Miracle on the Mississippi

The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht speaks at the Renewal and Reform Coalition Briefing Breakfast at the 2019 General Conference of The United Methodist Church. Photo by Steve Beard.

By Thomas Lambrecht –

NEWS ANALYSIS

The United Methodist Church endured four days of wrenching deliberation at the special called General Conference February 23-26. The conference demonstrated a deeply divided church – something that was readily apparent before we ever arrived in St. Louis. The vitriolic conflict that characterized the proceedings inflicted pain on persons of all perspectives, both participants and spectators.

The “spin machine” is working overtime to attempt to paint the outcome to the advantage of institutionalists whose main interest is preserving the structure and finances of the church. Several statements have come out from bishops and other church leaders claiming that the direction of The United Methodist Church is somehow unclear. Many are hoping the church can hold together, despite the profound discord.

Let us be clear about what happened at the St. Louis General Conference. By a vote of 449 to 374 (55 percent against), the delegates rejected the One Church Plan. The OCP was endorsed by a majority of the Council of Bishops. The OCP had its own website built to promote it. The OCP had all the general church agencies working overtime (on our apportionment dime) to lobby delegates in its favor. Despite this full-court press, the delegates roundly rejected the plan favored by the “establishment.”

By a vote of 438 to 384 (53 percent in favor) the delegates instead passed the Traditional Plan. This plan maintains The United Methodist Church’s traditional biblical position on marriage and human sexuality. It also enhances accountability to ensure that bishops, clergy, and annual conferences live by the expectations set in our Book of Discipline.

Some parts of the Traditional Plan were found to be unconstitutional after a second Judicial Council ruling during General Conference. Furthermore, the plan was referred to the Judicial Council for a third look following final passage of the plan. Institutionalists tried every possible maneuver to delay the plan and to sow doubt about the plan’s final outcome.

“We’re gonna amend until the monster trucks roll in,” said the Rev. Mark Holland of the Great Plains Conference, referring to the conference’s need to stop business by 6:30 p.m. for a truck rally in the facility. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

Nevertheless, it is possible to know with some certainty the provisions of the Traditional Plan that have already been found constitutional and will be implemented as of January 1, 2020.

• The definition of “self-avowed practicing homosexual” now reasonably includes persons living in a same-sex marriage or union, and persons who publicly state they are practicing homosexuals. This change will aid in holding accountable clergy who violate the standards for ordained ministry.

• Clergy who perform same-sex weddings, contravening the denomination’s prohibition, would receive a minimum penalty of one year’s suspension without pay after conviction by a trial court. A second offense would result in termination of credentials. This insures that defiant clergy who flaunt their disregard for denominational standards no longer get by with a slap on the wrist or no meaningful consequence.

• Bishops are now prohibited from dismissing a complaint unless it has no basis in church law or in fact. No longer can bishops simply dismiss a complaint against a clergyperson that they do not want to deal with.

• When a complaint is filed and a negotiated settlement is attempted, the complainant must be included in the process, and every effort must be made to secure the complainant’s agreement to any negotiated resolution of the complaint. The bishop may not negotiate a settlement with the accused that disregards the input of the complainant, securing the rights of those wronged by the accused’s actions.

• The church now has the right to appeal a trial court verdict if it is tainted by egregious errors of church law or administration. Since our judicial system is administered by non-professionals, serious errors can be more common. This provision ensures that a wrongful verdict is not left unaddressed.

• All persons nominated by the bishop to serve on the board of ordained ministry must certify their willingness to uphold and enforce the Book of Discipline’s standards for ordained ministry, and they may not recommend a person for commissioning or ordination who does not meet those standards, including for being a self-avowed practicing homosexual. This provision counters the nearly dozen annual conferences that are willing to ignore the denominational standards and recommend openly gay candidates for ordained ministry.

• District committees on ordained ministry are specifically prohibited from recommending persons for candidacy or commissioning who do not meet the denomination’s qualifications, including for being a self-avowed practicing homosexual.

• Bishops are prohibited from consecrating a person as bishop who is a self-avowed practicing homosexual, despite the fact they might be duly elected by a jurisdictional conference. They are also prohibited from ordaining or commissioning persons who are self-avowed practicing homosexuals, regardless of whether they are approved by the clergy session. This enables holding accountable individual bishops who ignore the denominational standards by going through with such consecrations or ordinations.

