by Chris Ritter
If you travel by barge from St. Louis to Minneapolis via the Mississippi River, you will have pushed upstream to a point where the waters are no longer navigable. It remains to be seen whether there will be collective navigation beyond Minneapolis for the United Methodist Church. But anyone who has made the journey can tell you that the river running by St. Louis is barely recognizable in Minneapolis. In geologic terms, the course of the river is newer the further north you go. The waters are different there.
It has been repeated since February in multiple settings: “We don’t want General Conference 2020 to be a rerun of GC2019.” If that represents your view, I have some good news for you. It won’t be. The differences in the two meetings will be significant. I am not claiming GC2020 will be painless, or even less painful. But the pain will be different.
The dysfunctions of our denomination were placed on full display in St. Louis. We witnessed conjoined bodies at odds and straining for directional dominance. The denomination is in a much different place now than we were just a few months ago. The question “Can’t we all just get along?” seems to have been definitively answered. The times are different. Here are ten ways.
The Minneapolis meeting will be longer. No specially-called mini-session, GC2020 is a full-sized, ten-day, regularly-scheduled quadrennial global conference of The United Methodist Church. Think GC2019… super-sized. If that thought scares you, it should. The issues that ground GC2016 to a halt were not solved by the Commission on a Way Forward process but exacerbated.
The additional time available at GC2020 creates more room to maneuver on both sides. Folks who wanted to frustrate the work of GC2019 were able to use parliamentary delay tactics to their advantage. That will be more difficult this next time. But expect surprises. There will be more time for caucusing and strategizing. The rules adopted during the opening days will be extremely important to manage the time available.
GC2019 was limited to business deemed in keeping with the stated call. Those limitations do not exist next year. GC2020 is open for any and all business. An example: Some delegates wanted to remove Karen Oliveto as a bishop at GC2019. Those petitions were not allowed due to the limited nature of the called session. But next year’s conference has no such limitations. The only boundaries are the constitution and the operating rules adopted by General Conference. Voting on plans was painful. Voting on people, by name, will be more painful still.
There will be multiple battle fronts at GC2020. The specially-called session this year put all delegates in one big legislative committee to refine the petitions. All work was plenary. At GC2020, no less than fourteen legislative committees will fight our tired old battles and/or consider plans to end them. For the various war rooms that operate during a General Conference, this adds great complexity to the work. Strategizing is already underway with key delegates being stacked into crucial committees.
Besides deciding what will become of the denomination, there is a major rewrite of the Social Principles coming to GC2020 that will dominate the work of the committees dedicated to our Social Principles. Before GC2019, the sections of the new draft related to human sexuality were omitted awaiting the results of GC2019. We now have those results. And the General Board of Church and Society could not resist the temptation to insert language in direct conflict with those decisions. This is further evidence that only one outcome was ever going to be acceptable to the powers that be in our denominational bureaucracy.
There is no Commission on a Way Forward. GC2019 had an official group to develop and name the options. GC2020 is unmoderated. Anyone and everyone in the UMC was invited to submit legislation. There is no official group organizing the different options. This creates a significant difference. One of my favorite comments this month was from Maxie Dunnam who presided over a meeting of the board of The Confessing Movement. Someone asked him the likelihood of an agreement being reached before GC2020 that could forestall the negativity we experienced at GC2019. Dunnam asked, “How would we even know that happened?” No group can speak for General Conference besides General Conference. The entire Council of Bishops could unanimously agree on a plan, but they don’t even have one vote among them. Unless a compromise is achieved that is agreeable to a majority of delegates… and those delegates agree to table all other proposals… we will debate human sexuality at least one more time.
GC2020 may not be well structured to consider big plans. GC2019 was specially-designed to consider large, multi-part plans as a whole unit. At a regular General Conference, legislation is farmed out to different committees based on the paragraphs affected in the Book of Discipline. Complex plans that affect multiple sections of our rules may become incoherent if taken apart for separate consideration. I hope that the rules committee will recommend ways to handle business effectively. Whether or not you agree with the outcome of GC2019, the methods of discernment developed were useful to the body.
