Finding hope at General Conference

May 19th, 2016
Hope is one of the most powerful words I know. When you've got it, hope can sustain you through incredibly difficult times. When you lose it, it's devastating. I will admit that during this General Conference, I have struggled with having hope. I have said to several people that I still had hope for the United Methodist Church, but that I was having to mine deep to find it.

There was a point, yesterday, at which I lost hope. I am not proud of this fact. I confess this as a sin.

We'd watched the Council of Bishops, responding to a call from the General Conference to offer a way forward for us (something the General Conference had never done before!), take seriously this call and propose a series of steps to help maintain church unity. Among their suggestions was a tabling of all legislation related to human sexuality during this General Conference and the creation of a Commission on Human Sexuality, to be appointed by the Council of Bishops, which would report back to the General Conference (likely a called session in 2018).

When the bishops presented their plan, there was hope. While the plan was light on specifics, it did present an actionable way forward. It also would prevent us from doing harm this General Conference by having a contentious debate we are not ready to have, on the worth of LGBTQ people and the legitimacy of their married relationships in the eyes of God. I say we are not ready to have this conversation because people are panicking at the intractable place in which we find ourselves as church, and panicking people do not make good decisions. The whole thing has felt a little like Lord of the Flies. I have been reflecting on the closing scene in that book (spoiler alert, I guess?) when the naval officer arrives at the island on which a number of stranded boys have been trying to govern themselves. The boys, who have been trying to act like adults but who have demonstrated the worst of human nature, take one look at the officer and burst into tears, so overcome by the knowledge of their own immaturity.

We've been facing our an acknowledgement of our own brokenness, and nobody likes to have to face that sort of thing. In fact, when presented with one version of the bishops' proposal, the General Conference voted it down. This was the point at which I lost hope. I thought, "That's it. We're done." We're going to split. Even if the bishops call a special session of the General Conference (within their constitutional rights), we'd use it to break apart. It felt like we'd spent the day swinging hammers rather than doing surgery, and I was certain the whole thing was going to break apart. The lowest moment, undoubtedly, was the accusation by a delegate that Bishop McAlilly was illegally signaling to delegates how he wanted them to vote. It was an unfounded accusation, and mean. If anything, it was an expression of the anxiety felt by the General Conference, aimed at the symbol of the church sitting in the chair.

We recessed. I tried to pray. I couldn't. I just despaired. We were broken, irreparably. God, forgive me. Forgive us.

Except, maybe, we weren't. After the break, Bishop McAlilly graciously led the Conference forward to discuss the substance of the bishops' recommendations. We assumed the recommendations had been defeated, but Bishop McAlilly ruled that the bishops document had not been voted on, and so a delegate stood to present the document as a motion. Speeches for and against continued. Some remarkable delegates — especially younger delegates — spoke in favor of the bishops recommendations. I thought there was no chance it would pass...

But it did.

It felt like a miracle, like we were being guided by the great cloud of United Methodist witnesses. I felt my late teacher Bishop Morgan's spirit in the room, and I saw his spirit in Bishop McAlilly, one of his mentees.

The Holy Spirit is at work. We have work to do as partners in this work, but the Spirit showed up in one of our lowest moments. As Frederick Buechner has said so eloquently, the Resurrection promises us that "the worst thing is never the last thing."

We have work to do as a church. I don't know how this is all going to end. But what we did, yesterday, was stop swinging hammers. There is a chance we can find a way forward that doesn't shatter the church. Perhaps we will still split. I pray we will not. But even if we do split at a called General Conference in the next several years, it appears that we will not shatter.

By way of confession, there was a point in which I lost hope yesterday. This is a sin. But God is bigger than my own penchant to despair. God is bigger than our divisions. And God is bigger than the United Methodist Church, and thanks be to God.

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