Room for Traditionalists?

Following a vote to remove restrictions on clergy celebrating same-sex weddings, Marcia McFee leads a celebration outside the Charlotte Convention Center at the 2024 United Methodist General Conference in Charlotte, N.C. Photo by Paul Jeffrey/UM News.

By Thomas Lambrecht

The 2020/2024 General Conference has just concluded its ten-day run in Charlotte, North Carolina. A summary of some of the actions taken by the conference are available in last week’s Perspective, “A Tale of a New Church.”

Many participants remarked upon the different atmosphere that prevailed in Charlotte, compared to previous General Conferences. Many items were adopted on the consent calendar, meaning that they garnered no debate and had very little opposition. To those in the majority, it appeared that a spirit of unity and a common direction pervaded the assembly.

The reason for that new unity and the many lopsided votes was due to the fact that most dissenting voices were not present. The loss of one-fourth of UM congregations in the U.S. translated into the loss of more than half the traditionalist U.S. delegates, including many of the leading traditionalist voices. The fact that one-fourth to one-third of African delegates were denied a visa and unable to be present further diluted the traditionalist voice.

A greatly reduced opposition meant that the new majority was able to enact its agenda largely unimpeded. That agenda not only affirmed the full-throated acceptance of LGBTQ ordination and marriage, it erased clear moral boundaries around all forms of human sexuality. It accommodated the church to a Western sexual ethos based on consent and self-fulfillment, rather than on God’s purpose for sexuality as a binding element of marital intimacy, a reflection of the Trinity, and a depiction of the relationship between Christ and his Church.

Good News and other traditionalist observers and delegates were present as a witness to traditional values and scriptural understanding, as well as to advocate for a clear and reasonable pathway for churches unable to embrace the new UM agenda to disaffiliate with their property.

Room for All?

The conference went out of its way to ensure the inclusion of LGBTQ persons. The conference affirmed same-sex marriage and empowered pastors and churches to perform such weddings. Partnered gay and lesbian people may now officially be ordained as clergy and consecrated as bishops. Sexual orientation is now included alongside race and gender as characteristics that may not be considered when appointing a pastor to a church. LGBTQ persons are mandated to be nominated to all general church boards and agencies.

In the midst of all these mandated open doors, it became obvious who was being excluded. Little respect was given to those voicing opposition to any of the above agenda. An African leader seeking to make a personal statement to the conference was completely shut down, unlike in past General Conferences where moments of personal privilege were freely granted to those supporting a progressive agenda.

From the opening sermon by Bishop Thomas Bickerton, the outgoing president of the Council of Bishops, the question was raised about who belonged in the room. He began by asking, “Do you want to be in this room? Are you willing to move forward in the spirit of hope and embrace a season of reformation?” This “reformation” was not an attempt to align the church with biblical teaching, but an adoption of the “full inclusion agenda” promoted by progressives.

Setting the direction of the General Conference, Bickerton promoted this new agenda in vague terms, but ones that all its supporters understood and welcomed. “This is the time to refocus the church for the future. Lay out the beginnings of our next expression and find a way to decide that different people from different cultures with different theological persuasions CAN be the body of Christ in unity and respect and love.” That “next expression” of United Methodism took a very progressive turn at this conference. The question remains, however, whether that progressive tent is large enough to include theological conservatives in one church body “in unity and respect and love.”

A definite direction was set for the church, and Bickerton made clear that no opposition to that direction would be welcome. “Do you want to be in that room? I pray that you do. But if you are in this room, I think you need to be prepared to get on board a train that is moving on down the track to a new day for what it means to be The United Methodist Church.”

The train’s destination is predetermined. But what if we don’t want to go to that destination? Clearly, we were invited to get off the train. Bickerton continued, “And if you are not committed to that positive narrative of who we are or where we are going, you might just be in the wrong place! And perhaps, just perhaps, in love we might just ask you with integrity that you just leave us alone to do our work.”

Disparagement and Discouragement

Throughout the conference, a running commentary from a self-described centrist special-interest group disparaged and slandered traditionalist delegates and urged them to leave. It’s email blast on May 1 criticized a traditionalist delegate for expressing a heartfelt opinion on behalf of traditionalist members across the world. Yet, it proclaimed that she should never have attended the General Conference.

We saw the vote totals at this General Conference steadily decrease, as delegates absented themselves from the floor of the conference. At its high point, there were 750 delegates voting on matters. After the vote changing the definition of marriage, the vote totals declined to around 665. Even 750 delegates represents only 87 percent participation of the total of 862. That indicates the loss of many delegates from Africa, perhaps as many as 100 missing. A decline to 665 delegates represents only 77 percent participation. This could very well be a message from African and traditionalist delegates that they feel their voice and participation is no longer valued. Rather than participating in futile opposition to the prevailing winds of change, some delegates obviously found other things to do.

The message communicated to traditionalists by Bickerton and others was that we can participate in the church, as long as we fund the new agenda and keep quiet – and do not openly disagree with the stance of most of the church. That reduces traditionalists to mere checkbooks – second-class members of the church. Many traditionalists may find these terms of membership to be untenable.

A Locked Door

While being encouraged to get off the train if we don’t like the destination, many traditionalists may find the door locked. Par. 2553 allowing local churches to disaffiliate was removed from the Discipline by a 72 percent majority, even though it had already expired at the end of 2023. The presenter of that petition opined that disaffiliation should never have been considered, nor should that paragraph have ever been included in the Discipline, and he rejoiced that it would never be in a printed version, since the Discipline was not printed in 2020 following the 2019 General Conference. Other attempts to pass a process of disaffiliation, even for just those annual conferences outside the U.S. that never had a chance to consider disaffiliation, were overwhelmingly voted down.

It is highly ironic that at the 2019 General Conference, traditionalists passed an exit path for progressive congregations who could not abide by the Traditional Plan – an exit path that the vast majority of progressive churches were unwilling to use. But in 2024, the “champions of tolerance and grace” refused to pass an exit path for traditionalists who could not abide by the decisions made by this General Conference – an exit path that traditionalist congregations are more than willing to use.

If we cannot agree with the direction taken by the new UM Church, we are asked to leave. But for many, the door is deadbolted shut, at least as far as it concerns taking church property along in the disaffiliation. To some, it was a reminder of the last line of the song, “Hotel California,” “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

Hopeful Ways Forward

It is hoped that many bishops and conference leaders will see the futility of trying to keep local churches in the UM fold by forcibly denying them a way to leave with their property. There is still a way through the church closure provision (Par. 2549) that annual conferences can close a church and then sell or deed it back to the congregation. Again, to be reasonable, such a process should be no more costly than Par. 2553 was, and for some churches it may be less. It will be up to each annual conference to decide whether it will allow churches to leave using this provision and at what cost.

Unfortunately, in some instances, an exit from the UM Church with a congregation’s building will not be possible. In those cases, it may be necessary for parishioners to be willing to walk away from their building for the sake of biblical faithfulness, as they see it. It may take the form of individuals finding another Wesleyan, biblically-faithful congregation nearby to join. Or it may be that a critical mass of the congregation walks away together to start a new ministry in that community. There are many stories of vibrant new churches forming out of the necessity to leave a building behind and start a new congregation, both in Methodism, as well as in the Episcopal/Anglican and Presbyterian worlds.

Stay UMC or leave, we hope that the decisions made by the 2024 General Conference will not cause people to abandon their biblical convictions and compromise with a worldly value system that prioritizes self over obedience to Christ. It remains to be seen whether those biblical convictions will be welcome in the UM Church going forward.

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