Last Sunday morning, the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women celebrated its 40th anniversary in worship. The service was uplifting and inspiring as witnesses gave thanks for the work faithful United Methodists have been carrying out toward the empowerment of women in the church and world, at the same time that they raised challenges and urged the church to press onward still toward the vision of gender justice.
I led the reading of the day’s psalm and so was up on the platform throughout the service. From there, I watched as the gathered community streamed through the lines to receive communion. My eyes welled up as I watched friends and fellow sojourners pass through, some of whom I have gotten to know through our work together on the board of GCSRW these past four years, some new friends, and some old. I gave thanks that we journey together, sharing gifts and offering grace as we learn in connection what it means to be the fullness of the Body of Christ.
I cannot quite explain the tears, for they fell with more than gratitude. I am not sure what it means yet to say this, but I felt also that this was a sort of good-bye. After 40 years, it appeared the General Conference was poised to close down GCSRW, combining it with the General Commission on Religion and Race and reducing its status to that of a committee (which indeed came to pass on Wednesday, May 2).
But also, I felt some sense of farewell with respect to the whole church. I do not mean that I intend personally to leave. Rather, The United Methodist Church I have known is no more.
This General Conference has been marked by a fear of the future, by fear that there will be no future without changing course. Imagining a new path forward has largely centered around institutional restructuring and the development of new practices aimed at equipping local churches for vital ministry to transform the world.
There is another shift, however, that may very well change the culture of The United Methodist Church. We have known deep divisions on many issues throughout our Methodist tradition, and perhaps the defining debate at this moment is around sexuality. This is not new. But what has begun clearly to develop is the opportunity for those opposed to any change of the status quo to consolidate power as the number of African delegates, who tend to be socially conservative, increases with the growth of The UMC in Africa.
At this General Conference, efforts not just to maintain present policies but to make them even more restrictive have been finding success. Quite surely there are those who believe that this will allow the church to be more faithful biblically and theologically. And for such persons, this General Conference may seem good news, perhaps even a building block to growing the church once again.
But there are many faithful United Methodists who know God’s love and grace in and through the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons. We know from scripture that the work of true disciples will bear good fruit, and so we recognize as holy the goodness that is evidenced through the lives and ministry of LGBT Christians.
Though the General Conference has once again refused officially to acknowledge our division on this issue, the disagreement is undeniable. Thus, seeking greater constraints of the full and equal participation of LGBT persons in The United Methodist Church seems an effort to wield the power of majority votes in order to dominate others and silence dissent.
In this way, I sense the spiritual death of the church, not just because people do not agree with me but because our differences are effaced. If we are organized not so as to live in the richness of our diversity but in order to enforce “unanimity,” if we seek further to alienate our LGBT neighbors and friends, if we cannot commit significant resources to the work of gender and racial justice, if we cannot engage one another theologically but talk past each other with the knowledge that we do or do not “have the votes,” then we have failed to be the Body of Christ. And we have ceased to live biblically insofar as we find modeled in the bible the holding together of disparate ideas and practices.
This feeling emerged most palpably for me during one of the communion hymns at the GCSRW worship service: “For Everyone Born, a Place at the Table.” The refrain declares with unshakable hope, “God will delight when we are creators of justice and joy, compassion, and peace. Yes, God will delight when we are creators of justice, justice and joy.”
I could not sing through the sobs that these words brought. Gathered in that place were so many who have struggled and continue to strive to bring justice and joy into the world. However, in this context, at a conference marked by the consolidation of power and domination, I wonder if The UMC can be a church doing work in which God will delight. I wonder if The UMC will have room at the table that I might sit with those who read this and are not of one mind with me, who are satisfied with the actions of this General Conference. I do not wish for a place in which our differences would be erased but in which they would be honored and through which we might know more fully the vibrant, dynamic diversity of creation.
And so I mourn for a church that feels to me like it has lost its soul…
Yet still, as Christians we believe in a God who brings new life out of death. If the death of The UMC is what we fear, perhaps it is time to expect resurrection.
At the end of the day, Church happens in community. Real life happens, not in a political conference, but in the interactions of neighbors, in the ways we find both joy and pain, encouragement and struggle, hope and despair as we work out what it means to live in relationship with God and with one another.
The policies enacted by the General Conference will have formative and constraining effects on the lives of individuals, churches, and organizations, and this matters greatly. But as always, what matters will be the ways we engage one another in our daily lives when it is not winning a vote that is at stake but coexistence. It will be away from General Conference where we will or will not make choices to form bonds of mutuality, care, and understanding.
The real soul of the movement of people called Methodists will always be known in and through justice and joy when they are made manifest. And in these moments, God will surely delight.