A Mess in St Louis

Before the United Methodist Special General Conference opened on Saturday, we prayed. Perhaps God would miraculously grant a fruitful discussion among 800disputantswho have very little in common except our cross-and-flame nametags. We prayed for openness to different points of view, unity, communion, gracious listening, holy conferencing, empathetic feelings, and generosity of spirt.

It didn’t work.

At some point I shifted my own prayers to, “Lord, please melt the hardened hearts and smite everyone who intends to vote against the One Church Plan.” This plan, recommended by the UMC bishops, aimed to give more discretion to local churches and annual conferences in LGBTQ inclusion, ministry, and mission. It was summarily trashed early in the voting; the rival Traditional Plan, which reaffirms the denomination’s prohibitions against same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy, was approved.

The Lord, as far as I could tell, had business elsewhere. In fairness to the Lord, months earlier nearly everybody had announced how they would vote on the questions before us. Many vowed that if the outcome was disagreeable to them, they would pack up their congregation and exit the UMC. Ever try to have a church meeting after half of the attendees announce, “If this doesn’t go our way, and maybe even if it does, we’re leaving”?

Now it is the UMC’s turn to experience the agony previously endured by the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Lutherans, though I fear that our interlocked, connectional polity will make our pain worse. We bishops believed in unity but couldn’t figure out how to lead it. As we called for generosity and openness from the podium, Traditional Plan politicos were busy on the floor counting votes and making deals. The Traditional Plan carried the day but with a majority so slim that few could call it a victory. (Every pastor knows not to go into a building program with less than 60 percent of the vote.) Traditionalists andprogressives did share one conviction: don’t trust bishops.

The misnamed Traditional Plan—little in the 200-year tradition of American Methodism justifies such punitive, exclusionary measures—passed after being amended in a fruitless attempt to overcome its lack of constitutional validity. The traditionalists from the Wesleyan Covenant Association got to go back home proud of the way they had defended “scriptural authority,” eager to roll up their sleeves and go to work tearing asunder the church that produced them.

In the four decades I’ve been an ordained leader in the UMC, we have lost 30 percent of our membership. Our response? Spend millions of dollars and hours of work to decide who else we can exclude. From what I know of Jesus, I predict he will not deal graciously with the infidelity of this church born in John Wesley’s exuberant, extroverted, “Salvation for all!” A chill overtook my once-warmed Wesleyan heart as convention delegates casually discussed the conditions for a “gracious exit.” Never had I heard schism so openly affirmed in a church meeting. My question for right-wing schismatics: Do you really think that your vote at General Conference can stop the Trinity from creating LBGTQ Christians and then recklessly sending them to lead Methodist churches?

What now for the UMC? There will be significant losses from LGBTQ Christians and their allies who have given up on the UMC, along with losses from those for whom the UMC will never be confined, closed, and conservative enough. We’ll be poorer for the loss of both conversation partners. As for those in the global church who participated in this smackdown of North American Methodist mission and evangelism, they may soon regret the loss of financial support from a considerably weakened North American Methodism.

If any good comes out of this debacle in St. Louis, it may be the recognition of some basic realities.

First, no fundamentally helpful decisions will ever come out of any General Conference, no matter how much prayer precedes it. The General Conference is no longer a viable means of governing the church. Polls showed that the majority of North American United Methodists supported the One Church Plan. Many African and Asian delegates, who come from vital churches full of Holy Spirit-induced innovation, joined the conservatives in dictating to the North American United Methodists the boundaries of our mission and the scope of congregational formation. A big, no-holds-barred, winner-take-all political convention may work for a national political party. It’s a disaster for the body of Christ.

Second, over a couple of decades, people my age have constructed the Book of Discipline to serve the interests of our generation, albeit unknowingly. Adaptation or innovation in the general church have been rendered impossible. If there’s any good worth doing, there’s a rule to be passed to force you to do it. The way to come to a good decision is through endless meetings followed by coercive, will-to-power voting.

In this Special General Conference we have now declared ourselves to be the church of the aged. The average UM is white and 61 years old. Just like me, my church has got too much past and too little future. I fear that this will be remembered as the week that the UMC decisively, openly turned away from ministry with anyone under 40.

Finally, the Holy Spirit doesn’t work from the top down. The Spirit does good from the bottom up, through God’s hijinks in the local church. We Methodists may brag that we are “connectional” in organization and episcopal in polity. But, by God’s grace, this train wreck may give us the opportunity to rediscover the power of the local and congregational.

The question of LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage, insoluble at a corporate-style global gathering of 800 people, is more or less resolved in every congregation I know. The solution may not be one of which I approve, but in a way that somehow works in the present moment for that congregation, in the place where Christ has assembled them, they muddle through. They may still have great differences; they may have lost members because of their solution. There may be repeated, heated arguments. The pastor may be uneasy with and unsure how to lead their work in progress, but they have practiced forbearance because Jesus told them to. They have discovered the adventure of worshiping the Trinity with people with whom they disagree, because, like it or not, those are the folk whom the Lord has convened and made Methodist. They muddle through.

All pneumatology is local, gift of God from the bottom up. Now those of us who still love and linger in the UMC can fully give ourselves to that local task of muddling through. I told my seminarians, “If you are wondering why God Almighty would call somebody like you into the United Methodist ministry, here’s your answer. God is calling upon you for assistance to clean up what my generation has messed up.” By the grace of God we may rediscover the joy of working with a relentlessly redemptive God who can bring good even out of our mess at General Conference.

This article was originally posted through The Christian Century, where Will Willimon continues to serve as editor-at-large.


A Post-General Conference Update

As I am already receiving more mail than I can possibly respond to, I would refer you to my quote in The Washington Post. As I say, this is not a victory of “tradition,” but another lurch toward punitive, exclusionary practice.



