Archives for June 2019

Traditionalists Secure General Conference Majority

General Conference 2020 will take place at the Minneapolis Convention Center. Photo courtesy of Meet Minneapolis.

With nearly all the annual conferences in the U.S. having voted, it appears that a sufficient number of traditional-minded delegates have been elected to assure a narrow but clear traditionalist majority at the 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis. These delegates will be able to prevent the overturning of parts of the Traditional Plan that were enacted in St. Louis, will seek to enact revised versions of the parts of the Traditional Plan that were not enacted or ruled unconstitutional, and will press forward with other reforms to position The United Methodist Church as a more vital church capable of fruitful and growing ministry in this 21st century.

One of the goals of caucus groups such as Uniting Methodists, Mainstream UMC, UMC Next, and other moderate and progressive groups was to elect enough moderate and progressive delegates to the 2020 General Conference to reverse the decisions made in St. Louis to begin implementing the Traditional Plan. At this point in the annual conference election cycle, our analysis concludes they have failed to achieve that goal.

Enough U.S. traditionalist delegates have been elected that, together with conservative delegates from Africa, the Philippines, and Eastern Europe, the traditional position should have the majority in Minneapolis. Four of the 55 annual conferences have yet to finish their meetings. Two of them (Virginia and Western North Carolina) have the potential to elect additional conservative delegates. At this point, 432 of the 482 U.S. delegates to General Conference have been elected.

Some annual conferences gained traditionalist delegates, while others lost traditionalists. At this point, the traditionalist delegate count is down 15 percent from the St. Louis General Conference. That still leaves enough traditionalist U.S. delegates to assure a majority. This calculation is based on the reporting of reliable analysts in each annual conference. It also takes into account the possibility of up to 10 percent of the central conference delegates being unable to participate due to inability to obtain a visa. Should all the central conference delegates be able to attend General Conference, the traditionalist margin would be even larger.

Both sides of the debate organized to promote like-minded candidates for election as delegates. Lists of candidates were recommended and shared via email, text, message group, and old-fashioned paper. People on both sides solicited support via phone calls, emails, and personal conversations. The unprecedented level of organization fostered a much more overtly political flavor to the elections. What in the past had been mostly hidden in behind-the-scenes maneuvering became publicly transparent, as groups worked to get their candidates elected.

It became clear in the elections that most moderate clergy voted with the progressives and against the Traditional Plan approach to the definition of marriage and sexuality. As noted in a previous Perspective, all of the loss of traditionalist delegates fell on the clergy side.

We have heard anecdotally that a substantial number of the delegates elected were not part of the 2016-2019 delegation. If true, this shift may bring a number of inexperienced delegates into the process. If it results in fresh ideas and new resolve to end the conflict in our church, it could provide momentum toward a resolution. However, it is also possible that inexperience could handicap the delegates’ ability to accomplish what they want. Future analysis should give us greater insight into this dynamic.

Another lesson from the elections is that our “winner-take-all” system of democracy does not give adequate representation to minority viewpoints. If the majority vote together as a block, they can elect 100 percent of the delegates, even if as many as 49 percent of the annual conference holds a different view. Fully one-half of the annual conferences that have voted elected a delegation that is either all-traditional or all-progressive/moderate. Since most of these one-sided conferences elected a progressive/moderate slate, it means that many evangelicals will not be represented at General Conference. In the same way, the annual conferences voting an all-traditionalist slate will leave moderates and progressives in those few annual conferences unrepresented. One wonders if a more proportional representation from the annual conferences (similar to the parliamentary system of government) might have led to even greater evangelical representation.

While there are sometimes benefits to a “winner-take-all” system in terms of helping the body reach a clearer decision, it comes at the expense of leaving groups of people unrepresented. The end result is probably a more polarized delegation and one less inclined to compromise in general. One hopes that the 2020 delegation will be willing to compromise on non-essential issues in order to reach a definitive solution to our conflict.

Now that the election results are becoming clear, it seems apparent that U.S. moderates and progressives will be unable to reverse the decision by the global United Methodist Church in St. Louis to maintain the biblical definition of marriage as one man and one woman, continue to prohibit same-sex weddings, and increase accountability to the covenant freely promised by all of our church’s clergy. That fact should give pause to those unwilling to live by that decision. Rather than continue a fruitless battle, delegates from all perspectives should coalesce around a negotiated plan that will provide space between the groups and multiply the options for Wesleyan Methodist ministry. Such an approach is the healthiest and most Christ-like way forward for our church.

