And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.
(Mark 2:22 The NIV)
In 2012 the United Methodist Church came of age. We may not know it yet, but when the motion to adjourn General Conference came at 10:45 on Friday evening, May 4, from Joey Lopez of North Carolina, we were launched from the cozy confines of the nest that had sheltered us for the last 44 years into a new world that we can hardly begin to imagine.
Some of us may have sensed it at the time, but for most of us there has been a growing realization that what we have been counting on to save our church will never be sufficient for the task. If we were depending on getting our legislative house in order, we failed to do so. If we were hoping that instituting strong centralized leadership would be the panacea, all the plans went up in smoke. If we thought a common theological perspective, or a unified worldview, or new language around inclusion would rescue us—none of these were anywhere to be seen.
The reality is that the United Methodist church is too big and too diverse to be held together by any of the centers we have relied upon for more than four decades. We will not be saved by our bishops, our polity, our structure, our metrics, our theology, our doctrine, our social principles, or by Roberts Rules of Order. Thank God! What Tampa taught us is that the vitality of United Methodism is not to be found in any of its structures. Our strength and our unity lie in our identity as a spiritual movement, grounded in the grace of God and linked by common practices of personal and social holiness. Nothing more, nothing less.
We in the New England delegation are convinced that all efforts to impose a common identity on the Church theologically, ecclesiologically or culturally are not only doomed to failure, but actually thwart the attempts of United Methodist Christians to follow faithfully in the ways of Jesus Christ. We believe that the old Church with its old myths of a common identity imposed from the center has failed. We further hold that any new structures that emerge in the years ahead must emphasize relationship among the wonderfully diverse parts of our communion rather than uniformity of practice across the connection. Further, such plans must not only permit, but must encourage communities to freely meet the needs of people in their own contexts, resourced but not controlled by the support structures of the church. Such structures include The Discipline, the episcopacy, the General Conference and the boards and agencies. Each exists only to equip and serve the servants of God’s people.
- We are not defeated or dismayed by what happened and what did not happen at the General Conference. We in the New England delegation, while recognizing that much of what we had hoped for may not have come to fruition, understand that the aftermath of General Conference presents us with new opportunities to reshape the church in a more just and equitable fashion. This opportunity is offered not just to those who attended General Conference but to all in the UMC who are called to serve God’s people.
- The expanding role of the Central Conferences, both numerically and politically, has created a new reality in the church. The church can no longer operate from a US-centric perspective at General Conference, nor will the theological and cultural norms with which those of us in the US have become familiar suffice for us going forward. Our future will not be a recapitulation of our past. There are difficult challenges ahead as the UMC attempts to address worldwide structure issues. Ours is a church divided by language, culture, theology, social perspective and economic means, just to name a few. We are hampered by the reality that enabling legislation to create the framework for a new worldwide structure failed four years ago because many in the church were afraid of what it might portend. (Proposed Constitutional amendments that would have eliminated the term “Central Conferences” in favor of “Regional Conferences” and would have included the US as one of those regions were passed by General Conference, but not endorsed by the required number of persons voting in the annual conferences.) Still, we can find hope and unity if we can envision ways for our Wesleyan heritage to keep us in relationship and our structure to allow us to minister freely and fully in our unique contexts. If we can rise to this challenge, we may well be on the verge of the richest blessings our church has yet known.
- Any plan for reorganization of the church needs to begin almost immediately and have broad buy-in from many voices, so that it arrives at GC 2016 with momentum and consensus already established. We must move away from the notion of proportional representation (i.e. areas with the largest membership get the greatest say) and ask instead which perspectives need to be represented in creating our new church. It may well be that constituencies that are entirely under-represented at the moment are key to the future of the denomination. Whatever we do, it must be crystal clear that the purpose of any plan is to enable ministry and not to consolidate power.
- Annual Conferences must monitor closely the new power that has been put in the hands of the bishops to withhold appointment from elders in good standing in order to make certain that this tool is not being used to inhibit prophetic and/or inclusive ministry. Clergy sessions of the annual conference must be especially vigilant in this area. Additionally we need proactive guidelines for missional appointment-making that protect prophetic preaching and preserve racial, ethnic and gender diversity in our pulpits. The legislation passed by the General Conference was intended to ensure more effective pastoral leadership in our churches. We remind ourselves and our appointive authorities that effectiveness can only be truly assessed by taking into consideration the contexts into which persons are sent.
- The New England Delegation is clear that the unity of the church cannot come at the expense of being a fully inclusive church. Council of Bishops President Rosemary Wenner’s apology to GLBT United Methodists for the harm that our church has caused was a much welcomed and long overdue word, but we need more than words. The majority of our delegation remains committed to the creation of a UMC where all God’s people are welcome to share all of their gifts.
- We believe that the most fruitful change in any organization always comes from the edges and never from the center. We are encouraged that the conversation has continued in so many places after General Conference. We are concerned that these conversations are still confined to the US and challenge those who are engaged in them to expand the circle to the Central Conferences. Still, we are pleased that so many people still care so passionately about the church we all love.