Tomorrow will be a pivotal day in the life of our United Methodist Church. By now, most of you who will read this post know that The United Methodist General Conference, meeting in Portland, OR, requested that the Council of Bishops come to us tomorrow with a plan for how the denomination can more forward as we find ourselves at an impasse on issues related to human sexuality.
Much happened Friday and Saturday in legislative committee work. Some ended that time late Saturday night feeling that their work had been productive and truly focused on vital ministries of our church. Some left the Oregon Convention Center more hurt than when they entered, finding little safety in being open and honest in their feelings about the church and its people. Some finished the night feeling smug and holding the power. Some felt that the church had been hijacked. Depending upon where you find yourself on the spectrum of personal theology and missiology, the hijacking was at the hands of those who attempted to manipulate the system, those who protested, those who declared they would take their buildings and leave, those who felt too wounded to continue. The list could go on. Many, like me, left feeling disheartened, sad, and wondering about the future of our life and mission together.
Rumors abounded on Sunday about plans in the works and conversations being held among various groups. Possibilities were being floated all across Portland about how pieces of legislation that had been voted down could be brought back to life, how new visions could emerge, how we could leave not feeling as useless and helpless as we did in Tampa four years ago. By mid-morning on Monday, we decided to pull our Virginia delegation together after what was planned to be a celebration dinner in honor of Bishop and Mrs. Cho. We would have conversation about what was being heard. About an hour before the meal was to start, I received a handwritten note from Bishop Cho saying that he would need to leave early to participate in a called meeting of the Council of Bishops. Before members of the delegation left the restaurant, we talked, processed what we had heard, sang, and prayed. By the time I got back to my hotel room, Facebook and Twitter were on fire with talk of the meeting of the Council and rumors of all types of plans and actions.
Many of us in the Virginia delegation gathered for prayer before the start of opening worship this morning. We entered worship not knowing what the day would hold. Some were very frustrated by the talk of being “one” that was a part of our celebration of our ecumenical relationships during worship. Others struggled with the recognition of the 250 anniversary of the start of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. How could be celebrating the church that came from our lack of action as a united church on slavery? When a much longer than expected break was called following worship, we all knew that something had to be coming from the bishops. We would not be able to move from our place of great uncertainly without some type of response. There was even a rumor that someone was going to move that the conference just adjourn.
The response came after the break. The Council shared the broken heartedness we all felt, but was as divided as the body. The bishops felt their call was to the unity of the church and would do their best to preside over our remaining sessions to help that come about. Needless to say, this was not what people wanted to hear; there was a need for a different type of leadership from our bishops. Soon after the statement about their meeting, a motion was made and moved forward by the body for the bishops to begin meeting immediately. The request was to bring to us tomorrow a plan for how we move past the impasse where we find ourselves. One option being raised is for a study commission which would bring a plan to a called General Conference in two years, offering a way for the churches on the most extreme ends to exit. There is conversation that if the bishops do not lead us in bringing a plan to the floor an attempt will be made to resurrect “The Third Way,” a proposal from the Connectional Table that died in committees. Another attempt is being made to bring a new proposal for “A Simple Way” to the floor.
Who knows what tomorrow will bring? As chair of the Virginia delegation this year and a voice that I hope you trust, I can tell you these things for sure:
- Your delegates are struggling mightily with this. We are blessed by your prayers and notes of love and support. There are numerous folks from Virginia who have been here and continue to be here in Portland nurturing and caring for us – from offering spiritual guidance to bringing us doughnuts. Each of you is offering us gifts that we will never be able to repay. You are blessing all of us in ways that you cannot imagine. This is the United Methodist connection at its best.
- Continue to lift us in prayer. You elected us – lay and clergy – to a task that is physically challenging, mentally draining, emotionally difficult, and spiritually exhausting. No matter where we are on the continuum from progressive to centrist to traditional, we all love this church. We’ve given our lives to it: from the youngest 20-something to the seasoned 80-somethings. When we come home this weekend, just love us.
- Members of this delegation have been gathering for prayer from 7:15 – 7:45 AM every morning. Prayer is what will sustain us. Because of the tone we have set in talking with one another, in worshipping together, in struggling with issues since you elected us last June, we have a bond that I feel is very different from the two previous delegations I was part of in 2008 and 2012. Whatever happens during these last 3 days of General Conference will happen to all of us, and it will personally change us forever.
- Remember that our work will not end on Friday at 6:30 PM when the motion to adjourn is made. We have a story to tell you at Annual Conference and together, we will have to process what happens here in Portland. We then will have to make our way to Lake Junaluska with the rest of our jurisdictional delegation to elect new bishops. At this moment, that’s a task that is hard to anticipate given all the uncertainty of the next few days. Please don’t stop the prayers when this week is over!
As I prepare to turn off this computer and rest as I can tonight, I’m reminded of two things. The first is a statement by Parker Palmer in his book, A Hidden Wholeness. Palmer writes: “Only when the pain of our dividedness becomes more than we can bear do most of us embark on an inner journey toward living ‘divided no more.’” My prayer is that we as a church can live “divided no more,” but I have no idea tonight how we’re going to get there. That leads to the second reminder. My prayer tonight is this, a line from “Empty Me” as sung by Chris Sligh:
“Lord, empty me of me so I can be filled with you.”