Underwood report to the North Texas Annual Conference on the 2016 General Conference

The following was shared by the Rev. Don Underwood to the North Texas Annual Conference meeting in Plano, TX on Tuesday, June 7, 2016

During the first eight days of General Conference, a remarkable and highly confidential conversation was taking place in a private room at the Portland Convention Center. My involvement in that conversation was initiated by a phone call on April 27th, two weeks before leaving for Portland, from Bishop Warner Brown, at that time the President of the COB. He asked me to be a part of a “conversation on human sexuality.” He did not offer the names of the other participants, and I did not ask.

On Wednesday evening, May 10th, I walked into a room tucked into the back area of the Bishops’ suite in the Portland Convention Center. Seated around the table were twelve participants, plus a trusted lieutenant of Bishop Brown who served as scribe, and a professional consultant trained in conflict resolution and mediation.

This group was ideologically VERY diverse, running the gamut from VERY conservative to VERY progressive. It was somewhat diverse with regard to ethnicity and gender. It was lacking rich diversity in terms of global geography and age. This fact was acknowledged and discussed from the very beginning, and we often returned to it and discussed it as we considered various options for how to move forward.

In the latter meetings, four more bishops were invited, creating a very rich diversity in terms of international geography and ethnicity. It would be accurate to acknowledge that robust diversity in terms of age was still missing. I’m giving you a sense of these demographics because I’m fully aware that when a smaller group meets, it matters which voices are represented.

What proceeded in a series of meetings totaling 8 – 10 hours was an ongoing conversation about human sexuality – and our denomination’s struggle with it – that embodied what I would consider the Apex of Holy Conferencing. There was the acknowledgement from every person in the room that all the others were speaking from a faithful position as they interpret the Bible and the gospel. The dialogue was characterized by utter respect for one another in spite of radically differing viewpoints. In all the hours we met, not once did we need to call upon the skills of the person who was trained in conflict resolution.

Opinions may differ on how close we came to the precipice of schism in Portland. But I owe it to you to speak with candor. It is clear that forces were unleashed at this conference that have the potential to change our denomination in significant ways.

After a number of meetings, the consensus among this group was that the time had arrived for a commission to be appointed that could guide the denomination forward, and that would consider ALL options for the future. Again, the tone of this was utterly respectful and mutually supportive, but there was acknowledgement of what appears to be irreconcilable differences, especially between those on the far left and far right of the theological/ideological spectrum.

The final hours of this conversation revolved around a discussion about the best way for a commission to be appointed and charged with the responsibility for developing a plan to move forward. A number of options were considered, including a motion to the General Conference from this group. A consensus emerged, however, that the one group that has both standing and robust inclusiveness for such a task is the Council of Bishops. Up until this point, even the Council did not know of the existence of this group or the discussions, and we agreed that Bishop Brown should go forward with our names and our request to the COB that they assume leadership for the appointment of a Commission and, specifically, for considering a called, interim General Conference to deal with the findings and recommendations of the Commission. There was a serious discussion of the timeline for a called GC, but we concluded that if it could be done in four years, it could be done in three. The various advantages of a Called GC were discussed, including a focused agenda and the ability to process the recommendations with exactly the same delegates who had participated in Portland.

This request to the COB led to an initial statement made by Council President Bishop Bruce Ough to the plenary, which was followed by a request FROM THE PLENARY that the COB assume a greater leadership role and return with a more concrete an specific report to the Conference. On Wednesday, May 18th, Bishop Ough returned to the plenary and read the statement you are now familiar with. After the plenary narrowly defeated a motion by Adam Hamilton that specified some concrete actions listed in the Bishops’ statement, a motion was passed that simply affirmed the statement made by the Bishops, and that empowered them to move forward in a leadership role with the endorsement of the 2016 General Conference.

I want to close by pointing out that this is an historic moment in our denomination. The offering of the bishops to lead on what IS the theological/ecclesial issue of our time is historic. The affirmation given by the General Conference in Portland to the bishops, calling forth stronger leadership, is historic. The cultural crosswinds that our church and others are caught in are historic. How we navigate this moment will be pivotal.

I claim to be neither prescient nor prophetic. But I do believe there will be some neededstructural change in our denomination, not just around the issue of human sexuality, but also the role of the Book of Discipline, the architecture of General Conference, and the role of American Methodism in the context of a global church. These changes need not be seen as frightening, and we should hear the voice of God calling us to “be not anxious.”

I am more than an optimist. I am HOPEFUL in a truly biblical sense of that word. Our beloved Wesleyan tradition is, in America and around the world, the most vital of what we call the mainline denominations. It is a unique and irreplaceable theological tradition that is capable of speaking with enormous relevancy to a rapidly changing world. Timing is now on our side. I believe that if we continue to receive strong leadership from our bishops, this is in fact a liminal moment through which we will pass as a stronger and more creative church, better equipped for witness and service and the making of disciples in the 21st century.

PARTICIPANTS

Bishop Warner Brown

Rob Renfroe
Maxie Dunnam
Tom Lambrecht
Patricia Miller

Mike Slaughter
Adam Hamilton
Tom Berlin
Don Underwood

Scott Campbell
Randall Miller
Matt Berryman

Patricia Hixon of JustPeace
Greg Bergquist, trusted lieutenant to Bishop Brown and scribe for the proceedings

Later: Bishop Bruce Ough and three Central Conference bishops.

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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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