To the lay people of the United Methodist Church in South Carolina,
For starters, dear Reader, you may not be any of the above things (a lay person, a Methodist, and/or in South Carolina). By lay people I mean the average church-goer, versus the professional church leaders who are clergy. Whatever the case, I’m glad you’re here, and local lay Methodists are my most intended audience. I want to contribute some clarity in their understanding of the 2019 Annual Conference.
More than half of you just asked, “What’s Annual Conference?” or “Has that happened this year already?” I respect that. If you’re unaware, we United Methodists hold one big statewide gathering each year to tackle larger-level tasks: reports, resolutions, budget approval, fellowship, worship, and more. We call this meeting the Annual Conference. It’s made up of our pastors in South Carolina (some 800+) alongside an equal number of lay delegates from our churches.
This year’s Annual Conference was in Greenville just a few weeks ago, and some of you, even some who were in attendance, wouldn’t think that anything about it needs clarifying. It came. It went. We’re still here, just as always. I understand that, and I rarely care to share about Conference in detail. This year, however, was unique to me. If you take any cues from your pastor, it’d be interesting to know what you heard about what took place. Was he/she jubilant about it? Maybe you heard lofty language that portrayed some kind of second Pentecost, as if the Holy Spirit underwrote the whole thing from top to bottom. Or, maybe your pastor’s experience at Annual Conference was one of frustration and grief at political deal-making to achieve human ends. Then again, maybe he/she had no reaction at all. It might be just as interesting to know what you didn’t hear. I encourage you to consider asking your pastor for concrete specifics if you haven’t already.
In the meantime, I’d like to share my own understanding, whatever it’s worth to you. As a starting point I think we can take inspiration from the first few lines in a summary article from The Greenville News. In the proper light, it actually pretty well captures my sense of the direction, or misdirection, of this year’s Annual Conference. It reads:
The United Methodist clergy members who represent South Carolina in major denomination votes are now younger, more diverse in race and gender, and they’re more supportive of same-sex marriages.
Fifteen of the 16 clergy delegates elected at last week’s state conference in Greenville are part of the UMC Next SC platform which explicitly opposes the denomination’s Traditional Plan.
This opener begs a few questions worth asking. The first is, why are we talking about delegates and major denomination votes? Next year is the 2020 General Conference. Every four years, it’s the global gathering of clergy and lay delegates from each region, and it’s the only body that can change the official teaching of our denomination. Since the 1970s, General Conference is increasingly dominated by disagreement over our current stance on human sexuality (that all people are of sacred worth but same-sex practice is incompatible with Christian teaching). A special General Conference was called in 2019 to try to navigate the division. The outcome was to uphold current teaching, along with some strengthened accountability measures, so 2020 is shaping up to be an even more raucous arena for disagreement. Thus, one of the most significant items at this year’s Annual Conference was that we elected South Carolina’s delegates to next year’s General Conference.
Second, then, why is The Greenville News emphasizing the language of “younger, more diverse” for the clergy delegates who were elected? Well, that’s an entirely more complicated question than the article, or its sources, lead us to believe. In the simplest terms, this opening claim is patently false. How do I know? Because it’s pretty easy to take a look at our last group of clergy delegates from 2016 (and 2019) for some quick comparisons:
Interpret the numbers as you will, but I see two groups that are incredibly similar. They’re also both incredibly diverse. In fact, in both 2016 and 2020, women and African-Americans enjoy super representation compared to their fraction of the total clergy. At my last check, neither of these groups make up more than 25% of all United Methodist clergy in South Carolina. Based on these numbers, you could even conclude that the 50-50 gender ratio in 2016 is far more representative than what we see in 2020. Either way, it’s true that the South Carolina Conference has a diverse clergy delegation, but it’s no more true than ever. Our diversity is to be celebrated, and I did celebrate it in 2016. I’d be quicker to do so in 2020 if that were the whole, authentic story.
So, getting back to The News, if the 2020 group isn’t much younger or more diverse, then what is the real difference in this group of delegates? What real grounds could there be for the media, and for some pastors, to exult that something allegedly new and beautiful and holy took place in South Carolina this year?