 

 

What Loving LGBTQ Ministry Could Look Like

At the St. Louis General Conference and since, conservatives have often been accused of being hateful, bigoted, and punitive toward LGBTQ persons. We frequently hear quoted “Do no harm!” and “Love your neighbor!” These statements are aimed at the traditional view that marriage is between one man and one woman and that the practice of homosexuality (as well as any other sexual relationship outside marriage) is contrary to God’s will.

The statements imply that the traditional view is unloving, but that is because we have different understandings of what love looks like. Perhaps it would be helpful to flesh out how traditionalists might engage in loving ministry with LGBTQ persons. (Obviously, in a blog post I will only be able to hit the high spots, rather than delving into the details of each person’s situation.)

From a traditional perspective, love seeks the best for the other person. The problem becomes discerning what the “best” is. We know that we have trouble understanding what is best for ourselves. In the same way, it is also risky to accept another person’s discernment about what is best for them as always being right. The way out of this dilemma is to trust that God knows and has revealed what is best for us. The Bible teaches us the way of righteousness and holiness, leading to living at our best. As Psalm 19 explains, the precepts of the Lord are “more precious than gold” and “sweeter than honey.” “By them your servant is warned; in keeping them there is much reward” (Psalm 19:11).

Loving God and seeking God’s ways (not our own) is the first and greatest commandment for a reason. We too often impose our human judgment in replacement of what God has revealed to us.

To love lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning/queer persons as our neighbor means to treat each one with love, respect, and kindness as a fellow human being created in the image of God. Therefore, there is no room for insults, put-downs, joking comments at their expense, foul language directed at them, or violence of any kind. On a human level, LGBTQ persons should be treated as we ourselves would like to be treated (Matthew 7:12). There are no exceptions to the Golden Rule.

As Christians and out of love for others, we are compelled to share the love of Christ with our friends and neighbors so that they may come to know him as Savior and Lord of their lives. That includes our LGBTQ friends and neighbors. We will never help move a person closer to Jesus by harshly condemning them, insulting them, or mistreating them in any way. Rather, in a winsome and invitational way, we seek to introduce people to Jesus because we know and love him ourselves. We know that apart from him — gay, straight, or questioning — we are all lost and separated from God, so we seek to bring others closer to God. “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (II Corinthians 5:20).

In our conversations, we should not insist that gay people become straight before they can come to God, just as we do not insist that others of us have our lives all together in order to come to God. Rather, we come as we are, with only “the desire to flee the wrath to come,” as John Wesley put it. As we respond to God’s grace expressed in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, we begin to change from the inside out. We journey with Christ toward becoming the person he created us to be.

To love LGBTQ persons is to fully embrace and support them in their journey of discipleship. None of us is meant to walk that journey alone. We are assigned the task of “watching over one another in love,” as Wesley put it. We stand not in judgment over one another, but as fellow pilgrims traveling toward the common destination of becoming perfect in God’s love. For many lesbians and gays, it will mean a life of celibacy, meaning that we the church will need to help form that supportive community and provide a family relationship as the embodiment of God’s love.

To love LGBTQ persons is to teach clearly, lovingly, and sensitively what God requires of us — gay, straight, or questioning — in all aspects of life. In this era of “designer religion” where we are each tempted to create our own belief system, it is imperative that we begin to learn and understand the truth from God’s perspective. We do so in humility, knowing that none of us can perfectly understand that truth, nor do we always live up to what we know. Instead, we seek together to grow in our understanding of the truth, faithful to God’s self-revelation in Scripture and guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit.

God’s intent for the exercise of his good gift of human sexuality has become clear in Scripture, as interpreted and understood by over 1,200 years of Jewish history and the additional 2,000 years of the Christian church. Some who propose to change the definition of marriage to include persons of the same gender may not fully appreciate what it means to say that every single biblical scholar of the church, bishop, and defender of the faith for 2,000 years has been wrong in their understanding of God’s word. The heavy weight of that much accumulated wisdom and piety is not to be lightly cast aside by a majority vote of a General Conference.

