As some of you may know, the United Methodist Church is holding their quadrennial General Conference in Portland, Oregon this week. As has been the case for the past several General Conference’s (GC), a major topic is the full inclusion of LGBT people (or as the conservatives call us, “the self-avowed practicing homosexuals”) in the life of the church. My prediction is that little will change in regard to those issues.
There are several things at issue. One is some hateful language in the United Methodist Book of Discipline (BoD) which says that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. The others are the ordination of openly gay clergy, and of course; marriage is a topic, but not at the top of the list.
If anything changes in regard to these issues, it will be for the worse, and we’ve seen some of that already with the election of all conservative members to the Church’s Judicial Council, or the UMC Supreme Court if you will.
There is not real Episcopal leadership on the issue. The Bishops are divided, certainly, but worse, none wants to take a strong stand, one way or another, as they are all afraid of breaking the connection. North American and European Bishops don’t want the African church to break away, because that’s the only place we are currently showing growth. African Bishops certainly don’t want the break because their churches and conferences are funded by the U.S. churches.
The primary reason is the makeup of the delegates to the General Conference. Plenty of conservatives continue to get elected, often time’s year after year. I began working for term limits after the General Conference was in Tampa in 2012. During one of the sessions, a delegate was acknowledged for that being her 10th consecutive GC as a delegate. Let me start by saying I applaud her service, and I have no way of knowing whether she votes for more progressive ideas, or conservative, but the fact is, since the GC meets every four years, that meant that for over 40 years, no other voice has been able to speak from the seat. Younger people are generally more progressive, so it would be likely with term limits, the average age of delegates might be going down somewhat.
The biggest effect comes from the increasing influence of the Central/African conferences which are very conservative. As their membership grows, so does their delegate count as a percentage of all delegates. This not only affects votes on the Conference floor, but in the committees as well. Furthermore, organizations such as the Institute for Religion and Democracy (IRD), with their wealthy funders, subtly bride those delegates with gifts, as well as providing the cell phones for use while at conference, and use those phones to advise them on how to vote with text messaging.
I do not see this overall trend changing over the next 12-16 years, so, unlike the Presbyterian, Lutheran and Episcopal Church, I don’t see the United Methodist Church changing, other than continuing its downward slide in membership in North America as it continues to be viewed as more out of step with modernity. The problem is, the orthodox in the church sees that as a badge of honor, and actually hopes the church will become smaller and purer in its orthodoxy. That’s not a fringe view, but is being pushed by some of the Bishops. (See the series here analyzing Bishop J. Michael Lowry’s commentary about this topic.)
The change I do expect is a hit to membership coming out of the GC. Many people have fought the good fight, and while some will stay to continue the battle, some will finally throw up their hands and more to a more welcoming church. So the decline will continue.
There has been an informal movement of late, which had more progressive churches and conferences merely ignoring the exclusionary aspects of the BoD, and that has created something of a tense truce. However, with the conservatives gaining some ground at this GC, there is talk of “closing the loophole,” and creating mandatory punishments for clergy and the church hierarchy that ignore the Discipline. There is also some talk about a separation (schism) within the church. Those rumblings have been going on around the General Conference for many years, and I’m not sure it will happen this time, but I would say we are likely closer to that than ever before. That would be very painful and catastrophic, because it will not only split the overall connection, but individual churches as well.
So, I see nothing good that will come from this General Conference. At best, that status quo will be maintained, and some folks will give up and leave. At worst, there is a schism that will give the conservative/orthodox what they want, but that’s a significantly smaller, inwardly focused church.