So, are we really a divided church during these polarizing days? Here’s my attempt to keep all of us up to date on what’s happening as we find ourselves rapidly approaching the 2016 General Conference (May 10-20 in Portland, Oregon) as a “divided United Methodist Church.”
First an historical backdrop: In 1972, in a last-minute parliamentary gesture, the UMC General Conference added these words to the church’s social principles: “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” In subsequent years (1984, 1988) the UMC General Conference added language to prohibit “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” from being appointed to UMC congregations as pastors and “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions” shall not be conducted by UMC ministers or held in UMC churches. In the General Conference in 2012 (in Tampa), language suggesting that we “agree to disagree” was even voted down.
I would suggest that there are five possible outcomes for the UMC this year.
1. Do Nothing: Just like in 2012, we can argue and scream at each other and then just kick the can on down the road to another General Conference in 2020 or 2024 or 2028…. [No Vote required]
2. Close the Loopholes: The “anti-reconciliation” side of the church (those who are so vehemently against same gender weddings and against LGBTQ folks from being ministers in our churches) “wins” the day and mandates that Bishops and Annual Conferences strictly enforce the prohibitions against weddings and ordained clergy with restrictive rules and mandatory sentences (examples: one-year suspensions for first wedding offense, defrocked for subsequent offenses; clergy living in a same gender marriage or relationship would be considered the same thing for legal purposes as being a “self-avowed, practicing homosexual”). [Requires Majority Vote]
3. Local Options: The middle and moderate side of Methodism convinces a majority of the General Conference to allow each congregation to decide for itself whether to do weddings or not and each Annual Conference decides for itself who they will ordain. This proposal (with various flavors of details) is being promoted by Adam Hamilton, the pastor of the largest Methodist church in the country as well as by the UMC Connectional Table (a group of leaders commissioned by the 2012 General Conference to provide leadership in preparation for 2016)—they’ve received lots of opposing voices to their moderate proposals, screaming that it’s “congregationalism run amok.” [Requires Majority Vote]
4. Let Them Leave: A proposal, mostly promoted by the conservative Good News movement, would allow churches who are opposed by conscience by UMC decisions to leave the denomination, taking their property with them (with a two year payment of apportionments as a “buyout”) and dissenting clergy can leave in good standing taking with them fully vested pensions. Initially, suggested as a way for conservative “mega-churches” to leave the UMC, now it’s seen as a way of pushing out the progressive congregations and progressive clergy. [Requires Majority Vote]
5. A Global Church: There is a very well-thought out “Global Connection” plan that has been articulated by some progressive UMC’s that would allow differing cultures to decide relevant structural matters on a continental level (Africa or USA or Europe—by the way, Methodists in Great Britain and Canada and South America are not part of the UMC); it also addresses some rather oppressive “colonialism issues” around available church funds and appropriate representation at the General Church level for the whole world-wide denomination. Yet, since this plan would take major constitutional changes for the UMC, I suspect that it would never meet the standards needed for worldwide approval. [Requires Two-Thirds Majority Vote of both the General Conference and the Annual Conferences around the world]
Two months out from our 2016 General Conference (in May), I suspect that “doing nothing” or “closing the loopholes” will win the day. What would that mean for St. John’s? I don’t know, but I still want to keep being prepared as a congregation, and our continuing conversations about being a dual-aligned “Federated/Union” church are critical in our preparation so that we might be pro-active rather than passive about the future of being a progressive church voice in our secular culture all around us.
Periodically, over these next several months, I will write and discuss what I see as happening; I won’t be attending the General Conference in Portland, but I do intend to follow closely what happens (mostly through live-streaming and following blogs). If you want to know more on any of these issues, please let me know at PastorGlenn@StJohnsMiami.org.