How We Got Here: The History of UM Conflict (Part 1)

Photo: A delegate speaks during a plenary session of the historic 1968 Uniting Conference of The United Methodist Church. A UMNS photo courtesy of the General Commission on Archives and History.

By Thomas Lambrecht

The current state of separation and disaffiliation in The United Methodist Church has roots stretching far back into Methodism’s history. Profound disagreements about theology, spirituality, and hot-button social issues have been brewing within Methodism for decades.

“Creeds have had their day. They are no longer effective,” said one liberal writer in Methodist Review clear back in 1910. “Without doubt, they were well intended. Possibly they have done some good – they certainly have done much harm…. The revolt against creeds began in the lifetime of many now active in the work. The creeds are retired to the museums and labeled ‘Obsolete.’”

In his book The Rise of Theological Liberalism and the Decline of American Methodism (Seedbed), the Rev. Dr. James V. Heidinger II writes that “the seeds for Methodism’s decline were sown more than a hundred years ago – in the period of the early 1900s. This was an era in which theological liberalism brought sweeping change to the substance of Methodist thought and teaching. While not embraced widely by local church pastors and most laity, it was affirmed by much of Methodism’s leadership during that period – including many bishops, theologians, editors of publications, board and agency staff, and pastors of large urban churches” (page 190).

Heidinger – our president emeritus at Good News – notes this was an era “in which Methodism and the other mainline denominations experienced major doctrinal transition and revision. For a number of Methodist pastors and leaders (and most all of the mainline Protestant churches in America, for that matter), there was a move away from the supernatural elements of the faith. Doctrines such as the virgin birth, the resurrection of Christ, the miracles, the ascension, and the promised return of Christ were difficult to affirm amid the exhilarating and supposedly liberating views of the new science and emerging rationalism” (Ibid, p. 190).

Sadly, similar to today’s situation, “Methodist bishops were concerned that renewed doctrinal controversy might lead to further division across Methodism,” notes Heidinger. “They were determined to avoid controversy at all costs and thus chose to emphasize unity and collegiality rather than engage the serious doctrinal questions that were challenging and changing the historic doctrines of their church” (Ibid, p. 191-192).

1972 General Conference

Out of the soil of this unresolved doctrinal confusion, one of the manifestations or “presenting issues” of our fractured church emerged in 1972, when the General Conference endorsed “theological pluralism” and the Board of Church and Society proposed the very first Social Principles for the new United Methodist Church (founded in 1968). One of the provisions in the proposal indicated a sympathetic acceptance of homosexuality. Traditionalist delegates at General Conference were concerned that the biblical position regarding same-sex behavior was disregarded, and the conference voted to add words clarifying that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Those words have remained in our Social Principles ever since.

Almost immediately, those who disagreed with a traditionalist position began lobbying to remove those words and change the church’s position to one of tolerance and even affirmation of same-sex practices. The church was not able to deal effectively with instances of high-profile disobedience through the normal accountability channels. This led to the addition of language in subsequent General Conferences mandating “fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness” for clergy, prohibiting the candidacy, ordination, or appointment of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” as pastors, or performing of same-sex weddings. Each time language was added, it was to close a loophole in the accountability process to reflect the church’s historic teaching.

Over the past 50 years, there have been several church-wide studies, many annual conference task forces, and numerous dialogs between persons with opposing perspectives, seeking to come to some common ground. Often, these experiences were heavily weighted toward a liberal understanding of affirmation and were seen by traditionalists as a way to try to manipulate the church into changing its position. Regardless, the outcome at every General Conference has been to affirm the historic and biblical teaching of the church.

No Theological Accountability

The theological conflict broadened in scope when Bishop Joseph Sprague, serving Northern Illinois at the time, published a book entitled Affirmations of a Dissenter in 2002. As my colleague, the Rev. Scott Field, describes Sprague’s views, he “denied Christ’s virgin birth, bodily resurrection, and atoning death, asserting that Jesus was not born divine but became divine through the faithfulness of his earthly walk, with the implication that others could follow suit.” Sprague suggested an alternative Trinity of Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Field asked Sprague subsequently about the role of orthodox affirmations of faith such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. According to Field, “He told me that the historic Christian creeds were simply a matter of who showed up with the most votes when the church councils got together. We are free, he said, to change ‘orthodoxy’ whenever we have majority votes to do so.”

