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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.