In late November, the Germany Central Conference and the Norway Annual Conference both took steps to reject United Methodism’s long-standing views on marriage and ordination by affirming the practice of homosexuality. These steps reflect the more progressive theological viewpoint of most United Methodists in Western Europe. (The situation is much different in Eastern Europe and Eurasia.) These steps, particularly in Germany, reflect a desire to stay together in one church while holding different views on the matters that threaten division in the denomination.
Germany Central Conference
In a meeting November 20-21, the Executive Committee of the Germany Central Conference voted to implement the recommendations of a “Round Table” study committee that had met for the past 18 months seeking a way to keep the church together. The Executive Committee enacted two recommendations:
- All restrictions regarding the definition of marriage, the ability to perform same-sex weddings and to ordain practicing LGBT clergy were provisionally suspended. This would allow pastors to perform same-sex weddings and annual conferences to ordain practicing LGBT clergy, despite the standards contained in the United Methodist Book of Discipline.
- A new “Community Covenant” association was created within the German church for individual members and congregations who wish to maintain “an explicitly conservative profile, especially on matters of human sexuality and marriage.” This new association “enables them to be true to their conscience on matters relating to human sexuality, whilst at the same time remaining full and active members of their Church, the UMC in Germany.” The association will be represented at all levels of the German church, including the Executive Committee of the Germany Central Conference.
The Germany Central Conference consists of three annual conferences – East, North, and South Germany. Altogether, the central conference contains about 30,000 members.
The Discipline standards will remain suspended until the next meeting of the Germany Central Conference, scheduled in November 2021, following the 2021 General Conference. This suspension is based on the idea of a “moratorium” that is part of the Protocol for Grace and Reconciliation through Separation.
The Protocol’s moratorium suggests that bishops place in abeyance “all administrative or judicial processes addressing restrictions in the Book of Discipline related to self-avowed practicing homosexuals or same-sex weddings.” The Protocol does not suggest that the Discipline’s provisions themselves be suspended, only enforcement of such provisions. Thus, the Germany Central Conference action appears to go beyond what the Protocol envisions.
Furthermore, the moratorium in the Protocol is only one of the many terms agreed upon as a whole. The Protocol itself states, “Each of the provisions of this Protocol is integrated with and integral to the whole and shall not be severable from the remainder of the Protocol.” If the Germany Central Conference is endorsing one of the terms of the Protocol, one hopes they will endorse all the other terms, as well, supporting the whole deal.
The moratorium itself is not part of the Protocol legislation, since the moratorium is only meant as a temporary measure to apply until the General Conference meets and enacts the whole Protocol, allowing separation to begin. Following separation, the post-separation United Methodist Church will be free to remove from the Discipline the provisions to which they object. The Germany Central Conference, meeting after General Conference, would be free to do the same.
The formation of a “Community Covenant” association takes the One Church Plan a step farther, as well. The One Church Plan that was defeated at the 2019 General Conference envisioned The United Methodist Church removing all restrictions related to same-sex marriage and ordination standards for LGBT persons. At the same time, it affirmed that those holding traditional views would continue to be welcome in the UM Church and would not be forced to act against their conscience. (Whether in fact traditionalists could withstand the peer pressure to change their views and accept the progressive consensus is a topic for another article.)
The German plan goes one step farther by creating a specific organizational “home” for traditionalists within the Germany Central Conference that would have participation and representation at all levels of the German church. This appears to be an effort to reassure traditionalists that they would be able to continue in their beliefs, supporting each other in this association, and still be full participants in the German church.
Left unaddressed in the proposal (at least according to the press release) is the question of how clergy will be assigned. Will traditional clergy be assigned to traditional congregations, or will such congregations be led by clergy with more progressive views? More progressive clergy assigned to traditional congregations would be able to influence their congregation’s views, potentially creating conflict within churches and/or causing traditional congregations to abandon their traditional views over time. Will new traditional clergy be welcome and admitted to the German annual conferences? If the “official” position of the German church is to affirm LGBT practices, will candidates who disagree still be admitted to the conference? Without such assurances, the supply of traditional clergy will eventually dry up, and traditional congregations will not have like-minded pastors to serve them.
The German plan is a test to see if at least some traditionalists can live in a church that officially teaches a theological position with which they deeply disagree. Bishop Patrick Streiff of the Central and Southern Europe Episcopal Area stated, “If the Germany Central Conference finds a viable way forward on these issues and can stay together, this will also be interesting for other UM conferences.” He added it would hold “a significance for our worldwide church far beyond the Germany Central Conference.”
