By Rev. Gregg Sealey
The 2019 Special Session of General Conference was called to determine “a way forward” for The United Methodist Church that would allow our ministry to continue without quadrennial arguments about passages in the Book of Discipline that have wreaked havoc for decades. In fact, the Council of Bishops (at the request of the 2016 General Conference) established “A Commission On A Way Forward” expressly for this purpose. Did we find our way forward? I think we did, just not in the way many expected or hoped.
Details of the items voted on in St. Louis are important, and the anticipated rulings by the Judicial Council (basically The UMC’s version of the Supreme Court) about the “constitutionality” of what passed currently shroud the impact upon our connectional life. Regardless of the outcome, the deep divisions in our church have been exposed for all to see. They can no longer be denied, nor should we hope that we can gloss over them and go back to the way things were. The deep, infected wounds that have affected us for a long time have been broken open, and it is time for us to seek the healing, health and wholeness that God desires for us.
In my former career as a physical therapist, I came to understand that healing doesn’t always feel good in the moment, but if we take one painfully necessary step after another, healing will come.
Since returning from St. Louis, I have had many people express their condolences because of “how hard it must have been to be there.” But honestly, I believe being there was easier than being at home watching the live stream or hearing the news second- or third-hand for two reasons:
- I could finally see the powers at play.I am not speaking solely of an evil ‘other,’ but I witnessed first-hand the temptation (in myself and others) to have power over another; to win at another’s expense. This was never going to end with a legislative solution.
- There was an incredible sense of community. Deep relationships were forged and nurtured that will help us find a more genuine “way forward.”
Within 24 hours of the beginning of General Conference I knew that the church would rupture no matter the voting results. The only unknown was who would be harmed the most.
Before the voting started, a district superintendent colleague in the South East Jurisdiction was sharing with me that if the Traditional Plan passed, their whole conference might lose up to a dozen churches that couldn’t abide by that result. On the other hand, if anything other than the Traditional Plan passed, he was looking at 40-50 of his district’s120+ churches (not the entire conference) being abandoned by their congregations.
In the face of that kind of resistance, the General Conference chose to alienate more progressive conferences including the entire Western Jurisdiction, and turn it’s back on the values we stand for, our LGBTQIA sisters and brothers who we have supported for many years, and the many centrist/moderate folks who were willing to be a part of a “big tent” Methodist Church.
Returning home to Spokane, Washington and the Inland Missional District, I encountered a different sensibility. We, too, have folks with very different theological perspectives, but most of the laypeople and congregations here were caught off guard. They were surprised that the One Church Plan didn’t pass, because of their lived experience of a PNW Conference that has always allowed for differences of opinion.
Not everyone in the Inland Missional District shares that surprise, or the values around diversity and inclusion, but therein lies the beauty in the aftermath of this Special Session. It is allowing us to be clearer about our values while helping us to articulate why we live and serve here in the Greater Northwest Episcopal Area. As we move forward, let us not be wishy-washy about our convictions regarding who God is calling us to love and serve in our communities and our congregations!
Some conceive that the healing we need might look like cauterizing a wound (regardless of differing theological perspectives). I disagree. What if we view it more like a therapeutic breakthrough, a pivot point that allows us to be free of what binds and holds us back? Long-term liberation and freedom could then follow this short-term pain. What if being two (or more?) entities allows us to bless each other on our separate journeys, connect with the people God is calling us to connect with, and be a witness to the way of following Jesus? We are different today than we were a month ago, and we cannot go back to the status quo.
No one knows the future of the entity named The United Methodist Church, and no one knows if there will be new “bodies” created to hold separately what couldn’t be held together (I certainly hope so for everyone’s sake). Regardless of how these matters are resolved, I want us to think deeply about some questions that can guide us into the future unafraid:
- What is our dream?
- What is possible for all of us?
- What is our vision of how we might follow Jesus from this point forward?
Friends, I invite you to treat one another gently in this difficult time, and realize that none of us is alone. We’ll all get through it together with a little help from our friends.
Rev. Gregg Sealey serves as district superintendent for the Inland Missional District and as dean of the PNW cabinet. He is also first-reserve clergy delegate to the 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota.