In the November newsletter, I wrote about the Leadership Institute that Marty Reiken and I attended in September at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas. The focus of the Leadership Institute was the future of the United Methodist Church in this country and around the world.
Rev. Adam Hamilton, Sr. pastor at COR, chose to center the 2019 Institute on that subject because the United Methodist Church today is at a crossroads over the issue of human sexuality, an issue that has divided the United Methodist Church (UMC) since 1972.
This month’s article will be the first in a series. In it, I will give a brief history of the dispute over human sexuality that has brought the UMC to this crossroads point. In future articles I will outline efforts to break the current impasse and move the UMC forward on this issue.
The UMC was formed at a uniting conference in 1968, with the merger of the Evangelical United Brethren Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church.
At the 1972 General Conference restrictive rules were added to the denomination’s Book of Discipline (BOD) concerning human sexuality and marriage. While affirming that homosexual persons were of sacred worth, these new rules defined marriage as being between one man and one woman, and prohibited “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” from being accepted as candidates for ordained ministry in the UMC or being ordained or appointed to serve as pastors of UMC congregations.
These restrictive rules have been added to and strengthened in the decades since, including the addition of a rule prohibiting pastors in the UMC from officiating at same- sex weddings. Attempts to change these rules to be more inclusive of LGBTQ persons have resulted in serious divisions within the UMC.
They have caused repeated debates at each General Conference since 1972; debates which have become increasingly hostile, bitter, and divisive. In my opinion, this fighting within the denomination has weakened our witness to the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
At General Conference 2016, delegates realized that something needed to be done to break the UMC’s impasse on the issue of human sexuality. Delegates to that conference passed a petition that directed the Council of Bishops to form a commission to study the UMC’s stand on human sexuality and marriage and develop plans to resolve the impasse, and allow people on both sides of the issue to move forward together.
In accord with that petition the bishops formed the Commission on a Way Forward. This commission was composed of 32 people from throughout the global UMC, both clergy and laity, who represented all sides of the UMC on this issue. It included LGBT persons.
The Commission met together over the course of two years and developed three plans. The three plans were the One Church Plan, the Connectional Conference Plan, and the Traditional Plan. A special 3-day called General Conference was scheduled for February, 2019 specifically to consider and act on these plans.
The Council of Bishops received and studied all three plans and endorsed the One Church Plan, recommending its adoption by General Conference.
The One Church Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan, would have removed the restrictive rules on human sexuality and marriage from the BOD. This would allow each annual conference within the US to decide for themselves whether or not to accept LGBTQ persons for ordained ministry and pastoral service in that annual conference. These plans would also have allowed pastors to decide for themselves whether or not to officiate at same-sex wedding ceremonies, and for congregations to choose whether or not to allow such ceremonies to take place in their buildings.
The Traditional Plan retains and strengthens the current language on human sexuality and marriage in the BOD. It also continues the prohibition on ordination of LGBTQ persons, retains the definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman, and continues the prohibition on clergy officiating at same-sex weddings. And also increases the penalties for those bishops, Annual Conferences, and clergy who do not abide by those restrictions.
The Traditional Plan was the plan adopted by delegates at the special called GC in February of 2019, by a narrow margin of 54 votes out of over 850 voting delegates.
The passage of the Traditional Plan was a blow to annual conferences, pastors, congregations, and lay persons who desire to have the UMC become more inclusive of LGBTQ persons. It has caused the fracturing of the UMC between those who want change or eliminate the current restrictive rules on human sexuality and marriage in the BOD, and the prohibition on ordination of LGBTQ persons, and those who want to retain and strengthen those rules.
There are with people of good will and sincere faith on both sides of the issue, and both sides claim biblical and Wesleyan authority. But each side approaches this issue from radically different and, in my opinion, fundamentally incompatible biblical perspectives.
In May of 2020, delegates to the General Conference of the UMC will meet in regular session to discuss, debate, and vote on a wide variety of petitions that affect many aspects of the life and ministry of the UMC. But much of that work will be focused on plans intended to resolve the impasse in the UMC over human sexuality and marriage, and the ordination of LGBTQ persons. Some of these plans would allow for the amicable separation of the different factions within the UMC in order to form different denominations.
In future articles, I will explore several of these plans and how they might affect annual conferences, congregations, lay persons and pastors within the United Methodist Church.
I apologize for the length of this article, but this is a highly significant issue for the UMC and I believe every United Methodist lay person deserves to be well-informed about it.
I would invite you to be in prayer for our denomination in the coming months as we seek to move forward following the leading of the Holy Spirit.
If you have questions or concerns about anything in this article, you can call or text me at 319-559-0678, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.