The third day is foundational for Christians, and the significance of a three-day gathering was not lost on the 2019 General Conference. In his opening sermon, Bishop Kenneth Carter reminded us that we came to St. Louis divided, but in these three days, Jesus could resurrect us into one body. During the Committee on a Way Forward report, openly gay pastor Brian Adkins told us that day one may have been dark and full of brokenness, but on day three, love conquered death. Those hoping to preserve unity in our beloved church believed in God’s power to make it happen. And we know what God can accomplish in three days’ time.
But the thing about the resurrection is that it was unexpected. While I hoped for unity, I came prepared to see the Traditional Plan passed, and a door opened for the rest of us to depart. I fully expected that one way or the other, by today things would be settled and our future sealed.
But the unexpected happened. The One Church Plan, our best hope for union, failed not once but twice, and the Traditional Plan and a disaffiliation plan were approved. However, that legislation must be sustained by the Judicial Council, and we know that many portions of the Traditional Plan are still in violation of the UMC constitution. Clearly, this is not the victory that the Wesleyan Covenant Association expected.
Along the way, those who were “defeated” came to life. Centrist and progressive delegates unmasked the exploitive tactics and hypocrisy of traditional United Methodists. They called for an ethics investigation into rumors that money was exchanged for votes. They disrupted the traditionalists’ attempt to amend their plan with points of order and amendments of their own. They tried to add language to reject candidates for ordination who were divorced and remarried, which is equally contrary to scripture. They spoke in favor of the exit plan, and invited traditionalists to leave. They proclaimed boldly that this is their church and they would not go.
The LGBTQ community and their allies were visible throughout, responding to the passage of the Traditional Plan by singing “This Is My Story” and leading a call and response litany between those gathered within the body of delegates and observers in the stands. Presiding Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey called a break and allowed it to proceed. When delegates marched to the front of the room with a cross, stepped onto the platform, and sat in silence, they were allowed to stay. As we departed the Dome, there was joyful singing, and queer clergy served communion. They did not go away, but boldly proclaimed God’s inclusive love.
The powers of hate and division thought they had won. Fear appeared to have prevailed, just as Jewish leaders and the Romans thought they had put down the Jesus movement. But on the third day, life and love overcame death and division. I have no doubt that there will be a Methodist body that comes out of this that can share God’s love with this diverse world and offer everyone a home where they can live out whatever form of ministry God calls them to.
God will show us the way forward. On the fourth day, the disciples were confused about what this all meant. A week after the resurrection, they were still hanging out in the Upper Room. But while they awaited the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, the risen Christ was with them.
The Holy Spirit is already here, and was clearly at work at General Conference. The risen Christ is with us as we figure out what all this means. As Protestants, we know that reform is messy and sometimes means bringing something new into existence.
In Acts 5:34-40, the Pharisee Gamaliel cautions the high council against trying to quash the emerging Christian movement, warning that if it was a movement of human origin, it would fail, but if it was of God, they could not stop it and may find themselves fighting against God.
Traditionalists may have thought that the rest of us would just go away, but when a movement is of God, it will not die. God’s love and the radical inclusion of Jesus Christ cannot be strangled by restrictive legislation and punitive policies. The people called Methodist will continue to offer ministry that includes all God’s people – it may just take time to discern what that looks like.