It is not my task here to argue the biblical case for one man-one woman marriage. I would refer the reader to Richard Hays’ masterful chapter in his volume, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (chapter 16). Ambitious scholars desiring a more thorough examination of the biblical and cultural evidence may turn to The Bible and Homosexual Practice by Robert Gagnon.

To love LGBTQ persons is to not set ourselves above them, as if we were somehow superior. Rather, it is to acknowledge that we, too, stand in need of God’s grace, forgiveness, and transformation. No one’s sin is worse than another’s. Heterosexuals, no less than LGBTQ persons, need to learn God’s ways and discipline ourselves to keep them by the power of the Holy Spirit working in us.

We may never lose the attraction toward sin, whether it is greed, same-sex desires, the desire for that next drink, or whatever it might be. The gay person may never completely lose same-sex attractions. The alcoholic may never be able to safely take a drink. The greedy person may always want more than they have. But by the grace of God, the desire can weaken and lessen, until it has no more control over us. We can have the ability to say “no” to sin, despite whatever temptations we face.

On the other hand, some do experience deliverance from sin and a restoration to wholeness that allows them to no longer be tempted by sin. Some lesbians and gays have been healed and delivered to the point where they can enter into healthy opposite-sex marriages. We must not foreclose on God’s ability to supernaturally work in our lives.

We may never become “perfect in love” or without sin until we get to heaven. But we keep “attending upon all the ordinances of God” – those means of grace that strengthen our faith. We keep “consider[ing] how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, … but encouraging one another” (Hebrews 10:24-25).

The ministry of love for all people, including LGBTQ persons, is the ministry of transformation by the power of the Holy Spirit through a supportive Christian community. All of us are in equal need of that transformation, gay or straight. God will do what he promises, no matter what challenges we face in life, as we respond to the leading of his Holy Spirit. “And we all … are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (II Corinthians 3:18).

 

 

 

Progress Report on Annual Conference Actions

We are halfway through the U.S. annual conference season. Annual conferences represent local churches and clergy in regional areas of the country. There are currently 55 annual conferences in the U.S. As of Friday, 29 of those annual conferences have met.

Several of the annual conferences have passed resolutions opposing the 2019 General Conference enactment of the Traditional Plan. Some of these have been challenged by a question of law because they commit the annual conference to not enforcing the Book of Discipline. Other resolutions are legal because they merely register an opinion. Some other annual conferences have defeated or refused to consider such resolutions opposing what the General Conference did.

In addition, Baltimore-Washington, Michigan, Northern Illinois, and North Texas have ordained or commissioned openly gay clergy. The woman ordained in North Texas is living in celibacy, so she qualifies for ordination under our standards. The two clergy in Baltimore-Washington and one in Northern Illinois are living in same-sex marriages, so they definitely do not qualify. One of the two gay persons commissioned in Michigan is living in a same-sex marriage and thus does not qualify, while the other is not and so apparently does qualify.

This effort on the part of some annual conferences to explicitly defy the Discipline is part of the “resist” campaign fostered by progressives and moderates. Because they do not agree with what the church has decided, they are refusing to go along with it.

The “resist” effort is best summarized by a statement made by the Rev. Adam Hamilton, convener of the UMCNext Conference, at the close of that conference. “We are going to live and be the kind of church we want to be, regardless what the denominational rules says [sic].” A number of U.S. bishops have publicly stated that they are going to run their annual conferences as if the One Church Plan had passed, regardless of what General Conference actually enacted. Such an approach demonstrates even more vividly the division that exists in our denomination. The divide has been deepened and moderates have generally moved in the direction of the progressives.

Nowhere has this shift been illustrated more than in the election of delegates to General Conference. Part of the agenda of the moderate and progressive coalition is to switch enough votes among the U.S. delegates to overturn the actions of the 2019 General Conference in 2020. The passion and anger among those opposed to the church’s position has motivated them to unprecedented efforts to elect sympathetic delegates. We have heard there has been a concerted effort to get many more retired clergy are attending annual conferences in order to vote for progressive candidates. We have also received reports of voter suppression in some annual conferences, where Licensed Local Pastors who meet the qualifications of the church Constitution have been denied the ability to vote for clergy delegates or have been required to provide extra paperwork, such as seminary transcripts.

