GC Day 4: The Global Church & Proxy Wars

The quietest day in the news cycle of this General Conference may be the first Friday. This is a day that committees and subcommittees work diligently behind the scenes on important legislation. By the end of Saturday much of the legislation that will come to the floor of the plenary sessions becomes known. This legislation will filter out of the committees slowly between now and Saturday evening. Keep in mind, if you hear that a petition was defeated in committee, it can still be brought to floor of full plenary session if 20 delegates sign a form requesting it be sent to the floor.

Since today’s news will be sporadic, today’s blog will mention briefly some key themes for the day. Then I will use the bulk of my comments to address some overarching issues that affect almost everything we try to do in not so subtle ways.  

The theme of the day was set by Bishop Sally Dyke as she called us to follow Jesus instruction to learn “mercy, not sacrifice” and challenged us to wrestle with the fact that we have selected only one group of people to be declared “incompatible with Christian teaching”. You may be able to find the full text of her address on UMC.org or watch it on YouTube. As I understood it, her main point was that sin causes all of us to have things in our lives that are incompatible with Christian teaching and we need to learn to share the mercy Jesus gives to us with each other.  

Next, the Laity Address challenged us to all to recognize that the greatest witness for Christ is our daily faithful living, not General Conference legislation. A welcome reminder for us all.  

The General Board of Finance and Administration (GCFA) reported that the proposed budget for the 2017-2020 quadrennium was $599 million which is down from 603 million in 2013-2016. The reduction was made out of out the desire to send more resources to annual conferences and local churches. The proposal would reduce the apportionment rate asked of annual conferences to its lowest level ever. The GCFA celebrated their work with the General Boards and Agencies to help structure the budget around the UMC’s 4 areas of focus: 1) Developing Leaders, 2) Creating New, Places For New People, 3) Ministry with the Poor, and 4) Promoting Global Health.

Along those lines, we celebrated that over 1,050 new United Methodist churches have been planted throughout the world in just the last two years. While our new and established churches have been saving souls, they have also been raising awareness and close to $70 million to fight malaria. These actions played an important role in global malaria mortality rates dropping 60% since 2000.   

Perhaps the shortest, but one of the most important moments of the morning came in the Connectional Table report when the Connectional Table shared their desire to spend the next four years wrestling with the question “What does it mean to be a truly global church?”. The Connectional Table hopes that in 2020 they can bring legislation to General Conference that will help our structure become more global rather than our current system which is set up for an American church with a few international branches.   

To me, the greatest question we have to answer as a denomination is: Do we really want to be a global church? If we want to be a global church, then we have to level the playing field between the United States and the Central Conferences. This would involve discerning what freedoms local central conferences and perhaps jurisdictions should have and making those freedoms uniform as well as continuing to work towards an equitable way of paying the apportionments which fund the denomination.  

The devil will be in the details of this work. I think we can all ascribe to John Wesley’s statement: “In the essentials unity. In the non-essentials liberty. In all things charity.” Over the next four years the Connectional Table will have to help us discern what is truly essential and what practices are nonessential and require liberty to allow each annual conference and local churches to minister most effectively in their setting.

If we get this discernment correct, we can set ourselves up to be a truly global church for the twenty-first century. If we get this wrong, then over the course of the twenty-first century we will most likely move from a US-centric church to an African-centric church. And then in the twenty-second century, it’s possible that we might become Asian-centric. Regardless of which part of the world contains the most United Methodists, if we can correctly discern the essentials and nonessentials we set ourselves up for fruitful ministry throughout the world. If we get it wrong, then at best we will set up a system where churches in minority cultures are not given the freedom they need to minister with maximum effectiveness. At worst we will create a system will eventually cause us to splinter into national churches. 

One of the challenges that this General Conference and the Connectional Table will face in moving towards becoming a global church is that so many issues surrounding the global nature of the church have become proxy wars over human sexuality. For instance, there is legislation before us this year that would reform the formula for appointing delegates to General Conference to bring it more in line with the membership size of annual and central conferences. However, because in the short-term this change would most likely mean more representation from demographics who often see human sexuality issues in a conservatives manner. As you can imagine, there will be many people who otherwise would support a more equitable formula for appointing delegates who will oppose it because of their concerns about human sexuality.
There was also legislation brought to this General Conference that would make the USA a central conference. While making the USA a central conference would be the simplest and (at least on the surface) most equitable way to begin to move from a US-centric church to a global church structure, there are many people who would oppose any move in this direction because to do so would possibly create an avenue for the US churches to become more liberal in their stances towards human sexuality.

You can see the conundrum in which we find ourselves. We are rapidly growing throughout the world and becoming a more diverse denomination. Our structures need to reflect this growth, but it is hard to make principled decisions regarding the global nature of the church when at every turn we are fighting proxy wars over a heated social issue that divides us. 

Tomorrow in my blog I plan to offer some insights that help guide my thinking surrounding the global nature of the church. For tonight, please continue to keep the Holston delegation and all the delegates to General Conference in your prayers. Your prayers and support mean a tremendous amount to us.  

God bless you all.                 

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