Still Seeking a Way Forward
The UMC General Conference was held February 23-26 in St. Louis. At that global gathering representing the 12.6 million United Methodists around the world, delegates voted by a narrow majority (53-47%) in support of the Traditional Plan which reaffirms the language in the Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality. While we continue to say that all persons regardless of sexual orientation are of sacred worth, the Plan also maintained that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and added stricter consequences for pastors, bishops and boards of ordained ministry around same gender marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ persons. The Traditional Plan has been appealed to the Judicial Council (sort of like the UMC Supreme Court) which will rule on its constitutionality in part or in full the last week of April. If it is upheld, it will go into effect January 1, 2020.
US delegates voted 2-1 for the more inclusive One Church Plan which would have allowed for more local and regional autonomy on the issues of same gender weddings and ordination of LGBTQ persons. Under that plan, no pastor, church or Annual Conference Board of Ordained Ministry would have been required to or denied the right to officiate at/host same gender weddings or ordain LGBTQ persons but rather all could choose according to their conscience. This plan made room for traditionalists, centrists and progressives, for people who read the Bible as condemning homosexuality and for those who do not.
To learn more about the General Conference, visit the United Methodist Church homepage. Our Baltimore Washington Conference Website is also great resource for continuing coverage of this issue in the broader church and good place to return to regularly for news and updates: BWC Website. Adam Hamilton, pastor of Church of the Resurrection and delegate to GC, also did a good video recap of the General Conference that you can find here.
I think it is safe to say that we saw both our flawed and faithful church in action. Hoping for a clear and unified path forward on the issue of human sexuality, what was revealed as much as anything else is that we remain deeply divided. Here is what I posted on Facebook on the night that GC2019 ended:
Over the last few days, many times I have found myself in tears as I’ve witnessed our General Conference drawing harder boundaries instead of opening wider doors to friends, colleagues, brothers and sisters in Christ and those outside the church who are LGBTQ+. I had been so hopeful that we would find a way to disagree in love and make space in the UMC for all who passionately follow Jesus but may not see the issue of LGBTQ+ inclusion or read the Bible in the same way. Though the US delegates voted 2-1 in favor of the One Church Plan, the Traditional Plan won the day and we will have to see what that means in the coming weeks and months even as its constitutionality is challenged.
I want to say unequivocally, especially to those who personally bear the pain or feel harmed by this decision, that you, your children, your siblings and friends are all welcome and loved unconditionally at Severna Park UMC. We are committed to doing the good, hard and joyful work that God has called us to in this community and the world as we LOVE. SERVE. FOLLOW. in the way of Jesus. My heart may be broken now but I still believe in and cling to the overwhelming, never-ending reckless love of God. And I hope and pray you will, too.
All of our pastors join me in saying that our church is open to you – no matter your ethnicity, socio-economic status, gender identity, theological perspective, sexual orientation, political affiliation or even where you come down on the question of loyalty to the Ravens or Redskins/O’s or Nats. We are working as faithfully and lovingly as we can to keep this tent big and welcoming and there is a place for you!
Bishop LaTrelle Easterling’s Response to GC2019
March 11, 2019
But now, says the Lord – the one who created you, Jacob, the one who formed you, Israel: Don’t fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; when through the rivers, they won’t sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you won’t be scorched and flame won’t burn you. I am the Lord your God, the holy one of Israel, your savior. Isaiah 43: 1-3a (CEB)
The turbulent waters of marginalization have swelled and the scorching fire of rejection laps at the heels of the gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender and queer members, friends and allies within The United Methodist Church. The days after the Special Session of General Conference have felt parched and dry and painful. On Tuesday, February 26, the delegates of the Special Session voted 438-384 to pass The Traditional Plan. By a 54-vote margin, a slim majority of the gathered voting body again concretized a second-class citizenship within The United Methodist Church.
Since 1972, our beloved denomination has inserted these words into our Book of Discipline: “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” With those six words we have laid on the altar of polity an entire group of persons and told them that their lives are unholy and damned. There is simply no other way to interpret it. I unequivocally disagree with that belief. Persons who are gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender and queer are created in the image and likeness of God, as are all others. They do not choose to be who they are; they are living as they were created to be. They do not choose a gay lifestyle; rather, they are living as God created them.
In the aftermath of the Special Session, I and countless others have spent time talking people out of taking their lives, offering pastoral care to pastors and laity who have given serious consideration to walking away from the denomination and some from their faith. We have cried with them, prayed with them, and attempted to remind them that the General Conference is the law-making body of our denomination, but it is not the church. Quite often law and God’s grace find themselves at odds.
The hope of the Special Session was that we would create a way forward with enough contextual space for all persons to live into our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Correspondingly, many hoped it would offer the opportunity for members of the LGBTQIA+ community to be equal members within our church without fear of consequences. The resounding justification offered by those who would not support the One Church Plan is that they could not be affiliated with a denomination that condones what they believe to be sin. As I have repeatedly said, well-regarded biblical scholars and theologians disagree on the interpretation of the scriptures used to support that understanding. The One Church Plan respected those differences and gave room for all to live into their beliefs with integrity. To say that you cannot remain in relationship with “sinners” is to deny the reality that our denomination, as is the case with any denomination, is filled with persons living in ways some would define as sin. Our current disciplinary language simply elevates one perceived sin above all others and castigates some to the exclusion of others.
We have traversed this road before. Our church law and God’s grace have been divergent on many occasions. The Methodist Church divided over whether it was sinful to purchase and own other human beings in the practice of chattel slavery. The Methodist Church at one time required its ministers to sign an oath of abstinence from tobacco use. We argued over divorce and whether those who had been could serve as clergy. Our denomination wrestled with the inclusion of women in the ordained ministry. In each of those debates, Scripture was used to justify exclusion. Our Book of Discipline concretized those justifications. And, we have come to understand that those positions were wrong. I believe we are wrong once again.
In the great hymn of the church, In Christ There Is No East or West, we find these words:
In Christ there is no east or west,
in him no south or north,
but one great fellowship of love
throughout the whole wide earth.
I believe those words, supported by the Great Commandment to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and your neighbor as yourself,” are the heart and soul of the Gospel. That love is unconditional. It includes all.
I agree with many who have articulated that this is a time of crisis within The United Methodist Church. This is also an opportunity for the Baltimore-Washington Conference to rise above exclusionary practices to say unequivocally that we will recognize the dignity and sacred worth of all.
Take heart, beloved, and do not place a period where God places a comma. God is not done with us yet!
Blessings and peace,
Bishop LaTrelle Miller Easterling