So far in the election process, the number of conservative delegates has been reduced by about 20 percent compared to the previous delegation. It is not yet enough to switch the results of General Conference, but the progressive and moderate coalition is making progress toward that goal. In the end, the conservative delegation would need to lose about a third of its strength to give the progressives and moderates a realistic opportunity to reverse the outcome of St. Louis.

Interestingly, all of the traditional delegate losses have come among clergy. Overall, traditional lay delegates have actually gained slightly in numbers. This result points to the fact that the clergy and the laity in our denomination are generally headed in different directions.

In the delegation in St. Louis, 46 percent of the traditional delegates were clergy. So far in the 2020 delegation, only 30 percent are clergy.

There are several possible reasons why the clergy vote has shifted dramatically to the left.

A Northern Illinois Conference ordained two deacons and seven elders, including an openly transgender deacon. Four were commissioned as provisional deacons, including two openly LGBTQ candidates. Video image from Northern Illinois Conference livestream.

Most obviously, many moderate clergy who in the past would have been “swing” voters, voting for both progressive and conservative candidates, have decided to cast their lot entirely with the progressives. This illustrates that there is no “middle” or “center” in the church anymore (if there ever was). All United Methodists are committed to the belief that all individuals are persons of “sacred worth.” There can be no compromise about that tenet.

At the same time, we have argued for a long time that one either supports the practice of homosexuality or one does not. There is no compromise or middle ground between those two positions. One either favors same-sex marriage in the church or one does not. One either approves of ordaining practicing gays and lesbians as clergy or one does not. The decisions in St. Louis have sharpened the question for many who previously were trying to sit on the fence, and they have generally come down on the side of supporting the practice of homosexuality. One working definition of a “moderate” that has been floating around is that a moderate is a progressive who wants the change in the church to go slower.

In the clergy shift, we also see the influence of our United Methodist seminaries, nearly all of whom explicitly support the ordination of practicing gays and lesbians as clergy. Many UM seminary presidents and deans signed statements before and after the special General Conference calling on the church to change its position. Many faculty at these institutions come from a progressive viewpoint-some very forcefully so. Many of our UM seminaries are taking steps to explicitly welcome and encourage LGBTQ persons to attend. Many UM seminaries emphasize social justice coursework and deemphasize biblical study. For many of them, the study of the Greek and Hebrew languages in which the Bible was written is optional. This approach to theology and the advocacy for LGBTQ equality deeply influences students at a formative time in their lives, leading to a clergy that is substantially more liberal than the laity who make up the people in the pews.

Clergy also tend to be institutionalists. We naturally gravitate toward protecting the institution of the church, since it is our livelihood and career. Many moderates believe the best way to protect the institution is to make it more relevant to the culture in which we live. They have bought into the mistaken assumption that a progressive Gospel will attract more members than a traditional one – a false premise that has yet to materialize into reality within any of our progressive mainline sister denominations.

Furthermore, when clergy hear a consistent progressive message from their bishop and other conference leaders, who also tend to be disproportionately progressive, they bow to that pressure. After all, if “getting ahead” or receiving a good appointment depends upon upholding the “party line” of the bishop and leadership, that is the direction many clergy will go.

Ironically, in a quest for diversity, the church is becoming less diverse. We are hearing that more and more of the delegates are coming from metropolitan areas, rather than rural churches. Support for traditional theological approaches is waning. Other mainline denominations have found that growing more progressive means growing older, whiter, and smaller. That may be where the moderate and progressive wing of the church is headed.

As we argued in the lead-up to St. Louis, many moderates would be willing to tolerate the presence of evangelicals in the church, as long as the moderates and progressives get to do ministry the way they want. Now that the church is trying to get serious about seeing that clergy live by its policies, however, they are singing a different tune. Many moderates cannot be in a church that does not allow progressives to perform same-sex marriages and ordain practicing gay and lesbian clergy. So they have cast their lot with the progressives.

The result of this approach would be to jettison most of the global church and adapt United Methodism to current American culture. That is the direction being chosen by many in these important delegate elections. That is the opposite direction from where most evangelical United Methodists would like to see the church move.

Since different parts of the church are headed in different directions, it would make more sense to allow the different parts to separate and move unencumbered in the direction they believe their ministry should go. It remains to be seen whether that is the approach moderate and progressive leaders are willing to take.