In this letter to the church, I will attempt to provide information to better inform you about the upcoming General Conference in St. Louis on February 23-26, 2019.
First, a few definitions:
The Council of Bishops: All of the active and retired Bishops from across the global United Methodist connection function together as the executive branch for the denomination. The Council of Bishops will regularly respond to national and global issues. Specifically, the General Conference of 2016 asked the Council to lead the church when it came to a stalemate relating to LGBT inclusion. As a body, the bishops do not hold power to make legislative decisions.
General Conference: The quadrennial meeting of The United Methodist Church including clergy and laity from each annual conference. The number of delegates is decided much like the House of Representatives (more people = more representatives). The Indiana Conference is allocated sixteen out of the 864 that will be seated. The General Conference is the ONLY body of the UMC that can change our polity (The Book of Discipline). In essence, they serve as the legislative branch of the UMC.
Annual Conference: The body and annual meeting of churches in a particular state/region/”conference”. Our Annual Conference is The Indiana Conference, comprising the entire state. Our annual conference meets in June to assign, commission and ordain leaders to service, set a budget, decide policy, and response to issues that specifically relate to missions and ministry in our conference.
The Commission on the Way Forward: A group of 32 United Methodists, commissioned by the Council of Bishops, including 2 bishops, clergy, and laity, charged with creating options for how the UMC might move forward on issues that relate to LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) inclusion, marriage, and ordination. The commission has met various times since the 2016 General Conference and in 2018 submitted a report which included three plans for moving forward.
The Council of Bishops reviewed the recommendations and will allow all three recommendations from the Commission on the Way Forward (COWF) to come to the special called General Conference in 2019, with the bishop’s recommendation being for the “One Church Plan.” Since that time, a fourth option has been entered into the mix called the “Modified Traditional Plan,” which seeks to put more teeth of accountability into the Traditional Plan.
The first option, the “One Church Plan” would delete the exclusionary language currently in The Book of Discipline and allow each local church to make their own decision about how they will respond/include LGBT congregants and requests for marriage. So, Church A might openly advertise that the LGBT community is welcome. Church B might encourage and ask for an openly gay pastor, as well as advertise their support of gay marriage, including in their facilities. Church C might not say anything one way or the other. And Church D might be open in their stance that they do not support lesbian or gay relationships, while still relating to each individual as a child of God.
Also under the plan, each Annual Conference would have more autonomy in setting standards for the ordination of qualified candidates with regard to their orientation.
The second option presented by the Commission on the Way Forward is called the “Connectional Conference Plan.” This choice would form “three overlapping ‘Connectional Conferences’ defined by rules concerning same sex marriage” and would “replace today’s five Jurisdictional Conferences.” These would be three separate legal entities (501c3) yet all part of the UMC. (It is very unlikely that this plan will be given much consideration as it is cumbersome, would take a great deal of study, church legislation, annual conference approval and lengthy time of implementation.)
The third option presented is called the “Traditionalist Plan.” This choice would keep the current policy and practice of the UMC for the whole denomination, while adding more enforcement. For some, this means not much would change. One emphasis that has been seen under this model is that those who are “noncompliant” with current policy (“self-avowed and practicing” clergy, allowing for ordination of gay clergy, or performing weddings for LGBT couples) would be pursued in their defiance and charges would be brought (within the church’s legal system) against those pastors, clergy, and laity. The Modified Traditional Plan increases accountability placed upon bishops to enforce this policy.
NOTE: There is talk of a common exit plan to be created to enable a local church to depart from the denomination. However, this remains sketchy. Due to the “Trust Clause” held between the local church and the Conference, all property of each local church is held by the Conference. Therefore, there will be legal and financial constraints placed upon a “graceful exit” from the UMC.
Ultimately, the decision from the Council of Bishops is only a recommendation. It will be the General Conference who will decide which, if any, of these recommendations and, hence, changes to make to The Book of Discipline. As with all decisions relating to our polity, no decision is forever though certainly some of these recommendations have greater policy implications, as well as potential impact for our shared life within the church. Our church laws are subject to change at every General Conference, assuming proper procedure, presentation, and voting on proposed changes.
What does all of this mean for us as a local church? Well, for some it is significant as it is deeply personal and we have much invested in the outcome of these votes. For others, it will likely mean business as usual—attending our ministries and participating in missions—until something more is required of us as a congregation. (It would surprise no one if after discussion and debate, that a NO decision is reached – delaying to the next General Conference in 2020.)
For today, I would encourage you to pray for the United Methodist Church, pray for our Indiana delegation, pray for our church as we seek God’s will to be in ministry to all persons and reflect the love of God in how we live our faith.
I am considering having a session on Sunday, February 10th, at 9:30 AM in the sanctuary to further review these proposals. I will hold this session if enough people come forward and request.