The Rev. Forbes Matonga of the West Zimbabwe Conference addresses the 2019 United Methodist General Conference in St. Louis. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

Unfinished business includes a Council of Bishops accountability process that enables placing bishops on involuntary retirement or involuntary leave of absence. An accountability process for annual conferences that do not abide by the requirements of the Discipline also needs to be completed. These can all be enacted by a majority vote at the 2020 General Conference, just 15 months from now.

Exit path. Progressive and moderate leaders sought to block the enactment of an exit path. After hearing the debate and what some of those leaders think of those favoring the Traditional Plan, one wonders why they would even want to be in the same denomination with us. Nevertheless, they opposed a fair and standardized exit for local churches that want to leave with their property.

In a dramatic 402-400 vote, the General Conference adopted a revision of the exit path proposed by delegate Leah Taylor. The final version of the exit path was adopted by a vote of 420 to 390 (52 percent). This exit path would allow congregations to depart with their property upon payment of their proportional share of their annual conference’s pension liability plus one year’s apportionments (in addition to the current year’s apportionments). Exit would require a two-thirds vote by the local church’s membership at a church conference.

This exit path was initially ruled unconstitutional by the Judicial Council during the conference in an advisory opinion. The Council ruled that an exit path also needed to include a provision for a two-thirds vote of approval by the annual conference in order to allow a congregation to depart. Attempts to amend the exit path to include the annual conference provision were forestalled by the delaying tactics of the OCP supporters.

As of this writing, the exit path appears intact and will remain so until the Judicial Council issues a final ruling. They could reconsider their earlier ruling and rescind the need for annual conference approval. As expected, the Council of Bishops has asked for a ruling on the exit path. If the path is ruled unconstitutional, it can be amended by simple majority at General Conference 2020 in order to make it legal.

The message. Most importantly, The United Methodist Church sent a clear message that we will maintain traditional biblical moral standards on marriage and human sexuality. We will not forsake Scripture as our primary authority. We will remain united with our global United Methodist brothers and sisters with shared common ethics. Attempts to force The United Methodist Church to mimic progressive sexual ethics were not successful. Moves toward a disconnected congregational-style “contextualization” of our church were not supported by the only entity – the General Conference – that can speak for The United Methodist Church. The heavy-handed lobbying tactics of our bishops and general agencies proved to be futile.

Headwinds. In order to prevail in St. Louis, traditionalists and evangelicals had to fight against some very significant headwinds. From the very beginning, the deck was stacked against any plan for amicable separation or a traditionalist plan. Separation was taken off the table by the Council of Bishops at the 2016 General Conference, when they declined to accept a request to form a commission on separation. Instead, they formed a commission to formulate other alternative plans for the denomination to move forward.

The Traditional Plan was taken off the table when the Council of Bishops in November 2017 asked the Commission on a Way Forward to work on only the One Church Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan. The only reason there was a Traditional Plan at all is that a small group of bishops insisted that one be included at their May 2018 meeting. Since the decision to include a Traditional Plan came only two weeks before the Commission’s final meeting, the Commission was unable to develop the plan. It was left to a few individual members of the Commission and several bishops to flesh out the Traditional Plan.

At that same May 2018 meeting, the Council of Bishops endorsed the One Church Plan by a vote of nearly 60 percent. The Council argued before the Judicial Council that only the One Church Plan should be considered by the General Conference, with the Connectional Conference Plan and Traditional Plan included only for historical context. The Judicial Council rebuffed the bishops’ request, determining that all three plans should be considered by General Conference, along with any other petitions that were in harmony with the call for the special session.

Undeterred, the Council of Bishops asked the Judicial Council to rule on the constitutionality and legality of all three plans in advance of General Conference, perhaps hoping that their preferred plan would gain the endorsement of the Judicial Council. In what appears in retrospect to be an ideological ruling, the Judicial Council ruled that the Constitution did not require uniform standards for clergy, thus validating the One Church Plan. It also ruled about a dozen provisions of the Traditional Plan unconstitutional, meaning that they would need significant amendments in order to become legal. Since the time for submitting legislation to General Conference had passed, those amendments would have to be proposed and passed on the floor of General Conference – a daunting task.

Coalition Briefing Breakfast had to break out more tables for delegates and observers – even those who did not share our agenda. The final breakfast included more than 400 guests in attendance.

In order to succeed, any plan to be passed at General Conference had to receive three votes in its favor. The first vote was a prioritization vote taken on the first day. In that vote, over 55 percent of the delegates gave the Traditional Plan a high priority. By contrast, the One Church Plan received only a 48 percent high priority vote. This set the stage for the Traditional Plan to be the first plan that the conference would work on.

