What is going on in the United Methodist Church? Have you had friends outside the denomination ask you that question? I have. A lot. It’s not an easy conversation to have. But it is one that our denomination has been struggling with for years. What has become so very clear to me in the last week is that we, as a denomination, are in very different places depending on where you live in the US. Many of our churches have not been talking about human sexuality and the UMC stance on inclusion of LGBTQ persons. While others, for a long time, have been resisting the current UMC stance that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching and prohibits same sex marriages and LGBTQ ordination.
While this blog is intended specifically for those who are a part of the Boone UMC community, I realize other eyes will read this as well. It’s long and I’m sorry for that. But I am writing this to help our congregation continue to understand what is happening and how it affects our church or not. I know there are people who don’t want us to talk about this for fear of the discomfort it will cause. We are afraid that people may get upset, leave the church, or withhold their giving. That is already happening in our churches across the Conference. It is happening nationally. Denominationally, giving is way down. Some churches are attempting to break away. Several churches in our own conference have started dialogue about exiting. We are afraid that someone might ask us what we think and that our answer might change how the other person sees us. We are afraid that we will disagree on this issue and that somehow that means we are forever on opposite teams. We are afraid that people, our friends, will get mad at us or ridicule us.
However people are talking about it in the doctor’s office and the grocery line and at business meetings. For us not to talk about it at the church is like a parent who knows they need to talk to their children about sex but don’t want to. Yet their kids are having the conversation with others. It’s time for us to become accurately informed about what has happened in the United Methodist denomination and what is happening now so Boone UMC can figure out where we are in this conversation.
I have no idea where the heart of Boone UMC is on the spectrum of belief about LGBTQ people’s relationship and rights in the United Methodist Church. It became very apparent to me this week that most of our church doesn’t either, and that is why it is time for us to become informed and then work out our thoughts and reactions together.
So the rest of this blog will focus on two things. We will, as promised, first review what happened when the UMC Judicial Council reviewed the legislation that passed at the special called General Conference of 2019. In the second half, I will share about a conference I attended this week on what is happening in the denomination and moving forward.
On April 25, 2019, the Judicial Council for the UMC issued two rulings. One dealt with a broad set of the “Traditional Plan” legislation. The other ruling examined the new “disaffiliation” provision.
What the Judicial Council Struck Down
The Judicial Council struck down amendments to the Book of Discipline which would have:
- Required Bishops and Boards of Ordained Ministry (every conference has a board that approves candidates for ministry) to certify annually that they were not ordaining LGBTQ ministerial candidates;
- Required Boards of Ordained Ministry to investigate the sex lives and history of ministerial candidates and which also required Board members to individually certify that they would uphold and enforce church doctrine regarding LGBTQ ordination and prohibitions regarding same sex marriages;
- Required every annual conference to certify they were not ordaining LGBTQ candidates (failure to certify would lead to cutting off of all denominational funds to the conference and loss of use of the cross and flame Methodist logo); and,
- Allowed the involuntary leave or forced retirement of bishops under certain circumstances, largely related to LGBTQ issues.
The above were all deemed unconstitutional under our denomination’s governing documents for a variety of reasons.
What the Judicial Council Upheld
The Judicial Council upheld the following amendments to the Book of Discipline:
- A broadening of the definition of “self avowed practicing homosexual.” Prior to the 2019 General Conference, the definition was restricted to persons who admitted that they were a practicing homosexual to their bishop or board of ordained ministry. The new definition encompasses anyone who makes such an admission to the public in general (not just a bishop or member of the board), and it automatically includes anyone in a same sex marriage or a same sex union (without regard to a public declaration of orientation or their actual sexual practice, i.e. celibacy would not matter). Under new church law, these people could not be ordained or be consecrated as a bishop.
- The “just resolution” process was amended so that a person who files a complaint against a bishop or clergy for violating the Book of Discipline must be included in any settlement of the complaint. Prior to the amendment, if the bishop referred a complaint to church counsel for trial, the church counsel could settle a matter with a defendant any way they saw fit. The system was originally set up similar to our criminal justice system where the district attorney can dispose of charges as they see fit, reach plea bargains with defendants, etc. No longer. The original complaining party now has to approve of the settlement. This addresses concerns that charges against clergy performing same sex marriages were being disposed of through settlements that carried little or no penalty which original complaining parties had no say in.
- Language clarifying that bishops cannot consecrate a bishop who is a self avowed homosexual, nor can they ordain ministerial candidates who are self avowed homosexuals, even if the candidate is recommended by a board of ordained ministry.
- A mandatory minimum sentencing provision for clergy performing same sex weddings or blessing same sex unions was upheld.A first offense requires a one year suspension without pay. A second offense leads to surrender of ministerial credentials.
