(RNS) — A recent meeting of United Methodists in St. Louis caught the attention of everyone from Westboro Baptist Church, which picketed outside the meeting, to the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, who recognized “these costly struggles are familiar from our own recent history.”
The special session of the United Methodist Church General Conference met Feb. 23-26 at the Dome at America’s Center in St. Louis to consider several plans to move the denomination forward despite deep divisions over the inclusion of its LGBTQ members.
In the end, the General Conference approved the “Traditional Plan,” which continues the denomination’s ban on the ordination and marriage of LGBTQ United Methodists.
Still, not even everyone at the meeting is clear on what happened at the special session and what it means for the future of the denomination.
Let us ’Splain …
Why were United Methodists holding a General Conference this year?
The meeting was a special session of the global denomination’s decision-making body, which usually meets every four years. But at its last meeting, in 2016, delegates became locked in the same stalemate they have had for decades over the full inclusion of LGBTQ members in the church. They decided to refer all discussion about sexuality to a specially appointed commission.
That group — known as the Commission on a Way Forward — presented three plans to delegates last week in St. Louis: the One Church Plan, the Traditional Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan. Ultimately, 53 percent of delegates voted for the Traditional Plan.
The General Conference also approved several petitions related to clergy and churches that might leave the denomination based on the decisions it made.
But I thought the bishops had recommended a different plan?
That’s because they did. The Council of Bishops recommended the One Church Plan, which would have allowed individual churches and regional annual conferences to decide whether to ordain and marry LGBTQ members
But the plan was voted down by the Legislative Committee, made up of the same 864 delegates who would vote the next day in the plenary session of the General Conference.
And a last-ditch effort to substitute the One Church Plan for the Traditional Plan was voted down again despite an impassioned plea from the Rev. Tom Berlin, the Virginia pastor and Commission on a Way Forward member who originally had submitted the One Church Plan legislation to the General Conference.
Berlin predicted that church members, congregations and even entire regional annual conferences in the United States would leave the United Methodist Church if the Traditional Plan passed.
Well, what does the Traditional Plan do?
In short, the Traditional Plan strengthens enforcement of language in the denomination’s rulebook regarding the ordination and marriage of LGBTQ members.
The Book of Discipline currently states that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and that “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” cannot be ordained as ministers, appointed to serve or be married in the church.
The Traditional Plan, which originally included 17 petitions, adds language defining a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” as a person who is “living in a same-sex marriage, domestic partnership or civil union or is a person who publicly states she or he is a practicing homosexual.” The plan also bars bishops from consecrating, ordaining or commissioning “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” even if they have been elected or approved by the appropriate church body.
And it strengthens current complaint procedures and penalties in the Book of Discipline, including a minimum penalty for a clergy member who performs a same-sex wedding: a one-year suspension without pay for the first offense and a loss of credentials for the second.
Before the meeting in St. Louis, the Judicial Council, the United Methodist Church’s highest court, found seven of the 17 petitions that made up the Traditional Plan unconstitutional. The court also found portions of two other petitions unconstitutional.
That court again found all or parts of a number of petitions unconstitutional before the final vote at the General Conference. Delegates were unable to amend all the petitions before the plan passed.
The Traditional Plan will now go back to the Judicial Council in April.
John Lomperis — a delegate and director of UM Action, a program of the conservative Institute on Religion and Democracy — said he expects council members to “affirm what they have already said is constitutional and to invalidate what they have already said is unconstitutional.”
“The petitions that did pass that are constitutional are very significant, and have real teeth,” said Lomperis, who supported the Traditional Plan.
A key provision of the Traditional Plan that would have required bishops to sign a statement certifying “I will uphold United Methodist standards on marriage and sexuality in their entirety” was jettisoned before the vote.
Other petitions already found unconstitutional allow the Council of Bishops to recommend a bishop for an involuntary leave of absence or retirement and create a committee to hear those requests in order to establish a “process by which the Council of Bishops may hold one another accountable.” As part of the process to determine whether to ordain a candidate, another petition found unconstitutional allows the Board of Ministry “shall conduct an examination to ascertain whether an individual is a practicing homosexual, including information on social media.”
The Rev. Mark Holland — a delegate and executive director of Mainstream UMC, which advocated for the One Church Plan — called the Traditional Plan’s win merely a “symbolic victory” in a post on the Mainstream UMC website.
“In reality, we passed no legislation at General Conference. … We are essentially at status quo,” he said.
So does this settle things once and for all?
Probably not. Many United Methodists are waiting to see what the Judicial Council will decide. Any parts of the Traditional Plan that are found unconstitutional won’t be added to the Book of Discipline, according to the Daily Christian Advocate.
And some opponents of the Traditional Plan already have indicated they don’t plan to follow the new rules.
The General Conference meets again next year in Minneapolis.
The United Methodist Church is going to schism over this, right?
Some kind of split in the church seems inevitable.
Going into the special session, the Rev. Keith Boyette, the president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and a supporter of the Traditional Plan, made clear if the General Conference passed another plan that allowed for the ordination and marriage of LGBTQ United Methodists, he would recommend the conservative group — which formed after the last General Conference and includes 1,500 congregations in the U.S. alone — leave and form its own denomination.
WCA leadership met afterward in St. Louis and released a statementsaying “the debate cannot continue forever.”
The WCA is committed to restoring “good order and missional effectiveness” to the denomination and will work toward that at the next General Conference, according to the statement. But, it said, some United Methodists, pastors and churches are so frustrated with the denomination, they are prepared to exit. Some already have left.
While the Traditional Plan it had supported passed, it said, “We remain prepared to launch a new Methodist movement.”
The Rev. Adam Hamilton, a delegate who supported the One Church Plan, is pastor of the largest church in the denomination, Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan. Hamilton has said that since the vote he also has heard from many United Methodists in the pews and pulpits saying they’re ready to leave.
At a congregational meeting over the weekend, Hamilton said he wouldn’t want the congregation to become a nondenominational church. If anything, he said, it would join “lots and lots of other people forming the next United Methodism.”
“We are United Methodist, and I’m proud of that — not embarrassed and ashamed of it — but if we’re going to walk down this path and nothing changes, then I think we were pushed out of the church. We didn’t want to leave,” he said.
The pastor also discussed the possibilities of withholding part of the money the church regularly pays to the denomination or reconsidering the Connectional Conference Plan.
The Rev. Alex da Silva Souto, a delegate and co-convener of the United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus, said that some LGBTQ United Methodists will leave the denomination because “there’s just so much abuse human spirits can take — human bodies — until they have to find healthier places.”
Others, he said, will be even more motivated to stay and speak out.
Several groups advocating for the full inclusion of LGBTQ United Methodists in the church that had opposed the Traditional Plan have expressed a commitment to staying in the denomination.
Among them, the Reconciling Ministries Network released a statement urging its members to “stand your holy ground.”
“Reach out to your neighbors and community with love. Proclaim your welcome of God’s LGBTQ children with boldness. This Church does not belong to exclusionary forces, and we remain committed to reclaiming it for all God’s people,” it said.
by Emily McFarlan Miller, Religion News Service