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The good, the bad, the ugly. General Conference 2004...

Update on General Conference 2004.

Felicia and I have just returned from Pittsburgh and General Conference 2004. It was a long, hard two weeks. I was leading worship each morning in the breakfast briefing sessions sponsored by "Decision 2004", an evangelical coalition working for renewal in the UMC.

I am writing this evaluation of GC in three sections; the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The good:

The delegates voted down efforts to amend the Book of Discipline to be more accepting of homosexuality. Instead, the General Conference soundly reaffirmed the church's position that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. The delegates strengthened the church's disapproval of homosexual practice and reaffirmed its prohibitions against funding of pro-homosexual advocacy and against performing same-sex unions in churches. They also voted to make the UMC the first mainline denomination to endorse publicly civil laws defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman. They reasserted the requirement that clergy be celibate if single and monogamous if married, and the Judicial Council ruled that a bishop cannot appoint a self-avowed practicing homosexual.

There were new delegates elected to the Judicial Council that maintained the conservative majority. The ratio of membership on the general boards and agencies was changed to be more representative of the geographical membership in the church. That means fewer representatives from the Western and Northeastern jurisdictions, the more liberal ones, and more from the Southeastern, South Central, and Central Conference (overseas) jurisdictions. All in all, these were important wins for the conservative movement in United Methodism.

The bad:

Every attempt to pass legislation that would provide accountability for violating the Discipline was soundly defeated. In all likelihood, that will mean four more years of rebellion and anarchy from those who disagree with the decisions of General Conference, and no way to enforce what was enacted. This is a major problem.

The ugly:

Each day at noon, communion was offered at the worship area in the room General Conference was meeting in. On Wednesday, Rev. James Preston, delegate from Illinois, was angry at the outcome of the votes. He took the communion chalice from the hands of the bishop, then held it over his head before dropping it and shattering it into hundreds of pieces. It was a sad desecration of communion that has been picked up as their symbol of hope by those favoring the ordination of homosexuals.

Believe it or not, that was not the low point. That was to come on Thursday morning. The group "Soulforce" announced plans to invade the General Conference and have a demonstration on the floor to stop the delegates from voting. They describe themselves in this way; “Soulforce is an interfaith movement committed to ending spiritual violence perpetuated by religious policies and teachings against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) people." It is a group of professional demonstrators who travel from denomination to denomination holding training sessions and leading demonstrations to further the gay agenda. They did this at General Conference in 2000 in Cleveland, and many protestors were arrested, including some of our bishops.

It began with the members of "Soulforce" walking in and standing patiently waiting for their cue. A man beating a ceremonial drum led the procession. Bishop Huie, from Arkansas, was officiating at the time. She said, "We will invite our sisters and brothers to make their witness as they move in and among us like streams of water calling to mind our baptism and theirs." The Pittsburgh Post reported the next day, "It was more like an altar call than a demonstration."

The participants walked through the conference floor for approximately 20 minutes, carrying protest posters and singing. They even had access to the convention hall sound system. They brought baptismal water and poured it into the conference baptismal font. They placed a large rainbow-colored candle in the center of the altar table where it stayed for the remainder of the day. At least 29 of our bishops stood to show their support of the demonstrators, indicating their opposition to The Discipline and the legislation that had been enacted in the previous days. Two bishops actually joined in the march. Hundreds of delegates joined in the demonstration either by standing in their place or joining in the march. The sacraments and the liturgies of the church were hijacked and politicized with the permission and seeming endorsement of the Council of Bishops. It was indeed one of the saddest days I've ever experienced as a United Methodist clergyman.

There were no arrests this time. In order for there to have been arrests, there would have had to be resistance to the effort by the conference. In order to avoid the ugly scene of having bishops handcuffed and marched out, it appears that the agenda committee for General Conference met with the leadership of "Soulforce" and laid out a mutually acceptable demonstration.
That afternoon a delegate from Ohio asked to address the floor to express his heartbreak over what had happened, but he was shouted down by some of the other delegates, called out of order by the presiding Bishop, and not allowed to speak.

You can see a short video of the demonstration and remarks from the agenda committee if you click on the following link. http://umc.org/interior.asp?ptid=17&mid=4681  I have also put some pictures online; www.wesleyputnam.org/gc2004

There was a call for the amicable separation of those who are in such radical division in our church, but that was quickly put down. As a matter of fact, on Friday morning there was a hastily drawn up resolution reaffirming our "unity" that passed by an overwhelming 95%. The irony of that vote is that it was held with Bishop Joseph Sprague in the chair. Bishop Sprague is the one who came out last year with a speech and a book denying the Deity of Christ, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, and other basics of our faith. That vote took place in front of a divided Council of Bishops who had just watched 29 of their number stand in opposition to the Discipline of our Church.

The resolution said, "As United Methodists, we remain in covenant with one another, even in the midst of disagreement, and affirm our commitment to work together for a common mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ throughout the world." I disagree. We are no longer in covenant. That was made very clear by the actions of those in the Western Jurisdiction over the past four years. That was made very clear by the action of our Council of Bishops in their cooperation with the demonstrators. We don't have disagreements. A disagreement is "Should we sprinkle or pour? Should the carpet be red or blue?" This is not a disagreement - it is a wide divide. When it comes to the Deity of Christ and the authority of Scripture, there can be no compromise. It is impossible to work with this depth of division to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

There are some who are pleased at the way things turned out at GC 2004. I am not one of them. Pray for our church to return to the "faith once delivered to the saints".



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