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A Constitutional Crisis: Background and Context for GC2019

A Constitutional Crisis: Background and Context for GC2019

From Portland to St. Louis

United Methodists from all over the world are beginning to gather in St. Louis, as they prepare for General Conference 2019, which has been called by the Council of Bishops specifically to address questions of human sexuality.  In order to understand what’s happening in St. Louis over the next few days, it will be helpful to understand a bit of what has precipitated this global gathering. 

Our last General Conference was held in Portland in 2016, and there it looked like the church was on the edge of hasty division, which would have led to chaos and litigation in civil courts related to property and pensions and no clear ways to define our ongoing connection to one another. 

In a last ditch effort for unity, the General Conference in Portland approved a motion that requested the Bishops seek to provide a way forward for our global denomination. After General Conference, the bishops assembled the Commission on a Way Forward in an effort to discern next steps. 

The CoaWF was comprised of 32 members, including 8 bishops, 13 other clergy, and 11 laity. The bishops expended great effort to ensure that this group was representative of the entire connection geographically and theologically. They met 9 times in 17 months to conduct their work. Their work produced three plans that, along with other proposals submitted from across the connection related to sexuality, will be before the 2019 General Conference as potential ways forward. 


Above, I have provided a brief window into the preparations made for this coming General Conference, but that information provides little insight into why a special called General Conference is necessary at all. The short answer is that, for quite some time, there has been divergence in the legislation passed by General Conference and the practice of Methodists on the ground. 


To understand this, we must first consider a bit of polity (structures of church governance).  The General Conference is the only group that can speak for the entire United Methodist Church.  Since 1972 (the first time the General Conference addressed homosexuality), General Conference has been consistent in its stance on same-sex relationships, though clarifying legislation has been added over time. 

The Legislation

Statement on Sexuality:

We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons. (¶161.h)

This statement attempts to draw a line between practice and identity – all people are of sacred worth; the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. The statement insists that all people should be welcomed into the life of the church and the redemption offered by Christ and engaged by its ministries. 

Regarding Ordination and the Practice of Ministry:

While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world. The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals1 are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church. (¶304.3)

Regarding UM pastors presiding at Same-Sex Weddings:

Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches. (¶ 341.6)

Inconsistent Practice

There are many United Methodists who believe that the legislation about the practice of homosexuality is internally inconsistent. To refuse to marry same-sex couples, to deny the possibility of ordination to people in same-sex sexual relationships, and to insist that same-sex intimacy is incompatible with Christian teaching is perceived as closing doors to full-participation in the life of the church. There are a vast range of theological and biblical arguments that have been proffered against the UMC’s legislation, but none have carried the day at General Conference.

While legislation has, on the whole, remained consistent over the last 47 years, there has been increasing resistance to the expectations established by General Conference and an accompanying decrease in punitive action in response to such resistance. While there are scores of cases that could be mentioned here, we will consider only a few that indicate the escalation over the last few years. 

2011-Amy Delong

Amy Delong was out to her community as a lesbian and informed her conference that she had presided at a same-sex wedding, which precipitated charges being brought against her for: (1) presiding at a same sex wedding and (2) being a self-avowed practicing homosexual. After declining to answer questions about her “sexual practice,” she was acquitted for the second charge, but found guilty of the first. Rather than being defrocked, as had been the practice in all previous similar cases, DeLong was given a 20 day suspension. 

2013-Melvin Talbert

Bishop Talbert travelled to Alabama and presided at a same-sex wedding against the wishes of the resident bishop.  The Council of Bishops filed a complaint with the result that he was required to apologize, but he has continued to preside over same-sex weddings. 

2014

In New York, Bishop McLee issues a just resolution to a pastor for presiding at the pastor’s son’s same-sex wedding. The terms of the Just resolution are that he must hold a public forum to discuss same-sex marriage. Furthermore, Bishop McLee announces his decision to end trials for pastors who conduct same-sex weddings

In the Pacific Northwest, two different pastors receive 24-hour suspensions for conducting same sex weddings. 

Spring 2016

Just before the General Conference in Portland, the Board of Ordained Ministry of the Baltimore-Washing Annual Conference approves a woman in a same-sex marriage as a provisional deacon. The New York Annual Conference announces that it will no longer consider sexual orientation in evaluating candidates for ministry. 

A Constitutional Crisis

When delegates arrive in Portland for the 2016 General Conference, traditionalists are frustrated that the legislation of General Conference is being defied in ways that obviously violate the plain meaning of the United Methodist Church’s practice. 

This has exposed a constitutional crisis—General Conference can pass legislation, but the siloed nature of our structure prevents consistent practice. Bishops in one jurisdiction are not accountable to other Jurisdictions, and annual conferences are the sole decision makers when it comes to interpreting who can be ordained and what qualifies as a just resolution.

