Steps Forward and Back

Today was, perhaps, one of the most tense days in United Methodist history, and yes I use the word “history” knowing the implication. It began with a report from the Council of Bishops. Yesterday, the Bishops of the Church were tasked by the Conference to come up with a proposal for the Church on a way forward through the divisions over LGBTQ full inclusion in the UMC. The Bishops met late into the night and then this morning Bishop Ough delivered their statement. It called for the General Conference to take three big steps: 1.) defer all votes on human sexuality for this year. This was a big one, because the legislation on human sexuality was scheduled to come to the floor this morning. The idea by the Bishops was that the Conference is basically stuck and consideration of this legislation through normal parliamentary means wasn’t going to get anyone anywhere. 2.) Create a commission made up of members named by the Bishops to completely examine everything our Book of Discipline says on human sexuality and recommend a way forward, and 3.) call a special General Conference before 2020 to legislatively deal with what the commission recommends.

What the Bishops offered to the Conference was non-binding, meaning it was their recommendation for a way forward. In order to make their recommendation happen, a motion had to be made proposing action on these items, which Adam Hamilton did. Hamilton’s motion was basically the Bishop’s proposal in bullet point format. It was debated, amended, debated some more, until finally lunch time came.

After lunch, Bishop Bill McAlilly from Tennessee, my Bishop, was the presiding officer and debate on Hamilton’s motion picked back up. This is when things got very tense and the Conference came as close to coming unhinged as I’ve ever seen.

It’s hard to write descriptively about what happened this afternoon because it is personally upsetting, and so I’m digressing into personal viewpoints here. I haven’t known Bishop McAlilly as long as others, having just come into the Tennessee Conference last year, but the time I have come to know him has revealed to me a person of high character and integrity that loves Christ and loves the Church. On a personal level, one of biggest reasons that I wanted to come to Tennessee was the chance to be in ministry under his leadership. He is, without a doubt, one of the finest leaders in the entire Church and many Methodists in Tennessee are all but begging for him to stay for as long as possible in that Conference to lead us in the work of mission and revitalization. At the afternoon session, the Bishop’s integrity was publicly questioned from the floor, and after the Hamilton motion was defeated, the Bishop was called out by a delegate and asked to step down from the presiding chair. To anyone’s knowledge, this request had never been made of a presiding Bishop.

I’ve felt pretty even-keeled through this entire Conference, mainly because I’m not here to vote, just help when needed. However, for the first time I felt personally furious and disgusted with what was happening. It was inappropriate for him to be treated as he was and the lack of respect for him and the work of the body was disheartening. After a 10-minute recess, the committee that determines when Bishops preside, came to the stage and affirmed Bishop McAlilly’s leadership as chair of the conference. The Bishop handled the situation with grace.

After the recess, a delegate then turned the Council of Bishops’ non-binding resolution to the Conference into a motion. This motion essentially did the same thing that Adam Hamilton’s motion did (putting into action the Bishops’ three steps forward). There was some confusion over whether this was simply re-voting on the same issue, which it essentially was, however per Robert’s Rules you can make a motion for something as many times as you want as long as you have a second and the chair approves it, so all was in order (even while some claimed it was not). Debates came to the floor again and this time it passed by less than 30 votes.

So, bottom line, what does this mean? Well, unless something crazy happens in the next two days (and who knows?) it means that there will be a committee that will begin to meet after this General Conference that is tasked with charting a way forward for the UMC. And it means that there will probably be a special called General Conference in either 2018 or 2019 to deal with the recommendations. What will the recommendations be? The rumors have already started flying about everything from unity to three different denominations, so we’ll see. We won’t know until meetings actually start happening. What it does mean is that there won’t be any debate on LGBTQ inclusion this year.

It was an exhausting day for all involved and the fatigue of everyone here is almost palpable. Within the tension, however, there were moments of grace. An amazing moment happened when a group of young adults took the floor for a statement on Church unity. The morning started with one of the best sermons of the entire Conference from Bishop Swanson of Mississippi. And during the 10 minute recess this afternoon, when tensions and tempers were perhaps highest, the African delegation broke out into song and dance.

From a personal perspective, I’m glad the Conference was able to find a way forward on this issue, but I’m weary of the cost associated with it. Alas, today was not the best day to be Methodist. But Sunday is still coming. And Saturday, when I get to fly home, is coming too.

*Note: for some great photos of the day from my friend Luke Lucas, special communications master-envoy-czar for the Alabama West Florida Conference, check out their Flickr site.

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