The Special Conference of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church that was held in Saint Louis over the past three days has come to a close and the decisions made were very disappointing from our church’s point of view.
Over 800 delegates from all over the world gathered for this Conference with the specific purpose of finding “A Way Forward” for the United Methodist Church. Over the past several decades intense debates have been held every four years at the General Conference over the question of the full inclusion of LGBT persons. The Book of Discipline does not allow LGBT persons to be ordained as clergy; nor does it allow clergy such as myself to conduct weddings of Gay and Lesbian persons.
I have been deeply saddened over the years that I was not permitted to officiate at the wedding of several Gay or Lesbian couples who were active members of our church – people I have known and loved for many years as their pastor. It has also been a source of sadness that they could not hold their wedding in the familiar holy space of our sanctuary.
The message of rejection conveyed by this prohibition, along with the fact that LGBT persons can not be considered for ordination has been deeply harmful.
This past Thursday I went to the Nursing Home for our monthly worship service along with Andee Mihalko, Pat Winz, and Charlie Kinsley. Afterwards we take time to pray individually for the people who come to the service. There is a kind and gentle man in his eighties who has come regularly to our services and is always open about the anxiety and depression that are an ongoing struggle for him. This week he shared for the first time that he is Gay and his belief that God rejects him. He said that when he was a teenager his mother told him he was a “freak of nature.” He has carried these wounds for a life time and surely they have had a part to play with the chronic depression he suffers. We assured him that God does not reject him – that in fact God made him with his orientation and cherishes him as a beloved child. We laid hands upon him and prayed over him to receive this love. He told us he was comforted by our words and acceptance, but it is clear that the wounds are very deeply ingrained.
Various proposals were put forth in advance of the Conference and one proposal — the “One Church” Plan — would have allowed individual annual conferences (such our Greater New Jersey Annual Conference) and individual churches to follow their conscience in these matters. This proposal was endorsed by 2/3 of the Council of Bishops, including our own Bishop Schol.
If this plan had passed it would have allowed me to perform same-sex weddings in our church.
Unfortunately the One Church Plan was defeated.
Instead, the “Traditionalist Plan” was passed with 53% in favor and 47% opposed. This plan will keep the present language of the Discipline that is so wounding to the LGBT community. Church members who have supported the present language have been unhappy that there hasn’t been consistent enforcement of the present rules. Clergy in certain parts of the country have been performing same-sex wedding and some clergy have been coming out of the closet without being punished. The “Traditional Plan” will put into place a uniform system of punishments for those who transgress the present rules. The details of the plan are unclear, but I believe that if I were to officiate at a same sex wedding I would be suspended without pay for one year.
To put this all in context: There are 12 million United Methodists world-wide of which 7 million live in the United States. Polling has indicated that 60% of American United Methodists believe homosexuality should be accepted. If only American United Methodists had voted it seems clear that the One Church Plan would have easily passed.
30% of the delegates are from Africa where the UMC is growing the most rapidly. Repression of Gay and Lesbian people is the norm in much of Africa culture. It is safe to say that a vast majority of the African delegates voted for the Traditional plan.
Our United Methodist identity as a world wide church is something to be celebrated. There is room at the table for all.
Unfortunately, however imposing the sexual ethics derived from the African context with a different interpretation of the Bible from that of our own is a serious injustice. Here in the United States most straight young people know LGBT young people well, accepting them and embracing them as friends. It is incomprehensible to them why this issue has been so consuming in the church. Young people look at the United Methodist official policy and come to the conclusion that United Methodist hate the LGBT community.
The future is uncertain. There may be legal issues that have to be resolved regarding places where the Traditional Plan comes into conflict with the United Methodist constitution. It will take some time before the Traditional Plan is fully implemented.
My understanding is that the good news coming out of the Special Conference is that legislation was passed making it possible for local churches to make what is called a “gracious exit.” Since the United Methodist Church is a “connectional” church all properties of a local church ultimately belong to the larger annual conference (in our case GNJAC.) The “gracious exit” legislation would make it possible for local churches to leave the United Methodist church and to keep their property.
It is largely assumed at this point that a great many churches will take the gracious exit option and a new Methodist denomination will be formed – one that fully embraces LGBT persons. There would be many churches in New Jersey who would be on board with this move. Having clearly stated where we stand on this issue when we declared ourselves in favor of full inclusion as a “Reconciling Congregation” presumably we would become a part of this new Methodist denomination. But this of course if open for discussion.
How long all of this will take is anybody’s guess. The headlines in the news this week aren’t helpful from our point of view. Where you have the chance, please clarify with your friends that our local church is not supportive of the stance taken at the Special Church Conference and that a new, separate Methodist denomination is likely to be formed before too much time passes.
Nonetheless, we will continue to celebrate the wondrous love of God revealed in Jesus. We will continue to declare that there is always room in the circle.
In the kindness of Jesus,
Pastor Jeff Edwards