General Conference reflections
So what happened at General Conference?
First my 2 cents on GC; then some reflections from prominent leaders who were there:
Maintaining and Strengthening traditional/catholic/evangelical teachings:
The Church decided to maintain its current classical and Biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality; the church strengthened the measures to hold bishops accountable to that teaching; the church strengthened its pro-life witness (including an improved statement on bio-ethics) and its anti-pornography witness. We also decided to add 5 new bishoprics to the continent of Africa in 2020, which is desperately needed from an oversight point of view because of the tremendous growth there, but is also expected to move the make-up of the council of bishops in an evangelical and traditionalist direction.
For orthodox and evangelical Wesleyan Christians who are committed to maintaining the faith that was 'once delivered to the saints' (Jude 3) all of this is very positive.
Appointing a "Way Forward" Commission:
While many of us wondered going into General Conference if the United Methodist Church would split this year, the very real possibility of a schism seems to have been averted by the decision of the GC to ask the bishops to appoint a commission to review our church's teaching and disagreements over sexual morality and recommend a way forward - perhaps at a specially called General Conference in a couple years.
It is unclear if this "way forward" means recommending some kind of segregation of liberals and conservatives into parallel jurisdictions within Methodism, or splitting into separate denominations, or simply recommending some radical change or minor tweak our official teachings in some way.
What the commission recommends, who is on it, what will happen to judicial complaints in the meantime, and even if there will actually be a special called General Conference (and if so, which delegates would go) all remains to be seen, and so for the moment liberals/progressives and conservatives/traditionalists are all currently waiting to see what will happen next (rather than working out the details of a schism).
Some of the more cynical among us (both liberal and conservative) have asked whether this move to create a commission is simply an institutional band-aid, an attempt by the bishops to "kick the can down the road a couple of years" and put off doing anything decisive. Some have also wondered if the special called General Conference - a major selling point in this plan - will ever actually be convened (only the bishops have the authority to call such an extra-ordinary meeting). Some conservatives (apparently unhappy with this commission idea) have reminded us that the only true "way forward" for the Church is the "narrow way" of Jesus Christ (see Mt. 7:13-29).
Looking to the Future:
It seems clear that The United Methodist Church will become a more and more orthodox and evangelical denomination over time (though not, I trust, 'fundamentalist' in the American sense**), as the overseas & non-Western parts of the Church continue to experience explosive growth (regions which have strong traditionalist as well as Charismatic leanings). If the mood of the GC was overwhelmingly traditionalist in Portland even after the US Supreme Court decision last year, even after several prominent and respected pastors and bishops called for the Church to liberalize our teachings, even after the enormous pressure from liberal groups and protesters going into this conference - if, in spite of all of this, the GC voted down every single piece of Progressive/liberal legislation, how then do we expect it play out in 4 years when we are a majority non-American church, or in 8 years when we are a majority African church?
It seems our church's teachings on these issues are not likely to get any more liberal - in fact the opposite may well happen. If then, the liberal/progressive wing of the church is not willing to live by the current teachings, I suspect some kind of division or split is inevitably going to happen; the question is whether it will be an internal segregation into parallel jurisdictions within United Methodism (essentially abandoning our current connectional church structure for some kind of federation) OR an outright split into two denominations OR a "quiet schism" as members and clergy who can no longer abide by church teaching quietly trickle out on their way to other denominations.
Those are my 2 cents on GC2016 (which may not be worth much more than that).
Here are a couple of reflections from people who were actually there:
THIS PIECE is from Dr. David Watson, who was my Greek Professor in Seminary at SMU, who is now dean of one of our Methodist seminaries (United Seminary), and who has become an important voice for classical Christian orthodoxy.
This is a great piece you should read.
Then there is this video from The Good News renewal and reform group that was at GC representing "Biblical, orthodox, classical, Wesleyan faith" in The United Methodist Church.
** While some use "evangelical" and "fundamentalist" as synonymous, I believe this misses some important distinctions and leads to confusion and ignorance rather than clarity and understanding.
Not all conservatives are "ultra-conservative."
Indeed United Methodist "conservatives" support the ordination of women, while fundamentalists do not.
United Methodist evangelicals say that God loves all people, Christ died for all people, and all people are welcome in our churches, while "ultra-conservatives" (of the Westboro Baptist Church sort) carry signs saying that God hates homosexual people.
United Methodist traditionalists believe in ecumenism, that is, seeking deeper cooperation and unity with other Christian denominations, while fundamentalists generally see all Christians who do not belong to their own little group as gross heretics, filled with spiritual darkness.
United Methodist evangelicals believe in the benefits of education and the academic study of Scripture, and are open to spiritual, allegorical, and other kinds of non-literal interpretations, while fundamentalists tend to insist that every word be interpreted in a "literal" sense regardless of genre differences within Scripture.
United Methodist traditionalists believe in using the whole Tradition of the universal ("catholic") church to help us rightly interpret Scripture, while fundamentalists generally pour scorn of "traditions" of any sort (without realizing that this basic outlook is itself a tradition) - therefore orthodox United Methodists cherish the ancient Creeds while fundamentalists reject them as "Romish corruptions".
While fundamentalists emphasize legalistic purity, evangelical Methodists seek to balance the call to holiness and justice with the message of mercy and grace.
There are many more distinctions one could make between United Methodist evangelicals/traditionalists/orthodox and fundamentalists, but the point is we should be careful how we use these labels if we care about both clarity and charity.