by Jim Harnish
The United Methodist News Service headline was correct: “Annual conferences mixed on bishops’ plan.” If you were watching the debate on resolutions and counting votes in favor of or opposed to the One Church Plan in the annual conferences, you’d be disappointed. Where conferences voted, some were strongly in favor and others were equally strong in their opposition. The results were both mixed and inconclusive.
But what if counting annual conference votes were not the most important thing that happened?
There are three major problems with counting votes in annual conferences.
First, the details of the plan have not yet been released. While there is aspirational value in affirming or rejecting the overall concept, there is still a lot we don’t know that will need to be considered and decided with care. The Holy Spirit may be just as present as the devil in the details.
Second, while votes of the annual conferences are an indication of the views of delegates in a particular geographic region at a particular moment in time, that’s not where the decision will be made. General Conference delegates are not bound by the actions of their annual conferences, but are free to vote on the basis of their own conscience.
Third, and perhaps most important, debating and voting on resolutions always creates winners and losers. I doubt that any of the voting was unanimous. Every annual conference reflects the diversity of conviction across the global connection of The United Methodist Church.
At the end of the process, a vote will be taken on the floor of the General Conference in St. Louis. Until that time, it might make us feel good to lift a hand for or against the proposal, but it’s not necessary and might be unhelpful.
Is there another way?
Several conferences opted not to vote, but entered into genuine conversation around the Way Forward process and the Council of Bishops’ recommendation of the One Church Plan.
In Florida, delegates participated in elements of the “Point of View” process that a representative team had spent a year developing. It created a way for congregations to enter into in-depth conversation based on empathy and mutual understanding.
This was followed by a conversation between two conference leaders who had served on the Commission on a Way Forward. One is a straight clergy male who defines himself as “traditionalist,” and the other a lesbian laywoman who was one of the LGBTQ members of the commission. A video of their conversation is posted at this link.
While there was no vote taken, the mood in the auditorium was clearly one of genuine openness, respect, and a Christ-like spirit. It might or might not have changed anyone’s mind; but instead of driving people apart, it drew people together.
In Virginia, commission member Tom Berlin described the work of the commission and the options that were presented to the Council of Bishops (you can watch his presentation here). In the end, the conference approved a resolution that affirmed “unity in Christ in the midst of our diversity.” The conference urged the General Conference delegates to “resist schism and express openness to diverse perspectives in matters of sexual identity and practice.”
This kind of Christ-centered unity in our diversity is precisely the vision the Uniting Methodists movement is lifting up. It might also be closer to what Wesley had in mind when he called the early Methodists to “conference.”
Florida Annual Conference