The United Methodist Church General Conference will meet in St. Louis later this month. In the normal course of events, General Conference meets every four years. It is the only entity that can make changes to The Book of Discipline and is the only body that speaks authoritatively for The United Methodist Church. Since its last regularly scheduled gathering was in 2016 in Portland, Oregon, it would be scheduled to meet in 2020. But the delegates, limited by the Book of Discipline to no more than 1,000 and scrupulously half clergy and half laity, authorized the Council of Bishops to anoint a Commission on the Way Forward to develop a way for The United Methodist Church to resolve the divisions among us regarding LGBTQ persons, ordination and appointment of LGBTQ clergy, marriage and same-sex wedding services in our church properties or performed by our clergy.
This has been an issue in The United Methodist Church since 1972. Every four years General Conference was petitioned to loosen or strengthen our positions. The United Methodist Church over the years has declared the “practice” of homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching, defined marriage as between one man and one woman, declared that “self-avowed, practicing” homosexuals are not be to approved as candidates for ordination or appointed as clergy in our churches, decreed that same-sex weddings are not to be held in our churches or officiated by our clergy. If the latter cross that line in the sand, they are subject to internal church disciplinary processes which could result in a church trial and the removal of credentials and status as a minister within the denomination. Organizations and sub-units of the denomination which advocated or acted contrary to the official positions were to be denied denominational funding. The church also proclaimed that homosexual persons are persons of sacred worth, that God’s grace is available to all. It exhorted parents not to turn their backs on their LGBTQ children and called for the end of discrimination against LGBTQ persons and the protection of their legal rights.
The 1996 General Conference delegates declined to change our denominational positions by the narrowest margin thus far. If I recall, the margin was somewhere in the mid-50’s in terms of percentage that voted to retain prohibitions and proscriptions. After this, an academic from a major Midwestern university and a member of a United Methodist congregation in that community co-authored a book predicting that the trend was in favor of those who advocated a more inclusive church and its clergy for LGBTQ persons and it was only a matter of time and the time was drawing nearer.
In what should be a cautionary tale for those who are presently trumpeting the results of the 2018 congressional elections as proof the nation has made a course correction to the left that will continue, The United Methodist Church experienced the law of physics that for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. The traditional/conservative/evangelical folks “got woke.” The result was one of the more conservative General Conferences in 2000. Two-thirds of the delegates voted to retain the denominational positions. A law school classmate of mine was elected to the Judicial Council, our denominational equivalent of a Supreme Court, notwithstanding or perhaps because of his clear alliance with the evangelical renewal caucuses.
And we changed the formula for allocating delegates.
The previous formula protected the interests of the church in declining regions of North America in terms of church membership such as the West and East Coasts as well as the Rust Belt while limiting the voices and votes of Africa where the church was literally exploding with growth. It truly was a justice issue. After all, why would we protect decline and stagnation while penalizing evangelism and growth? The only justification would have been to assert that those portions of the global church which provided the bulk of financial support for the denomination should be proportionally better represented. Those on the denominational left might have thought so, but they dared not say so. Those on the denominational right in North America were fully cognizant of the fact that this would be in their political interest as the delegates from African annual conferences were very much in the traditionalist/conservative/evangelical camp when it came to LGBTQ issues.
In 2016, 30% of delegates came from annual conferences in Africa. In 2020, that percentage will rise to 32%. While these delegations do not march in lockstep with those regions of the church in North America that are similarly disposed on LGBTQ matters, they do form a reasonably reliable and like-minded base for the 33% of delegates from the Southeast and South Central Jurisdictions, not to mention the conservative/evangelical delegates from the North Central Jurisdiction in the American Midwest. Conversely, the more liberal Western Jurisdiction will have only 3% of the votes.
The math does not look promising for those who seek a more liberal denomination when it comes to these matters. What troubles me the most is what I perceived in 2012 – that everything General Conference needed to do and was asked to do was being viewed through the lenses of delegates’ positions on LGBTQ matters. Delegates were reluctant to consider legislation that was needed or at least laudable on non-LGBTQ matters because it might give the “other side” an advantage or a glimmer of hope on sexuality issues.