This reality has been further illuminated by the New York annual conference’s decision to ordain 4 self-avowed, practicing homosexuals in June of 2016 and the election of Karen Oliveto, a married lesbian to the episcopacy in the Western Jurisdiction. Despite a Judicial Council ruling that administrative/judicial action was required in her case, there has been no response from the Western Jurisdiction’s college of bishops. 

This exposes the fundamental constitutional crisis facing the United Methodist Church – the General Conference is the only group that can speak on behalf of the whole church, but it has no power to carry out its legislation if bishops, conferences, or jurisdictions choose to ignore its decisions.  Each of the three plans proposed by the Commission on a Way Forward is an effort to address this fundamental problem. 

The Three Plans

The One Church Plan

The OCP is, fundamentally an effort to embrace our current reality by changing our legislation to match our practice. It solves the problem by moving decisions to the place where accountability does already exist—standards of ordination and pastoral conduct will be set by the annual conference; discernment about where weddings can be conducted and who can perform them is done by churches and individual pastors.  It ensures that bishops are paid by their jurisdiction (those who elected them) rather than the general church, and makes provisions to protect bishops in matters of ordination.  In short, the One Church Plan attempts to honor everyone’s conscience while also allowing for the maximum freedom possible. 

The Traditional Plan

Whereas the OCP embraces our current practice by modifying our legislation, the Traditional plan embraces our current legislation by trying to bring practice in line with what has already been legislated. In short, it tries to make the discernment of General Conference actionable.  In doing so, it maintains and expands current prohibitions on sexuality for those seeking ordination and those presiding at same-sex weddings. It expands the definition of “self-avowed practicing” from the current narrow definition, and it mandates that just resolutions include a commitment not to repeat the offense. Furthermore, it requires Annual Conferences and Bishops to certify their intention to uphold church teachings on sexuality; those who cannot are encourage to form or join autonomous/affiliate/concordat conferences. Clergy who perform same-sex weddings would be required to surrender their credentials. 

The Connectional Conference Plan

The CCP attempts to maintain unity at the level of core doctrine and shared global ministry, while restructuring the church along theological rather than geographical lines for the sake of discipline.  It proposes three overlapping “connectional” conferences (traditional, contextual/unity, progressive) in an effort to allow the church to continue to share in what it largely agrees on while providing different mechanisms of accountability for people who are like-minded related to sexuality. Each connectional conference would be responsible for setting and implementing its own standards of conduct, and could establish its own judicial council to help with their work. International conferences would be invited to become their own connectional conference or to align with one of the three US connectional conferences. 

In this plan, jurisdictions would vote on which CC to join. Annual Conferences could decide to go in a different direction, and local churches could decide to part ways with their annual conference and join a different connectional conference. Pastors would hold membership in one Connectional Conference, but could make themselves available for appointment in the other Connectional Conferences, provided they were willing to abide by the standards in that conference. 

This plan is significantly more complex than the others. Its lengthy constitutional amendments make it more difficult to pass, and its long implementation period make it unappealing to many. 

Conclusion

If we are, indeed, in a constitutional crisis as I have tried to argue here—one in which our legislation and our practices are obviously disordered and dysfunctional, it is foolhardy to think that any solutions that do not include constitutional amendments are real solutions.  Both the Traditionalist Plan and the One Church Plan seek to provide solutions by changing our legislation or our practices to be in line with the other in terms of same-sex intimacy, but they do nothing to address the inability of our polity to ensure that the legislation of the General Conference is actionable on a host of other issues. They are duct-tape and WD-40 solutions, rather than the robust overhaul that is needed to enable unity and disciple-making over the long haul.

Remember Me

Remember Me

Remember Me

Tuesday, on the opening day of General Conference 2016 in Portland, Oregon, Love Prevails coordinated an unofficial ordination service for Sue Laurie, who has been denied entry into the candidacy process for 20 years by her annual conference because she is a self-avowed, practicing lesbian.

A statement published by Love Prevails tells of what followed the ordination: “After her ordination, the sacrament of Holy Communion was celebrated. As an act of radical hospitality, we offer to the General Conference the bread and cup consecrated at that service.”

Under signs that read “Remember Me,” the bread and cup from the ordination service were offered simultaneously with the bread and cup consecrated at the altar at which Bishop Bruce Ough presided during the opening worship service of General Conference.

In doing this, Love Prevails has divided the table of the UMC, providing alternative elements with which to commune with Christ around an alternative table they described as “Queer Communion.” It is difficult to see how this is anything other than a division of the church.

