WinnersLosers

The spin has already started concerning the vote Wednesday at the General Conference.  Within minutes of Conference action, Reconciling Ministries (aligned with the progressive wing of the Church) issued a press release stating that: “This historic action by the Council of Bishops (COB) represents a significant institutional shift in the direction of inclusion and equality.” [1 It took John Lomperis, United Methodist Director for the Institute on Religion and Democracy (a right wing parachurch organization), a bit longer to figure a way to say that it was really the conservatives who had won.

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So who really won at the General Conference?  The Church.

Coming into the Conference the official stance of the Church opposed homosexual weddings and ordination, but in practice many more progressive regions have found ways around enforcing this standard.  There were lots of proposals, but basically four different options on the table for the Church:

(1) Conservatives win – We strengthen enforcement of the current anti-LGBTQ standards in the Book of Discipline.

(2) Progressives win – We eliminate the current standards in the Book of Discipline, and become a Church that universally affirms homosexual ordination and weddings.

(3) Schism – We split into multiple denominations and force individual churches to choose which way to go.

(4) Muddle on – We don’t change the current standard, we don’t strengthen enforcement.  We continue on in our common ministries while de facto recognizing that the Church embraces no one position on homosexuality.

As I have argued in past posts, option # 4 is at present both for principled and strategic reasons the best of a set of bad options for the Church. [2, 3]

Throughout the Conference up to this point we have appeared headed for either option #1 or option #3. [4]  These are not, as I have suggested, unrelated.  The victory of one or the other “side” in our ongoing fight leads inevitably to the collapse of our common ministry as a Church.

But on Tuesday night, in part to avoid the specter of Schism, the General Conference asked the Bishops to lead by presenting their own proposal.  The Bishops retired to executive session, and came forward on Wednesday with their plan. The plan was to refer all discussions about homosexuality to a special commission that would report back its findings to a special session of the General Conference in two or three years.

Some felt that the Bishops had failed in meeting the demand of the moment.  They had not proposed a way to put this all behind us. But the grounding for such complaints is unrealistic.  The Bishops were not, in a night, going to sort out the issues which have plagued the Church for more than a decade. But even beyond that, there is no plan that they could have proposed which would have solved the problems we face.  If the General Conference did not like any of the myriad plans put in front of them thus far, no new plan was going to fit the bill.

I am no great fan of the idea of a commission, though it is clear at this point that the General Conference needs some process beyond the byzantine legislative procedure if it is going to achieve anything more than great power conflict on such issues.  Nor do I like the cost associated with calling a special meeting of the General Conference, though if we have learned anything in the past two General Conferences it is that the quadrennial meeting of the General Conference itself is not adequate for dealing with all, and especially the controversial, business of the Church.

After an extremely acrimonious floor debate, the General Conference voted to accept the proposal from the Council of Bishops, 428-405.

So who won?

It was not progressives who want to convert the Church to a uniform pro-LGBTQ platform. The current official standard of the Church has not changed.  No one will be required to perform gay weddings or accept ordained homosexuals into their pulpit. Indeed, at this point we don’t even know if the commission will be able to find a proposal that will officially recognize the plurality that exists in our church currently. Any proposal from the commission will have to come back to a Conference and face the same contention that exists this time.

But equally, it was not conservatives. At the same time that the General Conference was voting for the Council of Bishops proposal, the Judicial Council was ruling that any attempt to make mandatory minimum punishments for violating the current standard of the church was unconstitutional. Conservatives have thus been blocked from strengthening the regime of punishments in the Church. (Note: further Judicial Council rulings may yet further set conservatives back, but that is another story).  And, like progressives, they have to wait to see what comes out of the commission that has now been created.

I say let them wait. The longer we can prevent one or the other side from winning, the more time we have as a church to minister together and focus on what is essential to the Gospel.  The longer we muddle through, the more time there is for the Holy Spirit to work in transforming us organically rather than from the top down. There are many issues that need still to be addressed before any official solution is possible. But for today, we can celebrate the victory of the Church and continue in ministry together. And, my good God, we might even get to some other issues before the end of the General Conference!

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