What’s Up With the Methodist Church?

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For this week’s church blog, let’s take a look at some current events with the UMC. This might be a bit longer than my usual writing, but it is important nonetheless.

As you might be aware, there’s a big meeting going on right now with the United Methodist Church called a “Special Session” of General Conference. In our denomination, we meet together for business and doctrinal decisions with this governing body. It include delegates from every Annual Conference. Half of delegates are laity, while the other half are clergy. To put it simply, General Conference is the only entity that can make policy or speak for the denomination.

The issue at hand for this conference in 2019 is human sexuality, specifically the issue of LGBT inclusion. As you might recall, marriage equality became the law of the land a few years ago with Obergefell v. Hodges. Even before that supreme court ruling, there had been extensive debate over issues like gay marriage in the church. Other denominations have wrestled with these questions over the past several years, too, and the United Methodist Church may or may not “split” over it in the next few days.

Currently, the UMC disproves of the practice of homosexuality. There are basically a handful of options GC is addressing right now. I’ll try my best to describe each impartially and succinctly. Keep in mind that GC is occurring right now as I type this, so some information may change depending on amendments, recommendations, and voting! But here’s a general summary on the path forward:

  • One Church Plan– This plan leaves the decision for same-gender weddings to individual pastors and churches. One Church basically argues that the issue is not worth splitting over, and that well-intentioned Christians on both sides can come to legitimate, opposite conclusions.
  • Connectional Conference Plan- This plan essentially creates three branches of the UMC, loosely connected under the broad “umbrella” of Methodist tradition: Traditional, Progressive, and Unity. Supporters of this plan argue that a “Connectional Conference” maintains unity in the denomination, while allowing groups of churches to honor their own convictions.
  • Traditional Plan– This plan maintains the current stance of the UMC prohibiting homosexuality. There are some provisions and amendments that may provide more enforcement of church law (such as taking away ministry credentials for pastors who marry same-gender couples).
  • Simple Plan– This plan does away with the language prohibiting homosexuality in the church Book of Discipline. It is somewhat similar to One Church, but contains fewer guidelines for churches and conference.

Here are some of my personal thoughts on the whole process…

There’s a lot of distrust among the people at General Conference. The traditionalist side will allege sabotage against the progressive side and vise-versa. Even a centrist or moderate position like One Church will make people on the extremes upset since there is compromise in the plan. Tragically, the UMC has mimicked the trends of our culture of being polarized.

People have widely different interpretations of scripture. Those who hold a traditional view of marriage will argue that the bible gives a clear picture of prohibition–think of it as a “timeless” teaching on par with God is one, Love your neighbor, or Forgive others. Those who hold a progressive view of marriage will argue that the Holy Spirit moves in ways unique to human history–think of biblical prohibitions against same-sex marriage as we would Old Testament laws we don’t have to follow because of Christ’s covenant. The debate can quickly devolve into repeating the same set of bible verses back and forth ad nauseam.

Money always makes things more complicated. Current and retired clergy may be anxious about what will happen with their pensions and how they may be funded. Everyday church members may worry about who will “keep the building”–since church properties are kept in trust with the conference. Different sides of the debate may hesitate leaving the church because of potential costs of schism. For better or worse, money is often a driving issue.

Each plan has valid criticisms. People have offered up many critiques of various proposals. “The Traditional Plan is too punitive.” “The Simple Plan alienates the global church or otherwise socially conservative areas.” “The One Church Plan doesn’t truly solve the issue.” “The Connectional Conference Plan is just too complicated.” “X plan goes too far in one direction.” “Y plan doesn’t take a strong enough stance.”

We don’t exactly have a widely-accepted definition of the word unity. The UMC has often prided itself of being a moderate kind of denomination. We’ve had prominent Democrats and Republicans as members. The UMC doesn’t require everyone to sign a strict agreement on how to interpret the bible. We are (hopefully) united by the theology of John Wesley and the religious movement he started several hundred years ago. So several questions remain: What issues are worth dividing over? Is compromise OK in regards to LGBT issues? Might it be best if some churches go their separate ways?

As I’ve emphasized in worship before, we all need to pray for this process. We often rush to worry, rather than surrendering these cares unto God.

This morning I happened to check out our bishop’s daily devotionals he posts on social media and the conference website. I think it is especially applicable today:

It may seem like the worst day of your life. But you’ve had them before. Not only did you survive, you experienced God at work in ways that literally changed the course of your day. How can this be? It’s just what God does by coming to you when you’re hurting, showering you with love, helping you deal with whatever reality you’re facing and planting seeds of hope in your soul. So if today seems like the worst day of your life, remember that God’s about to make a change.

Even if you are worried about General Conference right now (and some people might even think it is the “worst day of your life” now or in the coming days!) never forget that God will continue to work in your life.

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