Editor’s Notes: Unity 10 years later

UMNS photo by Mike DuBose

Delegates to the 2004 General Conference in Pittsburgh hold hands
after affirming the unity of the UMC.
UMNS photo by Mike DuBose

As United Methodists we remain in covenant with one another, even in the midst of disagreement, and reaffirm our commitment to work together for our common mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ throughout the world.
-Statement of Unity adopted on May 7, 2004 by the 2004 General Conference

The rumors had been stirring all week at the 2004 General Conference in Pittsburgh. As had been true for many years, the issue of human sexuality (specifically the place in the church for homosexual persons) had been an issue of contention. Demonstrations had been held (as usual) on the floor of the conference, and the level of tension was high. The word was spreading that representatives from both the left and the right side of the church political spectrum had been secretly meeting, and that a proposal was on the table for an amicable separation (a rumor based on a leaked position paper which found it’s way to the delegates). While I had experienced stressful conferences in the past, the talk going around seemed to suggest that our ability to remain together was very tenuous at best.

So when I entered the room with the Committee on Agenda on the Wednesday morning following Tuesday’s protests, I wasn’t sure what to expect. For those who don’t know, the Committee on Agenda is, by default, one of the most powerful groups in the operation of the General Conference. This committee controls what and when legislation and proposals come to the floor. They work closely with the chairs of the other committees and the presiding bishops to ensure that the work of the conference is carried out, and their decisions often influence the direction of the conference. My job on the conference secretary’s staff, was to coordinate their work, serving as an executive secretary of sorts to communicate information to and from the committee. Every morning of the General Conference this committee, the legislative committee chairs, and the presiding bishops gather for breakfast at 6 a.m. to plan the day, and we gathered that Wednesday as usual trying to anticipate what was to come.

The conversation was muted that Wednesday as folks talked about the events of the previous day. They were tired after ten 18 hour days, but they were troubled by the all the rumors going around. That morning we received a request from Bruce Robbins and Bill Hinson for time to talk about the secret meetings. Committee members shared that they did not want to walk away from Pittsburgh with a legacy of division, and after a lot of conversation and prayer agreed that God wasn’t done with the UMC yet. Yes Bill and Bruce could speak, but they wanted to try and find away of affirming unity in the midst of our disagreements. We agreed to meet throughout the day to see what we could come up with.

As is typical of these things, the crafting of the statement (even in its simplicity) took much time and conversation. I remember sitting at the laptop in a hotel ballroom with other staff and members of the committee looking over my shoulder as I entered and edited the text into it’s final form. And then someone said “That’s it…” and I headed to the printer to make copies to be distributed to the delegates.

On Friday morning, a global delegation was waiting at the microphones to present the statement and call on the General Conference to come together as one body. I remember that there was almost an audible sigh of relief on the floor that day, for while we were certainly divided, no one was ready to give up. There were tears as the conference adopted the statement and joined hands, understanding that there is power in the unity of the Body of Christ.

Looking back 10 years later, it may have been a naïve hope that we could find unity in the midst of our disagreements. Perhaps it was short sighted to think that words of covenant could draw us together and that we could unite around a common mission. And yet, in that moment, there was hope that the things that divided us were not the last word; in that moment there was a belief in the power of the one who brings forth new life and reconciles all things.

It may be that now, 10 years later, the scars are too deep, that the divide is too wide, and the brokenness too great to find a place of reconciliation. 10 years is a long time, and we live in a very different world, so maybe the Gang of 80 are right and there is no way to remain together. Maybe the legacy of the 2012 General Conference in Tampa is that we can no longer remain unified as a church?

And yet, as I open that file on my computer – the one titled “Statement on Church Unity 2.doc” – I find myself wondering just a little bit if there still isn’t a place for hope. Is it time to call in the attorneys and accountants, or can we find a space to hold hands, raise our voices in song, and cry a little bit in our naïve belief that we are not dead yet?

What is the answer for our future?

I make no claims of great wisdom, and I am willing to concede that we may be better off separate than together. I absolutely believe that the only means of finding reconciliation is in openness and transparency, creating the space for vulnerability where true healing can occur – something that can rarely be achieved through political structures. There can be no healing without trust, and there can be no trust without vulnerability – and neither can be accomplished by backroom meetings and secret Skype calls where people aren’t willing to own up to their own personal beliefs and statements.

And yet, as I said 4 years ago, and continue to believe today, these words have a place in our lives together:

As United Methodists we remain in covenant with one another, even in the midst of disagreement, and reaffirm our commitment to work together for our common mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ throughout the world.

God, help us to believe that it might still be true.

Jay Voorhees, Former Executive Editor

The Rev. Jay Voorhees is the Executive Editor of The United Methodist Reporter and the Chief Creative Officer for CircuitWriter Media LLC which operates this site and MethoBlog.com. Jay is an ordained elder in the Tennessee Annual Conference. Jay has written on life and the practice of faith in The United Methodist Church at Only Wonder Understands since 2003.

