The Not-So-United Methodists
At their worldwide gathering in 1972, the United Methodist Church (UMC) passed a motion that was not vetted, but properly made from the floor during debate. This motion mandated that the UMC Book of Discipline include the statement that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” The motion passed, and it has haunted the UMC ever since.
Fast-forward to February, 2019. The worldwide UMC body, known as the General Conference, met in St. Louis to finally face the issue head on. This meeting was outside its regular quadrennial meetings, scheduled specifically for the purpose of deciding how to deal with issues of human sexuality. Given the tremendous surge in the United States membership that has given the LGBTQ community a place alongside their straight brethren, there was genuine hope that the “incompatibility” phrase would be removed.
But the hope was tempered by the reality that this is a worldwide denomination, not based solely on membership in this country. It is no secret that the common African, Philippine, and European mindsets are very much against the acceptance of homosexuality. This General Conference was planned to provide an arena for the various factions to confront their differences.
Three plans were put forth for consideration: 1) the Traditionalist Plan, which not only reinforced the anti-LGBTQ language, but added new penalties for being out, practicing gay clergy, and/or officiating same-sex weddings; 2) the One Church Plan, allowing out gay clergy to serve in ministry, and providing individual choices among all clergy in choosing to officiate same-sex weddings; 3) the Connectional Plan, creating new non-geographical Conferences that would accommodate the various parties while remaining under one United Methodist denominational umbrella.
The Traditionalist Plan won, by a margin of 54 votes, and becomes new church policy on January 1, 2020.
Since then, new energy has been rapidly building among Progressive clergy and laity. Adam Hamilton, Senior Pastor of the largest UMC church in the US, recently hosted a gathering of 600 Progressives from across the country to determine the actions they would take in the coming year.
This group grappled with the pros and cons of Disaffiliation, whereby individual churches and clergy leave the denomination; Dissolution, which would result in the Traditionalists and Progressives going their separate ways and starting new denominations; and Resistance, which involves remaining in the UMC while resisting the mandates of the new Traditionalist Plan. No one strategy emerged from this meeting. Instead, a combination of Dissolution and Resistance has become the new agenda.
There is evidence that the Progressives have taken resistance seriously. Several Bishops (those who oversee regional Conferences) have declared that they will not permit church trials to take place against any clergy who officiate same-sex weddings.
The Baltimore-Washington Conference boldly moved forward and ordained Joey Heath-Mason, an out gay pastor, and T.C. Morrow, an out lesbian Deacon. Methodist-related institutions of higher education are cutting ties with the denomination. Conferences across the country desiring inclusion are declaring their positions on non-compliance with restrictions placed upon them.
At the local Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conference, Bishop Peggy Johnson publicly stated for the first time that she wholly supports all people of God, specifically naming the LGBTQ community. She shared how hurtful the efforts
against equality in the church have been, and how God calls the Conference delegates to love all persons, in spite of theological or personal differences. This was a remarkable address for her to deliver, and the ripple effect has just begun.
Another expression of Resistance comes from the heartland of the US. The Great Plains Conference that encompasses Kansas and Nebraska passed a Resolution that “condemns the decision of the 2019 General Conference to pass the Traditional Plan and apologizes for the harm that it has caused LGBTQ persons, their families, their friends, and the body of Christ.”
Another Resolution they approved states, “We reject the Traditional Plan approved at General Conference 2019 as inconsistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and will resist its implementation.”
While acknowledging that many readers of this article are not United Methodist, the recent developments taking place in this denomination will provide LGBTQ people across the country with truly welcoming places of worship. The UMC appears to be headed toward a split because the Progressives cannot accept a church where some of God’s people are not welcome, while the Traditionalists cannot accept a church where they are.
The best result of this deep divide will be to negotiate a graceful parting. That may come in the aftermath of the May 2020 General Conference. Other denominations have already undergone their splits, including Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Episcopalians, among others.
In the meantime, Resistance will be the avenue where inclusion and equality are achieved by many pastors, churches, and Conferences. In order to grow, the Not-So-United Methodists will first have to divide. God is on the move in many mighty ways. ▼
David Garrett is a straight advocate for equality and inclusion. He is also the proud father of an adult transdaughter.