By Rob Renfroe –
General Conference 2019 is over. Thank God! Many of us feared, even predicted, that when we gathered in St. Louis, we would experience the most hurtful and harmful General Conference in the history of the United Methodist Church.
Sadly, our fears were realized. The delegates affirmed a Traditional Plan that maintains our scriptural sexual ethics and added some additional accountability measures for those who disobey the Book of Discipline. But only after many LGBTQ persons felt marginalized and condemned by the church. And only after traditionalists were accused on the Conference floor of bringing a virus into the church that would make it sick, damaging the witness of the church for generations to come, and being mean-spirited, punitive hypocrites.
What hurts most is that it did not have to be this way. We asked our bishops and the Commission on a Way Forward to bring the church a new, creative plan that would put an end to our fighting. We had hoped they would do the visionary work necessary to come up with a solution that did not produce winners and losers. Instead, the option they recommended was an old plan that had been around for years and that guaranteed the special General Conference in St. Louis would get ugly and that people would be harmed.
It’s heartbreaking that after nearly three years, five million dollars, and many prayers for our bishops, they have left the church more divided and broken than ever.
Where do we go from here? To Minneapolis for General Conference 2020. And we’ll be there in fourteen months. The question before us is: Will we repeat the same battle in Minneapolis we just fought in St. Louis, using the same tactics, employing the same vitriol, likely to produce the same result – a church that is divided, dysfunctional, and coming apart? I hope and pray not.
Right now, people are angry and hurting. So, many are finding villains to blame, making accusations of underhandedness and even bribery. Others, primarily centrists and progressives, are threatening to leave the denomination. Some disappointed delegates and leaders are wondering out loud if they should pay apportionments to support the church in Africa which has kept them from moving the church in a progressive direction.
Still, United Methodist leaders are promising to ignore the decisions of General Conference and to be in ministry in the future as if the One Church Plan had passed. All this is to be expected. People who had hoped the church would change its sexual ethics are going through the grief process. First comes denial; then anger.
What is needed, and soon, are good faith partners – traditional, “centrist,” and progressive – who do not want to repeat the unpleasant and unproductive “Ground Hog Day” we have experienced at every General Conference since 1972. We need respected leaders in the U.S. and in the central conferences to come together and do the work we had hoped the Commission would do.
St. Louis was my seventh General Conference. My views have prevailed at every one of them. But I have never left feeling like a winner. I know people have been hurt by my beliefs. And traditionalists have been harmed by the accusations that others have made about them. In the process, the church has been damaged. Each time I have left the way I departed St. Louis – sorrowful and dismayed that we have never found a different way to resolve our differences.
In the old movie, War Games, the Matthew Broderick character inadvertently triggered a government computer that could launch nuclear missiles towards the Soviet Union, guaranteeing a devastating retaliatory response. Before launching the attack, the computer runs through every possible scenario before the eyes of military officials and scientists. The computer games out all the different options, displayed on a large screen for everyone to see, faster and faster. When one scenario fails to create a winner, the screen goes dark and another scenario begins. Over and over. At one point the Broderick character is asked, “What’s it doing?” He replies, “It’s learning.” The scenarios continue, until finally the computer stops, almost as if it’s taking a breath. And then it displays the message: “A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”
For years now, I have argued that good legislation will not solve our problems. It’s important that it’s there. What we did in St. Louis in passing the Traditional Plan was necessary. And if those who want to change our sexual ethics force us to fight again in Minneapolis, we will – with all of the determination, savvy, and strength that have characterized our efforts since 1972. I feel sure we will have the votes to add even more accountability measures. But I will not go away feeling like a winner.
It’s time to learn. The only winning move is not to play the same old game. Good faith partners need to come together and put an end to our fighting. I have some thoughts about how that can be done. Others will have different, maybe better, ideas. But as Paul warned the Galatians, “If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (Galatians 5.15).
We may not be able to agree on the church’s sexual ethics. Some on all sides are starting to argue, as I have for many years, that we may not be able to stay together and be true to how we believe God has called us to be in ministry. But we can treat each other with respect. We can learn that the only winning move is not to play the game. We can create a solution that has no winners and losers, no victims or villains. Only people who see a very important issue very differently and who find a way to set each other free.