So General Conference accomplishes little, if anything, beyond spending a lot of time and millions of denominational dollars.
Now we find ourselves spending more millions on a General Conference outside the normal rhythm with the same delegates who were unable to solve matters in 2016.
There are essentially 3 proposals coming to the body later this month. I will not go into the details of each lest the reader’s eyes glaze over, but will share my summary of the gist of each. I do encourage readers and delegates to read the full details of the plans which are easy to find online.
The Traditional Plan calls for the retention of the current denominational positions with the addition of greatly enhanced enforcement penalties for bishops and other clergy who would violate the prohibitions against ordination and appointment of LGBTQ clergy and officiating at same-sex weddings. It includes provisions for a “gracious exit” of clergy and congregations who cannot or choose not to adhere to these restrictions. “Gracious exit” would allow congregations to retain their properties against the Trust Clause which historically and legally means that when a congregation leaves the denomination, the property belongs to the denomination.
The One Church Plan would create a new big tent for the denomination which would allow each annual conference to determine whether to ordain and appoint LGBTQ clergy and each pastor and congregation to determine whether to host and solemnize same-sex weddings. This will in reality add additional elements of regionalism and congregationalism to the hallowed theory of connectionalism in the denomination and will be the end of the fiction that any ordained United Methodist clergy can be appointed to provide clergy leadership to any United Methodist congregation.
The Connectional Conference Plan would create 3 non-geographical entities for the church, essentially lining up pastors and congregations on theo-political bases on the left, center and right. My concern is that we have created such a complicated mess in our denominational constitution and Book of Discipline that it would takes years to get this all straightened out, if ever.
Personally, I prefer the Simple Plan which would simply remove the negative language and prohibitions against LGBTQ persons, clergy and weddings, in effect leaving these matters in the hands and spirits of annual conferences, congregations and clergy. Unfortunately this plan is put forth by the United Methodist Queer Caucus which is a poison pill for too many delegates from too many regions of the church.
My prediction is that nothing will be accomplished later this month given the truncated schedule. If two weeks of a “normal” General Conference accomplishes little if anything, I have very little hope for a mere 3 day conference.
If a plan is adopted, The United Methodist Church will cease to exist. The Wesleyan Covenant Association and the other “evangelical renewal” groups have drawn a deep line in the sand, saying they cannot and will not live with the One Church Plan. My experience has been that they have been planning and working for schism for years. Some of their churches have properties held by separate legal entities designed to circumvent the Trust Clause. They have properties so highly leveraged with debt as to be poison pills for annual conferences that might be tempted to enforce the trust clause.
Similarly, if the Traditionalist Plan is adopted any victory will be Pyrrhic. Many clergy, particularly those in the Millennial generation, will leave the denomination. So will many churches. Those that stay will continue to disobey any enhanced disciplinary provisions, insisting on church trials by their peers further wasting church resources much more faithfully used in ministry.
One significant part of my process of moving from where I was 20+ years ago to where I am now has been getting to know colleagues and other people who did not think and believe as I did and listening to them. I have come to realize that persons on both sides of the LGBTQ issues firmly believe they are led by the Holy Spirit.
It is time we stop beating on each other and get back to beating on the Devil. It is time we freed each other to do ministry as we each believe the Holy Spirit is leading us to do and let God bless whom God chooses to bless. It may just be that God chooses to bless us all – everyone.
Given the sharply and deeply drawn line in the sand, I call on the Wesleyan Covenant Association and its opposite organizational elements to publicly confess that The United Methodist Church can no longer pretend to be united. Then with deep repentance move to disband the denomination and distribute the property and other resources. No successor denomination should be allowed to retain the words “United Methodist” in its title.
I know from my experience as both an attorney and a pastor that divorces are often messy and painful, but I also have experienced that sometimes they are where grace is ultimately found. Neither side, particularly the traditionalist/conservative/evangelical side shows any interest in reconciliation – only in winning.
The only win-win situation I see is for us to meet at the Jabbok – and then go separate ways.