This coming weekend, I’ll be heading to the special called General Conference for The United Methodist Church. What makes it special is that we will only be dealing with legislation surrounding the church’s stance on human sexuality. Currently, we have the language that “all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in God’s image” but we also state that “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Within United Methodism, the General Conference is the only body that can change our doctrine and we debate it through the legislative process. In a few days of this post, we will consider various options for what we might do regarding our stance. Some of the main considerations are the One Church Plan which was approved by the majority of bishops, the Connectional Conference Plan and the Modified Traditional Plan. The sessions will be live streamed if you wish to follow along.
The One Church Plan localizes the current doctrine surrounding homosexuality by allowing each clergy person to follow his or her conscience regarding gay weddings. No clergy is currently forced to perform a wedding if he or she chooses not to do so and this would continue. The default for churches is they would continue to disallow gay weddings unless a church takes a vote to change the policy. Annual Conferences (where the clergy pool comes from for local church appointments) would decide whether or not to ordain gay clergy. Churches would still decide whether or not they would receive a gay pastor. Currently, liberal regions of the country ordain gay clergy which is against United Methodist doctrine. The One Church Plan allows a more Libertarian understanding of marriage and ordination since neither practice is considered a sacrament in The United Methodist Church. A person married by the state is not looked upon any differently by our denomination than a person married by a pastor.
The Connectional Conference Plan would redistribute the five jurisdictions in the United States into three new jurisdictions that are organized not by geography but by theology concerning LGBT marriage and ordination. There would be a liberal, moderate and conservative jurisdiction. Each annual conference would vote to determine which they would join. Then if a local church did not agree with the annual conference placement, it could also vote to join a different jurisdiction and be placed in the closest geographic vicinity. Under this plan, we could possibly have three different United Methodist churches in Edmond in three different jurisdictions. This plan takes a lot of constitutional amendments to the Book of Discipline which requires a 2/3 majority vote as well as 2/3 ratification by the annual conferences. I do not believe this plan has much chance of passing the needed vote threshold.
The Modified Traditional Plan would seek to bring more accountability to the church's current stance. This would be for bishops and clergy alike. Those who are not able to abide by the church's polity would be encouraged to leave the denomination. Labeled the "gracious exit," it would apply to both clergy, churches and even annual conferences. Presumably, they would leave to form another denomination similar in structure but with a more progressive theology. The "Modified" portion of this plan comes from legislation that is seeking to make it compatible with the ruling of the Judicial Council.
The gracious exit is written around the idea that those with inclusive theology would leave, taking their property and assets with them. While this group is marketed as the intended target, there are many more conservative churches that would also take this path if it were available. So the unstated consequence of the gracious exit is that there would be many churches who opt to leave which greatly decreases the ministries globally as well as locally. While I do not condone keeping anyone in covenant with me against their will, I don't believe there is a "one size fits all" option for churches seeking to withdraw. Each church is unique. Some have more debt than assets and are barely staying afloat. Others have property that is worth a fortune! Some churches have millions of dollars in endowments.
The gracious exit perpetuates the idea of the self-made person or in this case, self-made church. Within a connectional system like our denomination, no church is an island and we may not think about all of the benefits that a local church receives. Our own church has received thousands of dollars in grant money over the past couple of years with more promised in the year to come. Clergy serving these local churches have received spiritual formation and training from seminaries as well as districts and conferences. Our own district provides coaching at no charge to many of our pastors. While there is legislation that would cover pension liabilities, there are many more factors to be considered which is why I favor the current system of review by the Annual Conference Board of Trustees for a church seeking to exit.
There are many people who would favor us passing some form of legislation so that we would not continue to wrestle over this issue every four years. While I hate to be the bearer of bad news, no matter what passes (or even if nothing passes and we retain the current language), there will continue to be alternative legislation being put forward every four years. I can guarantee that there will be more legislation surrounding human sexuality at the 2020 General Conference. Churches that leave denominations in order to have greater clarity surrounding this issue continue to find debate. Much of the new wrangling comes from evangelical pastors who have discovered their children to be gay which often changes their stances to become more inclusive.
Conflict is a normal part of human relationships and the variety of biblical interpretation was present before the church began. In the Jewish rabbinical tradition of Jesus, there were often schools of thought that emphasized different points in scripture. Early on, there was the idea of Holiness which claimed that God's covenant people should follow certain behavioral guidelines outlined in scripture so that we might be acceptable to God. Another idea is that we serve as a Light to the Nations which means that we are to bring the knowledge of God to people that are not of our tribe. As these ideas have evolved, we continue to see them today. Holiness is more likely espoused by those emphasizing personal holiness or the internal relationship with God. Light to the Nations is more external and includes social holiness or the love of neighbor. Both are biblical and the churches and pastors of our denomination tend to lean on one or the other during the debate over human sexuality. Both are parts of Wesleyan grace as Sanctification tends to be featured in Holiness while Prevenient Grace falls more in line with Light to the Nations. Holding them in tension makes us stronger theologically.
No matter what plan passes or even if nothing changes, the debate will continue. As Christians, it is healthier if we realize that this difference of opinion does not change my duty to love God with all my being and to love my neighbor as myself. It is likely that we differ on a number of issues and are not so disturbed by these other ideas as much. I don't think it is any coincidence that this Sunday's gospel lectionary is Luke 6:27-38. This passage begins with the admonition by Jesus to love your enemies and concludes with Jesus reminding us that the measure we give will be the measure we get back. We must be careful not to let the current polarization that is ongoing both in our country and around the world to overly influence our stance toward one another. I believe that how a church operates with differences of opinion can witness to our nation and to the world on how there can be a better way to get along. This just might be the Way Forward for all of us.