Here is yet another periodic update on the process that the United Methodist Church (a denomination that spans the globe) is going through right now. (Newest revision 1-20-2020)
As a reminder, the international legislative body, called a General Conference, met in 2019 specifically to address a simple question that goes back almost fifty years: is it ok to ordain, or to perform a marriage for, a person who is in a gay or lesbian relationship? In 2019, they voted to say it was not going to be OK. They also added definite punishments for pastors who perform same-sex weddings, and for conference organizations that affirm the ordination of gay pastors.
Since then, many United Methodists have been trying to figure out how to change this set of rules. It’s clear that most American United Methodists don’t agree with them. In June, over two thirds of United Methodists at the Michigan Annual Conference said that they would prefer to include gay and lesbian people in the full ministry of the church, than to exclude them from ordination and marriage.
The first avenue that people are pursuing is to go back to General Conference. In May of 2020, there is another General Conference, and again, United Methodists from around the world will gather to make decisions about the rules of the denomination (General Conferences are normally on the same four-year cycle as presidential elections and the Olympics, but 2019 was a special called meeting). The deadline for submitting petitions for consideration is September 18th, just a few weeks away. At least three proposals are being submitted around this issue. There are also other legislative issues that need to be addressed, so it will be a busy time!
This will be a bit technical, but here is a simplified explanation of four of the main proposals so far. Of course, they could all be rejected, and we would find ourselves back where we were before the conference. But it seems likely that at least one of them will be able to gather broad enough support to change the rules.
“The Protocol for Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation” was released January 3, and is the result of a reconciliation negotiation process between leaders of many of the conflicting groups within Methodism. It has attracted lots of press, and seems the most likely to succeed, based on the amount of support that went into it. It arrived too late to actually be a motion before the conference, but with so much support it will almost certainly find its way to the floor. The basic idea is that a new denomination will be formed to hold onto the Traditionalist resolutions of 2019. They’ll be sent on their way with a bit of money, while the United Methodist Church goes forward, and resolves to remove all the language about gay marriage and ordination that was added from 1972 through 2019, so we would actually not have a fixed position any longer. From January 1, 2020, the participants in the Protocol (including all the bishops) agree not to pursue any of the enforcement rules that were introduced in 2019, in anticipation that they’ll be removed following the 2020 General Conference. The default position for churches in the US will be to remain United Methodist, and to be free of the anti-gay rules of the last forty years. Churches will be able to leave the organization if they choose, without penalty, and presumably to join together in the new denomination. Here’s an article that includes a link to the text of the Protocol itself. Our own bishop has said that pastors or congregations that want to set their own boundaries around these issues will be free to do so under the new post-conference rules, if this goes forward.
The Indianapolis Plan is a plan affirmed by several traditionalist as well as centrists in the churches. It is basically a plan to separate into two denominations, one with the more restrictive rules, and one more open. Each annual conference (in our case, Michigan) would vote on which denomination to align with. If an individual church strongly disagreed, it could also vote without penalty to join the other group. Our clergy pension organization would exist separately from either denomination, so it could continue to work with both.
The Bard-Jones Plan, or New Form of Unity Plan is proposed by two bishops, including our own Bishop David Bard. Instead of a full separation, it would create two or three groups that connect to one another in some specific ways, such as through jointly controlling insurance, pensions, publishing, and some other operational pieces. Each separate group would develop a separate version of the Discipline, our book of rules, starting from a basic common book. The separate pieces would have new names, yet to be determined, such as “Open Methodist Church” or “Traditional Methodist Church.” Again, the plan puts the first decision-making step in the hands of the annual conferences (such as Michigan).
The Central Conference Plan is a multi-step process that would create a separate level of organization to make decisions that apply only to the United Methodist Churches in the United States. Currently, churches in other parts of the world have the freedom to make decisions that let them adapt the rules of the Discipline to their local contexts. But American churches do not have that freedom, and so we are subject to the decisions of the world-wide body. This matters far beyond the question of ordaining or marrying people. It also frees the African or Asian delegates from having to spend time at General Conference voting on our American pension plans and so on. This would take a while to start adjusting the rules to fit our American ministry setting.
The UMC Next Plan involves bringing an immediate stop to clergy trials, focusing resources in more mission-appropriate directions, and then removing the pieces of the Traditional Plan brought in at the 2019 General Conference. There are multiple variations of this plan, from the more forward (Our Movement Forward) to the more Africa-friendly (Yambasu), and we don’t know exactly which will make it to the floor of the General Conference in May. It seems likely that the success of any of these plans is quite unlikely, and also would result in a long and complicated process of resolution.
I have for a long time been an ally of lesbian, gay, and other minorities in the life of the church, ever since I met a young gay seminary student in the mid-eighties (in the midst of the AIDS epidemic), who was turning away from his call from God to be a pastor, because the United Methodist Church said that he couldn’t. I have also been a pastor and a friend to all kinds of people, who come from all kinds of places, and who have passionate opinions of their own. You are loved whether or not we agree. I pray that the United Methodist Church, the Michigan Conference, and Community United Methodist Church, will all find our way to a place where we can focus on the ministry of loving people, making disciples and transforming the world.