Last month at Highland Methodist we had an “Informational Session” about the Special Session of the General Conference of 2019 (Thank you, John HB for a great presentation!). The conference began this past Sunday, Feb. 24 and ended today: Tuesday, Feb. 26. Some are more “in the loop” of United Methodism while others, honestly, aren’t very interested or don’t see the relevance of this type of meeting. I do think it is important as the clergy leader of the congregation to at least provide information about what has and is transpiring. This statement attempts to relay a rough sketch of the facts. What follows is some information that will help you better understand what happened and what is likely to happen in the days and months ahead.
Many of you know that in 2016 our denomination (the second largest protestant church in America; 12 million members world-wide scattered on four continents) decided to hold a special “called” General Conference to make some decisions concerning the controversy on our policies around the subject of human sexuality. That phrase seems empty – the conversation centers around 1) will we ordain gay clergy and 2) will we allow our clergy to perform same-sex marriages. Currently, neither of these are permitted.
While the church disallows gay clergy and same-sex marriage, we have not been of one mind on the issue. We currently have a lesbian Bishop in Colorado, a number of gay clergy around the country and some clergy who have performed same-sex marriages. A few have been disciplined and even had their credentials revoked – but not all. Why not the same outcome for all? Because we are divided. Faithful Methodists from around the world have different views on how God, revealed in scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, calls us to be in relationship with gays and lesbians.
To better understand “a way forward” for the denomination on this issue, the bishops called a special session of the General Conference, the highest legislatve body of the church. The General Conference only meets every four years and is composed of delegates from all Conferences around the world (about eight hundred). It’s a “big deal” that we spent all of this time, effort, and money on a called session.
To prepare for this general a special team was appointed to study and present “a way forward” for us. Essentially, three plans were submitted for consideration: a One Church Plan, a Traditional Plan, and a Connectional Plan. John HB passed out a description of those plans at our Informational meeting. After three days of intense work, worship, and debate late this afternoon the body voted to adopt the Traditional Plan. This plan affirms our current stance that we will not ordain gay clergy nor allow our clergy to perform same sex marriages. It also further strengthens prohibitions against gay clergy, requires that clergy and prospective clergy sign pledges that they are not gay and will not officiate same-sex marriages, requires annual conferences to certify that they will not ordain gay clergy, and begins the process of removing from the denomination pastors, churches, and congregations who have differing views on the inclusion of gay men and women. That said: this was passed by a vote of 53% to 46%. Friends, that’s a narrow margin. And I must add that it would not have passed if only a vote for the American church was taken. That’s not the way it works, of course … and I will tell you that we have only deepened the divide and delayed what is inevitable: a split.
You may think I’m overacting. I am not. There appear to be parts of the “Traditional Plan” that are unconstitutional. That means over the next year – and certainly at the 2020 General Conference – this whole thing will be debated again (and the Judicial Council of our church, the “supreme court” of the denomination, may dismiss parts of the plan as the months roll on). In addition: there is going to be some open defiance. Some have sought to establish a new denomination. Others are seeking to have their churches withdraw from the UMC. Clergy who have served faithfully for their entire careers are now seeking to disaffiliate with our denomination. Even some of those who support the victorious Traditional Plan see the fight continuing and may start a new denomination. So much is still up in the air. This issue is far from resolved.
At first, one might shrug this conference off as “no big deal.” A consequence of our decisions today may mean significantly less number of people to do ministry and significant fewer dollars by which to do ministry. That will impact local churches, Annual Conferences and the General Church (local church staffing, camps, campus ministries, programming).
From the very beginning, the Church of Jesus Christ has been a place to be in community with people who don’t think like us or look like us. I’ve always found that beautiful, healthy and a great strength. People who believe that we should not ordain gay men and women have developed their views partly based on how they interpret Scripture. Those who would accept the ordaining of gay clergy also have developed their views partly based on how they interpret Scripture. Clearly, we have failed to reconcile and members of “each side” feel the need to depart and be with more like-minded believers. But we are all believers! We are all trying to faithfully live a life as set forth by the example of Jesus. However, today has made clear that human sexuality is the one emotionally charged issue that the church simply cannot currently resolve.
You may not see much about this conference in the news over the next few days. This is ALL OVER SOCIAL MEDIA. Many of the posts and news articles have been inflammatory or misleading. On my own social media, I have seen rampant and disturbing accusations, finger pointing, deriding, dismissive, angry and even hateful speech (not to mention the twisting of Scripture – by every side). If you would like more information, I recommend our denominational website: www.umc.org and the United Methodist News Service for accuracy in reporting: www.umcnews.org.
I know that all of us at HUMC do not agree on every issue before us in life – including this one. I love being a pastor in the UM tradition. And I certainly love each of you at the Highland congregation. I appreciate who you are and what you bring to our congregation. In the days ahead we may seek to have private conversations about human sexuality. I am happy to do that. I am also open, as I’ve heard some clergy say they are going to do, to have small group gatherings to study, pray and discuss Scriptures and thoughts and struggles pertaining to human sexuality. Our Bishop will be meeting with the laity of our Annual Conference at Southern Hills UMC (Lexington) Saturday, March 16 from 10am – 2pm. A group from our church may want to attend. A word of gratitude to Paul Whalen. Paul has served our Annual Conference as a reserve Lay Delegate to General Conference and has represented our church and Conference so faithfully. There was MUCH preparation, reading, and traveling over these last two years. Thank you, Paul.
In closing, I offer a personal word. I am deeply troubled. I have to be honest with you. As a denomination we adopted a slogan some fifteen years ago: “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors. The People of the United Methodist Church.” I embraced that. What a powerful declaration. Our church at the time bought multiple welcome mats and placed them all around the church facility … and if I were there now I’d have to collect them, fold them up, and put them in a closet. I love our Wesleyan history, heritage, and doctrine. I love God and I love the Church. After today’s decision, I am struggling, along with Methodists around the world, of many different views and persuasions, about how we continue to include all people in ministry together.
We will continue this conversation. Things will continue to unfold. And we will continue to be faithful in our efforts for the Kingdom of God.
I am, your pastor and friend,
– Pastor John