Where does the United Methodist Church go from here?
That’s the question facing church leaders after this week’s vote at the General Conference in St. Louis.
Delegates vetoed the One Church Plan, which had been endorsed by a majority of the denomination’s bishops, and instead approved the Traditional Plan, a stricter version of the current Book of Discipline.
Under the plan, the denomination will continue its policy of not ordaining LGBT pastors and banning pastors from performing same-sex marriages. However, the plan adds punitive measures for pastors who do not follow the Book of Discipline.
According to Darryl Stephens, director of United Methodist Studies at Lancaster Theological Seminary, “It simply reaffirmed the status quo,” while creating “a more hostile environment.”
By “hostile,” Stephens was referring to language that would require pastors to sign a letter of obedience to adhere to the plan’s rules and create specific sentencing structures for pastors who violate the Book of Discipline.
Whether those measures are constitutional remains in question. The UMC Judicial Council will take up the matter April 23-25 in Evanston, Illinois.
‘Harm has been done’
The Rev. Andrea Brown, pastor at Grandview United Methodist Church in Manheim Township, said that even if some of the more restrictive language in the Traditional Plan is removed by the judicial council, “great harm has been done.”
Brown, a former member of the Lancaster New Era staff, was an observer at the conference. She said, “The Traditional Plan puts the church in a state of sin in its way of treating people we care about.”
In a subsequent email, she noted that although the Traditional Plan in many ways reflects “present rules contained in the most recent Book of Discipline ... it is vastly different than the present practice in the church.”
Even though the denomination prohibits same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBT clergy, a number of United Methodist congregations, “including entire annual conferences, openly defy” those rules, according to the United Methodist News Service.
Brown said LGBT clergy currently serving churches in the denomination would lose their jobs under the Traditional Plan.
Grandview, which is an open and affirming church, posted a statement on its website titled “A Love Letter for You.” It asserts, in part, “Our wedding policy does not differentiate between same-gender-loving and opposite-gender-loving people. That won’t change.
“We actively support gay and lesbian people who are clergy or who are preparing to become clergy. This includes single, married and partnered people. That won’t change.”
Helen Adams, pastor at Stehman Memorial United Methodist Church, Millersville, was discouraged but not surprised by the outcome.
She said it appeared that most delegates went to the conference with their minds made up.
“I’m disheartened that we got to this point,” she said. Speaking of LGBT members who feel disenfranchised by the vote, she said, “It’s a time for all of us to weep with those who weep.”
Adams, a former member of the Sunday News staff, said the defeat of the One Church Plan, which was endorsed by a majority of the church’s bishops, and the approval of the more rigid Traditional Plan by similar margins demonstrates how divided the church remains over this issue. The One Church Plan would have allowed individual congregations to decide whether or not to ordain LGBT pastors and/or bless same-sex marriage.
What is most disturbing, she said, is the way the church’s legislative process produces winners and losers.
“We can’t be doing church like this,” she said. “That’s not the way Jesus would do it. We have to find a different way.”
‘People are hurting’
The Rev. Jerry McGrath, pastor at Lititz United Methodist Church, said his church has tried to move away from voting and instead has sought to create consensus. While that works in some situations, he agreed it is not always possible — especially in the case of the General Conference, which involved 864 delegates.
Having watched some of the conference this week, McGrath said he was concerned by the tenor of the debate.
“We have to let the Holy Spirit get in there,” he said. “It’s sad. A lot of people are hurting.”
A self-described conservative pastor with a traditional view of marriage between a man and a woman, he said he loves people regardless of their sexual orientation.
“My brother is gay,” he said. “I’m a conservative pastor, but ... I will never question if he loves the Lord.”
In an email to members of the Eastern Conference of the United Methodist Church, Bishop Peggy Johnson wrote: “I am deeply aware of the hurt and pain that this has brought upon the LGBT community, their families and friends. I regret this pain and suffering and call us to minister grace and healing to this part of our church family. Everyone is of sacred worth and all are indispensable for the up-building of the church.”
A new denomination?
The Wesley Covenant Association, a body within the United Methodist Church that supports the Traditional Plan, has formed a working group and has scheduled a convening conference April 23-25 that could lead to a new denomination.
Passage of the Traditional Plan also could pose problems for seminaries and universities. The New York Times reported that Duke Divinity School and the Candler School of Theology at Emory University are concerned that the move not only will dissuade young Americans who support gay rights from going into ministry in the church but that secession by conservative churches could impact the schools financially.
Brown wrote that under current policy, United Methodist seminaries and universities are not required to sign a loyalty oath to the Book of Discipline’s rules regarding LGBT people. That, would change under the Traditional Plan. If those schools choose to retain their United Methodist affiliation, they could find themselves in conflict with U.S. laws they must follow.
Stephens, of Lancaster Seminary, said the church’s future direction remains unclear. Much, he said, depends on the judicial council’s decision.
McGrath, of Lititz, said members have asked him what he thinks will happen.
“I tell them, ‘Wait till the dust settles. It’s still dusty.’ ”