One night in little league baseball, our son stood in the batter’s box with a full count, 3 balls and 2 strikes. As we waited breathlessly for the next pitch, his young friend standing next to us said, “Well, one thing’s for sure. SOMETHIN’ is gonna happen.”
As the special session of General Conference in St. Louis kicks into gear today, there’s a breathless sense across the global United Methodist Church that SOMETHING is going to happen. The question is what.
For months, both hope and anxiety have been building over what the 864 delegates from around the world, half laity, half clergy, will decide on issues around human sexuality. Three specific proposals will be on the table: The Traditional Plan (TP), the One Church Plan (OCP) and the Connectional Conference Plan (CCP). You can find a brief outline of the plans here.
Apart from claims to the contrary, each plan, if enacted, would dramatically change the current landscape of United Methodism. Thankfully, the change at the local church level would likely happen slowly. Any decision made during this General Conference would not take effect until 2020 and the full impact on the mission and ministry of the church would not be realized for several years. The delegates’ challenge is to “play the movie forward” and imagine how their decisions this week will affect global United Methodism in 10 years.
With the options before us and tension mounting, these three scenarios seem most likely to me, starting with the long shot first.
- The least likely outcome would be the introduction of a significantly different plan that combines elements of other plans and throws in a new twist or two. If a stalemate arises between current plans as the clock winds down on Tuesday, the pressure to do something before General Conference ends will be intense. Some fresh version of a compromise may suddenly look attractive to delegates who sincerely want to find a way forward for the church.
- A more likely scenario involves the approval of a current plan that has been amended in significant ways. In other words, any plan that makes it through will not look the same as the ones people have studied for months. The result could be unintended consequences down the road.
- The most likely outcome of the 2019 General Conference is no decision is made. After all the work that has gone into this process, part of me hates to write these words. Many people simply want something decided about this issue one way or another, so we can move on. But the complexity of human sexuality and the intensity of people’s convictions around it work directly against the short, three-day window allotted to resolve it.
Here’s the tricky part. If any form of a plan passes, it can be overturned when a new crop of delegates gather in May of 2020. We have entered what is effectively a 15-month General Conference session. If no decision is made this week, the current stance of our Book of Discipline remains in effect and we struggle on. In essence, regardless of what happens at the 2019 General Conference, when it’s over, it’s not over.
Often when a hot button issue refuses to be resolved in our time frame, we either fall into listless despair or throw up our hands, saying, “That’s it. I’m outta here,” and stomp off.
Let me suggest a third option. When King David reached a point of deep despair and frustration, he wrote:
Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him. Psalm 37:7 (NRSV)
As much as we may want to fix this situation and fix it now, maybe God is working on a different timeline, a slower one.
In the middle of the last century, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote this letter to his niece who was quite anxious about her future. It’s become something of a prayer. Perhaps it would be a helpful prayer for us.
Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.
—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ
Somethin’ is happening this week. But we may have to wait a little longer before it’s complete.