(RNS) — When United Methodists gather at their annual conferences, they often sing the opening words of a hymn by the early Methodist leader Charles Wesley, “And are we yet alive, and see each other’s face?”
It’s a throwback to the days when circuit-riding ministers on the American frontier were lucky to live past age 40 and paused for a spell of fellowship.
But this year, “Are we yet alive?” resonates as United Methodists wait to see how the denomination will move forward despite paralyzing disagreements over homosexuality.
“Our denomination is in chaos,” said the Rev. Mike Slaughter, pastor emeritus of Ginghamsburg Church, a United Methodist congregation near Dayton, Ohio. “Our bishops don’t agree with each other. I hear fear. I hear denial. We’ve come to this place where we reflect what’s going on in our national politics now. It’s a sad day.”
“Annual conference” has two meanings in the United Methodist Church: The term refers to the yearly regional gatherings, part revivals and part business meetings, that occur in each region across the United States — usually a state or a portion of one — and across the world. (The church’s membership is almost 7 million in the U.S. and 12.5 million worldwide.) It also refers to the regions themselves.
The 56 annual conferences in the U.S. meet between late May and early July each year. (An additional 75 annual conferences in Africa, Europe, and the Philippines meet at various times of the year.) Annual conferences convene in hotel ballrooms, college buildings, convention centers, hotels, or, in the case of the West Ohio and East Ohio conferences, at a summer community on the shore of Lake Erie.
Attendees include local clergy, plus an equal number of elected lay delegates, who tackle legislatives duties — passing a budget, voting on matters important to the region. There’s also time for worship, sermons and fellowship, ordaining new clergy, bidding farewell to retiring clergy and mourning those who died in the last year.
But this year, a moment of reckoning looms with the denomination’s long-debated conflict over homosexuality — whether to ordain gay clergy, whether clergy can marry same-sex partners, and related issues.
“There’s a sense of unease about the future, and anxiety that is pretty deep in the system about what may or may not be coming,” said the Rev. Joe Stobaugh, executive minister of worship and arts at Grace Avenue United Methodist Church in Frisco, Texas, who led worship at last year’s North Texas Annual Conference.
In 1972, attempting to settle its position on homosexuality, the church added language to its Book of Discipline stating, “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Since that time, every General Conference — the denomination’s main lawmaking body, which meets every four years — has been dominated by the issue. On several occasions, protests have brought proceedings to a standstill.
Traditionalists want to retain the language and bring clergy who are openly gay or who perform same-sex ceremonies to account. Progressives want to remove the language and affirm gay clergy and same-sex marriage. Moderates would like the denomination to find a way to agree to disagree.
In 2016, the General Conference attempted to avoid all-out war by charging a “Commission on a Way Forward” to hammer out proposals to resolve the rift, with a special session of General Conference to vote on those proposals in St. Louis in February 2019. All this comes at a cost of millions of dollars for the denomination.
The Way Forward commission met nine times over 17 months, with the last meeting on May 17, weighing several models: one that holds clergy accountable to the Book of Discipline teaching; another that removes the restrictive language; and a third “One Church Plan” that would essentially give local churches and annual conferences the option of choosing their stances on homosexuality.
Recently, the bishops on the commission announced that they were recommending the One Church Plan. However, members may not get the details until July 8, when the final report is released — and after annual conferences have met.
United Methodists usually look forward with anticipation to the spirit-filled fellowship of annual conferences, but this year, said the Rev. Jeff Greenway, pastor of Reynoldsburg United Methodist, a megachurch near Columbus, Ohio, “There is a lot of anxiety and lack of trust in the system of The United Methodist Church.”
Church leaders can only speculate what may turn up on annual conference agendas.
“While there may be some posturing and positioning, there isn’t really anything to vote on yet,” said the Rev. Adam Hamilton, pastor of the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas.
Hamilton said some conferences may choose to vote to formally endorse the bishops’ recommendation. Greenway expected some will consider petitions for a “gracious and generous exit ramp” from the denomination.
All agreed that the 2019 special session will dominate informal conversations — as one local pastor put it, “The elephant in the room will be discussed in the halls.”
Meanwhile, factions are starting to line up in anticipation of the special conference. Hamilton and Slaughter are part of Uniting Methodists, an informal moderate caucus. Greenway chairs the council of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, which is crafting a response to the One Church Plan “that would maintain traditional, orthodox Methodist beliefs,” and hinting at departing the denomination, saying the association’s purpose is “not to ﬁght the political battles raging across the church, but to prepare for and live into a positive and fruitful future.”
Some conservative churches have already voted to leave, including a few of the denomination’s largest and wealthiest; their departures would mean the loss of significant financial support and raise complicated issues over how to divide up local church property, which is held in trust by the denomination.
Complicating matters is the fact that many church members aren’t aware of the looming changes. “Most clergy have an opinion about what they believe would be best (but) many laity and local churches are not aware of the crisis facing our denomination,” said Greenway.
Amid this morass, some still hold out hope for a transformative movement of the Holy Spirit at annual conferences. Spirits seemed high at the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference, which met in May with the theme “Miracles Everywhere.”
“When we sing together and breathe together, every so often, the window opens up and the spirit has a chance to come in, even in divisive moments, and healing happens,” said Stobaugh.
And some, like the Rev. Junius Dotson, general secretary of Discipleship Ministries, a churchwide agency, are still hopeful. Regardless of what happens next, he believes there will still be a United Methodist Church.
“We will still be called to reach people and make disciples,” he said. “The way the church looks and operates may look different, but the essential call is not going to change.”