Progressives and Centrists Look Ahead

By Heather Hahn, UMNS –

The Rev. Adam Hamilton, senior pastor of Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, speaks at the special General Conference in St. Louis. Photo by Paul Jeffrey, UMNS.

More than 600 U.S. United Methodists spent three days grappling with possible options for forging what they hope will be a more just and inclusive church future. What united those at UMCNext, which met May 20-22 behind closed doors, was their opposition to the Traditional Plan.

That legislation, which the special 2019 General Conference approved by a vote of 438-384, retains the church stance that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching” and strengthens enforcement of church bans on same-sex weddings and “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy.

The increased enforcement takes effect Jan. 1 in the U.S. But another General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly, is also just around the corner, in May 2020.

“We gathered here because the decision that happened at the special General Conference is not acceptable,” said Karen G. Prudente of the New York Conference in a press conference after the event. She is on the event’s 17-member convening team. “We came here to discern a better way forward for The United Methodist Church.”

Those gathered identified two possible approaches toward a new Methodism, said the Rev. DJ del Rosario of the Pacific Northwest Conference. These include continued resistance to the Traditional Plan with the goal of reforming the church from within, as well as some form of negotiated separation to create something new.

Those gathered did not reach a consensus on a single direction. For now, those in attendance are working on a both-and-approach. And working groups will be developing plans for the next General Conference to consider.

“There are churches who feel every urgency that they are going to leave now,” said the Rev. Adam Hamilton, one of the event’s conveners. “There are also churches that say we couldn’t leave even if we wanted to… So we’re ultimately going to have several pathways forward.”

Hamilton is the lead pastor of United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, the event host and the denomination’s most-attended U.S. church with nearly 7,000 in worship on average each week. He and others at the press conference were also clear that resistance could mean violating the restrictions in the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s policy book, and risking their ministry. Resistance, conveners said, also could take less dramatic forms such as making sure their communities know all are welcome.

“The term resistance is grounded in our baptismal vows,” said the Rev. Junius Dotson, an event convener and the top executive of Discipleship Ministries. “We promise to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. So there are many forms of resistance, and people have to decide how they will participate.”

The UMCNext gathering drew together at least 10 representatives from each of the denomination’s 54 U.S. conferences. Also in attendance were 16 bishops.

The Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli, senior pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, said during the press conference that those gathered agreed to four commitments.

These include:

• To be passionate followers of Jesus Christ, committed to a Wesleyan vision of Christianity.

• To resist evil, injustice, and oppression in all forms and toward all people and build a church which affirms the full participation of all ages, nations, races, classes, cultures, gender identities, sexual orientations, and abilities.

• To reject the Traditional Plan approved at General Conference 2019 as inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ and resist its implementation.

• To work to eliminate discriminatory language and the restrictions and penalties in the Book of Discipline regarding LGBTQ individuals.

The Rev. Traci C. West was a co-convener at Our Movement Forward conference in Minneapolis. Photo by Heather Hahn, UMNS.

“It is encouraging to see centrists and progressives looking at some way forward for the United Methodist movement that looks a whole lot different than what we saw at General Conference,” said the Rev. Clayton Oliphint, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Richardson, Texas. 

“I think this is a wilderness time for us,” he said. “But I think God is leading us to something better.”

Summit in Minneapolis

The UMCNext event came on the heels of another gathering where the church’s future was on the agenda. Some 350 U.S. United Methodists staked out their position during a May 17-18 Minneapolis gathering, launching a movement centered on voices they see as too often marginalized – namely people of color and queer and transgender individuals. Organizers see the work started at the Our Movement Forward summit as both influencing The United Methodist Church from within and potentially leading to a completely new denomination.

The meeting’s chief organizer was the group UMForward, which formed last year to back the Simple Plan at February’s special General Conference. That plan would have removed all church restrictions related to homosexuality.

In recent years, a number of United Methodists including whole conferences have publicly defied these prohibitions.

Since the special General Conference, multiple United Methodist churches have displayed their rejection of the Traditional Plan by wrapping rainbow flags around their church crosses. Among those congregations is event host Lake Harriett United Methodist Church, whose members eagerly volunteered to help at Our Movement Forward.

Many at the Our Movement Forward gathering made clear they were not interested in going in a centrist or moderate direction.

“Jesus was not a centrist or a moderate. Jesus is a liberation-oriented radical,” the Rev. Jay Williams said to applause during a panel discussion. He is the openly queer pastor of Union United Methodist Church in Boston.

“In the wake of the passing of the Traditional Plan and all of the talk about what’s next, I believe the church might be its best self by following the Jesus of the Gospels.”

During the gathering, participants could explore one of three tracks:

• Resisting from within.

• Developing a hybrid approach of in/out connectedness.

• Birthing a wholly/holy new church connection.

By far the best-attended track dealt with creating a new movement. A frequent refrain in small-group discussions was a desire to have a radically different structure than the current denomination, leaving behind the current hierarchy of bishops and the clergy appointment system.

The Rev. Jennifer Kerby, pastor of Mount Lebanon United Methodist Church in Wilmington, Delaware, told UM News that at this point, she is interested in “birthing something new.”

“The Methodist Church has been my life and my love, but it is way past time for it to embrace all the people,” she said. “I’m here to help pray us through that birthing process.”

Not everyone at the gathering supported leaving the denomination or people who have different views of LGBTQ ministry.

Throughout the summit, speakers talked about how a church that follows Jesus practices “radical solidarity.”

The Rev. Traci C. West, one of the summit’s co-conveners, explained that phrase during a webinar ahead of the gathering. Practicing radical solidarity, she said, requires both humility to listen and bold risk-taking to stand by those on the margins.

“Radical solidarity is an ongoing process reliant on God’s grace,” she stressed. “It wouldn’t be a Methodist movement unless we talk about grace.”

Heather Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for UM News. Sam Hodges, a UM News reporter based in Dallas, contributed to the story. 

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