response: January/February 2020 Issue

Responsively Yours: Our Calling Continues

Responsively Yours: Our Calling Continues

In 1888, five women were elected delegates to General Conference, including active members of the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society and Woman’s Home Missionary Society. The conference spent most of the first day debating whether these five women qualified as a “layman” who were eligible for election. The conference decided that the women would be seated in the balcony, able to observe the conference sessions but unable to speak or vote.

A lot has changed since then, and in 2019 women constituted 36 percent of the voting members for General Conference. Yet women constitute almost 60 percent of church membership. We certainly have more work to do.

Methodist women and our predecessors have been bringing resolutions related to the dignity, security and leadership of women in church and society for generations, including the long campaign for full clergy rights for women. In many ways, today’s work is similar, including our resolutions regarding the girl child, women’s status, voting rights and supporting the efforts of the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women to amend the constitution of the church to include gender as a protected category.

While our work at General Conference 2020 will be a continuation of work we have done for more than 100 years, it will be in a very different context. For decades an outside-funded group has been working to undermine the social witness of the mainline church. They have connected with a group of church members who understand Scripture to require restrictive provisions regarding LGBTQ people. Other groups in the church trying to discern what biblical justice looks like today have been focusing on Scripture that gives precedence to the love of God for all persons and calling for not just a commitment to equality but toward equity. If these two positions represent two ends of a spectrum, there are also church members and leaders at every point between the two.

In May the General Conference will grapple with what this means for The United Methodist Church. In 2019, the General Conference, by a margin of 53-47 percent, decided to reinforce the current language of the Book of Discipline by adding mandatory penalties and giving “complainants” a voice in church trials. At most annual conference sessions in the United States, members elected delegations to the 2020 General and Jurisdictional Conferences that are more centrist and progressive. This means that the General Conference is likely to align generally with the results of the 2019 special session while the Jurisdictional Conferences are likely to seek more progressive/centrist persons to serve as bishops and members of the general agencies. It’s in this context that the General Conference will struggle with legislation, some that offers organizational “space” to allow us to stay together and some that proposes separation and new expressions of Methodism without churches and conferences facing protracted acrimony and lawsuits.

In the midst of this, United Methodist Women seeks to be a place where all women are welcome, inclusive of sexual orientation, where we can work together on shared commitments to spiritual growth, mission with women, children and youth, and empowerment of women in the United States and around the world. Our church context may change, but our calling continues. Just as we did across the barrier of a race-based Central Jurisdiction, women organized for mission will continue to work together alongside those who society treats as “the least of these.”

Harriett Jane Olson
General Secretary
United Methodist Women
holson@unitedmethodistwomen.org

Posted or updated: 1/8/2020 12:00:00 AM