By Walter Fenton
The United Methodist Church’s greatly anticipated 2016 General Conference opened with colorful pageantry and an evangelical message from Bishop Warner Brown, president of the Council of Bishops. Brown challenged the General Conference to heed the words of St. Paul: “So let’s strive for the things that bring peace and the things that build each other up” (Romans 14:19). “Today, in this place, in this important time, by the power of God’s Spirit, may we once again collectively sing [the African phrase]: ‘Jesu Tawa Pano’ ̵ Jesus, we are here for you. Not any other agenda. We are here for you. Therefore, let us go!”
“God is with us,” Brown said, “the transformation of the world has already begun. Therefore go, make disciples in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit!”
However, the day was not without controversy. Shortly before the conference convened dozens of LGBTQ advocates gathered in the convention center to participate in the unauthorized ordination of Susan Laurie, a prominent leader in the movement. Although the act of ecclesial disobedience grants Laurie no official standing in the UM Church, it does add to the list of infractions that threaten to splinter the worldwide denomination.
Later in the day the same advocates disrupted the celebration of Holy Communion during the conference’s opening worship service. As the elements were shared with delegates and thousands of observers, Laurie and other protesters opened alternative “Queer Communion stations” where delegates and others could receive Holy Communion.
Surprisingly, two UM bishops, Sharon Rader and Elaine Stanovsky, received the elements from the protesters rather than from those who were designated to celebrate the sacred service.
Some United Methodists regarded the unauthorized ordination and the “Queer Communion Stations” as schismatic acts. “When you take it upon yourself to ordain people and politicize Holy Communion, you are essentially saying you no longer respect or even recognize the unity and good order of the church,” said the Rev. Rob Renfroe, president of Good News.
After the close of the worship service, the delegates turned to the work of General Conference. They spent a late afternoon and an evening session debating the rules that would govern their work. They adopted 43 of the proposed 44 rules, but deferred Rule 44 for further debate tomorrow.
The hotly contested rule calls for delegates to set aside traditional methods for handling petitions in exchange for a “discernment process” for considering issues regarding same-sex marriage and the ordination of openly gay clergy. The delegates are expected to engage in further debate on the rule in the morning and then decide to adopt or reject it before noon.
Walter Fenton is a United Methodist clergyperson and an analyst for Good News.