Traditional Plan Prevails

As the Rev. Joe Harris presides over the legislative committee, the results of a vote approving the Traditional Plan as amended by 461-359 are displayed. The vote still had to be approved by the plenary session on the final day of the special session of the 2019 General Conference of The United Methodist Church in St. Louis. Photo by Paul Jeffrey, UMNS.

By Sam Hodges –

United Methodists tried to come to terms with a General Conference that was meant to unify but instead underscored divisions and had all sides acknowledging a high level of pain.

“Catastrophic” was the summary judgment of the Rev. James Howell, a Western North Carolina Conference delegate. “The church as we’ve known it will not be. It’s going to fracture in ways — different ways,” he said.

Patricia Miller served on the Commission on a Way Forward that bishops appointed to help come up with legislative options for addressing the denomination’s impasse on homosexuality, and the Traditionalist Plan she supported prevailed. “There is no joy for any of us in this whole debate,” said Miller. “It’s painful for all of us.”

The special legislative session was called by bishops to try to deal with the denomination’s long conflict over how accepting to be of homosexuality. General Conference is The United Methodist Church’s top legislative assembly, comprising delegates from around the world.

In the end, delegates passed by a 438-384 margin the Traditional Plan, which retains church law restrictions against homosexuality and seeks stricter enforcement.

Going down in defeat was the One Church Plan, backed by most of the denomination’s bishops. It would have allowed U.S. churches and conferences to host same-sex unions and ordain openly gay clergy.

The effects of the legislation that passed are unclear given constitutional questions that will be addressed by the Judicial Council, the denomination’s supreme court, which meets in April. Parts of the plan already have been declared unconstitutional.

But the response on the last day of General Conference by supporters of full inclusion for LGBTQ persons included multiple demonstrations, tearful and often angry floor speeches, accusations of ethics violations, and challenges to parliamentary decisions by a presiding bishop.

Progressives did have a big moment thanks to floor remarks by Jeffrey “J.J.” Warren, an openly gay reserve delegate from the Upper New York Conference. He got a standing ovation as he spoke of his evangelism work with LGBTQ students at Sarah Lawrence College, and his dream of continuing his ministry.

“They didn’t know God could love them because their churches said God didn’t, and so if we can be a church which brings Jesus to people who are told (they) can’t be loved, then that’s what I want our church to be, and that’s the Methodist Church that I love and that I want to be a pastor in one day,” Warren said.

The 22-year-old Warren said after General Conference closed for the day that he had spoken from the heart and felt “overwhelming support” from fellow delegates and others. “At least 35 percent of the bishops have come up already and said thank you for helping us. That’s been the great affirmation,” he said.

Miscalculations

Bishop Laurie Haller of the Iowa Conference acknowledged that the conference had not gone as she and most bishops had hoped. “We’re the ones that proposed the One Church Plan, so I’m disappointed that the Traditional Plan has passed (legislative committee) today,” she said. “I know that the final votes are tomorrow.” Would some progressive churches want to leave the denomination if the Traditional Plan ultimately prevails? “I suspect that would be the case,” she said. Haller added that there seems to be support across the theological divide for churches to be able to leave the denomination out of conscience,

“If the Traditional Plan is voted in, it will be a virus that will make the American church very sick,” the Rev. Tom Berlin of Virginia told the delegates. The One Church Plan leader urged those who opposed his legislation to abstain from voting. “I’m asking you to wash your hands of this Traditional Plan today because it will bring that illness into our house.”

without burdensome financial penalty.

“I really sense that everybody wants there to be a good outcome as far as how we move on,” she said.

Bishop Paul Leland of the Western North Carolina Conference said he had been “plan neutral,” recognizing divided views among his churches. But he agreed with Haller that any outcome is likely to have fallout. “We may need to be prepared to say goodbye to some individuals and some congregations,” he said.

Bishop John K. Yambasu, of the Sierra Leone Area, acknowledged the divisions among United Methodists have been painfully obvious at this conference. But he was confident that all United Methodists have been praying for God’s will to be done. “In the final analysis, God is going to take his church where he wants it to be,” he said.

Bishop Scott Jones of the Texas Conference said the vote resolves a long-standing debate about how the church “can best accomplish our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

“This decision is consistent with our denomination’s historic stance on human sexuality, outlined in the Book of Discipline since 1972,” Jones said.

