Methodists in Portland: The Travail of Staying United

The recent General Conference of the United Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon highlights the struggles of a denomination that is hemorrhaging. While public attention focuses upon United Methodism's stance on LGBT equality, I left Portland with the sense that this issue is the tip of the iceberg of a church that is plagued by an unwieldy structure and a lack of trust among its leaders. The drawn-out arguing over rules of debate, incessant parliamentary maneuvering, and the deferral of legislative action on many critical issues was paradigmatic not only of the church's theological confusion. It also demonstrates an inability of different sections of the church to find ways to creatively engage one another in what United Methodists historically term "Christian conferencing." By a narrow vote, the conference empowered the denomination's Council of Bishops to create a commission to explore a way forward for the church on questions of human sexuality. This includes the possibility that the bishops may call a special General Conference sometime within the next few years to focus exclusively on these issues. The idea of a special General Conference session has risen some hope that solutions to the church's longstanding impasse over human sexuality might be at hand. However, I recognize that my church is deeply wounded leaving me pessimistic about its future--even as I try to hold out hope of reform.

Historically, church unity has always been an elusive ideal for the United Methodist Church. Since its founding in 1784, the antecedent denominations within United Methodism have been torn apart by schisms over theology, ecclesiology, and social-political issues. Painfully, Methodists have often compromised principles of justice for the sake of preserving institutional unity. Even with the empowerment of the Council of Bishops to call a special General Conference to address issues related to human sexuality, I am skeptical of the church's ability, or will, to alter the current political realities within the denomination.

Part of the United Methodist Church's struggle today is not just over theology; it's over structure. The growing presence of international United Methodists, in particular from Africa, highlight the ways that the United Methodist Church has become a global entity. Although United Methodism may be a global church in its appearance, its structure is unequivocally American--a fact that clearly works to the benefit of many conservatives who want to preserve the church's current prohibitions against the LGBT community.

The 2016 General Conference coincided with the 200th anniversary of the death of Methodist patriarch, Francis Asbury. Despite all of the changes in the church since Bishop Asbury's leadership shaped the early American Methodist movement, characteristics of Asbury's era are still evident in United Methodism today. In Portland, this was apparent in the ways delegates responded to the church's bishops. Many delegates pleaded with the bishops to lead the church in discerning a way forward on LGBT issues, while other delegates castigated the bishops for overstepping their authority. Throughout its history, Methodist debates on social issues were often intertwined around questions of church polity, related to episcopal authority, the meaning of ordination, and the role of laity. (For example, the 1844 schism over slavery that split episcopal Methodism into northern and southern churches revolved around competing understandings of the role of bishops in the church.) These debates were also shaped within the historical context of the United States, whereby Methodism, like other American religious groups, was impacted by the nation's larger political struggles on a range of social issues.

Religious leaders frequently make the assertion that one's faith should make a person rise above the cultural norms of a given era. However, the history of American Methodism reveals the ways that this tradition was shaped by--even as it has critiqued--larger developments within American culture. Today, American social-political institutions, including the Supreme Court, affirm that LGBT persons have fundamental legal and human rights, including marriage equality. Despite its proud heritage of standing up for human rights both nationally and internationally, the United Methodist Church is still reluctant to acknowledge the dignity and worth of LGBT persons. Frankly, the conservative rationale that opposing the "sinful" lifestyles of LGBT persons makes the church countercultural just rings hollow. These arguments don't make the United Methodist Church more biblical, more Christian, or more Methodist. They just drive away LGBT Christians whose leadership and talents could be used to make our church stronger in its witness.

The fact that the United Methodist Church has fiercely resisted changing its policies on LGBT rights is not only an indication of conservative dominance in the U.S. but reflects the symbiotic relationship between American conservatives and African churches. These groups have created a seemingly insurmountable voting block within the denomination. (In Portland, 260 of the 864 total delegates came from African churches.) However, the African church is not the root of the problem when it comes to changing the church's stance on human sexuality. The problem rests with American conservatives who largely dictate the voting patterns of African church leaders. This reality not only stymies debate on LGBT issues, but it prevents the United Methodist Church from envisioning organizational structures that take into account the widespread theological and cultural differences within global Methodism.

What then is the way forward for the United Methodist Church when it comes to LGBT equality? For me, the one ray of hope that I saw in Portland came when disparate groups of delegates voted together on certain resolutions dealing with issues of poverty. For example, when the conference passed a resolution calling for universal health care in the United States, it not only rejected the arguments of conservative delegates who ranted against the sins of Obamacare; it garnered the vocal support of African delegates who recognized the fractured logic of those who profess a care for the poor, without providing the practical means by which the physical needs of the individual can be addressed. This development gave me some hope that diverse constituencies in the church recognize that historically Methodism is at its best as a faith movement when it focuses upon the needs of the poor.

Does this development represent a potential window by which the United Methodist Church might experience a kairos moment when it comes to changing the church's prohibitions on human sexuality? As much as I'd like to hope that this is the case, I am not optimistic that change will occur anytime soon. Without minimizing the deep theological differences that exist in the church, we must face the fact that the reality of "Christian conferencing" as practiced by the United Methodist Church keeps a vital segment of the church from having a voice in shaping its polity: mainly, those within the LGBT community.

I hope that the United Methodist Church will one day live out its motto of being a communion of "open hearts, open minds, open doors." For the time being, however, groups that are invested in preserving the current status quo within the United Methodist Church have succeeded in keeping the doors of inclusion locked.