It does not seem that this was their intent.  Their stated intent was to draw attention to the LGBTQ+ people who are already serving in the UMC and to bring attention to the ways in which LGBTQ+ people do not always experience the UMC as a safe place.  For Love Prevails, the offer of an unofficial communion service and alternate table reflects deeply held convictions about justice for and the call of LGBTQ+ people.  They intended, so it seems, to provoke change within a communion with which they find their relationship impaired.

But though Love Prevails’ intent was not schism, its effect was.  Separate ordinations and separate tables are exactly the things that constitute a separate church.

At the end of their statement, Love Prevails says, “We encourage you to take communion at the ‘Remember Me’ stations as an act of resistance to our church’s ongoing discrimination of God’s LGBTQ people and to work for the day when Love Prevails.” But this act of resistance against the church’s discrimination, as Love Prevails sees it, in fact created resistance to the church itself in its oneness gathered around the table.  For Paul, the oneness of the bread and body is essential to the church’s gathered participation in Christ:

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. (1 Cor 10:16-17 ESV)

It is insufficient to say that this was to serve as a sign-act of the brokenness already present in our communion, for communion is not only a sign of what we are, but a participation in what we are to become. In a sermon addressed to catechumens on Pentecost, Augustine provides some commentary on Paul’s words from 1 Cor. 10, saying,

“One bread,” [Paul] says. What is this one bread? Is it not the “one body,” formed from many? Remember: bread doesn’t come from a single grain, but from many. When you received exorcism, you were “ground.” When you were baptized, you were “leavened.” When you received the fire of the Holy Spirit, you were “baked.” Be what you see; receive what you are. (Emphasis added.)

Augustine goes on to speak of the cup as well, explaining how the individual grapes in the bunch are all mingled to form one wine.  One bread and one cup, these are the source and the sign of our communion. At the table, we are not called to try to signify our present brokenness. We have already done that and sought peace in the midst of that through confession and reconciliation.

When we offer different breads—that is bread that has been blessed at a different table and offered as an alternative to that which is offered by the one presiding with the gathered body—we are no longer operating as one body that has been united by the water and the Spirit. The sign-act offered by Love Prevails communicates this. To have two different tables is to have two different ekklesia, to have two different communions, to have variant offerings of Christ.

This separate communion is made all the more troublesome by the fact that the UMC has no bar on members of the LGBTQ+ community receiving or serving communion.  In our theology and liturgy, we confess that all who love Christ, repent of their sin, and seek to live in peace with one another are welcome at the table.  And though our church has failed in manifold ways to be faithful to this call in practice, to create a separate “queer communion” entrenches a division that need not be maintained.

With banners that read “Remember Me,” Love Prevails called upon the conference to “remember the people who have been lost to our denomination as a result of the church’s categorical discrimination against queer people,” to “remember all who have been marginalized and violated by the church’s many acts of oppression,” and to “commit to Re-Membering the Body of Christ—to making whole that which has been broken and torn apart.”  But we can only remember and rightly see each other in communion if first we remember Christ himself.  Jesus’ call to “remember me” is about Jesus himself, who in giving himself for us offers us reconciliation and enables us to see the image of God in each other.  Love Prevails’ “queer communion,” however, substitutes LGBTQ+ people for Jesus as the antecedent of “me” and, therefore, as the object of our memories.  We ought to remember all of God’s church, LGBTQ people included, when we gather to be reconciled at the table, but we can only do so by rememberingJesus himself.  By offering a separate communion and undermining the primacy of Jesus in our memory, Love Prevails has further dismembered, rather than re-membered, the body of Christ.

If we are to be one body—if we together are to be transformed by the love of Christ—if we are to be reconciled to each other—then the place where we experience that possibility is when we gather around the Lord’s table, in which we participate as one body with one bread and one cup.

“Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. The bread which we break is a sharing in the body of Christ.” May we as Christ’s church share in one loaf even when we share so little else.

 

Editorial notes:

  • This post is not, in itself, a criticism of all of the work of Love Prevails or all work towards more faithful inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons in the life of the church. It is a criticism of these two activities.
  • The writers of this article do not take issue with LGBTQ+ persons serving the elements or for any persons authorized by their Board of Ordained Ministry and Annual Conference presiding at the table in the UMC. The objection here is to the fact of alternate offerings, not the people who are offering or receiving.
  • On Wednesday, during the Episcopal Address, Bishop Palmer said, “[O]ur relationships are so superficial, especially in the church, that we won’t even risk saying something that we might later have to apologize for.” This is our attempt to speak boldly, trusting that we can speak the truth in love in the UMC. We humbly acknowledge that we may be wrong in our assessment of these actions, and want this to be a beginning of conversation, not an end.

This article was written by Chad Bowen and Smith Lilley, pastors in the Tupelo District of the Mississippi Conference.  We can be reached on Twitter at @chad_bowen and @fel_jr respectively.