United Methodist Church bishops meeting in St. Louis Saturday through Tuesday are ostensibly seeking to build unity.
But many within the denomination believe the most likely outcome of this special session of the General Conference will lead to an unraveling of the church as a unified body.
The session has been called to decide whether pastors should be allowed to officiate at same-sex marriages and if LGBT pastors should be ordained. The Book of Discipline, which is the law and doctrine of the United Methodist church, prohibits both.
The United Methodist Church, which was formed in 1968, is the second-largest Protestant body in the United States. Language added to the Book of Discipline in 1972 declaring that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” has been a source of tension within the body ever since.
Following the 2016 General Conference in Portland, Oregon, bishops established the Commission on a Way Forward to study Scripture to address sexuality in United Methodist churches in the U.S. and around the world. Three plans have been proposed.
— The One Church Plan would permit annual conferences — regional United Methodist leadership organizations — to ordain LGBT pastors and perform same-sex marriages. It would allow local churches to determine whether to be open and affirming if the congregation so desired. It also would permit churches to leave the denomination.
— The Traditional Plan would strengthen language in the Book of Discipline to enforce the current prohibitions. It, too, would allow churches to leave the denomination.
— The Connectional Conference Plan would establish three new conferences — each of which would serve progressive, traditional and moderate biblical interpretations. The plan, however, would require constitutional amendments in order to be approved and likely would take several years to implement.
In May 2018, a majority of bishops endorsed the One Church Plan. Their view is that each congregation should be able to choose its own path.
But in a livestream video sponsored by the United Methodist News Service earlier this month, the Rev. Rob Renfroe, president of Good News, an unofficial evangelical ministry within the church, said conservative churches believe the practice of homosexuality goes against biblical teaching and that the One Church Plan would lead churches to leave the United Methodist Church. That likely would include some of the largest and most affluent churches in the denomination.
The Rev. Joe DiPaolo, pastor at First United Methodist Church in Lancaster, noted that while the local option sounds “good on paper, it is actually a formula for increased conflict and chaos.”
In an email, DiPaolo explained that the plan would force every local church to potentially “debate and vote on the meaning and practice of marriage.”
On a blog posted to the Eastern Conference website, DiPaolo wrote: “Every local church and pastor will ‘do what is right in their own eyes.’ ... We will wind up with one UM Church preaching that God’s design for marriage is only between a man and a woman, while the UM Church down the street preaches that God’s will is for the union of two men or two women. This is simply incoherent. The General Conference should clearly declare its belief as to one way or the other, rather than passing the buck and evading its responsibility.”
Since most congregations are split on the issue, he wrote, “thousands of churches could face divisive conflict and significant membership loss.”
Darryl Stephens, director of United Methodist Studies at Lancaster Theological Seminary, said each plan has problems but that of the three, the Traditional option appears to be the most punitive. While other plans allow for greater due process and room for different perspectives on homosexuality, the Traditional Plan does not.
Instead, he said, it “codifies prohibitions against gay and lesbian people. It requires that clergy sign a statement of obedience and that violation of that agreement would then result in their defrocking.”
Stephens also has concerns about the One Church Plan.
“It actually codifies discrimination,” he said, “by allowing conferences or pastors to vote and choose to be exclusionary of gay and lesbians and leadership.”
DiPaolo favors the Traditional Plan. Calling it “the approach we have taken for more than 200 years,” he said the provision exists for churches “to depart with their property if they cannot, in good conscience, abide by church teaching.”
The Simple Plan
Another unofficial plan has emerged in recent months. Put forth by the United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus, the Simple Plan simply removes disciplinary language from the Book of Discipline that prohibits LGBT inclusion.
Citing the Wesleyan tradition “to live by the admonition to do no harm,” the plan states: “We affirm the sanctity of the marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual respect, personal commitment and shared fidelity” and eliminates the phrase that marriage is between a man and a woman.
It also removes in its entirety prohibitions against ordaining LGBT clergy.
Stephens, from Lancaster Seminary, pointed to the irony of the situation facing the church.
“From a Christian ethics standpoint, it’s somewhat ironic that what’s being fought over are very conservative values — people desiring to be married, desiring to raise families, desiring to go to church and to pursue a call to ministry.
“The irony, culturally, is that the traditionalists are rejecting these desires of gay and lesbian people to participate in perhaps the most conservative of our institutions, which is family and marriage.”
Last month, Bishop Peggy A. Johnson, who heads the denomination’s Eastern Pennsylvania Conference that includes Lancaster County, posted her sermon from the 2016 General Conference titled “Let us cultivate roses.”
She noted that when her father entered a diverse retirement community in which people came from different backgrounds, they still looked out for each other’s plots in the community garden.
“Their common mission was the unifying thing,” she wrote. “Can’t the church of Jesus Christ find the grace to do mission together and work out our differences in other ways? Leadership can’t do enough of this kind of modeling.”
But Stephens noted that past General Conferences have failed to arrive at a plan that all factions can agree upon, and he questions whether any legislative fix will come out of the special session.
“If the traditionalist plan is not approved,” he said, “we may see the departures of exclusionary congregations and conferences.
“If the Simple Plan is not approved, we may see the departure of more gay and lesbian and transgender United Methodists and their allies.”
In his email, DiPaolo wrote, “It is ... quite possible that we become deadlocked and can make no decision; in fact, I think this is the most likely outcome.”
In that event, he explained that he would support “the creation of a gracious exit ramp for all congregations.”