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The debate over LGBTQ issues may finally split the United Methodist Church, America’s second-largest Protestant denomination.
Following a special session of the church’s General Conference in St. Louis, Missouri, over the weekend, delegates voted down the One Church Plan on Tuesday, Feb. 26. The proposal was submitted by more progressive members of the global church to lift the denomination’s ban on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy.
With the threat of schism looming, a majority of the Council of Bishops in May 2018 recommended the One Church Plan as a way forward through the denomination’s nearly 50-year-old battle over homosexuality. It would have let individual churches and regional bodies decide whether to ordain and marry LGBTQ members.
Michigan Bishop David Alan Bard is one of those bishops.
“It was a difficult day, chaotic in terms of just the legislative process,” he said.
The One Church Plan was first rejected during a preliminary vote on Monday, Feb. 25, getting only 47 percent support. It was presented again by the Rev. Tom Berlin of Virginia as a minority report during the plenary session of the General Conference made up of 864 invited delegates, split evenly between laypeople and clergy. About 43 percent of the delegates were from abroad, mostly from Africa, and overwhelmingly supported the LGBTQ bans. This top lawmaking body makes decisions for the church and is the only body that can officially speak on behalf of the church.
Berlin, a member of the church’s legislative committee, made a final push to substitute the One Church Plan for the Traditional Plan, asking delegates to otherwise abstain from voting for the more conservative legislation. The One Church Plan minority report failed by 75 votes.
The Traditional Plan, which delegates from around the world voted 438-384 to pass, will reinforce the church’s current positions.
The Book of Discipline teaches that homosexual practice – as well as all other extramarital sex – is inherently immoral, bans “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from being clergy, forbids their ministers from performing or their congregations from hosting same-sex wedding ceremonies, and forbids the use of official denominational funds from being used “to promote the acceptance of homosexuality.”
These provisions have been on the books for years, repeatedly reaffirmed by General Conference, which takes place every four years.
Throughout that time, Bard has been traveling across the state holding dozens of listening sessions at local churches to hear questions and concerns from members of the community about how the church is addressing human sexuality.
“One of the most important aspects of these listening sessions is learning how to share what’s on our hearts without causing harm to others. I think it has helped,” Bard said. “We have also provided lots of resources to local churches who want to learn more and start their own dialogues. Right now, our United Methodist Church polity is under question, but historically, it is what has held our church together. We continue to discuss, debate and pray on how to move forward.”
Where Do We Go From Here?
“It’s really important to acknowledge that our current language about LGBTQ people is experienced as tremendously hurtful. They feel marginalized in the church,” Bard said. “Our families, our friends, we hurt. We feel that hurt and the important thing is not to minimize that. Acknowledge the depth and pain of that hurt and stand with each other in the midst of that.”
While members of the community may feel like they’re done with the church after Tuesday’s decision, Bard urges them to breathe and reassess as there are a number of unknowns.
“Take a couple of steps back and engage your thinking as well as your feeling,” he said, noting there is a chance the Traditional Plan may be ruled unconstitutional by the Judicial Council.
“The Traditional Plan seeks to add some provisions for more strongly enforcing those provisions if a clergy or bishop violates those. What’s still left to be determined, however, is the constitutionality of some of those enforcement provisions,” Bard said. “The Judicial Council on a couple of occasions has identified constitutional problems with the Traditional Plan, and they may or may not have been rectified during the amendment process today.”
If that happens, the One Church Plan may be brought back as a minority report. Despite that, Berlin said the passing of the Traditional Plan will prompt church members to leave. The loss of church membership is complex and while it can’t be traced simply to LGBTQ inclusion, Bard said that is a concern.
“There are some broad social forces that have affected every mainline denomination in the U.S. and are also impacting the UMC,” he said. “Even if we get to a place of greater LBGTQ inclusion, that does not fully resolve the issue of declining membership. That is why we continue to focus on mission and ministry that serves our local communities.”
In Michigan, the denomination serves thousands of residents through local community mission programs including disaster response, homeless shelters, food banks, free stores, after-school mentoring and tutoring programs, summer camps and others – all of which could be impacted by the vote. Since 1972, the UMC, which claims about 12.6 million members worldwide, including nearly 7 million in the U.S., has kept its policy against homosexuality. Many of the growing communities in the Philippines or countries in Africa are committed to theological teachings against same-sex relationships and marriages.