There is no One Church Plan. GC2019 convened with an officially-recommended plan that promised to hold the church together. We now know that was an empty hope, but it came with quite a pedigree. The Commission on a Way Forward recommended it. An “overhwhelming majority” of the Council of Bishops recommended it. In the end, GC2019 ranked the OCP fifth-place in terms of its legislative priorities. In the days immediately following GC2019, there was talk among some institutionalists that the OCP may be a good idea that would simply take longer than expected to gain acceptance. It seems, however, to have died covered with the stench of failure. As far as I know, there will be no attempt to pass the One Church Plan at GC2020. (The website OneChurchPlan.org is now suspended).
Those who supported the plan at GC2019 have moved on to more ambitious goals of full inclusion. Not only is there no One Church Plan, but I am unaware of any plan that pretends to be able to keep the UMC together in the same structural configuration we now have. There are certainly plans to reverse the decisions of GC2020, but these plans offer no assurances to Traditionalists. I suppose it took the pain of GC2019 to reach this point of honesty.
Not only is there no OCP, but there is no One Church Coalition. The One Church Plan sought to court Traditionalist votes with promises that traditional annual conferences and local churches would be protected. No local church could even hold a same-sex wedding unless they held a church conference and voted to do so. It is unclear how many traditional-leaning delegates were persuaded to vote for the One Church Plan, but some institutionally-minded traditionalists undoubtedly were. UMC-Next is offering no traditionalist compromises at GC2020. Their Next-Gen UMC plan completely reverses church teaching on marriage. Traditionalist congregations who can’t live with this are offered an individual (and potentially cost-prohibitive) exit. There is no way for annual conferences to leave as a unit with their property. The coalition that supported the OCP will not have a similar unity choice at GC2020.
There will be fewer Traditionalists at GC2020. The Traditional Plan passed GC2019 by a 54% majority. In the U.S. fewer Traditionalists were elected to GC2020. Laity numbers remain about the same, but clergy in the U.S. elected more progressives this time around. Once structural compromises were rejected, GC2019 was only ever going to be a win for one side and a catalyzing event for the other.
There are people on both sides who count votes and there seems to be agreement that there is likely a slim Traditionalist majority at GC2020, perhaps 51%. But this is within the margin of error. And it opens up any number of uncertainties. What if a number of Africans are unable to get a visa to attend? What if there is voting confusion on a key decision? GC2020 could be a coin flip. In the end, it probably won’t matter what GC2020 does with human sexuality. The crucial business is saving us from lawsuits once the chips fall where they may. If there is no structural release valve, we set ourselves up for litigation conference by conference.
The Traditionalist coalition may change. Africans and U.S. Traditionalists came together (near) unanimously to support the Traditional Plan at GC2019. This time around, that coalition may not hold. U.S. Traditionalists no longer believe that the UMC is governable. They do not want to enter into another four years of defiance. Instead, they are looking for something like the Indianapolis Plan compromise. Africans, on the other hand, are much more patient with a slower path to reform. They would like to keep the UMC together if at all possible as they see a future with an African majority. It is too early to know if Africans will support the Indy Plan. But the coalition that experienced victory in 2019 may find itself at cross purposes.
There will be many first-time delegates. This could mean a loss of statesmanship. A UMC General Conference is complicated. It takes time to learn how to work the political levers. New delegates come to GC2020 feeling like they have a mandate. But in some places their election is owed to bloc voting strategies that silence the opposition. Clergy delegates, especially, with Traditional (or even unclear) voting records were replaced. In Progressive conferences, new delegates were often elected because they are LGBTQ. The net result will further contribute to a polarized environment. Like the Republican Revolution of 1994, a large percentage of our congress will be freshmen.
Some of the elder statesmen and women will not be there to guide the process. But disruption is also an opportunity. I am one of those 2016/2019 delegates that was not elected to GC2020. Several of us have found more time to work on the shape of the Next Methodism. I only hope that those elected to manage the transition will be gracious toward the future. We don’t need another win/lose. We don’t even need a win/win. We need to free one another for a new day.
And a River Runs Through It…
The Great River hardly even notices those navigating it. Those making the 664-mile water journey between St. Louis and Minneapolis should not forget that glaciers carved out the basin during the most recent Ice Age. And larger forces will push us along no matter what is decided. GC2019 proved that General Conference no longer governs the people called United Methodist. It will be held nonetheless… and it will be unique.