In February, the Special General Conference of the United Methodist Denomination was held in St. Louis, MO. Over 840 delegates, an equal combination of elected pastor and lay delegates, traveled from around the world to try and decide a "Way Forward" for our denomination over the issue of ordaining members of the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bi, trans and questioning) community as well as allowing clergy to perform same-sex weddings in their local churches. Since 1972, language restricting those two issues has been in our book of discipline. Despite that language, conscientious objectors to those rules have worked around them for the past 40 years at both local conferences and in local churches.
This Special conference was called to focus on this issue after the 2016 General Conference nearly caused a split in the denomination. The "Committee on the Way Forward" was established to develop three possible plans for this special conference to amend and vote on, in order to set a path forward for who we are as United Methodists in the near future. I wish I could say that the best possible outcome happened and everyone came away from St. Louis with a better sense of unity. But I fear that the exact opposite happened. The 4 days was deeply contentious, deeply divisive, and the ultimate outcome is that we are only more divided than we were before the event. Furthermore, the decision made is unlikely to be enforceable due to legislative restrictions.
After four days of heated debate, the Traditionalist plan was affirmed by a narrow 53-47% vote, less than 50 votes difference. The trouble with this plan, which was amended to add even more restrictive language to our Book of Discipline, is that a group called our Judicial Council had already met the night before the vote and declared that roughly 60% of the plan would be Unconstitutional if passed. In our book of Discipline, we have a Constitution that defines how our laws get added or amended, how our judicial process happens, and how rules get enforced. One of the key realities that creates conflict in the Traditionalist plan is that our current Constitution gives authority for enforcing rules and punishing clergy to the Bishop of each local Conference (our conference is the Illinois Great River's Conference, headquartered in Springfield, IL. Our Bishops is Bishop Frank Beard). What that has meant historically, is that if a member of the clergy violates the Discipline, it is up to the Bishop to hold them accountable. The Traditionlist plan tries to take that authority and give it to a judicial group above the Conference level. They did this because so many Conferences have refused to enforce the restrictive language regarding LGBTQ clergy, and one Conference even elected an open lesbian bishop for the first time in history in 2016.
This core part of the plan will likely be deemed unconstitutional at a special meeting in April, leaving the plan that was passed unenforceable. There were also two separate proposals on the table at this meeting that would allow churches to leave the denomination with a "gracious exit" option. A gracious exit option would allow churches to keep their church property if they chose to leave the denomination. Currently, all church property is held in trust by each local conference. The gracious exit proposal would have allowed churches to seek a denomination that better fit their theological position on this issue. But, just like the Traditionalist plan that passed, these options are likely Unconstitutional.
The final summary of this Special Conference is that, without an enforceable plan in place, and no option available for churches to leave the denomination, both sides are left hurt by the outcome, yet unable to leave the denomination or go their separate ways amicably. Many Progressive churches and conferences in the US have already stated that they have no intention of leaving, but that they will not abide by the new rules if they are enforced. And many Traditionalists have stated that if they cannot enforce the rules, they will leave and start a new denomination. This outcome happened very swiftly in the waning hours of the General Conference, when a Monster Truck rally was about to begin at 6:30 that evening. Yes, we hastily passed a broken plan because there were literal Monster Trucks coming for our United Methodist leaders.
So what happens next? Well, next year we will have our regularly scheduled quadrennial General Conference in Minnesota in 2020. At this event, there are likely going to be serious discussions over whether we can split our denomination into two, or amend our Constitution to allow for a "gracious exit" plan for churches who want to leave. While Traditionalists will still have a narrow majority among voting delegates (most votes were right around that 53-47 split in 2016 as well), it requires a 67% majority to amend our church Constitution. It is very likely that we end up "stuck" together after 2020 as well. In the meantime, we are a denomination who is breaking trust with each other on one hand, and deeply divided over the sacred worth of one of our most active communities (the United Methodist Church has always had strong, faithful members and leaders among the LGBTQ community, regardless of the rules) on the other. Many people are hurting because of this decision, and many have a decision to make about whether who we are outside of this issue is as important as who we are regarding this issue.
In our modern political climate, unity often seems impossible. Often times, staying connected with people who disagree with "our" group can feel like betraying our family, betraying our values, or even betraying our faith. But faithfulness sometimes requires a choice between the God of Pentecost and the God our denominations demand we believe in. After Christ's ascension and the moment of Pentecost, the disciples were sent out across every foreign border, into every community, to share the gospel in every language with anyone who would hear it. The gospel wasn't a set of rules, and it didn't require a membership pledge or pure bloodlines. It was literally the Good News that Christ had conquered death on our behalf, and was going to build a new Kingdom with all people, wherever his followers gathered. The way forward for our denomination is not guaranteed to be the way forward for the body of Christ. We must focus on who Christ is calling us to be, and who Christ is calling us to share the Gospel with. I don't know the best solution going forward (though I do have my opinions), but I do believe that the church will not last long by dwelling so fiercely on this issue, while ignoring our call to share the Good News with those who are willing to hear it. If anything, those Monster trucks will run us over if we cannot leave the place of our divisions and go where Christ is truly calling us to gather together as one body. Pray for our church, and pray for our future. We do not have to let this issue, or any other issue, divide us, locally or globally. Even in our local church, we have people who respect and support both sides of this issue, yet we still gather as one church each Sunday. That reality gives me the most hope, no matter the outcome of this long fight. As always, if you would like to know more details or offer your thoughts, I welcome them. Amen.