NYAC Gathers to Discuss, Reflect on GC2019
NYAC Gathers to Discuss, Reflect on GC2019
More photos from the March 16 special annual conference can be found here.
BY JOANNE S. UTLEY
Editor, The Vision
The New York Conference gathered on Saturday, March 16, to reflect on and hear reports from Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton and the 2019 General Conference delegation about the special called session in St. Louis. Some 900 people attended the daylong event at the Performing Arts Center at SUNY Purchase.
In his sermon that opened the day, the bishop noted the deep divisions in the church and the deep hurt within the body. Using the text of 1 Corinthians 12, he echoed the Apostle Paul’s longings for the early church in Corinth that they could indeed be one body which valued all members equally. “His [Paul’s] hope was that the people could find a way together so that the gospel could be spread to the people,” Bickerton said. “These are great words for us. Needed words for us . . . But here’s the reality. Currently, we are not the body of Christ as it is described in Corinthians.”
He lamented the current lack of respect and degree of distrust in the denomination.
“No one should be claiming victory,” he said, acknowledging the close vote for the Traditional Plan. “Perhaps it is a better representation to say that maybe we all are losers.”
And he noted that the divisions are “more real here in New York than many want to admit.”
With the defeat of the One Church Plan, Bickerton admitted that he had “lost faith” in the denomination’s ability to deal with its problems through a legislative process.
“ . . . Legislation does not convert the heart,” he said. “Just because the vote went a certain way, we cannot expect conformity to follow.
“We cannot legislate the change . . . but we can model what the change looks like and live into it with faithfulness and love,” he said. “and we need to do so now in the midst of great pain and hurt.
Bishop Bickerton admitted that he was heartbroken about all the pain that has been inflicted on the LGBTQIA community and the possibility of his church falling apart.
He pledged his “unwavering, undying support for the LGBTQIA community.”
“We must continue to work for full inclusion and make our words turn into actions that demonstrate our support,” he said. “I will do everything I can to support and authenticate your calling and your ministry.”
The bishop ended his sermon by offering up his own “minority report.”
“When you feel hatred coming your way, return it with love. When you see someone with whom you disagree do not judge, but love,” the bishop said. “Breathe, just breathe, and let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts . . .”
Following worship, Bickerton went point by point through the decisions that were made at the special General Conference, noting that “nothing has ultimately been decided until the Judicial Council rules” at its meeting on April 23-26. Many of the parts of the Traditional Plan had previously been ruled unconstitutional by the council, and not all of those parts were modified before the plan’s approval.
The vote to prioritize the order in which the petitions would be considered left “money and buildings” at the top of the list.
“It was not how will we survive these days, or how we’re going to care for one another,” he said, adding that he felt the body had forgotten about the church’s mission to make disciples.
He lamented that that the church’s “public witness has been harmed” by the news from GC2019. And recent media reports and charges about the integrity of the voting process have cast further doubt on the outcome of the General Conference.
As the bishop’s information session ended, members of the GC2019 delegation and others read a statement attesting to the “harm and spiritual violence” inflicted on the LGBTQIA+ community by the vote at General Conference, and a pledge to continue to affirm the lives, ministries, and families of our LGBTQIA+ siblings. All members of NYAC churches were encouraged to sign the statement which concludes with these words: “We are the New York Annual Conference. We are working towards God’s justice. We will only get there if we work towards it together.”
Bishop Bickerton then led the gathering in a liturgy for Holy Communion. The elements were consecrated so that they could be shared among individuals around the tables during lunch. The meal also gave those gathered an opportunity to reflect on how the General Conference had affected them personally and in their local churches.
After the lunch break, the members of the NYAC delegation introduced themselves in the ways that they self-identify, and Rev. Kristina Hansen, co-chair of the group, said, “Friends, here we are your New York Annual Conference Delegation. A rainbow of diversity, a thousand stories, a lot of power, a lot of passion, hard-working people. Here to tell you a bit of the story of our journey.”
The delegation’s report spoke of the roller coaster ride of emotions that were experienced in St. Louis – from love and hope to deep hurt and outrage. They felt both the love of those in the gallery who had gathered to support the inclusion of LGBTQIA persons, as well as the “erasure” of those same people during the morning segment of the opening day of prayer.
In their preparation for the St. Louis gathering, the delegation had spent many hours together. “We spent hours discussing, sharing, learning, growing, laughing, crying, and engaging in an intentional effort to go beyond being individual delegates and become a team where the whole would be greater than the sum of the parts,” said first-time delegate Karen Prudente.
Reserve delegate Rev. Sheila Beckford spoke about how a daily devotion from Acts had offered encouragement around the word “unhindered.”
“As a delegation, we resolved that whatever hindrances we may encounter, the Gospel is like a river, utterly unhindered and unstoppable,” she said.
Fred Brewington expressed frustration that a plan that was ruled mostly unconstitutional by the Judicial Council had been approved. And he added that the “taint caused by the reports of voting irregularities has so impacted the legislative activity of the General Conference that allowing any actions to stand would be unjust and immoral.”
The delegation also stressed their belief that the teachings of Jesus require “an intersectional vision of justice, peace, love, grace and hope for all” – especially the oppressed and marginalized.
“Our lives as Christian disciples requires that all of us hear, see, embrace, and respect one another across lines of race, sex, sexual orientation, gender expression, physical ability, and age,” said Rev. Alex da Silva Souto,
But despite the difficult realities of the special General Conference, Jorge Lockward said that the experience offered “the precious gift” of a call to dream about a church free of the twin evils of colonialism and racism.
“To dream along with God . . . of a church that is faithful to its deep tradition of being open, creative, relevant, courageous and filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Following the delegation’s report, the bishop fielded some questions that had been submitted by the body. Rev. Denise Smartt Sears, dean of the cabinet, joined the bishop on stage and read the questions.
In responding to a question about how to convince a daughter to believe in the UMC, the bishop said, “Behavior is the only way to market ourselves to a younger generation . . . somewhere we stopped talking about our theology of grace and started to talk about structure and rules.”
“We need to be walking with them on the city streets, offering a theology of grace in the most unlikely of places,” Bickerton added.
Another question raised the issue of what would happen to UMCOR if the church should splinter.
“I think we’ll see support for global missions drop,” Bickerton said, noting that some churches had already threatened to pull their money if the vote went in a direction they didn’t like.
“We need to get the word schism out of our system,” said the bishop who is the president of the UMCOR board of directors. “We need to be in conversations focused on what expressions of United Methodism need to take place . . . what makes Methodism Methodist is mission.”
When asked if the annual conference could withdraw from the denomination, he noted that individual churches are able do that.
“I guess if all the churches in the annual conference decide to withdraw, I guess that could happen,” Bickerton said, adding that he worries about the sustainability of the NYAC with 138 of its 430 churches worshiping less than 25 people each week. “As we think about what to do next, we need to frame conversations with other conferences who want to do similar things.”
He said he believes that the discussion needs to move to a higher place of grace and integrity.
“We need to change how we’re doing it, and not inflict hurt with hurt,” the bishop said. “I don’t know that we can stay together, but I don’t want any victims lying on the side of the road.”
The day came to a close with a time of prayer and healing. Anointing stations were set up throughout the lobby as the congregation departed.
A closing prayer based on the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer, said in part:
Baptize your church afresh with the rushing waters of your Spirit,
Renew, revive, renovate, revitalize your church,
Blessed God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.