I was asked, prior to our open space conversations to help set the table by providing a few remarks about General Conference. I was asked not to share my opinions on what occurred so much as my experience of what happened as the General Conference worked with human sexuality, inclusion and church unity. I was honored to be asked to do this as the head of our delegation to General Conference, and the following words are what I shared:
It was thirty years ago this year that I was ordained an elder and became a full member of the Minnesota Conference. We have known each other for a long time, and been through a lot together. I really appreciate this opportunity to share a few words with you about General Conference.
So how did we get to today? I have been a voting delegate to General Conference since 2000, and I am genuinely grateful that you have given me that opportunity. In 2000, I was one of six clergy delegates from the Minnesota Conference among 1,000 voting delegates, the strong majority of whom were from the United States. There were delegates from Central Conferences, and there was translation happening, but this was a distinct growth area. Together those 1,000 people worked at the challenging task of considering changes to The Book of Discipline, which can be submitted by any person within The United Methodist Church, and considering changes to our Book of Resolutions. It was a daunting and time-consuming and complex task. Many committees met late into the evening.
Fast-forward to Portland, 2016. I was one of two clergy voting delegates from the Minnesota Conference, now among 864 voting delegates, about 40% of whom are from Central Conferences outside the United States. There is now simultaneous translation, though the Daily Christian Advocate which tracks daily proceedings and legislative progress is not translated. In addition to that complexity, these 864 delegates are working with parliamentary rules and procedures that sometimes require English to English translation.
Make no mistake about it, at General Conference, as at no other place, we celebrate the wonderful and rich diversity of our United Methodist Church, and that was true again this year. I was moved by many moments, times when we paid attention to the best of who we are. It was also at General Conference that we see that our current decision-making structures are not serving us particularly well, and we are reluctant to change them. We spent more time on the Rules of General Conference this year than in any of the previous General Conferences I’ve attended, particularly on “Rule 44” which provided an alternative decision-making structure, something like what we have used here when we have structured “holy conferencing,” except that it also had a legislative component. Rule 44 failed to pass, and it took a long time to do so.
Week two, Monday night, rumors were swirling that members of the Council of Bishops had been meeting with persons from the “progressive” and “evangelical” “wings” of our denomination and that there was going to be a proposal about separation coming to General Conference. With the defeat of Rule 44, and with the election results from the Judicial Council and University Senate on Monday , it was clear that there would be no new space created within our denomination around same-sex marriage or the consideration of LGBTQ persons for ordination. Tuesday morning, Bishop Ough, newly installed President of the Council of Bishops, stood to address the body, and began by acknowledging our deep divisions. I began to tear up as I anticipated he was going to say that for the rest of General Conference we would be working on some kind of plan of separation. Instead, he ended with a call for unity and said that the bishops were there to preside and pray. The General Conference, in a historic gesture, called upon the bishops to do more, to lead. The next day the bishops came back with a document asking General Conference to postpone discussion of human sexuality legislation and proposing the formation of a commission to study the issue, along with church unity, and offered the possibility of a special session of General Conference. You have seen the document that was circulated the Wednesday of General Conference, - “An Offering For a Way Forward.” You have seen the follow-up press release and letter from the Council of Bishops.
Whether you have an initially favorable opinion or negative opinion, space has been created – open space that I also pray will be Spirit space.