I was part of a group of 28 clergy and laity who filed a complaint against Bishop Sprague for the chargeable offense of “dissemination of doctrines contrary to the established standards of doctrine of The United Methodist Church.” While those of us who filed the complaint were criticized for doing so, there was no rebuke of Sprague’s doctrinal deviation, and the complaint was dismissed. This episode demonstrated that even blatant departure from the church’s teachings would be tolerated and even affirmed by the church’s hierarchy. (One active bishop wrote a glowing endorsement of Sprague’s book.) There was an unbridgeable divide between those holding to traditional Methodist doctrine and those open to varieties of belief and even changes in doctrine.

2012 General Conference

The closest the church came to changing its position regarding marriage and sexuality was in 2012, when a motion to say that the church is “not of one mind” on these concerns failed 54 to 46 percent. In the run-up to that General Conference, over 1,100 clergy signed up on a website their willingness to perform same-sex weddings in defiance of the Book of Discipline. In 2013, retired Bishop Melvin Talbert performed a same-sex wedding in Alabama despite the request of Northern Alabama Bishop Debra Wallace Padgett that he not do so. A complaint was filed against Talbert. It was eventually dismissed.

Talbert’s action was joined by a number of other situations around the U.S. when ordained clergy performed same-sex weddings. In each instance, when complaints were filed against such clergy, the “penalty” was a 24-hour suspension or some other nominal consequence. In some cases, clergy were required to explain in writing to their colleagues why they violated the Discipline, giving those clergy an official platform to promote their views contrary to church teaching. The clergy accountability system was failing to require clergy to conform their actions to what the General Conference had decided on behalf of the whole church.

On the Verge of Schism

Just before the 2016 General Conference, Bishop Talbert performed another same-sex wedding in North Carolina. Again, there were no consequences or accountability. At the 2016 General Conference, efforts to reinforce the long-standing position of the church were being passed in committee by a greater margin than before, and there was talk that the church might split over this conflict.

I was present in private conversations where a group of prominent traditionalist, centrist, and progressive leaders agreed that a separation of the church was inevitable. The group saw the best way forward to be providing as amicable and mutually respectful a process of separation as possible, as a witness to a watching world. The group sent a request to the Council of Bishops meeting during General Conference to form a commission to develop an amicable process of separation.

The Council declined to accept the possibility of separation. Instead, they proposed forming a Commission on a Way Forward (COWF) to find a way to resolve the conflict, while preserving as much unity in the denomination as possible. The 2016 General Conference agreed, and all proposals regarding sexuality were put on hold until a special 2019 General Conference that would deal only with this issue. The Commission (of which I was a member) came up with three proposals: a Traditional Plan to strengthen accountability to the church’s current position, a One Church Plan to allow annual conferences and local churches to determine their own stance on same-sex marriage and ordination, and a Connectional Conference Plan to create three new “jurisdictions” within the UM Church, based on viewpoint on ministry with LGBTQ persons.

The Traditional Plan was an 11th hour proposal developed by only a few members of the Commission, as the Council of Bishops had previously prevented consideration of either separation or maintaining the status quo by the Commission. We understand that some African bishops objected that there had to be a Traditional Plan on the table for the General Conference to consider, which prompted the Council to reverse course and permit such a plan. The Traditional Plan did not have the benefit of a thorough refinement by the full Commission and was proposed at the Commission’s last meeting only a few months before the deadline for submitting legislation to General Conference. (Indeed, some Commission members said they could not in good conscience work on a Traditional Plan, even though traditionalists had been willing to work on other plans we disagreed with.)

A special General Conference was held in St. Louis in February 2019 to address the COWF proposals. The Traditional Plan passed by 53 to 47 percent. However, about half the provisions of the Traditional Plan were declared unconstitutional by the Judicial Council, due to the lack of adequate refinement of the plan by the Commission. More problematic than the actual voting were the vitriolic rhetoric and personal attacks in speeches from the floor, particularly by some centrist and progressive delegates.

Part 2 of this series will deal with the aftermath of the special General Conference and the developments that lead to our current impasse.

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