In the closing hours of General Conference, the Judicial Council announcement came through. Plan UMC was “constitutionally unsalvageable.” On the large video screen that broadcast the session, a delegate held up a sign, “John 11:35” – Jesus wept.
For good or ill – most of the delegates believed the plan (or anyone of its three predecessors) was a move toward a new missional focus that went deeper than downsizing. It would have been a platform for change. But the platform collapsed.
Some speculated this felt like an historic moment for the denomination. They had a few hours to craft a new and hopeful way forward. And they did. It wasn’t as broad-sweeping, but it significantly cut the boards of directors at the General Church level. Money will be saved and those savings can be passed along to local churches, which will pay less in apportionments, having more to invest in mission and ministry.
In was legislative drama. But as the final amens were sung – looking back, I wondered what had been accomplished. The General Conference did away with guaranteed appointments (a move pending a challenge to the Judicial Council); cut $6 million from its budget; but did not create a position of set-aside bishops, nor did it adopt the Call to Action plan for restructuring or Plan B. No changes were made to the church’s stances on homosexuality.
There were several hundred pieces of legislation passed, but I’m not certain they’ll significantly reverse the decline facing the denomination. In my mind, I keep replaying an awkward little vote held early in the session. There was a proposal to add language to the preamble of the Social Principles. It said, “We stand united in declaring our faith that God’s grace is available to all. Neither belief nor practice can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”
Simple. But many delegates voiced their opposition. They were firm in their conviction that a lack of belief and sinful living could indeed separate a person from God’s love. An amendment was made: “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus,” — straight out of Romans 8. But the delegates voted, by only a margin of 53 to 47, percent to support this statement.
Of course, this vote was loaded with undercurrents about tolerance of homosexuality. A lot of things were. But it struck me that it might also be a vote most churches and most individuals might take each day as they begin or end their day. Do our beliefs and practices reflect God’s love? Are we living prayers, living witnesses, living texts to the world that God’s love is available, unconditional and abundant? Are we voting “yes,” to grace far beyond the bar of General Conference?
In a closing sermon, Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, the new Council of Bishops president, reminded the delegates that church really exists “out there.” Our ingathering is essential. Strategy, structure, budget, and tending to and living out the connectional system that makes us United Methodists should never be discounted. But ultimately, it’s in the pulpits and pews of United Methodist churches where the cross and flame will transform people’s lives. It’s in those places where 11 million people across the globe gather to worship and serve and try their very best, each in their own unique way, to make disciples for the transformation of the world.