General Conference: A view from the nosebleed section

Bud Reeves

Bud Reeves

By William O. “Bud” Reeves
Special Contributor

So General Conference 2016 is over. After months of buildup, it all seemed to take place in a whirlwind. And now it’s over. And we—bishops, delegates, and rank-and-file Methodists—are sitting in the roadway like Wile E. Coyote after the Roadrunner has passed. As the dust clears, we wonder, “What just happened?”

I was not there. I followed General Conference from a distance. I was not on the playing field, and really not even on the sidelines. I felt like I was observing from the upper deck somewhere, trying to make sense of it all. I don’t know if being closer would have made it any easier.

Nevertheless, 2016 was the twelfth General Conference I have observed with some interest. My whole life has been in the United Methodist Church. My friend and colleague the Rev. Ellen Alston told me she remembered when I did a presentation to the Senior High Camp at Tanako in 1974 concerning the recent addition to the Discipline of the language about homosexuality. I’ve been at this a long time.

There was much to celebrate at General Conference 2016. We, along with the Roman Catholic Church, are truly a global Christian denomination. Though that makes our task harder, it’s still awesome. We have made great strides in global health with our Imagine No Malaria campaign. We are growing so fast in Africa, they need five new bishops. We authorized a new hymnal, fit for the digital age. We commissioned a bunch of missionaries. All good stuff.

All the good stuff was overshadowed by the discussion about human sexuality. The landscape is changing rapidly in the United States and hardly at all in the developing world. But in an unprecedented move, the General Conference asked for the leadership and help of the Council of Bishops to discern a path forward. They returned with a proposal for a special commission to meet for a couple of years to develop a plan. The Conference approved.

At first I thought the bishops had just kicked the can down the road. We have debated this issue for 44 years, and true dialog hardly ever happens. But the most important concept that was affirmed by the General Conference was that we are not ready for an ecclesiastical divorce. We want to stay together.

The issues and disagreements are deep and fundamental, but even more fundamental is our unity in Christ. This sort of statement in our polarized, antagonistic world is unheard of. In a commentary for The Washington Post, United Methodists Tom Berlin and Mike McCurry wrote, “In an ever-more-polarized society, the United Methodist Church this week has tried to model an approach to disagreement that the U.S. political system would do well to emulate.” Given our fractious context, the decision amounted to a Gospel proclamation.

Maybe the delegates could see it coming. But to a guy in the nosebleed section, it seemed like a movement of the Holy Spirit. There is still much to be worked out: Who is going to serve on this commission? What process will they use? How much is it going to cost? But at least there is a glimmer of hope beyond splitting the denomination over an issue that is important but not paramount.

As the dust settles over Portland, there are at least three things that haven’t changed.

  • The local church is still “the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs” (Book of Discipline, Paragraph 201). No matter what General Conference does, the real life of the United Methodist Church is in the 45,000 or so local churches, where children are taught, youth are guided, families are nurtured, communities are reached and God is worshipped. Being connected is important and integral to our Methodist DNA, but the real work of the Kingdom happens locally.
  • The mission of the church is still “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” (Book of Discipline, Paragraph 120). To the extent that our denomination, our structures, and our local churches serve the mission, we will be healthy and fruitful. Everything else is secondary.
  • Jesus is still with us. I heard from several sources during General Conference statements like, “God isn’t through with us yet!” To even suggest such an idea is ludicrous. We could conceivably turn away from God, but God will never turn away from us. As the risen Christ gave the Great Commission to go and make disciples of all nations, he left the disciples and ended the Gospel of Matthew with this promise: “Remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Whatever human foibles and failings we exhibit on every level of life and church, Jesus will not abandon us. The Holy Spirit is alive in us and guiding us. The love of God leads us forward. That is the last word, and it is a word that will propel us into the future.

The Rev. Dr. Reeves serves as senior pastor of First UMC Fort Smith. Email: breeves@arumc.org.