February 2012, a group of us traveled to Israel. It was the classic tour. Nothing unusual happened until we were on the road to Emmaus. There, I saw a sight not seen before in my previous trips. A statue of Elvis Presley rising 20-25 feet in the air stood outside a restaurant. My mind was disoriented. If anything, I expected to see memorials, statues, paper stands hawking typical fare e.g., an unrecognized Jesus walking on the road with two disciples talking about the puzzling events surrounding the trial, the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Ostensibly, the men were sad. Their hopes of a new day for themselves and Israel had been dashed, rudely. But when they recognized who had engaged them in conversation, everything changed. General Conference 2012 seemed to be one of hopes dashed accompanied by periods of incredulity and spates of disorientation. Near and far, folk kept saying, "WHAT HAPPENED?”
First, the Council of Bishops (COB) had its "hopes dashed" about the Set Aside Bishop. Four years of planning and cultivation was rejected. Delegates failed to see the need for a Set Aside Bishop like the Council. Bishops were genuinely surprised. We had put all our eggs in that basket. Asked, “What's next?” with a sense of resignation, Bishop Goodpaster said, "the COB will keep functioning in its current manner."
Second, General Conference ended guaranteed appointments. So-called ‘job security’ was jettisoned without any major debate. How it passed really jolted lay and clergy. It was adopted on the consent calendar. Folks in the Legislative Committee gave it overwhelming support. Attempts to reconsider the decision were shut down definitively. The loss of guaranteed appointments led to another "what happened?" moment.
Third, most of the nearly 1000 delegates attending General Conference declared that restructuring was THE MOST IMPORTANT issue facing them. After contentious debate and legislative jockeying, they approved a new structure, the UMC Plan. Some folks rejoiced; others lamented especially proponents of Religion and Race and the Commission on the Status and Role of Women. With the demise of these commissions, they saw the monitoring function of the denomination cast aside at best and insignificant at worst. Into a tailspin, they went. General Conference had spoken. Later, a delegate moved that General Conference request a ruling from the Judicial Council on the legitimacy of the constitutionality of the UMC Plan. It passed.
Four, when the amendments to change the language regarding the church's stance on homosexuality failed, Pandora’s box marked, "PROTEST" flew open.
Protestors came on the floor of General Conference singing and holding signs based on Micah 6:8, “...what does the Lord require of you?...” Asked to cease and desist, the folk gathered around an altar. Some folks feared the police might be called. Instead, Bishop Coyner called a recess until the 2:30 session. However, the disappointed protesters stayed there until we reconvened. Behind the scenes, a floor exit had been negotiated. So, the protestors left the floor after a statement was read from the Bishops and prayer. Dashed hopes and another spate of disorientation reigned, as all sides were nonplussed regarding how to go forward. Once again, an uneasy, frustrating truce hung in the air for all sides over the maintenance of the current language in the Discipline over homosexuality. Over this divide, most people knew what happened! They don't know about the on-going sounds of the struggle.
It seemed like no one was prepared for the decision rendered by the Judicial Council the next day. Emotions had leveled out. In late afternoon, Bishop Park read a decision from the Judicial Council that seemed like Judgment Day or the confusion of tongues let loose by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The Judicial Council struck down the UMC Plan. Even more devastating, they declared that no part of plan was salvageable. Lament and jubilation, disbelief and belief, dismay and amazement ran through the house. During a recess and dinner break, clumps of delegates in twos, threes, eights, tens and larger stood around processing "what happened."
Four hours from adjournment, some delegates wrung their hands. Some said, "we have wasted time and money and come up with nothing.” Others said, “it was impossible to craft a new plan in such a short time span.” Still others believed, “a workable, constitutionally acceptable plan could be worked out before adjournment." In the end, cooler heads prevailed. A workable plan to provided direction for this denomination was brought forward from what had been cast aside by the emergence of the UMC Plan.
Shades of the Emmaus experience caught up with United Methodists at the 2012 General Conference. It'll be a longtime before the United Methodists who attended General Conference in Tampa, Florida and those who saw it unfolding via live streaming really understand what happened, me included.
At the same time, I've begun to wonder if "what happened " at General Conference was God's way of getting us in touch with what God wants legislated and passed in our corporate life. Until we've figured out that mystery, I am going to keep tending the gardens placed in my care and lead the charge to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, so help me God!!