The second vote any plan needed was to be approved by the legislative committee portion of the General Conference. Despite difficulties, the Traditional Plan received its second vote in favor, with over 56 percent voting yes.

Political tactics. The parliamentary process was used (and abused) to try to thwart the Traditional Plan. OCP supporters asked irrelevant questions and put forward multiple points of order. Most egregiously, OCP supporters gained the floor claiming to make a speech in favor of the Traditional Plan, but then spoke against it. Such manipulative lying has no place in the church, but it demonstrates the desperation felt by some OCP supporters.

Equally disheartening were the troubling statements made by OCP supporters that betrayed their antipathy toward traditionalists. One prominent moderate leader accused traditionalists of bringing a virus into the church, the virus of conflict, which would make the church sick. (As if the conflict had not already been provoked by those intentionally disobeying the church’s standards.) Another speaker decried “the spirit of hatred, judgment, and discrimination which creates division instead of unity.” Another delegate alleged that the Traditional Plan was born out of “a story of control or power or dominance.” A prominent moderate leader accused traditionalists of being Pharisees and elevating the Book of Discipline above the Bible, calling the Traditional Plan “hateful” and promising to “amend until the monster trucks roll in at 6:30.”

In the middle of the debate, an unsubstantiated allegation surfaced that delegates were being bribed for their votes. While this allegation was referred to the ethics committee, it was never substantiated. The political strategy appeared to be to float the baseless allegation with the knowledge that it could never be addressed or refuted during the time left in the session. 

The ethics committee released a two paragraph statement after the General Conference stating that its investigation found no substance to the allegations.

Amidst all this turmoil and delay, only a few of the needed amendments could be made to correct the Traditional Plan. More time was taken debating points of order, suspension of the rules, and other parliamentary matters than working on the content of the plan. As the deadline for adjournment approached, the presiding bishop called for a vote on the Traditional Plan, which passed. For the remaining hour of the plenary session, people in the gallery continued to shout, sing, and try to (unsuccessfully) disrupt the proceedings.

It truly was a miracle that any plan passed General Conference, much less that it was the Traditional Plan. It was a miracle that as much of the Traditional Plan passed as did, and that parts of the plan can actually be implemented.

In a final act of desperation, the OCP supporters again passed a motion to ask the Judicial Council to review the Traditional Plan that was passed for its constitutionality. Again trying to sow doubt about the outcome of the conference, some are claiming that the Judicial Council could throw out the entire plan. As noted at the beginning of this article, at least eight parts of the Traditional Plan were already found to be constitutional, and they will be implemented.

Bishop Felipe Ruiz Aguilar of the Methodist Church of Mexico addresses the 2019 United Methodist General Conference. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

Retribution. The passions have indeed run high around this decision. Some bishops have exerted extraordinary pressure on delegates and pastors in their annual conference to support the One Church Plan. Now that the plan has failed, we have been told of threats of retribution on the part of bishops in the U.S. and in Africa. This abuse of power by some bishops betrays the message the Council of Bishops sought to send that we should all have a “heart of peace” toward one another, rather than a “heart of war.”

This level of conflict, the hateful language toward traditionalists, and the determination to prevent the General Conference from accomplishing what the majority wanted to accomplish, tell us that our church is hopelessly divided and unable to continue living together. Like a bad divorce, it has now become a fight over the property. Many progressives have said they are going to stay in the church, ratchet up the disobedience, and continue to fight to overturn the General Conference’s decision.

Some have said that the decision should be made by a majority of the U.S. delegates, since nearly two-thirds of them would support changing our church’s stance. Apparently, it is good to be a global church as long as the central conferences agree with whatever the U.S. delegates want. But when the delegates outside the U.S. have a different view, then we should disregard their voice and do what we want anyway. Colonialism appears to be alive and well.

Can we not find a better way to honor the consciences of all persons? Can we not find a way to allow those in deep disagreement to walk separately without shaming or punishing them? Those who insist on “unity at any cost” are finding that the cost of structural unity is the surrendering of personal integrity and the bulldozing over people’s consciences. That is a cost that is too high to pay.

Whatever the final outcome of this conflict, we can assuredly affirm that United Methodism has reached an important turning point as a result of its decision in St. Louis.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson, the vice president of Good News, and a member of the Commission on A Way Forward.