Yet there has been an increasingly public movement of more liberal United Methodists openly defying these standards. In May 2016, 111 members of the clergy signed and released a letter saying they identified as LGTBQ. About 80 percent of the pastors, deacons, elders and ministry candidates who signed the letter said they were coming out publicly to their bishops and district superintendents for the first time.
Six in 10 United Methodists in the U.S. believe homosexuality should be accepted, according to a Pew Research Center Report. Despite its policy against homosexuality, the New York Times points out that some congregations have celebrated same-sex weddings and had LGBTQ pastors, at times receiving church approval to do so even though it technically violated church policy. The report said, “Punishment of those who violated the rules has been uneven, and church trials for the few who were sanctioned have been unpopular.” Under the Traditional Plan, regional bodies would be compelled to expel LGBTQ clergy.
However, no progressive or traditional local churches in Michigan have indicated they plan to leave the denomination. And 2,000 clergy and laity, non-clergy, will still meet in Traverse City on May 30 to June 2, 2019, for the Michigan Annual Conference.
In Michigan, the First United Methodist Church of Ann Arbor is among the most LGBTQ-friendly in the state. The congregation voted in 2007 to adopt a welcoming statement to make clear that they are inclusive.
That statement reads: “As congregants of the First United Methodist Church of Ann Arbor, we welcome and affirm all persons. We are intentional in being inclusive of those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender as well as all genders, ethnicities, nationalities and abilities. In modeling the ministry of Jesus Christ, we shall all journey together into full participation in the life of the United Methodist Church and a closer relationship with God.”
According to the Rev. Nancy S. Lynn, senior pastor of the Ann Arbor church, one of the strengths of their denomination is that it is a global church with many different cultural perspectives.
“That said, the majority of people in my congregation hope that the United Methodist Church would pass a plan that allows for full inclusion of the LGBTQI community including permission for our clergy to perform gay marriages and for gay individuals to be ordained,” she said. “If the United Methodist Church should split, our congregation will consider thoughtfully and prayerfully how we can best move forward with our commitment to the LGBTQI community. We have been present in Ann Arbor for almost 200 years. No matter what happens, we will continue to be here loving God’s people and serving our community and world.”
Given where they are as a congregation, the Rev. Janet Gaston Petty of the Metropolitan United Methodist Church in Detroit was also hopeful the One Church Plan would be considered because it would have allowed for further dialogue.
“Metropolitan is a very welcoming congregation in theory,” she said. “What I mean by that is our former minister of music is a gay man who has a husband and a family. The church appreciated his ministry and embraced his family. I only had the privilege of working with him for a few weeks. He made the decision to leave his employment with Metropolitan United Methodist Church because he was concerned about the General Conference’s stance on human sexuality issues. That being said, I am aware that we have members who consider homosexuality a sin and they would strongly support not changing the denomination’s position on this matter.”
“Our congregation strives to welcome all,” said the Rev. Marsha Woolley of First United Methodist Church in Northville. “We have members and attendees who are LGBTQ, some of whom have been here for 50 years. We host a gay support group, we have celebrated members who have married partners, have had gay members on staff and have baptized children whose parent or parents are gay.”
Woolley continued, “If there is a split in the denomination, we will seek to continue to be a welcoming church, open to all who want to participate in a congregation that seeks to do all the good we can.”
“One of the highest values of our faith community is welcome. Those who are first-time guests share with us that they have experienced a feeling of openness and welcome,” said the Rev. Dr. Sherry Parker-Lewis of the First United Methodist Church in Brighton. “We seek to offer the love of Christ to all people. While the decision before the greater UMC may indicate division, our church is unified in its welcome and commitment to serving all persons in our community. We will continue to do this, no matter the outcome of the vote.”
In their commitment to their core values to Welcome All and to Put Love Into Action, the sanctuary will be open to all for a time of prayer from 6:30 to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 27, at the Birmingham First United Methodist Church known for being a loving and diverse Christian community.
“Several of our pastors will also be available during this time to listen, to pray and to be present with all, especially those who are struggling in these days,” said the Rev. Elbert Dulworth.
“As a congregation, many of us are still reading and working to understand all of the legislation that was passed today. The legislation affects our members, families and the ones they love in a variety of ways. In the present moment, we are inviting people to pause, to breathe, to pray and, most importantly, to exemplify the love of Jesus for each other by being the church together.”
The next regular General Conference is set for 2020 in Minneapolis.