GC2016 commentary: We can’t legislate church

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We can’t legislate church.

This realization hovered at some level of collective consciousness at General Conference 2016. At least for a moment, Robert’s Rules ceased to rule.

Any legislative enactment on homosexuality — no matter the direction it took — would have split the denomination. Without a prior commitment to unity and reconciliation, the very act of voting would have signified a resignation to schism. Discerning “A Way Forward,” the bishops asked delegates to share their testimonies with one another and to pray together. The result was parliamentary inaction and referral of important legislation. Nothing got done, nothing but a glimpse of church.

“So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. … if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (NIV, 2 Cor. 5:16-18).

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The Rev. Darryl Stephens, director of United Methodist studies at Lancaster Theological Seminary.

As ambassadors of Christ, we are entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation. This ministry will be credible only if we disarm, putting down our legislative weapons long enough to encounter each other as fellow believers. Only then can we “be one” as Jesus prayed “so that the world may believe” (NIV John 17:21).

General Conference has given The United Methodist Church a chance to be made new in its commitment to be church. Navigating by worldwide guideposts will be of no use absent a commitment to journey together. There must be a prior commitment to church before the next vote about human sexuality can be effective or meaningful.

The commitment

Becoming church together will require an unequivocal commitment from each and every annual conference during the next two years.

Resolved, that the (Name) Annual Conference desires unity over schism, and reconciliation over victory; that this conference re-commits itself to becoming church together; and that this conference directs General Conference to work on its behalf to re-establish unity within the denomination. 

General Conference can only reflect the unity, or disunity, already present throughout The United Methodist Church. Absent a clear mandate to denominational unity, the next General Conference session— perhaps a called session in 2018 — will have no choice but to declare the end of The United Methodist Church. The decision will have already been made before the first vote is taken. Annual conferences cannot be silent on this issue. Annual conferences must make clear their commitment to unity and reconciliation if The United Methodist Church is to remain intact.

Furthermore, each and every annual conference must commit itself to new ways of being church together if we desire unity as church. We must be made new and we must live into it by behaving differently amid disagreement. We must commit ourselves to the hard work of building and maintaining relationships, especially among persons of diverse cultures, contexts, and experiences of the Holy Spirit. We cannot expect General Conference, during its limited time together, to embody gifts that the delegates have neither evidenced nor embraced prior to their arrival.

Further resolved, that the (Name) Annual Conference will actively seek to practice the ministry of reconciliation entrusted to us; that this conference will find new ways of loving each other amid disagreement; that this conference will actively seek to practice new ways of being in relationship, especially among persons of diverse cultures, contexts, and experiences of the Holy Spirit; and that this conference will offer its learned, new ways of being as a gift within The United Methodist Church and as a witness beyond it.

In this effort, each annual conference is like a separate member of the body, each with different gifts (1 Cor. 12). The ways in which we learn anew to love each other will be varied and contextual. New practices of deliberating and new ways of relating to each other become our witness.

Unity is not an idol

Unity is not a sacred calf, to be sought above all else. Not everyone will unquestionably desire unity and reconciliation, nor should they. Entire annual conferences may decide not to commit themselves to the above resolutions. There are diverse reasons for this.

For some, a call to unity will be perceived as coercion to compromise tightly held beliefs. Repeated refrains of “unity is not uniformity” does little to assuage those who see clear lines separating irreconcilable differences.

For others, a call for unity will be perceived as a power play by a tyrannical majority. Under the guise of unity, much harm has been done in the past. Individuals and entire groups of persons have been sidelined, silenced and abused within and by oppressive structures within this denomination and its predecessors.

Those who do desire unity must declare what holds them together. Of course, the church is unified around Christ. But what else? Organizational maintenance is not a substitute for ecclesiological unity, as Dr. Kyle Tau has recently pointed out. The question of legitimate diversity within the Body of Christ is addressed in the new study document, “Wonder, Love, and Praise: Sharing a Vision of the Church.” Any call to unity must also state what is essential to that unity.

In essentials, unity

Finally — and this is the hard part for many — we must let go of this or that stance on homosexuality as a defining issue for fidelity to Christ — or claim it as such.

In his sermon. “Catholic Spirit,” John Wesley distinguished between essentials and opinions. Put simply, some things are essential to the core of Christian faith and some things are not. To move forward in considering any legislation regarding human sexuality and homosexuality, in particular, General Conference must have clarity: Does this pertain to essentials or opinions, theologically speaking?

Annual conferences that believe that homosexuality is essentially contrary to Christian faith should use the appropriate legislative procedures to enact such a statement.

Likewise, annual conferences that believe that full inclusion of LGBTQ persons is essential to Christian faith should use the appropriate legislative procedures to enact such a statement. LGBTQ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning.

Those beliefs, convictions, and actions that are essential to the faith are appropriately expressed through our doctrinal standards. Those things that are essential to our polity are appropriately placed in the constitution. Both require supermajorities at General Conference and a vote of each annual conference for ratification.

Call to conversion

To reflect church genuinely, General Conference cannot continue to treat common legislative enactments as essentials of faith. This admission will require some degree of repentance, reversal and renewal in the way United Methodists have conducted business over the past four decades. The United Methodist Church cannot become church without becoming new. Old patterns will not enable a new way of being church. “No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins” (NIV, Luke 5:38). Unless properly declared as essentials, all sides will have to learn to live with and love one another amid differences of opinion on homosexuality.

General Conference can speak for the denomination. It can enact laws for this church. But it cannot make us love one another. General Conference can only reflect unity if a desire for reconciliation is already evident throughout The United Methodist Church. Annual conferences that desire the denomination to be church must speak clearly and quickly. Otherwise, schism will be a foregone conclusion prior to any vote of the next General Conference. We can’t legislate unity and reconciliation. We can’t legislate church.

Stephens is director of United Methodist studies at Lancaster Theological Seminary and a clergy member of the Texas Conference. Stephens is the author of "Methodist Morals: Social Principles in the Public Church’s Witness” (University of Tennessee Press, April 2016).

News Media contact: Vicki Brown at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]

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