The United Methodist Church has just finished four days of wrenching deliberation at the special called General Conference February 23-26. The conference demonstrated a deeply divided church — something that was readily apparent before we ever arrived in St. Louis. The vitriolic conflict that characterized the proceedings inflicted pain on persons of all perspectives, both participants and spectators.
Already, the “spin machine” is working overtime to attempt to paint the outcome to the advantage of institutionalists whose main interest is preserving the structure and finances of the church. Several statements have come out from bishops and other church leaders claiming that the direction of The United Methodist Church is somehow unclear.
Let us be clear about what happened at the St. Louis General Conference. By a vote of 449 to 374 (55 percent against), the delegates rejected the One Church Plan (OCP). The OCP was endorsed by a majority of the Council of Bishops. The OCP had its own website built to promote it. The OCP had all the general church agencies working overtime (on our apportionment dime) to lobby delegates in its favor. Despite this full-court press, the plan favored by the “establishment” was roundly rejected.
By a vote of 438 to 384 (53 percent in favor) the delegates instead passed the Traditional Plan. This plan maintains The United Methodist Church’s traditional biblical position on marriage and human sexuality. It also enhances accountability to ensure that bishops, clergy, and annual conferences live by the expectations set in our Book of Discipline.
Some parts of the Traditional Plan were found to be unconstitutional after a second Judicial Council ruling during General Conference. Furthermore, the plan was referred to the Judicial Council for a third look following final passage of the plan. Institutionalists tried every possible maneuver to delay the plan and to sow doubt about the plan’s final outcome.
Nevertheless, it is possible to know with some certainty the provisions of the Traditional Plan that have already been found constitutional and will be implemented.
- The definition of “self-avowed practicing homosexual” now reasonably includes persons living in a same-sex marriage or union, and persons who publicly state they are practicing homosexuals. This change will aid in holding accountable clergy who violate the standards for ordained ministry.
- Clergy who perform same-sex weddings, contravening the denomination’s prohibition, would receive a minimum penalty of one year’s suspension without pay after conviction by a trial court. A second offense would result in termination of credentials. This insures that defiant clergy who flaunt their disregard for denominational standards no longer get by with a slap on the wrist or no meaningful consequence.
- Bishops are now prohibited from dismissing a complaint unless it has no basis in church law or in fact. No longer can bishops simply dismiss a complaint against a clergyperson that they do not want to deal with.
- When a complaint is filed and a negotiated settlement is attempted, the complainant must be included in the process, and every effort must be made to secure the complainant’s agreement to any negotiated resolution of the complaint. The bishop may not negotiate a settlement with the accused that disregards the input of the complainant, securing the rights of those wronged by the accused’s actions.
- The church now has the right to appeal a trial court verdict if it is tainted by egregious errors of church law or administration. Since our judicial system is administered by non-professionals, serious errors can be more common. This provision ensures that a wrongful verdict is not left unaddressed.
- All persons nominated by the bishop to serve on the board of ordained ministry must certify their willingness to uphold and enforce the Book of Discipline’s standards for ordained ministry, and they may not recommend a person for commissioning or ordination who does not meet those standards, including for being a self-avowed practicing homosexual. This provision counters the nearly dozen annual conferences that are willing to ignore the denominational standards and recommend openly gay candidates for ordained ministry.
- District committees on ordained ministry are specifically prohibited from recommending persons for candidacy or commissioning who do not meet the denomination’s qualifications, including for being a self-avowed practicing homosexual.
- Bishops are prohibited from consecrating a person as bishop who is a self-avowed practicing homosexual, despite the fact they might be duly elected by a jurisdictional conference. They are also prohibited from ordaining or commissioning persons who are self-avowed practicing homosexuals, regardless of whether they are approved by the clergy session. This enables holding accountable individual bishops who ignore the denominational standards by going through with such consecrations or ordinations.
Unfinished business includes a Council of Bishops accountability process that enables placing bishops on involuntary retirement or involuntary leave of absence. An accountability process for annual conferences that do not abide by the requirements of the Discipline also needs to be completed. The exit path that was passed is unconstitutional. These can all be enacted by a majority vote at the 2020 General Conference, just 15 months from now.
Most importantly, The United Methodist Church sent a clear message that we will maintain traditional biblical moral standards on marriage and human sexuality. We will not forsake Scripture as our primary authority. We will remain united with our global United Methodist brothers and sisters with shared common ethics. Attempts to force The United Methodist Church to mimic progressive sexual ethics were not successful. Moves toward a disconnected congregational-style “contextualization” of our church were not supported by the only entity — the General Conference — that can speak for The United Methodist Church. The heavy-handed lobbying tactics of our bishops and general agencies proved to be futile.
There will be much more to say about this General Conference in the weeks ahead. But for now, we need to be aware that United Methodism reached an important turning point on Tuesday.