What Might Have Been
John Greenleaf Whittier wrote:
Of all sad words of tongue or pen,
the saddest are these, “It might have been.”
We had high hopes for what might have been during the General Conference in St. Louis.
We had hoped that the center would hold; that the “Methodist middle” would support the One Church Plan as an effort to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:3)
We had hoped that instead of mirroring the painful polarization around us, “the people called Methodist” might be united in our faith, mission and ministry while honoring the diverse contexts in which we serve.
We had hoped that delegates from the US (67% of whom support the One Church Plan) and delegates from Africa (where a majority of the delegates do not) could demonstrate the way equally faithful people serving in very different contexts can read the same scripture and come to different convictions about same-sex relationships.
We had hoped that we could be a church in which the things we do together are more important than the things that divide us.
We had hopes for what might have been.
But when the voting began, it became apparent that the forces opposed to the One Church Plan were in control on the floor. The vote to send the One Church Plan to the plenary revealed just how deeply divided the Conference is.
The unity that might have been crashed on the rocks of our differences. The Traditional Plan that moved forward not only maintains the current prohibitions on same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBTQ persons, but would create harsh penalties for persons who disobey and would either encourage those people to leave or would force them out. It is also plagued by constitutional questions that will need to be dealt with tomorrow.
My conviction is that the Traditional Plan moves us in the direction of a legalistic fundamentalism that is inconsistent with the longer history of the way Methodists have interpreted scripture and been in ministry together.
What Is God’s Will?
The question we are forced to ask is similar to the way Abraham Lincoln wrestled with God’s will in the Second Inaugural Address. Faithful people on both sides of the debate read the same scriptures and pray for guidance from the same God. I know that my friends on the other side have prayed as fervently as I have for the past two years. I know that the members of the Commission on a Way Forward and the Council of Bishops have listened for the God’s wisdom as deeply as I have. We’ve all prayed for the Holy Spirit to be at work among the delegates.
So, will the final votes of the General Conference necessarily be God’s will for the United Methodist Church? One of my colleagues on Facebook said, “We have to believe that God is in control.”
Since I’m a Methodist and not a Calvinist, I don’t have to believe that. I’m not required to believe that everything that happens is God’s will simply because it is what happened. As Wesleyans, we believe that God does have a purpose and will and that God is relentlessly at work to fulfill that Kingdom-shaped purpose through God’s people. But we also believe that God gave us free will. The degree to which God’s will is accomplished is often in our hands. God has a purpose for the United Methodist Church but God’s fingers are not on the voting devices. The delegates will decide.
I am sure that God’s will is consistent with the words and way of Jesus. God’s will is accomplished through us when our choices align most clearly with Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God. My task is to be as fully obedient as I can be to that Kingdom vision. My humble conviction is that what we anticipate will be the action of the General Conference fall short of that measure.
Christ Walks with Us
“We had hoped…” That’s what two sad, disappointed disciples told the stranger who joined them as they walked to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) It was only later that they realized that the one who walked with them was the Risen Christ.
I’m sad and disappointed by the anticipated defeat of the One Church Plan. But my hope is that the same Christ walks with us and that one day the disappointment will be transformed into new life.
Grace and peace,