In 2016, when the Quadrennial General Conference of the United Methodist Church gathered members from around the globe, there was a contentious fight over the issue of homosexuality in the church. Namely, the issue of pastors performing marriages for members of the LGBTQ community and pastors practicing openly as members of the LGBTQ community. At the time, a conference in Colorado had just elected the first openly lesbian bishop to our council of bishops, and our book of Discipline had language in it that stated "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching." That language had only been added in the 1970's and was a choice voted on by the General Conference during that time.
During the 2016 Conference, the leadership was nearing a final vote on whether to permanently abandon that language, or move to enforce the language of the discipline by punishing any clergy or churches that choose not to follow the discipline. This is an issue that mirrors our political divisions in this country, with nearly half of United Methodists in the US agreeing on excluding members of the LGBTQ community, and about half believing we should provide full inclusion of that community, both in the practice of performing wedding ceremonies and ordaining openly practicing clergy. Needless to say, had the issue been voted on as it was proposed in 2016, the United Methodist Church would have split into two different denominations painfully and drastically after that Conference.
So instead of letting the vote be taken, the council of Bishops chose to enter into a time of prayer and discernment, for three years, while we develop a way forward for our denomination that addressed this issue and our potential for unity as United Methodists. What they decided, was to host a special General Conference in February of 2019 (just 6 months from now) where this issue, and this issue alone, will be the focus of the conference. They have provided resources, guidelines and challenges for each conference and church to use as they prayerfully discern what the Spirit is calling us to do on this complex and divisive issue.
A split would not be pretty. There is a possibility that any split will require each individual church and each individual pastor to decide which new entity they will go with. And what my experience in small town Methodist Churches has taught me, it's that we have some of the most diverse congregations of any denomination in the world. There are strong progressive and conservative voices in our church, and a split by the denomination may very well mean a split of our local denomination, putting our building and congregation at risk of unsustainable financial difficulty.
I don't hope to scare you with this article, only to inform you of the severity of this issue as our General Conference meets together in St. Louis in February. There have been three detailed proposals put forth by the specially assigned Commission on the Way Forward. The first one, the "Traditional plan", seeks to affirm the existing language of the Discipline and enforce violations of that language. The second plan is called the "One Church Plan" allowing for each individual conference, church and pastor to decide for themselves how they will minister for and with the LGBTQ community (the punishing language of the discipline will be removed). The final plan is called the "Connectional-Conference Plan", which would create three different conferences with three different foci based on their theological positions.
These plans are complex, and difficult to describe in short detail. But the council of Bishops (representing our leadership from around the world) met recently in preparation for the special conference and they voted to recommend the second plan, the "One Church" model. They do not get to vote in February (only Ordained pastors and lay representatives from local churches get to vote), but their recommendation is important. I, too, recommend the "One Church" Model and believe it gives our denomination the best way forward for unity, allowing a larger church to work out our salvation as John Wesley intended, using Scripture, Reason, Experience and Tradition as backbones for our beliefs. While I do have a recommendation, I do not get to vote at the Conference. Our Annual Conference elected 5 ordained pastors and 5 lay delegates from our local churches to be our voice and vote at the conference.
I invite you over the next 6 months to be in prayer for those delegates, for our churches, for our denomination, and for the LGBT community. Pray for the Holy Spirit to remain involved in this process, and for God's will, not our will to be found within our discussion and votes. The church has not always gotten every issue right (we'd all be one universal denomination if that were true) and there is no guarantee that we will perfectly discern what God's answer on this issue is. But let us continue to keep an eye of Wesley's three simple rules, "Do No Harm, Do Good, and Stay in Love with God" as we seek a way forward with "Open Hearts, Open Doors and Open Minds". I hope you have questions and I welcome your input, concerns and opinions on this complicated issue. God bless.