“We will continue to welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and queer persons to our churches and affirm their sacred worth. I pray we, as a denomination, can now move forward, working with each other in the spirit of Christian love and joining together as one. We are stronger together in serving God’s mission as a diverse body of Christ,” Jones said.

One strategy opponents of the Traditional Plan embraced was to essentially “run out the clock” with amendments.

The Rev. Mark Holland, a Great Plains delegate, waved a stack of amendment forms and said, “We’re gonna amend until the monster trucks roll in,” referring to the conference’s need to stop business by 6:30 p.m. and evacuate the facility for a truck rally. Holland leads Mainstream UMC, which lobbied hard for the One Church Plan. “We were very solid on our U.S. numbers,” Holland said of the plan’s losing vote in legislative committee. “We needed 50 votes in Africa — clearly we didn’t come close to that.”

After passionate speeches, prayers, and tears, the “one, last shot” for the One Church Plan was defeated by a vote of 449-374. The plan was also defeated the day before in the first vote.

The Rev. Tom Berlin, Virginia Conference, spoke for a minority report for the One Church Plan submitted Feb. 25. A minority report is a substitution for the report of the legislative committee.

“If the Traditional Plan is voted in, it will be a virus that will make the American church very sick,” he said. “Many pastors are going to leave, many annual conference will leave. … There will be trials, and they will be on the news. The only news about the church will be about people we don’t serve.” And he warned the virus would cross oceans and make the whole church sick.

However, other delegates stood to talk about following God’s “true word.”

Nancy Denardo, Western Pennsylvania, cited Scriptures in her argument against the One Church Plan. “Friends, please stop sowing seeds of deceit,” she said. “I’m truly sorry if the truth of the Gospel hurts anyone; I love you and I love you enough to tell the truth.”

The Rev. Jerry Kulah, a Liberia delegate and leader of the Africa Initiative coalition, argued for the Traditional Plan. “The Traditional Plan is not only traditional but biblical; it ensures God’s word remains foundational to the life and growth of the UMC. I submit we love our LGBTQ friends,” he said.

Bishop Karen Oliveto speaks to delegates who in protest formed a large circle in the center of the plenary floor. The action came on the last day of a Special Session of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church, held in St. Louis, Missouri. Photo by Paul Jeffrey, UMNS.

Lyndsey Stearns, West Ohio, a young person who described herself as a future pastor, spoke in favor of the One Church Plan and told the body in the past 24 hours, 15,529 young people had signed a statement in support of unity. The statement says young people are not all of the same mind about LGBTQ people. “And yet through working together, sharing stories, and worshipping side by side, we have seen each other’s gifts and fruits for ministry. We have witnessed the incredible ways that God is working through each of us in our own unique contexts.”

Aislinn Deviney, Rio Texas, who described herself as a young evangelical delegate, said many young people “fiercely believe marriage is between one man and one woman.”

“We are here at the table because of our dedication, not because we demand a place because of our age,” she said. “We speak for ourselves. We all have family and friends who are LGBTQ that we love and value.”

Before the vote, Berlin told delegates to follow the Golden Rule of Jesus. “Be consistent, and modify the Book of Discipline to eliminate all the divorced, all those who cohabit before marriage and apply those standards to yourself first,” he said. There are clergy and bishops who would have to surrender their credentials for violating those Scriptures, he added. “But I don’t think that’s the church you want.”

An amendment to apply those standards beyond LGBTQ people was voted down.

The Rev. Joe Harris, chair of the legislative committee, addressed the delegates. “After all the passionate debate, all I can say is God is with us and God will be with us and the Holy Spirit will guide us. Continue to do what you said you wanted to do yesterday, reject One Church Plan and continue on Traditional Plan.”

Intractable Body

The Rev. Sky McCracken, a Memphis Conference delegate, spoke bluntly about the process he witnessed. “I believe General Conference has become an intractable body,” he said. “We have legislated ourselves into ineffectiveness and lessened our witness.”