Comments

  1. Rev. Dr. Richelle Sampl says

    Excellent synopsis!

  2. Kevin Barron says

    Thanks Tom, outstanding summary. May God lead – and we obey – in days ahead.

  3. Evangeline Justo Cristobal says

    Thank you Bishop for a well organized summary. Can i have a printable cooy as my reference when i report to my Annual Conference. I was a delegate to the special gencon and regularly attended the morning briefing at the Mariot Hotel. Thanks again.

  4. I actually read his article carefully. He accurately states the ‘facts’ about what led to the adoption of the TP by the GC over the opposition of the CoB majority, and accurately states the ‘facts’ in detail of what the TP will provide. He accurately states what may be in dispute as ‘unconstitutional’ until the JC rules. Then he accurately states what additional steps the traditionalists need to take @ GC2020. Including whatever modifications to the TP that may be necessary to make it constitutional.
    Conclusion: these guys won’t quit. Especially now that they can see the light at the end of a 40-year-long tunnel. With their tunnel vision of what a purified UMC will require.
    My only complaints about his article: his ‘slant’ or interpretation of the history; his utter failure to comprehend and acknowledge the suffering endured by the whole church (as well as by its LGBTQ members) because of the traditionalist insurrection; and his failure to acknowledge how his small coterie manipulated the African vote @ GC.
    Now go and read it again, folks! & BTW Rev. Lambrecht is NOT (yet) a Bishop!

  5. Sent from my iPhone

    I am a local pastor within the UMC. God’s calling on my life is to testify to the reality of what God has made possible. This tends to alienate both conservatives and liberals. The church as a whole is missing the big picture. Here is a little bit of what we have missed.

    What many have missed. Truth and love define Gods nature. Two aspects that coexist for unity and perfection. The word truth defined the physical presence of God. Truth is the only word that can stand solely by itself and speaks about the eternal reality of Gods nature. Truth cannot have a beginning actually it’s impossible for truth to not exist. But for truth to be perfect it cannot conflict or contradict itself. This is what it means for God to be perfect and defines the reality as to why truth is moral. This comes from Deuteronomy 32 verse 4. In that scripture God is described as a rock whose ways are perfect a God who is righteous without injustice. It God went around creating only to them destroy that which He had just created truth would not be perfect or moral because His very nature would be in conflict with itself. He would be contradicting Himself at that point. It’s amazing to think that God has never once done anything to contradict any of His actions by another action. So out of a perfect truth comes love. We are told that loves binds the nature of God. God is set on reconciliation so out of love comes true mercy and forgiveness. But here again He cannot contradict His nature as truth meaning He can’t extend mercy and grace in anyway that denies His word as truth, that violates His word as truth, nor in the process declares Himself to be the father of all lies thus declaring us to be the person of truth. So, the word truth defines the reality of His physical presence and the word love the morality that arises out of a perfect truth. This is what is missed by so many. This has great implications for our current struggle as a church. As for marriage first and foremost marriage speaks about the wedding between Christ and the church. For us to be a part of the bride we must realize that it’s an arranged marriage based on our acknowledgment that God is truth, while understanding He can’t deny Himself therefore there are restrictions and not everyone will be a part of the great wedding. So, He set the same limits on marriage for us meaning any form of an adulterous relationship is not a true relationship. If we say He is love only and say I love Him therefore I am right in His sight then we are claiming we are justified because of our love for Him. This would mean love wasn’t built on sacrifice but on desire alone. Truth then rest on our desire and not His nature. This is the very definition of adulterous relationship. A great movement has begun and His desire is for us to recognize what He is doing. But if we are to do so all of us must be willing to lay everything down before Him and only pick back up those things which He allows. I am prepared to ask God is homosexuality of Him are you willing to ask if it’s not? This is the only way to resolve any question we must be willing to take to Him sincerely. Are we willing and if the answer is no what do we really love?

  6. David B Scott says

    This is obviously an opinion piece and not an objective report of what actually transpired. My takeaway is that those on both sides of the argument would prefer half the Solomonic baby instead of a viable whole. Those Methodists who today choose to discriminate against the homosexual minority, will tomorrow choose another minority to describe as unholy and unworthy. These are the very same Methodists that 150 years ago would have argued against the abolition of slavery and cited scripture in doing so. The denomination is morphing into a cult of moralists and Pharisees, more concerned with church law than on the impact these laws have on real people. We are about the exclude ourselves out of business, putting purity above compassion.

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