What about Portland?
This coming weekend more than 1,000 United Methodists from all over the world will be headed to Portland, Oregon. What is this once-every-four-years ecclesiastical migration all about? Are they going there for a logging convention or to survey the coffee market in the Pacific Northwest? What is happening in Portland?
The faith community we call the United Methodist Church is governed by a decision-making body called the General Conference. Rather than having a single bishop who guides the church (like the Roman Catholic Church or the Coptic Church), the more than 8,000,000 United Methodists in America -with millions more in other countries- are led by this once-every-four-year gathering of some 1,000 delegates (divided equally among laity and clergy). Frankly, I can say as a GC delegate in Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Fort Worth, it is sometimes a beautiful, inspiring collection of people from all over the globe, sharing a deep love for God and a passionate desire to see the world become more peaceful and just. Then again, sometimes it is a big, unwieldy, frustrating, slow-moving mess.
There are amazing moments of worship. There are extraordinary stories of faithfulness and effectiveness like the highly successful $75 million “Imagine No Malaria” campaign. There are accounts of the fast growing United Methodist Church in places like sub-Saharan Africa. Then there are moments when the delegates major in minors. There are decisions that glorify God and there are decisions that disappoint me. People take sides around issues, use language that is now and then unkind, and lose sight of the big picture.
What are the big issues coming before General Conference?
This will come as no surprise to many who have been around the United Methodist Church for the last generation, but a key issue will be whether or not to revise the current stance of the church on homosexuality. Currently the UMC official position states that all persons are of sacred worth, deserving of the ministry and love of the church, but that the UMC believes homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.
The church is struggling to remain united while making a faithful decision about this issue. Some (especially among delegates from the American South and Africa) will push for the existing language to be maintained while others want the language changed to allow same-sex unions and the ordination of gay men and women to the ministry.
This is the issue that will dominate the news, and has the power to divide the church. (The truth is the denomination is already divided on this issue. At FUMC and The Open Door, we are committed to being open to all persons, and in my role as an Alternate Delegate to GC, I have spoken up for a more progressive and open position.)
All sorts of other issues
As significant as the question of sexuality is, will that be the only issue debated by the 1,000 delegates meeting from May 10-20th? No. Here is a list of some of the big issues coming to General Conference:
- Imagine No Malaria – the $75 million goal is almost reached, and this effort has saved millions of lives already!
- New ways of “doing” church that are effectively reaching the “nones” who say they have no particular faith community.
- Ending gun violence – gun deaths in the US have become a public health threat. The UMC will pray over and discuss this challenge.
- A new hymnal – delegates will be asked to authorize a new hymnal for the UMC.
- Continue to deal with the issue of climate change. The scriptures tell us to be good stewards of the earth: what does that mean in terms of climate change?
- Consider a proposed denominational budget that is the lowest since 2000.
- Whether or not to divest UMC funds in a protest against unjust treatment of the Palestinians by the Israeli government.
- A young clergy initiative – many UMC pastors are well over 55, and this initiative is to call a new generation into ministry.
- Celebrating the ongoing miracle that is Africa University in Zimbabwe.
- Debate whether UMC bishops should be elected for life or for a particular term.
- Ordained Elders (that would be pastors with the standing of Pastor Stacee and myself) have a “guaranteed appointment.” The GC will debate whether this tenure-like status should be offered to all Elders.
- The UMC will confess its connection to the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho native Americans by troops led by a Methodist preacher-turned soldier.
What do I think about our church and the coming General Conference? I keep coming back to two places in scripture that can get us through what is ahead: the prayer of Jesus in John 17 and the work of the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15.
Led by a Prayer and the Spirit
When it comes to the question about the church’s position on committed, monogamous, lifelong same sex relationships, I believe the key to the future is in our past.
The early Christians faced the question about whether uncircumcised Gentiles could be a part of the church. This possibility ran counter to tradition, belief and scripture. Yet the Jesus followers in Jerusalem met together, heard how the Spirit was moving in the lives of uncircumcised Gentiles (you can read about this in Acts 15), and they decided they could not say “No” to something to which the Spirit was saying “Yes.”
From where I stand it seems like the Holy Spirit is working in the lives of faithful, loving, courageous heterosexual and homosexual persons. How can the church deny the work of the Holy Spirit in others who may live differently than we live?
As the United Methodist Church works through the messy, legislative process of General Conference, I also remember how Jesus prayed in John 17 that his followers would be one people. This matters to Jesus! Proposals to divide the UMC into a conservative denomination and a progressive denomination should be rejected. One way or another, we need to find a way to remain together as one body, united in our love for the Galilean and our desire to transform the world.
“I pray that they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you,” Jesus prays in John 17:21. In verse 23, he prays that we will be “perfectly one.”
To divide is to lose, I believe. It would be to take an action that runs counter to the prayer of Jesus and the will of God.
Sometimes we may find it tough to harmonize with one another, but I believe we can sing God’s song best together.
See you Sunday as we gather for worship and hear a very strange story from Acts 16. The sermon title is “The Lamb of Wall Street.”
Grace and peace,
Lead Pastor (and Alternate Delegate to General Conference & Delegate to Jurisdictional Conference)