churches are asking these questions. It recognizes how difficult it is for faithful United Methodists to support bishops, annual conferences leaders, and general boards and agencies that are bent on defying the very church they represent. As the WCA continues to monitor developments in the coming weeks, the council will carefully reflect on these legitimate questions and give guidance accordingly.
In the meantime, the WCA continues to gain in strength and stature, and new members and local churches across our global connection join us every day. We are proud to be associated with loving, gracious, and growing UM churches around the world. Additionally, dynamic young clergy and laity affiliated with us are leading local churches in new and effective ministries. We are confident our movement will continue to grow and expand in every region of the church.
We are also thankful for our renewal and reform partners: the Africa Initiative, the Confessing Movement, Good News, and UMAction. They will continue to organize, inform, and prepare orthodox evangelical United Methodists for whatever challenges lie ahead. They have demonstrated faithfulness, unity and discipline, and we are proud to partner with them as we prepare for annual conference meetings, other important gatherings, and the 2020 General Conference. We are confident many rank and file United Methodists support the theological claims and ethical values we will all work to promote and defend.
For now, the WCA believes there are only two ways forward:
One option is to begin a grace-filled conversation with trusted leaders from all sides, where we can acknowledge our deep, irreconcilable differences and begin hammering out a just and fair plan of separation to be put before the 2020 General Conference.
The other option is a repeat of St. Louis in Minneapolis, the site of the next General Conference, which will guarantee a painful division of the church sure to harm everyone.
The WCA prefers the first option. We believe there are still good faith partners across the theological spectrum willing to work for such an outcome. Therefore, we welcome constructive conversations with people from all vantage points. As we prepare for another General Conference, we call on our bishops to lead with integrity, to restore good order to the church, and lead us in wise and fruitful conversations for the sake of all the people called Methodist.