Later this month, in St. Louis, Missouri, United Methodists from around the world will gather to decide how our denomination will relate to persons who are gay or lesbian. This has been a source of discussion in our church and others since the early 1970s. It has been a source of pain for individuals and families across our denomination. We are clearly not of one mind as we understand the issue before us or the biblical resources that undergird our faith. We disagree with other United Methodists across the globe, within different regions of our own country, within our congregations and even within our own families.
This special session of our General Conference will be considering three different plans that have been brought forward by a special commission which included representatives from every corner of the church. One of the proposals, the Traditionalist Plan, would seek rigorous enforcement of our current rules. These do not allow United Methodist clergy to participate in same sex marriages or to be ordained themselves if they are openly gay or lesbian. Persons who violate the rules would be required to give up their ordination. Churches who do so would be sanctioned as well.
Another plan, known as the One Church Plan, would remove the restrictive language around same sex issues from our Book of Discipline, leaving to each minister, congregation, annual conference, and region the decisions around these matters. No minister would be required to participate in a same sex marriage, but none would be charged with violating our rules if they did. It allows the church to respond differently based on the needs of the communities we serve.
The third plan, called the Connectional Conference Plan, would allow churches to affiliate with one of three Conferences around the world, each with its own understanding and approach to the issue. Congregations would be free to associate with others who share their views, without regard to geographical location. Each plan has its own set of difficulties, and each makes a large number of United Methodists unhappy. Of course, so does our current situation.
The Commission on the Way Forward was formed three years ago to help advise the church in this matter. It has recommended the One Church Plan, though there are also many congregations, clergy and bishops who favor the Traditionalist Plan. Others are working to bring forward other options, or modifications to one of those already being considered.
I have been reluctant to focus our attention on this denominational struggle over human sexuality. First, I do not believe that this argument is a central matter of our faith. I do believe that how we relate to our fellow human beings is a central matter of our faith. That’s what Jesus meant when he said that loving our neighbors as ourselves was the other half of the most important commandment – to love the Lord our God. Treating people with dignity, recognizing their inherent worth as God’s children is a central matter of our faith. But arguing about this is not a sign of a welcoming, a healthy, or a loving community. And that’s what our denomination has been doing.
Your pastors feel fortunate to be of the same mind when it comes to our approach to ministry. We both believe that we are called to serve, and respond to the needs and hopes of anyone who finds a sense of welcome and home in our congregation. We are not interested in making distinctions around sexual orientation, any more than we would around gender, race, ethnicity, cultural background, political persuasion or anything else. When we meet with someone who is in a healthy, loving, mutually respectful relationship we are glad for that. When someone comes to us with a question, or is seeking help with a situation that has become unhealthy, abusive or harmful, we want to offer care for them, period.
At the moment, if I were a delegate to the special General Conference, I would probably support the One Church Plan. I believe it encourages each region, each congregation, each minister, to let their respective consciences be their guide. But I also regret that we find ourselves in this situation at all. What other members of our churches, of our families, would ever be the subject of such a vote? I am sad that anyone’s status in their church should be called into question.
The reason I am writing about this today is because I don’t want you to be surprised to see the United Methodist Church in the news a few weeks from now. There are some voices on either side of the debate crying out that the sky is falling, and that our denomination is about to split apart for good. I do not believe that is the case. No matter what we decide – and assuming that we actually do decide – there will be many things to work out in the months, even years, that follow.
April and I look forward to continuing to serve this congregation and doing so as clergy of the United Methodist Church. Whatever the results of the General Conference I am confident that RHUMC will continue to be the healthy, generous and loving church I have been blessed to serve for the past 21 years.
Grace and peace,