From February 23-26th, in St. Louis, Missouri, over 800 delegates from all over the world will come to represent their United Methodist Annual Conferences in an attempt to a make “A Way Forward” in the unifying of our denomination in regards to human sexuality.
General Conference normally meets once every four years and discusses any areas we want to change in our way of being the church and clarifying specific church “law” about how we will do the business of the church. The results of those “quadrennial” (every 4 years) conferences are published as the Book of Discipline and the Book of Resolutions. Topics include how to organize a local congregation, how to set up two or more churches in ministry together (called a “charge”), how to go into pastoral ministry, how we organize the annual conferences, the bishops, the district superintendents, the pastors, and even how to organize United Methodist Women, United Methodist Men, youth ministries, confirmation, baptism, Holy Communion, and more…
The problem has been (and currently is) the area of how do we agree that we United Methodists will try to live out the “holiness” the Bible talks about in so many places. We’re all in pretty much agreement about most areas of personal life and how we live as Christians EXCEPT in our practice of sexuality.
The United Methodist Church was formed out of the old Methodist Church and the old Evangelical United Brethren Church in 1968. Our very first General Conference was four years later in 1972. In between those two events were the Stonewall riots in New York City that became the beginning of the Gay Liberation movement. Therefore, at the 1972 General Conference, there was church legislation reacting to this new awareness of what was happening in our culture… and it became “church law” that, in the United Methodist Church, we would not ordain “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals.” In later years, as our culture continued to yield to those pressures, the Church would clarify that our pastors were not allowed to officiate, nor could our church buildings be used for, homosexual unions (or later same sex weddings). If you violated one of those rules, you were in “violation of the Discipline” and could lose your status as a pastor (called being “defrocked”) or even be kicked out of the church (as a clergy or as a lay person).
Every four years, at EVERY General Conference (1972, 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012) these issues were brought up again. And they always were voted down. The United Methodist Church continued to state that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” And lobbyists and protesters began to do more and more to make their voice heard in an effort to get the Church to change its beliefs. The final straw came in 2016 when every single legislative proposal to change church beliefs in this area was voted down before they even got out of committee. And someone suggested they ask the bishops to help us “find a way forward” and simply not address those sexuality questions until some planning had been made that could help us get off this merry-go-round of always having these heated disagreements about what we believe. The delegates at that General Conference in 2016 agreed and charged the bishops to conduct a study and a planning strategy and, if needed, have a special General Conference to respond to any recommendations that might come forward.
Meanwhile, in July of 2016, the Western Jurisdiction (the out west collection of Annual Conferences from Nevada to Hawaii to Alaska to Colorado) elected an openly lesbian pastor out of California as a bishop in defiance of church law. And many of the other bishops turned a blind eye and others began to openly defy the Church. And this follows a long series of rebellious clergy conducting same sex weddings and rebellious Annual Conferences ordaining those who claimed to be homosexual.
The Council of Bishops did appoint a group (called the Commission of a Way Forward) to try to find a plan to “unite” us. Three recommendations came out of those meetings and the Council of Bishops did issue a call for a special General Conference to deal with the recommendations. That’s what’s going on in a few weeks in St. Louis.
The most popular plan (in the eyes of the bishops) is called the One Church Plan. Essentially, we would drop all the language restricting homosexuality, gay ordination, and the prohibitions against same sex weddings and allow each Annual Conference, and each local church congregation, to decide for themselves what they want to believe. Under this plan, each local congregation will decide if it will recommend a gay person for the ministry and if (and when) a gay wedding can happen on their properties or in their buildings. Likewise, pastors will have to decide whether they will or won’t officiate same sex weddings. The idea is that we can stop all the fighting and be a “united” church because there’s nothing left to fight about. What isn’t said is that it moves the fight into every single local church congregation. And it requires those who believe the Scripture has already clarified that homosexual practice is not compatible with Christianity to either shut up or leave.
The second plan is called the Connectional Church Plan and it seems to be an amalgamation of local church and annual conference decisions that would hold the church together as a denomination, but apparently ends up with the same basic final situation, for the pastor and for the local church congregation, as the One Church Plan. Again, the options for those who disagree are rather limited.
