“General Conference Followup” March 1, 2019
“He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” (Matthew 28:7)
By now you may have read some news items about the events that took place at the General Conference (GC) meeting in St. Louis yesterday. Despite what some news services are reporting about the demise of the UMC, there is a great deal of uncertainty over what happens next. I want to take this opportunity to offer some thoughts about what happened at the GC, what it might mean for United Methodism, and for Weller UMC.
The special General Conference that just completed its work was called to address an impasse in the UMC over the question of human sexuality. This has been an ongoing debate in the UMC since 1972 when the General Conference added language to the Book of Discipline deeming homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Every General Conference since then has taken up this question and ended with the restrictions in place that forbid UMC clergy from performing same-sex marriage or union ceremonies, and prohibiting annual conferences from ordaining “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.”
Why this is an issue in the UMC has to do with the nature of our denomination. The UMC is a diverse church made up of Christian disciples who reflect a broad range of theological convictions within the Protestant tradition. There are conservatives, evangelicals, moderates, and liberals in our churches. This has been touted as a strength of United Methodism—that idea that we can unite people across a spectrum of convictions for the larger purpose of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. While diversity of views is a strength, it also creates tensions when controversial questions, such as the one about human sexuality, are addressed. In the UMC, this appears when traditionalists accuse progressives of failing to uphold biblical authority and the sanctity of marriage as one man and one woman, and progressives accuse traditionalists of failing to hear in God’s word the call for justice and inclusion for a marginalized group of people.
After the 2016 General Conference, a Special Commission on a Way Forward developed three plans in an effort to get the UMC past the human sexuality debate.
- The plan preferred by the UM Council of Bishops and many moderates and progressives, called the One Church Plan, allowed local pastors and churches to decide whether or not to perform same-sex marriages. Annual conferences would choose whether or not to ordain LGBTQ+ persons. This plan was voted down by the General Conference.
- The plan passed by the General Conference, referred to as the Modified Traditional Plan, upheld the current restrictive language in the Book of Discipline. It added more strict disciplinary measures for clergy who violated the rules on marriage and ordination.
- The General Conference also passed a measure making it easier for churches to leave the UMC.
There is a big HOWEVER here concerning the Traditional Plan and the easy exit plan. Both of them contain provisions that the Judicial Council (like the US Supreme Court) had already declared unconstitutional. That could mean:
- The entire Traditional Plan and the easy exit plan could be thrown out by the JC, meaning we will have no resolution of the human sexuality question, or
- The portions of the plans that are constitutional could come into church law. It’s hard to say what impact that would have because it is unclear as of now which elements of the plans would be added to the Book of
I can’t tell you what will happen next. I can tell you that there are a lot of hard feelings on all sides following the special GC and the way it was conducted. Both traditionalists and progressives were accused of abandoning the faith and teaching a gospel other than that taught by Jesus. Many LGBTQ+ individuals are feeling alone, rejected and even threatened in the church where they found a spiritual home. As a result:
- Some people are giving up on the UMC and deciding to leave.
- There is talk by groups of churches on both sides, traditional and progressive, of leaving the denomination.
Like I said, I’m not sure what happens now. None of this is likely to play out quickly. Things happen pretty slowly in the UMC just because of how we are organized.
There is one thing I can assure you of, though, and it’s this: God remains God. That means:
- We will continue to worship God, in Spirit and in truth, and in all the ways we can to give glory to the One who gave us new life.
- We will continue to welcome everyone who comes through the doors of this church. We welcome everyone, no matter their race, creed, social status, gender or sexual orientation, or any other labels we may apply. We welcome all because as United Methodists, we understand that no one stands outside of God’s grace.
- We will continue to love others because Christ commanded us to love our neighbors.
- We will still be witnesses of the Gospel in mission to the world. We will declare the goodness of God and salvation in Jesus Christ. We will help the poor, heal the sick, minister to those in need as God gives us the ability to minister.
I ask you to continue to hold the United Methodist Church in your prayers.
In uncertain times like these, when we cannot see the road ahead, we look to Jesus, who is the Savior and Redeemer for all. If we are worried about what comes next, we should simply remember the words spoken to the women at the tomb as they went looking for the body of Jesus one Sunday morning: “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” Do not fear the future, for Jesus is already out ahead. And we are still called to be in ministry to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Stay the course.
Stay in love with God.
Peace be with you all.