Continue reading the article opener, and we finally discover some accuracy: our 2020 clergy delegates are overwhelmingly more supportive of same-sex marriage and ordination than ever before. In fact, as reported, 15 out of 16 are part of a new effort to redefine United Methodist teaching on human sexuality (known as UMC Next). In other words, if we can just clarify the code-language of “diversity,” then the only proper change in our clergy delegation, from 2016 to today, is a massive shift toward less diversity in terms of a theological understanding of sexuality and marriage:
If that’s so, then what does it mean? Tough question. Even though 15 of the delegates are united behind reversing church teaching on sexuality, each of them has their own unique theological convictions. I’m sure in the coming months they’ll try to articulate to us all just how nuanced their views are. But there can be no doubt that these 15 delegates arrived at Annual Conference as part of the “UMC Next” platform which began taking shape months in advance. By May of this year, their organization was solidified during a nationwide gathering of progressive leaders hand-picked and hosted by Rev. Adam Hamilton at Church of the Resurrection in Kansas. This conference featured serious (and costly) political coaching, and its fruit is evident in elections all over the United States, just as in South Carolina. Every single one of these 15 delegates came directly from a pre-determined list of 20 clergy produced by UMC Next – each of them was vetted through personal contact in advance – and then they were elected by a block of coordinating caucus groups. How coordinated was it? During the voting, a progressive friend of mine texted me to say that, after the first eight delegates were elected to General Conference, their group was going to “throw traditionalists a bone” by electing a moderate/traditional candidate in the ninth slot. About thirty seconds later that’s exactly what transpired.
To be fair, I most certainly don’t fault a group of clergy for having their own theological convictions. My closest friends/peers and I differ in small and in large ways all the time. It’s mostly a great thing. We have different focuses in ministry, different strengths and weaknesses, and it mostly benefits the Church. Most of us still understand each other and love each other. I’m pretty close to plenty of our elected delegates; I love them and pray for them this very moment.
I’ve also been a part of coordinated groups of clergy, in 2016 and this year, working toward what we believe is God’s holy desire for God’s people. We appreciate our current teaching on sexuality. We think it reflects a truly honest reading of Scripture, faithfulness to our excellent Wesleyan/Christian tradition, sound reasoning and personal experience. Many of us actually see the current UMC stance as properly moderate. It leaves no room for actual hatred or bigotry for LGBTQ-identified persons; it supports civil equality; it recognizes that every person is offered the full embrace of the grace of God; it invites anyone to join and serve in the life of the church. It just stops short in one way: we cannot find a way to conclude that God authored or embraces same-sex practice. As I’ve told progressive friends, I’d love to find a way to reach that conclusion with them. If someone can show me a way, if the Lord Almighty can, I welcome that day. But having done as exhaustive a search as I know how, I still don’t know how to get there. And, honestly, I’m increasingly unsure how my peers have arrived there so definitively.
That being so, I hope that General Conference doesn’t overturn our current stance on human sexuality. If South Carolina could elect 16 clergy delegates who would vote from a traditional perspective, I’d be as delighted in it as my fellow clergy are about this progressive group heading into 2020. I understand how they feel, and why.
I just think we can all do better at not conflating broad strokes or murky language about diversity with what is a straightforward theological difference. There are equally well-thought and well-intentioned folks – of all races, ages, and genders – on all sides.
I also want you, the lay people, to realize that for clergy like me who can’t find a way to affirm anything but our current teaching on same-sex practice, Annual Conference was a significant event. It reinforced something we’ve had faint hints of for quite some time: although I estimate that a great majority of our lay people in South Carolina prefer current church teaching on human sexuality, it seems that a fair majority of our clergy prefer the opposite. After all, our best efforts at electing moderate/traditional clergy in 2016 didn’t even achieve 50-50 representation among the delegates. And, in 2020, that representation was totally obliterated.
In some cases, granted, the differences between being “progressive” and “traditional”, or “liberal” and “orthodox”, are minuscule. It’s why I rather hate those labels. But in other cases the disagreement among many of your pastors, the theological distance between us, is wide enough that it’s like we’re already two separate churches. I know that’s not the case among you, the lay people. In my experience, you all at the local level know best how to love each other and remain the church together. I don’t wish for you to feel the partisanship of General, Jurisdictional, and Annual Conference spilling over into your midst.
At the same time, you have to know what is taking place, right now, in the wider Methodist world and in South Carolina. You have to hear some different angles on it and start perking up your ears. If you haven’t thought about any of this before, it’s time to start thinking and praying about it all. Because, I promise, the time is coming and is now upon us when our denomination is not going to continue in its present form. There are too many folks who are too firmly dedicated, understandably, to either maintaining current teaching or reversing course. There are too many folks who cannot in good conscience abide by one direction, or the other.
I hope this whole process doesn’t harm the life of the local church. But if you weren’t aware that there’s a struggle going on for the future of the UMC — or if you think it will never affect you personally, or your congregation — then know that it is already drastically affecting plenty of people in South Carolina, especially your pastors.
I encourage you, if you haven’t done so already, to step away from the side-lines and become as actively involved as you can. And God our Father, Lord Jesus, Holy Spirit, please lead us in your Way.