by Chris Ritter
The last thing I want to do is look back on General Conference 2019. But there can be no going forward without coming to terms with what happened. In the spirit of the Examen, we all need to search our hearts now that we are home from St. Louis. There is no shortage of hurt in our church right now. We fell into a win/lose paradigm and the two sides of our body hurt one another. I need to understand how I hurt others and I hope others will come to understand what hurt me. But that is too big a topic for one day. Here I simply want to name a pervasive theme I found particularly troubling.
My seat at General Conference was different than most. I had the opportunity to fellowship with African delegates for the few days prior to General Conference 2019. It was a blessing to renew the relationships formed in Nairobi last August at an event sponsored by the Africa Initiative. Throughout General Conference I roomed with my friend, Aaron, a D.S. from Liberia, who served as my pastor and prayer partner. We processed the events of each day together. Perhaps these experiences made me especially sensitive to a pervasive maltreatment of our African brothers and sisters on the very floor of our highest legislative body.
Forgive me for talking here about the sins of others instead of my own. I just don’t know of any African delegate who has an established outlet for communication like this one. We have no equivalent of COSROW that can name abuses to international delegates. Things need to be named so they can be healed.
Anthony Tang, a clergy from the Desert Southwest Conference, stood to offer an amendment to the Traditional Plan crafted to sound like an attempt to strengthen it. His amendment:
self-avowed practicing homosexual is understood to mean that a person openly acknowledges to a bishop, district superintendent, district committee of ordained ministry, board of ordained ministry, or clergy session that the person is
a practicing homosexual or is living in a same-sex marriage, domestic partnership, or civil union, or is a person who publicly states she or he is a practicing homosexual, and is either living in an adulterous relationship, polyamorous relationship, or other deviations from any civil definitions of marriage.”
His actual intent, however, was to insert poison pills making the Traditional plan unenforceable. His language would have established the old, less-enforceable, definition of “self-avowed, practicing” and would have made the laws of civil marriage the standard in the church. The way he did this was a lesson in studied deception and only careful scrutiny revealed this as a shameless attempt to deceive African delegates into voting for something against their intentions. Tang’s speech:
This petition does not go far enough to protect our beloved church, the Bride of Jesus Christ, from the destructive and slippery slope being created by those who would undermine the biblical authority of our church with the sexual permissiveness that opens the doors of our church to all sorts of sinners. Sexual sin and undisciplined, excuse me, sexual sin and undisciplined sexual relationships corrupt the body of Christ from the inside to the outside and we must be bold and strong in setting a good example to the world as Matthew 5 tells us starting in v.13, “you are the salt of the earth, but if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world, a town built on a hill cannot be hidden, neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead, they put it on its stand and it gives light to everyone in the house.” We are to be salt and light and to set a good example for all that they may know that The United Methodist Church is the place where they can come to experience the holiness of the Spirit and a hope for faithful and disciplined living, and we cannot allow our bride to be soiled by the sin of the world. I pray that my brothers and sisters, both lay and clergy, on the floor of this sacred delegation will join with me in commit- ting to uphold our highest standards of sexual self-discipline and faithful- ness by voting affirmingly with a yes vote to this amendment.”
I needed a shower after he sat down. Deception is contrary to a spirit of Holy Conferencing. Seeing if we can take advantage of the Africans listening to the debate through translation devices was simply sleazy. But they didn’t fall for it. Alerts went out through delegation heads letting delegates know it was a trick. When we allow ourselves to degenerate to a point where the ends justify the means, we have totally lost sight of our calling as a conference in the Methodist tradition.
It is hard enough keeping up with the business of General Conference when you speak the language. Shame on this attempt to make good faith participation more difficult.
Trafficking in Fear
My esteemed colleague Tom Berlin took leave of his usual good judgement when he likened the Traditional Plan to Ebola. My friend Aaron lived through the Ebola crisis in Liberia. People in the United Methodist congregations he superintends died. Family had to abandon sick family members to save their own lives and the lives of others. The fear was so deep that Aaron”s own children hid from him when he returned home from conducting his ministry. I cannot fathom that we “went there” in an attempt to convince Africans to support the OCP.
The speech repeated the threat African delegates have often heard of reduced financial support:
This virus of conflict will spread and spread, and soon it will jump the ocean, and it will spread to the entire connection. It won’t just be here in the United States. Because the model of church that we have is based on the health of every region. And so, while you may not have disagreement where you live, the disagreement that is here will impact every model that we use. The organizational model, the economic model, it will all begin to be sick. So, I ask you to affirm this Minority Report of the One Church Plan. And if you cannot affirm the Minority Report, I ask you to simply abstain. That is a legitimate act. I ask you to abstain, and let the spirit speak to others more clearly than it does to you.
As a young Russian United Methodist pointed out to me, the threat of cutting off money unless the receiver complies with demands is the very definition of colonialism. His exact words (imagine his slow, monotone Russian accent): “this is the pure colonial attitude.” Adam Hamilton today doubled down on threats to defund the only branch of United Methodism that is actually growing*:
I’m hearing people who have never withheld their apportionments talking about whether they can, in good conscience, continue in mission partnerships with churches, annual conferences and others who lent support to the Traditional Plan. They are asking, Why would we support partners that have voted to push us out of the church?
In Part Two, I will name the voter suppression, othering, and cultural profiling found on the plenary floor at General Conference 2019. Jesus, help us.
*For more colonial threats, check out Bruce Birch’s letter to Central Conference delegates in which he withdraws his financial support because they didn’t vote like he wanted: https