- A “disaffiliation” path for churches that disagree with the “Traditional Plan” legislation was upheld, subject to one judicially imposed requirement. This exit path is very narrow. A church cannot leave just because they have a broad, long standing set of disagreements with the denomination. They have to specifically disagree with the Traditional Plan as passed at the 2019 General Conference and certify their reasons. While they can keep their property, they have to pay any outstanding apportionments for the prior year and pay the next 12 months of apportionments, they also have to pay their unfunded pension obligations, and pay off their existing debt (or get it assigned to their new church entity). All of this gets wrapped up in a written agreement with the Conference Trustees, and finally, as required by the Judicial Council, the annual conference itself has to vote to approve the disaffiliation. This provision expires on December 31, 2023.
That is what happened this spring.
The reaction denominationally? It has spurred a lot of movement. Groups are forming and reacting in a variety of ways to what happened.
First of all, the conservative branch of the United Methodist Church is being led by two primary organizations. The Good News movement has existed for decades, and they are pushing for traditionalists to stay and “purify” the denomination by continuing to push the church towards an even stronger Traditionalist stance. They are attempting to fix the legislation deemed unconstitutional by the Judicial Council so that they can introduce it again at the next General Conference in 2020. In other words, we are headed for the same denominational fight next year. The other branch of the conservative United Methodist Church is a newer organization called the WCA (Wesleyan Covenant Association). The WCA wants to leave the denomination and form their own Methodist expression. These are the leaders of the side that ultimately prevailed at General Conference 2019.
On the other side of this conversation there are several newly forming groups that are trying to figure out a response. Most of these groups reject the language and theology of the Traditional Plan regarding the relationship and rights of LGBTQ persons. Last week, there was a large conference in Kansas City called UMCNext. The organizers asked for and invited 10 representatives from each Annual Conference in the United States to attend. I was one of the persons nominated as a representative from the WNCC, which I took as a huge responsibility. I was part of a 3 day conversation that was made up of centrist and progressive United Methodist who were not in agreement on what should happen next but were in agreement that the Traditional Plan was not a just or faithful direction for the United Methodist Church to continue to embrace.
There is more to share about this experience, but quite frankly, a great deal of the conversation and information collected is still being processed. Here is a link to a website that provides more information about the UMCNext gathering. What has become clear is that there is a strong and large movement within the United Methodist Church in the US that cannot abide by the newly adjusted language and penalties that have been added to the Book of Discipline which will only be strengthened in 2020 at the next General Conference. This reflects the overall schism between the UMC in the US (being more moderate) and the much more conservative international church. And because of this response, there will be change coming to the United Methodist Church. Some groups will be working towards negotiating dissolution of the United Methodist Church as a denomination in order to form two or more new expressions of the United Methodist Church. Others will choose to stay and “reform” the current UMC from within. A third group are no longer able to ignore and are ready to honestly discuss and discern their own beliefs. We are past the possibility of going back to the way it was before General Conference 2019.
And that is why Boone UMC has to do the hard work of honestly wrestling with our beliefs so that we as a church can determine where are we when it comes to the rights and relationship of LGBTQ persons in our church. How do we interpret Scripture and how have we discerned the will of the Holy Spirit when it comes to same gender persons in faithful, love filled marriages? How do we wrestle with the long held church’s stance on this belief when we consider how the church has shifted on slavery, segregation and integration, and women in ministry? This is hard work and it is not as black and white as we would long for it to be.
So let me be clear. No one is asking Boone UMC to leave the denomination. That is not what is before us. What is before us is the reality that a time is coming where we will have to make some choices. We need to articulate what it is we do believe. So Church Council agreed at this past week’s meeting that we will begin a process of educating the congregation on all that has taken place and providing you with the information and the resources you need to do some theological discernment. Or maybe it’s affirming the theological work you have already done. We will use a variety of strategies to inform you, this blog being one of those tools.
There’s more to be shared and said. But let me close with this Scripture. I love when the Holy Spirit moves personally in my life. During a very difficult and stressful week that seemed geared towards division my devotional theme happened to be “Love One Another”. Tuesday’s Scripture reading was from Paul:
“Therefore, as God’s choice, holy and loved, put on compassion kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Be tolerant with each other and, if someone has a complaint against anyone, forgive each other. As the Lord forgave you, so also forgive each other. And over all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. The peace of Christ must control your hearts – a peace into which you were called in one body. -Colossians 3:12-15 (CEB)
And the weekly prayer: Ever-loving God, who having loved us loves us still, help us to hear again your word, “By this shall they know you are my disciples; that you love one another.” Turn our hostility into hospitality and our callousness into care. Through Christ, we pray. Amen.
Grace and Peace,