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15 Comments on "Editor’s Notes: Unity 10 years later"

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 
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John Lomperis
Guest

Thanks for your honest reflections, Jay. The sad fact of the matter is, by willfully and systematically demonstrating the leaders of the liberal caucuses have made very clear that they are determined to NOT live in covenant with the rest of us. What basis is there for trust if theologically liberal clergy seem determined to prove that they cannot be trusted to keep their own word, not even their sacred covenant vows to God and the church they chose to give (no one forced them) at ordination?

Gil Caldwell
Guest

Jay Voorhees ends his “Editor’s Notes: Unity 10 years later” with these words; “God help us to believe that it might still be true.”. I suggest that all of us read or re-read, “How Methodists
Split in the 1840’s; Wofford College”. Santayana said this that I paraphrase: “Those who do
not remember their history will repeat it.” Most of us now believe that the “split in the 1840’s”
was unwise, based on a history, culture and tradition of slavery, and a distortion of biblical intent. Who of us wants to repeat that split in the 21st century for any reason?

Mark
Guest

Once again an apples-and-oranges argument is presented. There was always Biblical justification for opposing slavery (e.g. see Philemon)….not so in the case of homosexual behavior.

But, as has been stated, the core issue revolves around authority, not sexuality. Are we to give precedence to current humanistic trends, or are we to give precedence to Scripture, historic Christian understandings and natural law?

Gil Caldwell
Guest
If Scripture is so clear about the equality of women and blacks, how do we explain the debates and divisions re; the ownership of slaves? And, why were so many in the denomination reluctant to support the ordination of women? How do we explain the anti-black and anti-women actions of the denomination in the past, if Scripture affirms women and blacks? There seems to be a great desire to “defend” Scripture while not critiquing actions of the denomination that were demeaning of both blacks and women. And, who can defend the current demonization of same gender loving persons, if we… Read more »
Mark
Guest
Gil, no one that I respect is demonizing gay people. Revering what the Bible teaches is not demeaning; quite the contrary: it’s respecting God’s revealed Word. And, yes, there are Scriptures people can point to that seem to support slavery–but there are Scriptures that argue otherwise, and the entire book of Philemon can be cited in that regard. So, one can point out Scripture that seems to support slavery, but no such Scripture exits with respect to homosexual behavior. Indeed, it is clear that Scripture condemns it. It you disagree with it then so state, but let’s not continue this… Read more »
Gary Bebop
Guest

If the present path is sustainable, that’s the one to support. Just keep doing the same things we’ve been doing and it will all work out for everyone. Yeah, right.

Ken
Guest

I appreciate the attempt at objectivity in this article. But the crux of the issue is not “specifically the place in the church for homosexual persons”; it is, rather, whether the church should morally approve of same-sex sexual intimacy.

Jan Lawrence
Guest
We are 150% focused on the “issue” at the expense of people. We have forgotten that we are commanded to love each other … to be in relationships with each other. Too many don’t want those relationships. We would rather argue over theology and do everything we can to protect our understanding of it than let the Spirit speak. A few things that we should consider. 1) Regardless of which of the many interpretations you have of scripture, belief you have about full inclusion of ALL in the life of the church, etc., we the church should be engaged with… Read more »
Reflection
Guest

The lost children of God are scattering out there in the wind; who’s going to bring them back in the house of God?

Daniel Hixon
Guest
As much as I dislike the tone of some of the above comments, I cannot escape the logic of their arguments. When the covenant that binds us together is willfully abandoned by only one “side” of the debate how can we still have unity? What would be the basis of that continued unity? How would it function in practice? For my own part I uphold the Wesleyan theology, the moral teachings, the policies, the traditions, and structures of the UMC without reservation (and yes, I’m a young person under 35). If I found I could no longer in good conscience… Read more »
james
Guest
Transparency? Sounds like Washington DC!! 2 +2 = 5? Sounds like Common Core!! Trust? Vulnerability? The whole discussion boils down to the fact the umc–like the federal government–has be come bogged down in a black, sticky, gooey mire of quick sand that is ever more quickly sucking the membership/citizens under. The folks who stay home and mind the “claim” hope against hope for something wise and constructive. Those arrogant ones hit the road in the guise of leadership to design the demise of the umc/country and become more self-serving, boastful, and distant with each passing day. Nostalgia is not a… Read more »
Mark
Guest
What if the scientists who were working on the moon landing back in the 60’s suddenly found among them someone who had a new revelation: 2+2 not only equals 4, it can also equal 5! What do you think would have been done to that scientist? Would he have been coddled and given an important assignment so he could feel good about himself, or would he have been told the truth and sent for therapy? This is analogous to what’s happening in the UMC. Too many leaders have lost the capacity to be objective…about who has broken promises, who has… Read more »
Jaye
Guest
I love what you you say at the very end, “I absolutely believe that the only means of finding reconciliation is in openness and transparency, creating the space for vulnerability where true healing can occur – something that can rarely be achieved through political structures. There can be no healing without trust, and there can be no trust without vulnerability – and neither can be accomplished by backroom meetings and secret Skype calls where people aren’t willing to own up to their own personal beliefs and statements.” ….but I have to ask, How is this even possible when anyone who… Read more »
Talbot Davis
Guest

And calling people a Gang isn’t very helpful either.

Nevertheless, I do hope the possibilities being raised can lead to a solution other than division.

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