Conversation on The Homilist

I recently sat down with Jared Ellis for the inaugural episode of his new podcast, The Homilist. We talked about the art and nature of Christian preaching, a conversation that I know many of you have often and would enjoy hearing more of! I hope you’ll take a look at  this video below. You can also listen to Jared’s podcast on any of your favorite podcast platforms.

National Call to Prayer, Fasting, and Action

In the past days I’ve been consulting with Christian leaders like James Forbes, Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis, and Walter Brueggemann, designated “Elders,” by Sojourners, on an address to our fellow Christians concerning our current national situation.  After our “Reclaiming Jesus” declaration last year, here is our “Call to Prayer, Fasting, and Action.”


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United Methodism as One Church

As we United Methodists move toward our called General Conference in 2019, I sense among our Duke Divinity students, as well as among the folks in the churches where I have been preaching, growing anxiety about the future of our church.  Bishop Ken Carter (my former student!) has been giving wonderfully irenic, non-anxious leadership to the UMC through his book, Embracing The Wideness of God’s Mercy, published in service to our church this year by Abingdon Press.

On pages 120-121 there is a summary of the book which appears below with some annotations.

  • A generously orthodox faith and trust in God, through Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit, is the bridge that can connect us. It is not a wall that divides us.
  • A generously orthodox faith can create the generative space where covenant keepers, justice-seekers and those passionate about unity can walk together (chapter one).

This really is a framework for the different people who could find a home in the One Church Plan.

  • A generously orthodox faith is rooted in the radical grace that saves us and that same radical grace that breaks down the walls of hostility between us (chapter two).

This draws heavily from Ephesians 2, Luke 15, and Acts 15 which can be a resource for those asking questions about scripture.  And it has been helpful to persons in the LGBTQ community whose questions are not primarily about polity but about scripture and the church.

  • A generously orthodox faith is rooted in our best loved stories, such as Jesus’s parable of the free and infinite grace of the parent who welcomes the child home (chapter three).
  • A generously orthodox faith can help us to discern the movement of the Holy Spirit (chapter four).
  • A generously orthodox faith is rooted in a Wesleyan understanding of the grace of God (chapter five).

This is a reflection on Wesleyan prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace.

  • A generously orthodox faith teaches us to be patient with one another (chapter six).

This is a chapter to support our need not to arrive at closure or division but to be open to what might happen in St. Louis and beyond.

  • A generously orthodox faith sustains us in the demanding but essential work of reconciliation (chapter seven).
  • A generously orthodox faith reminds us that the apostles taught the early church to see our differences as gifts (chapter eight).

This is a response to the term “local option”, and is a defense of contextualization,which is critical to the One Church Plan.

  • A generously orthodox faith is a resource to resolve complaints and conflict in restorative and non-punitive ways (chapter nine).
  • A generously orthodox faith is the church’s bridge toward both unity and community with all persons, including those with LGBTQ identity (chapter ten).
  • This chapter is a basic reflection on Jesus’ prayer of intercession for unity in John 17 which will be helpful to those of us who are speaking up for unity.

Here is part of the Foreword that Stanley Hauerwas and I wrote for Ken’s book:

How typical of Ken Carter to see a church crisis as an opportunity to preach, as a call for Wesleyan theology.  Bishop Carter is as good a pastoral theologian as we have among United Methodist bishops.  Ken’s strong, Christ-committed voice can lead us in thinking about the present moment like Christians and in being a more faithful church.

Ken Carter’s impassioned book tries to help Methodists stay true to their deepest Christian convictions and find a way to recognize the reality of Christians who happen to be gay.  Here is Wesleyan conjunctive theology at its best, Christ and the church together into the future.  The challenge before Bishop Carter is how to confront that reality without underwriting the cultural presuppositions often associated with calls for more liberal policies that are antithetical to the church being the church. That is why Carter emphasizes that for Christians our primary language is not the language of rights, inclusiveness and acceptance but rather how we learn to regard our lives and the lives of our brothers and sisters as God’s gifts.

Ken talks about “presence” rather than “cause.”  When we assume as Christians that we represent different sides of some conflicted cause we cannot help being tempted into moral preening and smug self-righteousness.  (Much of the floor debate of most General Conferences.)  Once our superior moral stance on a cause is assumed and smugly asserted, we can make little headway in any attempt to understand one another, much less be the church together.  We lose our ability to be in truthful, compassionate disagreement and just end up shouting past one another.  We don’t listen; we assert, counting the votes, hoping not that we will grow as a church but that our stance on the cause will win.  In the church today, to be in disagreement is a great theological achievement because when we disagree we are able to recognize what may be at stake in our agreements and disagreements.

Bishop Carter makes clear that questions about the place of LBGTQ Christians in our churches is a matter of holiness.  Generous orthodoxy for Methodists is a way of making clear that our fundamental conviction that Jesus really is the Christ, the son of God, who is considerably more engaging than just another “belief.”  Rather, to be a Methodist means if our fundamental Christological convictions are not true, and if our church is not formed on the basis of our Christology, then our lives are incoherent and our church is incomprehensible as the Body of Christ.  For Methodists, holiness names our ongoing growth in a way of life that is an alternative to the desperate modes of living that know not God.  To so live may look different in different times and places, so Ken stresses the importance of congregational context for the particular shape of that congregation’s mission.  This is why every worshiping community is catholic, why our commitment to the one, holy, catholic church enables us to engage in Christ’s mission in differing ways while participating in Christ-dependent unity.

Ken Carter is fulfilling two of the historic roles of the episcopacy: to teach the church to care for orthodox doctrine and to cultivate the unity of the church under Christ. Here’s a book for the church in such a time as this, an extended sermon that not only shows us a way forward but also reminds us of the joy of being saved by Jesus.