Reflections on GC2019: Gobsmacked!

Posted: 2019/03/12 in Church, Ecclesiology

It was 5 April 2008 all over again (I think I have the date right).

On that day, clergy from the Detroit and West Michigan Conferences, called together by Bishop Jonathan Keaton, gathered at the Lansing Convention Center to vote on merging the two Michigan conferences.  The firm expectation was that this time the merger would happen.  When the final tally was taken (on paper ballots rather than wireless, looks-like-refurbed-blackberry devices) the proposal to merge lost by a disciples-count of twelve votes.

Bishop Keaton, whose demeanor and meeting management were always so well prepared and managed, was gobsmacked.  It was clear that he was thoroughly unprepared for the failure of the merger proposal.  We were in a state of paralysis while he struggled to find something to say.

Roll forward to St. Louis and GC2019.  When the Traditional Plan was approved and the One-Church Plan relegated to the dustbin, it felt like 4/5/08 all over again.  My impression is that our Council of Bishops, informed by the One-Church Plan endorsement of the Committee on a Way Forward, were unprepared for the electoral result. They were gobsmacked.

The passage of the Traditional Plan by a narrow, but not razor-thin, margin (53%) has, and will continue, to invite speculation about what nudged the One-Church Plan over the edge of the UMC’s flat earth.  As interesting as it might be to know how each delegation voted, so we could map the vote in various ways, such statistics are irrelevant.  A more useful question to answer is, Why were the Commission on a Way Forward and our Council of Bishops blind to the theological demographics of our denomination?  Blind may be a bit harsh.  Maybe the more accurate characterization might be that they collectively suffered myopia, unable to see clearly across all of America and past the shores of the U.S. (but I’ll have to stop my speculation here as we’ve been told not to “blame Africa” or the rest of the more conservative UMC Central Conference world outside Western Europe for preferring the Traditional Plan).

My bishop was as gobsmacked as the rest of his colleagues, but unlike Bishop Keaton’s paralysis on (and after) 4/5/08, Bishop Bard has responded to the aftermath of GC2019 with wisdom in his words and a constructive intention to engage with all sides.  I appreciate his “we will talk about this . . . but not yet, let’s wait and give this space” approach.

In the wake of such unexpected results and dashed hopes, it is indeed better to step back and take a few deep breaths rather than flail into a reaction that only makes things worse.

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