The final plan, has been called the Traditional Plan. It’s the plan that holds to the view of the Bible’s teachings as they have been discerned again and again every four years by General Conferences for the past 47 years. But it also addresses the open rebellion of clergy doing their own thing in defiance of what the Church has decided, by implementing more clear cut consequences for those who say they will live in covenant and abide by the United Methodist Book of Discipline, but then don’t.
Before I, as a clergy person, was ordained, the Bishop point blank asked me if I had studied and understood what our doctrine and polity was as United Methodists. (Polity just means how we are organized and the way we have made church law). And then, before he would ordain me, he also asked “Will you follow them (the doctrines and polity)?” I, and every clergy person ever ordained in our United Methodist Church, said “YES.” It’s what we call our covenant. We agree with each other to follow the United Methodist way of doing Church and living our Christian lives. My choices are: follow the rules and laws I already agreed to or go find a church organization I CAN agree with.
Since the late 1990s, there have been clergy and lay people alike thumbing their noses at the doctrine and polity of the Church. Now we are told that if we drop the Scriptural directions out of our Book of Discipline, then everyone will be able to be in covenant again.
Folks, it breaks my heart because I love this denomination. There is much in the United Methodist Church that is amazing and God has used us for His glory so many times in so many ways. In the past, General Conference has spoken (by taking votes, in good American democracy style)… and there are hundreds and more who openly defy the Church. What will change if the Church changes its official beliefs? I’m afraid… nothing. I’m afraid that the ones who could not be trusted to obey that which they vowed before God to obey, won’t change their stripes if they get their way in this area. What will change is the target of what they want to change next. Those who would not live in covenant before will not live in covenant in any new system.
IF the Church ends up in another impass (which has happened before), then NOTHING will change and EVERYONE will just keep doing their same old thing (obeying or disobeying).
IF the Church reaffirms the Biblical understanding that has consistently passed every four years since 1972 until 2012, then I believe we will see MORE rebellion, by laity, by clergy, and by bishops. Nothing will change.
IF the Church changes our standards on human sexuality, in either the One Church Plan or the Connectional Church Plan, then there will be no room for people like me who can’t affirm something so against the Biblical witness. But, if the standards ARE changed, I’m afraid the fight will simply move into the local churches where each congregation has to fend for themselves as to what will or will not be allowed in that church’s ministry.
Meanwhile, I’m also a pragmatic and practical person, so I understand going into this, that whatever happens, it could take a few years to implement the changes that are enacted (whatever plan passes). So I’m not packing boxes quite yet.
SO WHAT DO WE DO NEXT?
FIRST… PRAY FOR GOD’S WISDOM FOR US IN OUR LOCAL CHURCH SETTING AND FOR THE GENERAL CONFERENCE MEETING FEB. 23rd-26th.
“Anyone who needs wisdom should ask God, whose very nature is to give to everyone without a second thought, without keeping score. Wisdom will certainly be given to those who ask.” — James 1:5
SECOND… PRAY FOR OUR CONFERENCE DELEGATES (7 clergy and 7 lay people from Western Pennsylvania).
“Pray for … everyone who is in authority so that we can live a quiet and peaceful life in complete godliness and dignity.” — 1 Timothy 2:2
THIRD… STUDY THE SCRIPTURES TO SEE WHAT IT REALLY DOES TEACH.
“Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good.” — 2 Timothy 3:16-17
FOURTH… JOIN US ON SUNDAY, MARCH 3rd, IN MORNING WORSHIP AS WE SHARE THE RESULTS OF GENERAL CONFERENCE 2019.
By the way, IF YOU WANT TO FOLLOW ALONG WITH General Conference, you can go to this link for more information and directions.
(This originally appeared in The Circuit Rider, the bimonthly newsletter of the First United Methodist Church of Carmichaels, PA, along with a side-bar story highlighting the Scriptural background that has led me to my understanding in this area. The contents of that sidebar appear as a separate post here.)