If you are part of the Methodist family, you’ve doubtless heard a lot about last month’s General Conference. There’s no shortage of opinions about the meeting’s outcomes, as the recent editorial from Bishop William Willimon—and the flood of responses to him—effectively demonstrate.
I often appreciate hearing a “long view” perspective on any issue, so I was pleased when I received this message from Rev. Dr. F. Thomas Trotter, who led Methodist congregations, agencies and educational institutions for 50 years. Tom is a Lifetime Member of CST’s Board of Trustees and lives here in Claremont. He sent this letter about the recent General Conference to me and his pastor, Sharon Rhodes-Wickett at Claremont UMC, and it struck a chord with me. With his permission, I share part of it below.
My opinion is that we invest too much confidence in the General Conference. The current disappointment is but the latest in a long line of stumbling around to move the church forward. It might be helpful, if not reassuring, to recall other cosmic struggles in the GC. My experience includes the decades long struggle to do away with the segregated Central Jurisdiction which made black Methodists second-class members. I also remember the intense struggle to grant women full clergy rights including ordination. The GC has always been pushed to include wider circles of persons in the fellowship. These struggles had the same scenarios and intensity of the current one including use of biblical texts, warnings about fearful consequences, and final acceptance of reform.
In my view the GC is like the U.S. Congress. It is dependent on regionalism and social traditions. We cannot force it to be wise and prophetic. However it can be moved by prophetic leadership, which has been missing for some time. With some exceptions, currently the episcopacy is anemic. There have been only cries for restructure from the College of Bishops. When all else fails, reorganize the boards and agencies.
Since 1972, the UMC has moved inexorably toward an industrial model for the denomination. The traditional democratic spirit of renewal through prophetic interests has been curtailed under that model of institutional reform. The most significant positive action at the GC was the Judicial Council decision to declare the structure proposals un-constitutional.
Like other democratic institutions, “hot issues” that became organized as agencies and boards have moved us forward. Some of these local concerns were missionary work, education for former slaves, temperance, world peace, care for widows and orphans, theological education, status of women, and social action. These were originally independent movements outside the GC and only in the last period became fully integrated as sub-units under administration of super agencies like the General Council on Finance and Administration and the General Council on Ministries. The General Council on Ministries was to have been an "interim general conference," but the Judicial Council declared it unconstitutional in 1974. The most recent restructure tried the same idea and was shot down.
The real church is created out of hot issues, the current one being the recognition in the church of persons who are gay. Energy from churches like Claremont UMC will manifest itself in a wider movement to bring about the changes required. To have the denomination shrink back into an industrial model and housebreak the social and prophetic energies of the local parishes and individuals would have been disastrous.