Archives for June 2018

Encouraging Developments in Northeastern Jurisdiction

The Northeastern Jurisdiction is often thought of as a bastion of progressive thought in United Methodism. It is usually rated as the second most progressive jurisdiction, after the Western Jurisdiction.

That is why several developments in the last week are encouraging for evangelical United Methodists there and across the church.

Bishop LaTrelle Easterling of the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference enforced the Book of Discipline and recent Judicial Council decisions related to the examination of candidates for ministry. That conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry had announced in April that it would not “consider or evaluate sexual orientation or gender identity, nor see them to be sufficient reasons to deny a candidate’s ability to live up to our United Methodist standards.” That policy flew in the face of Judicial Council Decision 1341, which required that boards of ordained ministry carry out a full examination into all candidates for ministry to ensure that they are properly qualified, including in the area of sexual ethics. The Book of Discipline requires all ministry candidates to observe “celibacy in singleness or fidelity in a heterosexual marriage.”

Questions were raised about two candidates at the Baltimore-Washington Conference meeting who are self-avowed practicing homosexuals. After it became apparent that the Board of Ordained Ministry had not done a full examination, Bishop Easterling halted consideration of all candidates at the session. During a recess, the board questioned each of the candidates about their adherence to the required standards of sexual ethics, confirming that two are indeed practicing homosexuals. Easterling then ruled that those two candidates could not be considered by the clergy session, and that their recommendation was out of order.

Easterling’s rulings came in response to a question of law raised by the Rev. Mark Gorman. Easterling herself disagrees with the position of the church on these questions. “I pray that in 2019, we move away from the restrictive language in our Book of Discipline, and allow for all to really find a full and complete home within the United Methodist Church,” she is quoted as saying. Still, despite her personal views, Easterling did the right thing in upholding the Discipline’s requirements and processes.

It is also noteworthy that the Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conference passed a resolution “strongly encourag[ing] the General Conference of The United Methodist Church to maintain the current language in the United Methodist Discipline concerning matters of human sexuality as we prepare for the special session in 2019.” The resolution passed 176-152. It was a substitute for a proposed resolution that called for the General Conference “to resist schism and express openness to diverse perspectives in matters of human sexuality.” The moving and passing of the more traditional substitute is an illustration of how it is possible to change the direction of an annual conference action via an amendment moved by a member of the conference from the floor. This bodes well for the General Conference, where similar motions to amend from the floor may be necessary to help the conference move in a more traditional direction.

In the Upper New York Conference, a resolution calling upon that conference’s delegation to General Conference to unify around the “One Church Plan” was defeated by a vote of 455-392. The “One Church Plan” – previously known as the “local option” – would change the definition of marriage to “two adults” and permit United Methodist clergy to perform same-sex weddings and be ordained as practicing homosexuals. The “One Church Plan” is supported by the majority of North American bishops and the “Uniting Methodists” caucus. Good News and the Renewal and Reform Coalition strongly oppose the plan.

All of these actions are significant in indicating that there is more grass roots strength for an evangelical or traditional perspective than some might think. If annual conferences in one of the more liberal jurisdictions can act in support of our current Book of Discipline, that might portend the church continuing to take a more conservative direction regarding marriage and sexual ethics.

I would like to hear news about actions from your annual conference. Please email your reports to me at tlambrecht@goodnewsmag.org.

 

Your Tithes and Gifts are Not Enough

Every Sunday, all around the world, faithful United Methodists give their tithes and gifts to the church. But apparently it’s not enough to secure them a seat to observe the proceedings of one of the most important General Conferences in the church’s history.

Just a few months ago the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) was boasting that giving to the general church was setting new records, but now they’re pleading poverty. Apparently, funds are so tight the church must take the unprecedented step of charging United Methodists who want to observe their church at work $200 to $300 for the privilege. Previous General Conferences have charged less than one-tenth that amount for a conference three times longer.

A twenty minute review of the financial statements from the UM Church’s general boards and agencies (including GCFA’s) makes it amply clear there are plenty of reserves on hand to cover the $700,000 GCFA says it needs to help defray the expenses for the special General Conference scheduled for February 23-26, 2019, in St. Louis, Missouri.

But of course more than money is at play here. Since the 2000 General Conference demonstrators have either disrupted or attempted to disrupt the quadrennial gatherings. Our bishops, who preside at the conferences and so are charged with maintaining order, have frequently failed to do so. So some people think the bishops, or those planning the General Conference, may have hit on a strategy for stemming the disruptions: charge people to attend. That approach would absolve them of doing what they are supposed to do, and would have the added benefit of protecting the millions of dollars in reserves held by the general church’s boards and agencies.

This might be clever, but it sets a bad precedent and is harmful to reputations of church leaders who are already running a significant trust deficit. People all across the UM connection have critiqued the discernment process the Council of Bishops (COB) has been presiding over during the past two years as lacking transparency. Our episcopal leaders are not even willing to share the results of the critical balloting they took at their last meeting. Their poorly worded press release and follow-up “clarification” created confusion and competing reports of what actually transpired. Closing General Conference to everyone except those United Methodists who can afford to attend will only erode their credibility.

Ironically, the exorbitant registration fee for observers will not keep protesters away, since their commitment to their cause will easily enable them to raise the necessary funds. But it will deny United Methodists of modest means, who give sacrificially to the church, the opportunity to observe in person this historic conference precisely because they give sacrificially to the church.

An interesting side question involves the potential scenario where demonstrators are so disruptive that, in order to continue, the General Conference has to be closed to all observers. (Such a strategy was considered in Tampa in 2012.) In that case, even those innocent of causing problems could be excluded. Will their registration fee be refunded? I doubt it.

Even worse, the fee structure demonstrates a measure of unfairness. Spouses of delegates, for example, have to pay a fee, but bishops’ spouses do not. Persons who serve the church at General Conference, including members of the Judicial Council (who are required to attend) and the Commission on a Way Forward, are being charged a fee. Most egregious of all is that those covering General Conference for the press are being charged a fee. Will the New York Times, Washington Post, or Christianity Today be willing to pay to cover this historic meeting? What about United Methodist News Service? If not, how will our church ensure that the story of what happens be told accurately and with context and balance? And how does limiting press coverage increase transparency and trust?

When the proposal for a special called General Conference was put forward at the 2016 General Conference, delegates raised questions about whether adequate funding was available for the proposed Commission on a Way Forward and the special General Conference. Delegates were assured that adequate funds could be found to cover the anticipated costs. Now, it appears that is not the case. This is just another example of unkept promises generating further mistrust and even cynicism. Why should delegates (or the church at large) believe anything they are told when assurances prove to be unfounded?

The bishops should develop the political will to solve this problem and strongly encourage the GCFA to find the funds necessary to keep General Conference open to all United Methodists. If you agree, contact Bishop Ken Carter, president of the COB (bishop@flumc.org), and Mr. Moses Kumar, general secretary of the GCFA (gcfa@gcfa.org), politely appealing to them to make sure all United Methodists have the opportunity to observe all the General Conference proceedings in person and be part of this momentous event in the life of our church.