It is certainly conceivable that a percentage of traditionalists would be able to peacefully coexist in a church with which they fundamentally disagree. Most of our constituents in the U.S. and other parts of the world, however, have told us that such a solution would not be acceptable to them. That is why we continue to support the option of separation through enactment of the Protocol.
Norway Annual Conference
“During a virtual meeting in late November, the Norway [Annual] Conference made plans to issue a public apology to LGBTQ people as part of an ongoing process leading to full inclusion,” as reported in a UM News story.
The conference’s executive board and cabinet will write the actual apology, based on a sentence proposed by one of the lay members of the conference. “We acknowledge that through condemnatory attitudes and actions we have inflicted great harm, pain, sorrow and suffering on fellow human beings, contrary to the gospel of God’s unconditional grace and love for all.” There was no indication when the apology will be drafted and issued publicly.
The proposal passed with roughly two-thirds of the conference delegates voting in support. The Norway Annual Conference has about 4,200 members.
At the same time, “The conference postponed considering two proposals, one to temporarily lift restrictions on marriage and ordination of LGBTQ people in The United Methodist Church, and another to reject restrictions adopted in the Traditional Plan, which passed the 2019 General Conference. Those two proposals will be considered at the first annual conference after the next United Methodist General Conference,” as reported by UM News. Thus, the Norway Annual Conference took steps on the way toward full affirmation of LGBT practices, but refrained from taking definitive action until after the General Conference meets.
Since 1972, traditionalists have attempted to be clear that we do not condemn LGBTQ persons. We teach, consistently with Scripture and 2,000 years of Christian teaching, that same-sex relationships are contrary to God’s will for human flourishing. We condemn any kind of violence, insult, or harassment aimed at LGBTQ persons. Where we have been guilty of such acts, we should apologize – individually and corporately – for the pain we have caused.
At the same time, winsomely and clearly teaching the truth of Scripture is not any more condemnatory of persons than teaching that lying or stealing or adultery is contrary to God’s will. We are all guilty of thoughts, desires, and behaviors that are contrary to God’s will, which is why we all equally stand in need of God grace and forgiveness. “If someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted” (Galatians 6:1). We are all subject to temptation and to sin, so we need to approach each other in humility and gentleness.
The Norway Annual Conference seems to be apologizing for upholding the teaching of Scripture. It is also “part of an ongoing process leading to full inclusion,” according to UM News. The goal is not simply to apologize for inflicting pain, but to eventually reverse the church’s teaching and affirm LGBT relationships and practices. Again, this is in line with the predominantly progressive theological viewpoint in Western Europe.
The actions of Germany and Norway also take advantage of the unique ability that central conferences (United Methodists outside the United States) have “to make such changes and adaptations of the Book of Discipline as the special conditions and the mission of the church in the area require, especially concerning the organization and administration of the work” (Discipline, ¶ 543.7). In the past, this power was interpreted to apply mainly to administrative details like property provisions and compliance with laws in countries outside the U.S. In more recent times, however, this power has been stretched to apply to more substantive matters, such as Social Principles and ordination standards.
The 2012 and 2016 General Conferences attempted to more clearly define this power of adaptation through the work of the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters. The 2016 General Conference agreed that the Constitution, Doctrinal Standards, and Social Principles are not adaptable by central conferences. (The Social Principles contain the church’s moral teaching that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.) The definition of what organizational parts of the Discipline can be adapted was put off until the 2020 General Conference, due to the controversy over homosexuality.
The Wesleyan Covenant Association has taken a different approach in formulating its proposals for a new traditional Methodist denomination. It specifies in its Book of Doctrines and Discipline the standards, policies, and procedures that would be expected of all traditional Methodists, regardless of geographical location, while explicitly giving annual conferences and local churches anywhere the flexibility to organize themselves in the way that best makes sense in their context.
Importantly, the new denomination would insist that doctrinal beliefs, moral teachings, and ordination standards would be the same for all traditional Methodists around the world. It does not make sense for the church to have different moral teachings or different requirements for clergy in different cultures. The truths of Scripture and what it means to be a traditional Methodist ought to be consistently applied everywhere in the denomination.
The insistence by some Western Europeans on having different moral teachings and standards is yet another reason why separation is the best way to resolve the church’s deep differences.