‘May we not love alike?’

We are finding new ways to live in the Wesleyan spirit, says Bishop David Bard as he reflects on a General Conference unlike any other he has attended…

I write this one day following the adjournment of the postponed 2020 General Conference of The United Methodist Church. General Conference is the highest decision-making body for our denomination, whose work is to revise our Book of Discipline and offer other policy guidance and resolutions. Though it typically meets every four years, we have not had a regular session since 2016 due to COVID-19. A special session was held in 2019.

I was first a delegate to General Conference in 2000 and have been at every one since, though this was my first regular General Conference as a bishop. This General Conference was like many I have attended before, though I no longer have a vote as a bishop. There was wonderful worship. There was joy and delight in greeting friends I have met over the years at General Conference. It was a pleasure to be there with the wonderful delegation from the Michigan Conference. The plenary included some tedious debates, and we managed to tie ourselves in a few procedural knots.

Yet this General Conference was unlike any other I have attended. In 1972, language was inserted into The Book of Discipline’s Social Principles that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” At that time, homosexuality was still classified in the psychiatric community as a disorder, and biblical scholarship on the subject was developing. Our denomination has been embroiled in debates about this matter since. Attempts to acknowledge differing scripturally and theologically grounded viewpoints were consistently defeated at General Conference, and more language restricting ministry and limiting participation in the church continued to be added.

All that changed at this General Conference, and it changed with a remarkably good spirit. Restrictive and exclusionary language has been taken out. Pastors will now be able to officiate at the weddings of parishioners without worrying that if those parishioners are in a same-sex relationship, they could face ecclesial charges. Persons can respond to the call of God on their lives, and boards of ordained ministry can discern those calls, regardless of the sexual orientation of the person being called. We now genuinely agree to disagree without fear of church penalties and punitive processes. Disagreements have not disappeared, but the table has been expanded. We can be a church with people who are more traditional and more progressive without the threat of church disciplinary processes over these matters.

Another way we have moved to change our worldwide denomination is by approving a more regional governance structure. When all the relevant constitutional amendments are ratified, different parts of The United Methodist Church will be allowed to make regional decisions about a wide range of matters, while our fundamental doctrines and structures remain intact. We have not changed our doctrinal standards, remaining rooted in Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Yet future General Conferences will be able to focus on worship, celebration, and basic governance without forcing delegates from outside the United States to listen to lengthy debates about issues pertinent only to the United States, such as the pension plan for U.S. clergy or matters of U.S. law.

Many other legislative actions passed, including a new set of Social Principles. We will be digesting all this over the coming weeks. Significant changes were made with enthusiastic debate, but the overall spirit in the room was remarkably amicable and respectful. On the final day of General Conference, when a worship hymn moved into the R&B song “Love Train” by the O’Jays, the entire plenary hall broke into joyous singing and dancing.

While many celebrate the changes made at this General Conference, I recognize not all do. The church has always had disagreements, as reflected in many of Paul’s letters. What this General Conference did was to acknowledge that some issues over which we have been fighting for many years are, in some respects, issues over which there might be genuine disagreement, and we are, in the words of Paul, letting “all be fully convinced in their own minds” (Romans 14:5, NRSVUE). We are finding new ways to live in the Wesleyan spirit: “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences” (“Catholic Spirit,” a sermon by John Wesley).

As I ended my time presiding over one plenary session at General Conference, I offered the following reflection: “As I close, I want to remind us of the audaciousness of what we are doing — working to build God’s beloved community in the name of the risen Christ, a community that breaks down dividing walls of nation, race, class, gender, sexual orientation, language, and opinion, and doing so in a world where every difference is quickly magnified into a chasm and where we rapidly retreat into enclaves of homogeneity. If this beloved community work were simple and easy, most of Paul’s letters in the New Testament either would never have been written or would have been much shorter. And this is the work of Christ, the work of the Spirit.”

The gospel is audacious, offering God’s wide and wild love in Jesus to the world. Knowing such love changes us profoundly or is intended to do so. And God’s beloved community is always a missional community. We break down dividing walls, not simply to enjoy one another’s company but to witness to a divided world where all persons are created in the image of God and loved by God in Jesus Christ. We have good news to share and to live out. Being part of the beloved community in the church, we seek to extend it into the world, offering healing to the broken, food to the hungry, justice to the oppressed, and peace and reconciliation to the divided. God’s beloved community in Jesus is a missional community.

Our joyful journey continues, and I am delighted to share it with you.

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