The title reflects the question that I, and I’m sure most UMC pastors, are asked constantly. I always tell my people that I’m not afraid to tell them when I don’t know the answer, and this is the answer I give here. Simply, I don’t know. The pre-conference editions of the Daily Christian Advocate have been released and they contain a ton of legislation. Honestly, I haven’t had a lot of time to review the material. If history holds, the vast majority of the proposed legislation won’t make the floor for a full debate and will be swept into the proverbial dust pile.
I have seen that there is a lot of interest in a myriad of legislation that would result in the United States becoming a regional conference, operating much the way the central conferences operate. I don’t want to comment on the implications of this because, again, I haven’t had a good opportunity to review everything. I do know that there are multiple pieces of legislation that would have to be passed to bring regionalization about, including changes to the UMC constitution (something that I believe will be a tough sell), which is all the more reason I need more time to review the legislation.
Since I don’t feel comfortable commenting on legislation, I’d like to comment on what I know will not happen at General Conference. Let’s name it: There are outright lies being spread by people and organizations that are seeking to destroy the United Methodist Church for their own pursuit of power and a perverse desire to “win” at any cost. They want you to believe they are fighting for God when, the truth is, they’re only seeking to fulfill their own ambitions. They’re quick to say that there are decisions that have already been made and want you to believe that they know what the delegates will approve. This is pure fiction. Many of the GC-related questions I field are in response to things shared to incite fear and anger.
I may not be able to tell you what will happen but I can tell you what will not happen, and share one thing that I do believe will happen.
The UMC Will Not Reject the Divinity of Jesus or the Virgin Birth
One of the most popular pieces of misinformation is the notion that the United Methodist Church is set to rid itself of doctrine related to affirming Jesus as divine and the virgin birth. A close second to this notion is that the UMC will embrace universalism and reject Christ as the sole means of salvation. This idea is unfounded and totally without merit.
Within any church organization, you’re going to have people that don’t affirm every piece of accepted doctrine. We have some people – a very small percentage, I’d say maybe 1% – who do not affirm faith in Christ as the sole means of salvation and the virgin birth. Yes, such people exist in every church. I know for a fact there are Southern Baptists who baptize babies. Separatists have latched on to the words of these few people and asserted that these are the official positions of the UMC and that the delegates will vote to strip the UMC of these points of doctrine.
First, the only people who speak for the United Methodist Church is General Conference. That’s it. No one else has that authority, period. Not even our bishops can speak on behalf of the entire church. Second: Even if there were a significant number of people wanting to change our doctrine on Jesus and the virgin birth (there aren’t), following through with these desires would be impossible. These doctrines are contained in our Articles of Religion, written by John Wesley himself (well, technically, they were taken from the Church of England and altered somewhat, but I digress) and the 16 articles of the Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren (the UMC came to be when the former Methodist Church and EUB merged in 1968).
The General Conference does not have the authority to change the Articles of Religion or the Confession of Faith. The United Methodist Church have restrictive rules built in to the constitution that forbids changes.
Don’t believe me? Here are the relevant portions of the Discipline.
¶ 17. Article I.—The General Conference shall not revoke, alter, or change our Articles of Religion or establish any new standards or rules of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine.40
¶ 18. Article II.—The General Conference shall not revoke, alter, or change our Confession of Faith.https://www.umc.org/en/content/book-of-discipline-section-iii-restrictive-rules
The above paragraphcs are part of the UMC’s Constitution that works much like the constitution of the United States. The Constitution of the UMC lays out the powers, responsibilities, restrictions, and authority of entities from the General Conference down to the local church. Making changes to the articles of confession is clearly banned.
In short: Even if the General Conference delegates wanted to change these doctrines, they can’t. Even attempting to do so would require amending the constitution of the church and this would be an impossible task. Rejecting Jesus and the virgin birth simply are not going to happen.
Clergy Will Not Be Required to Perform Same-Sex Weddings
Another fear-mongering tactic is the idea that clergy will be forced to participate in same-sex marriage ceremonies or face defrocking. Even if prohibitions against clergy performing same-sex weddings are lifted (I believe that’s not likely to happen this time), I find it hard to believe that clergy would be compelled to solemnize same-sex marriages if their convictions will not allow them to.
The reason is simple: UMC clergy are currently not under any obligation to perform any weddings. There is nothing in the Discipline that says a pastor must marry two people simply because the pastor is asked to. The Discipline does require clergy to conduct counseling with the couple prior to a wedding. If anything is discovered during that counseling that causes the pastor to believe the couple should not be wed, they can refuse.
Clergy are currently not obligated to perform any wedding. I do not see that changing.
What Will Happen: Fundamental Change in the United Methodist Church
One thing that I do believe will happen is a fundamental shift in how the United Methodist Church is structured and how it operates. The United States lost 25% of its congregations to disaffiliation and there is no way the UMC will continue to operate in the same manner than it did prior to the departures. Structural revamping was already in the works, but disaffiliation has increased the urgency of the restructuring.
I believe for 2024’s GC, we will see more in the way of budget cuts and perhaps some reshuffling in the general boards. There will also be initial discussions of reform, but I believe any significant restructuring will take place at the upcoming General Conference sessions that will take place between now and 2028.
What Do You Think?
What do you believe will happen at GC2024? Leave a comment and let me know what you think!