The Women of United Methodist General Conference

The Women of United Methodist General Conference May 26, 2016

Forgive me. You might have noticed, lately I’ve been quiet here on our Patheos blog. If you follow any of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) folks on social media, then you know most of the clan spent the last two weeks at the quadrennial General Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMCGC) May 10-20 in Portland, Oregon. So a big thanks to Faith McDonnell for maintaining the blog solo while I was scarfing down Voodoo Doughnuts and jumping headfirst into Methodism 101.

We’re back in the office now doing a little decompressing in the form of the written word. Historic votes and initiatives passed at UMCGC 2016 are still worth celebrating. I’m beyond proud of the Methodist men in my IRD family, especially my colleague John Lomperis. But it’s the vibrant Methodist ladies I encountered at UMCGC who made the biggest impact on me personally.

Pro-choice “reproductive rights” feminists at UMCGC urged the body of delegates to maintain association with the Religious Coalition and Reproductive Choice (RCRC), an abortion lobby group behind a veneer of spirituality. No, RCRC is not a women’s healthcare provider as some delegates argued. RCRC lobbies for abortion to be legal in all cases and at any time. Sex-selection abortions or late-term abortions make no difference to RCRC. This is what they call “abortion care.”

Rev. Beth Ann Cook, a pastor of two Indiana United Methodist congregations and UMCGC delegate, saw through the thin veneer. I watched as Cook stood on the massive stage in front of the entire body of delegates to introduce legislation stating RCRC “is a one-sided political lobby that opposes all disapproval or limitation of abortion. RCRC’s advocacy often directly contradicts our Social Principles on abortion, but it still uses our Church’s name. Several annual conferences and many United Methodist leaders have urged the Church to end all association with RCRC.” Cook was steady and calm as she called on the UMC to withdraw its agencies from the abortion coalition. Delegates voted 425-268 to cut ties with RCRC.

“In the end, I’m okay with being loved or hated by large numbers of people,” Cook wrote in response to the intense reactions she received. “My words here probably change few, if any, minds. You probably still think of me as heroine or villain depending on what you believe about abortion. I’m okay with that. I did what I did for an audience of ONE—Jesus.” She is my hero.

There exists an entire network of faithful Methodist women denouncing the liberalizing of their denomination. Renew Network is a coalition of orthodox United Methodist women committed to supporting each other in Biblical-based ministry.

I had the privilege of meeting Kathryn Kiser at UMCGC and she is one of the nicest, wisest ladies I’ve ever met. She also serves as Team Leader of Renew Network. In an email, Kiser shared why women in the UMC have much to celebrate after General Conference:

Our denomination remains faithful to a biblical understanding of human sexuality and marriage. Women have gained more freedom to choose Christ centered women’s ministry and mission in their own settings. The UMC is now more pro-life and less pro-abortion. We can take heart that some petitions that aligned the church with secular agendas have been rejected. And we can rest assured that other petitions were adopted, which anchor the United Methodist Church firmly in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Here is one good example. For two decades legislation petitioned the church to recognize and allow women’s ministry outside the official United Methodist Women. Efforts were made to change the statement in the Book of Discipline that said, every church shall have a United Methodist Women’s unit, to may have. Those attempts failed. But in Portland, the delegates voted to add a sub-point to paragraph 256 of the Book of Discipline allowing supplemental ministries in addition to both UMW and UMM.

“I am more optimistic about the future of the UMC than I have been in years,” wrote Sara Anderson, a Renew Network fellow and IRD Board Member. “Those who expected a progressive juggernaut were disappointed. Evangelicals were able to demonstrate grace in challenging situations.”

It’s true that evangelical Methodists like Anderson found themselves in challenging situations throughout UMCGC. One example: I sat beside Anderson in an observer gallery during legislative committee meetings. She graciously translated all the Methodist acronyms and parliamentary procedure for my non-Methodist ears. In the gallery, we were surrounded by progressives. I’m sure it was tough for Anderson to hear her orthodox Wesleyan worldview ridiculed by fellow Methodists sitting behind us. Had it been my denomination, I’d been tempted to turn around and give them an earful. Anderson graciously endured the hisses with silent prayers.

One of my favorite moments during UMCGC actually occurred offsite and during an early morning breakfast hosted by Good News. Rev. Madeline Carraso Henners, a young Methodist minister from the Rio Texas Conference shared her move away from progressive Christianity. “I was not someone who you could say, ‘Well, she believes what she does because she’s been indoctrinated as a child, since childhood, it’s all she’s ever been taught.’” Said Henners. “I’m not someone who you could claim does not understand the progressive perspective because I was the progressive perspective.”

I especially appreciated her openness on how God convicted her theology during a month-long sabbatical. “As I did, and as I read the word, I felt this weight come upon me that the Lord clearly said, ‘I need you and this word — this Gospel that you are reading. I need you to see what you added is not here.” Henner explained that while progressive social advocacy might makes us feel good about ourselves, not all touted social justice issues are Scripture-based. Ultimately, God’s Word is true, not our fleshly desires.

Another memorable moment happened while Henner spoke.  I sat listening while eating breakfast at a table with five young women from Candler School of Theology. Their behavior was disturbing. Here was Henner, a young woman standing up in front of strangers and sharing how the Holy Spirit humbled her attitude, convicted her conscience, and moved her from a comfort zone.  Meanwhile, the young Candler women hearing her words began to not-so-quietly murmur and mock Henner’s story. One woman stood up in the middle of Henner’s testimony and walked out. She hung out in the lobby until adjournment. Candler might consider a review course on how to execute tolerance and respect to everyone, including those with whom you disagree.

UMCGC was definitely uncomfortable, even  as a non-Methodist observer. So thank you to the strong, faithful, wise Methodist women I befriended during the conference. I’m so grateful for your work, inspiration, encouragement, and, most especially for demonstrating what it looks like to be gracious in the most uncomfortable situations.

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