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  • H.O. Tom Thomas

Taking Stock


Taking Stock after Annual Conference

TAKING STOCK OF ANNUAL CONFERENCE


· Did electing an all progressive slate of 2020 General Conference delegates by the Virginia Annual Conference represent a "seismic shift"?

No. The VAUMC has been trending liberal/progressive for decades. One clergy member recounted to me anecdotally about Bishop Pennell’s ‘Day of Listening’ in 1999. On the panel there were a handful of advocates of homosexual practice to only one conservative traditionalist. Administrative office holders, conference committee chairs, BOOM members and persons seen on the annual conference stage have consistently been non-evangelical persons – at best centrists sympathetic to progressive ideas. The move to further inclusion of a LGBTQ+ platform has not been a far leap. Though positive for them, the delegation just elected has only picked up two progressive clergy votes and several lay votes over the 2016 delegation. Without a doubt, the structural, corporate leadership of the annual conference is a progressive block and has been for years. It does not represent the rank and file United Methodist in the pew of which forty four percent consider themselves theologically conservative/traditional. Some have said to us if we evangelicals had had a better ground game we would have been competitive in the delegation ‘cook off’. Yes and no. We acknowledge our designated Task Force dropped the ball at the beginning of 2019. Nevertheless, even if we had the political consultant the progressives had, we evangelicals cannot compete at this point against the liberal culture’s lock on the corporate annual conference.


· In what way were progressives responding to General Conference 2019?

General Conferences 2016 and 2019 unmasked centrists and forced their hand. Finally, they were forced to choose and they have chosen to try to reconcile same-sex sex and ordination with biblical revelation, two millennia of Christian teaching, reason and experience. The GC 2019 energized, focused and consolidated their efforts to form a centrist/progressive block. Several perennially elected high-name recognition delegates of 2016 and years past became associated with the Traditional Plan and were dropped from this year’s delegation list. As a side note, excepting those elected, our traditionalist clergy for the most part polled ahead of all other clergy nominees.


· What about the makeup of the new General Conference 2020 delegation?

Fair and inclusive of geographical, theological and racial representation is not how you describe the 2020 delegation. The Commission on Ethnic Minority Concerns and Advocacy or, CEMCA, expressed concerns on the annual conference floor for the delegation’s lack of diversity. There are sub-populations of the annual conference that have no hope of representation at General Conference 2020. If I were an ethnic person I may wonder along with everybody else why those who have advocated diversity for so many years could be so uninterested in a fully inclusive slate. An all progressive slate of delegates is disproportionate to the constituency of our annual conference. Many lay persons in our annual conference will feel disenfranchised and without voice at GC 2020.


· How do I feel now after US annual conferences are finished?

Either excessive celebration if you are a progressive or demoralization if you are a traditionalist is premature. Though progressives have made impressive gains among clergy in conferences across the country, lay delegations in conferences have been trending toward traditionalists. On balance, observers on both sides have not concluded progressive vote pick-ups have been enough to flip GC 2019 results. Based on what I am aware of in the Southeastern Jurisdiction conferences and other conferences, progressives may not have the votes to flip GC, but they may be able to elect SEJ bishops consistent with progressive views.


· What are our prospects for General Conference 2020?

On the face of it, GC 2020 looms as another titan clash between a divided house over a non-negotiable. Both sides dread a Deja vu of St. Louis 2019. Who sees another General Conference smack down ending well? Even as I write, a conversation is going on between progressive, centrist and traditionalist national leaders. Will open, frank dialogue and reason tempered by a Christian spirit lead to a mutually sought after consensus regarding amicable separation? In a back room on the cusp of General Conference 2016 similar national leaders conversed. They agreed they could not agree. Nevertheless, they seemed to agree that an amicable parting was in everybody’s best interest. Quite frankly, the Council of Bishops squashed it. May a similar, mutual agreement for amicable separation emerge this time that can bring along the various constituencies and lead to a breakthrough at GC 2020. The close vote on amicable separation on the floor of our own annual conference is indicative of a widespread feeling for parting in peace. Whatever the case, GC 2020 has all the appearances of being a monumental turning point for our Church. The UMC as we have known it is coming to an end. Something definitive, whether planned or precipitated, will result. Let us hope the result is the way of peace and blessing for all.


· How does one describe the state of United Methodism now?

Two states of affairs exist. The first state is the legal, legitimate state set out by The Book of Discipline. This is the de jure state of affairs that exists on the books. This is the state of affairs in which the UMC has gone on record stating we do ‘not condone the practice of homosexuality’. Homosexuals are not to be ordained or appointed. However, a second state of affairs exists that is in fact the true state, the law de facto. Though not officially sanctioned, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are being ordained and appointed without reprimand. You can compare this with the state of Virginia’s disposition to marijuana. Possession of marijuana is de jure against Virginia law. However, Virginia’s Attorney General has said he will not prosecute marijuana possession (of a certain amount). This is the law de facto.

The Council of Bishops and the corporate structure have imposed the One Church Plan on us de facto without it being ratified by General Conference. This is a fact with which every evangelical and traditionalist must reckon. Will my conscience allow me to live in a church with this state of affairs? No. Mine will not. For me, this is an untenable state.


· What are evangelicals and traditionalists to do?

Theologian Augustine was asked if he knew Jesus was coming tomorrow what would he do. ‘The same as I did today’ he said. Keep on doing what you are doing. Offer Jesus Christ. Live a holy life that is a light to the world. Persevere till GC 2020. No road ahead is easy. Something decisive in our favor will occur next year – whether planned or precipitated. God will fulfill His purposes for you and me to worship Him in ‘spirit and in truth’. Christ died that the church ‘may be holy and without blemish’. He promised ‘the gates of hell’ will not prevail against the Church. Jesus will neither fail you nor forsake you. ‘God’s truth abideth still…he must win the battle…his kingdom is forever.’

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