The Rev. Forbes Matonga, a delegate from the West Zimbabwe Conference, supported the Traditional Plan. He said the Bible demands that marriage be limited to one man and one woman. But Matonga called for a new approach to United Methodist governance. “As long as it’s parliamentary, it’s about winning and losing, and naturally it creates some cracks,” he said.

Bishop Grant Hagiya lamented the passage of the Traditional Plan, but said that United Methodist polity, combined with deep divisions about LGBTQ inclusion, almost guaranteed an unhappy outcome. “We have to find a new way to do this,” said Hagiya, who leads the church’s Los Angeles Area.

The Rev. Donna Pritchard, delegate from the Oregon-Idaho Conference, promised that the Western Jurisdiction — which elected the Rev. Karen Oliveto, a lesbian, as a bishop — would remain and keep to its progressive path. “The Western Jurisdiction intends to continue to be one church, fully inclusive and open to all God’s children across the theological and social spectrum,” she said.

A liturgical dancer waves a flag during worship on February 24, 2019, at the Special Session of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church. Photo by Paul Jeffrey for United Methodist News Service..”

Leaders of the United Methodist seminaries joined in a statement imploring that the Traditional Plan be rejected, arguing it would drive young people in the U.S. from ministry in the denomination. “If the Traditional Plan passes, we will very soon lose an entire generation of leadership here in the United States,” they said.

The Rev. Kah-Jin Jeffrey Kuan, president of Claremont Theological Seminary, said the seminaries’ unhappiness with the Traditional Plan’s passage runs deep. “Some of our seminaries may consider whether to leave the denomination,” he said.

The Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe, top executive of the denomination’s United Methodist Board of Church and Society, registered her dismay in a statement. “The United Methodist Church’s special General Conference failed Tuesday (Feb. 26) to love LGBTQIA people, recognize their gifts in the church, maintain our unity in the midst of diversity, and to live out our Gospel mandate to seek justice and pursue peace,” she said.

But the Rev. Isaac Bodje, a delegate from Côte d’Ivoire, said the outcome was required by the Bible and Christian tradition. “We have among ourselves two different approaches,” he said. “Is it the world impacts the church, or the church impacts the world?”

The Rev. David Watson, a dean and New Testament professor at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, said the legislative gathering produced no real winners. “This conference has been heartbreaking and that’s because of the damage it’s done to our relationships,” he said.

The Rev. Chiondzi Wellington, a Zimbabwean student at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, had a similar reaction immediately after the vote for the Traditional Plan. “The decisions will have a big impact on the future of the church,” he said. “I am not sure relationships across the church are going to be the same after this. I am very anxious.”

The Rev. Rob Renfroe is president of Good News, the unofficial traditionalist advocacy group within the denomination and an organizing force behind the Traditional Plan. He was glad it passed but sorry for the circumstances. “I think people are frustrated, hurt, angry,” he said. “They’re finding different ways of expressing that.”

Delegates pray together during the February 23, 2019, opening session of the Special Session of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church. Photo by Paul Jeffrey for United Methodist News Service.

Renfroe put much of the blame on the bishops, saying the One Church Plan was essentially a reprise of efforts that had failed at previous General Conferences. He insisted traditionalist groups had been open to new ideas, but not to an “agree to disagree” approach. “They forced a fight on us,” he said. “We’re not going to walk away from what we think is important for the church. We had to create a strong effort to defend what we think is biblical.”

Renfroe suggested it may soon be time for a non-legislative summit to consider options. “My hope is that after the leaders process what’s happened, they will realize that it’s now time to do what we should have done coming out of Portland (site of the 2016 General Conference), which is sit down together and say, ‘How can we begin to work to create a solution so that we don’t stay in this narrative of coming and fighting,” he said.

The Rev. Stan Copeland, pastor of Lovers Lane United Methodist Church in Dallas, helped lead the Uniting Methodists group in its support of the One Church Plan. But he agreed that it’s time to think creatively and hope anew.

“There has to be a real meeting of minds and hearts, and I think there will be, because we have reached the bottom of the barrel as far as our fighting and squabbling.”

Sam Hodges is a Dallas-based writer for United Methodist News Service. Heather Hahn, Kathy Gilbert, Linda Bloom, the Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards and Joey Butler contributed. Gilbert, Hahn and Butler are UMNS reporters in Nashville. This report is adapted from their original reporting in St. Louis.

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