(Photo by Mike DuBose, United Methodist News Service)
Just before morning worship today, the Western Pennsylvania Delegation to General Conference received heartbreaking news. Faith Geer, a member of the delegation, had breathed her last breath after a lengthy journey with cancer. Faith, a member of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Allison Park, desperately wanted to to be here in St. Louis but was unable to make the trip because of her failing health. Her death ushered all of us into the depths of instantaneous grief.
I met faith back in 1990 and have long been grateful for her leadership, her vision, her organizational acumen, and her sacrificial service to the United Methodist Church at every level.
As Bishop Cynthia came to pray with the delegation, I heard an encouraging whisper in the depths of my soul, reminding me that, in Jesus Christ, struggle and death are never given the final word to speak. Faith Geer knows that now, better than all of us. I am convinced that she is more alive than she has ever been.
So, thank you, Faith, for the the graceful stewardship you practiced over your well-lived life and for allowing your journey to bless so many others, including mine.
As the General Conference gathered in plenary session to take action on Monday’s legislative recommendations, most of the morning was devoted to a debate of a “minority report” which called for a re-visiting of the One Church Plan (which is the plan that removes the current restrictive language about homosexuality from the Book of Discipline and allows pastors, congregations, and Boards of Ministry to come to their own contextual discernment about how best to care for marriage and ordination). Yesterday, while working as a legislative committee, the delegates opposed the One Church Plan (53% to 47%). This morning, if the plenary session had approved the minority report, the One Church Plan would have replaced the Traditional Plan as the point of focus for the delegates.
The minority report was not supported by the plenary. The percentage of the vote was the same as yesterday—roughly 53% of the delegates voted not to support the minority report, while roughly 47% voted support. The rejection of the minority report brought the delegates back to the Traditional Plan, which is the plan that maintains the current language about the “incompatibility” of homosexuality with Christian teaching and the current ban on both same sex weddings and the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” The Traditional Plan also institutes a more rigid accountability in this regard for clergy and bishops.
On Monday, the General Conference requested a declaratory decision from the United Methodist Judicial Council, whose job it is to rule on the constitutionality of United Methodism’s actions, practices, decisions, and policies. More specifically, the General Conference asked for a declaratory decision on the constitutionality of the Traditional Plan (vis-à-vis the United Methodist Church’s Constitution as contained in the Book of Discipline).
Today, delegates received a report from the Judicial Council, declaring that ten petitions related to the Traditional Plan are either unconstitutional or in violation of the church’s established polity.
As a result, the rest of the afternoon today was devoted to the tedious but important work of debating and amending the petitions in order to make them both practically workable and ecclesiastically constitutional.
Here’s the long and short of it all.
This afternoon, in an urgent moment that I experienced with breathless trembling, the General Conference adopted the Traditional Plan as the Way Forward for the denomination.
A little bit later on, delegates approved a petition on disaffiliation, which, in time, will provide a means by which a United Methodist Churches can leave the denomination with their property.
I will refrain from trying to describe all the details of our remaining hours together following the adoption of the Traditional Plan. Never has the phrase “you had to have been there” been more applicable.
Many delegates wept, deeply and uncontrollably, anguished by what they believe to be the church’s sanctioning of a dehumanizing mistreatment of sexual minorities.
Many delegates sat in quiet gratitude, believing that an orthodox understanding of Biblical sexual ethics had been rightly and decisively honored.
Many delegates were outraged, initiating disruptive protests and actions of dissent.
Many delegates were caught somewhere in the middle—weary, vulnerable, stunned by the intensity of all that was happening around them.
Emotions ran high this afternoon, and intensified emotions tend to generate amplified responses. We saw plenty of those: Legislative stall tactics designed to prevent the plenary from getting to all of the Traditional Plan’s petitions; shouts of protest designed to remind the church that it has caused deep pain; debate undergirded by palpable outrage.
It would be easy to approach such dynamics with a spirit of harsh judgment. But I would encourage you to pray your way out of such a spirit. After all, many delegates saw this vote as a matter of life and death for the church’s ministry. Their hearts were broken by the vote. Their vision for the future had taken a huge hit. Their anguish poured out as heightened remonstration. I would like to think that the church I love is durable enough to cover such behavior with countercultural patience and gracious understanding. After all, this is family, and family members love one another even in their most raw and vulnerable moments—especially in those moments, in fact.
How did I vote personally? Normally I don’t answer such questions publicly. It leads too easily to labeling, categorizing, and distorted perceptions. But this is a unique moment in the church’s history. I feel that I owe you at least the offering of transparency. So, here goes.
I did not vote for the Traditional Plan at any point. I was part of the 47% that voted for the One Church Plan (and the Connectional Conference Plan before that). I was in the queue to speak in favor of the One Church Plan this morning, but was not called upon.
My vote will disappoint some of you. It will encourage others. (Please, I beg of you—honor my transparency by resisting the temptation either to chastise my vote or to celebrate it.) I have great love and admiration in my heart for people all across the spectrum—those who voted my way and those who didn’t. But, here’s the deal: I am an evangelical follower of Jesus Christ who believes the Bible is God’s inspired Word but who also believes that the saving grace of Jesus creates sufficient space for divergent conclusions about how Biblical teachings are to be understood, interpreted, prioritized, and applied.
What drew me to the Connectional Conference Plan and the One Church Plan is that I found in both of them at least three convictions that spoke profoundly to my heart:
- First, the conviction that our most durable unity is found in the person and work of Jesus, not in the uniformity of our theology of sexuality
- Second, the conviction that the church’s current stance on homosexuality is doing far more harm than good in the human community
- And, third, the conviction that United Methodist Christians can have a far greater impact for the cause of Christ if they remain connected, in spite of their theological differences
But all of that is moot at this point. The Traditional Plan is the officially adopted way forward for our part of the Body of Christ. (I will lay aside the constitutionality issues for now, since I believe there are enough constitutional portions in the Traditional Plan to make it workable.)
So, what now?
Most of that we will have to figure out together over the course of the next year. Some people (and I am one of them) are greatly unsettled by some of the implications of the Traditional Plan’s petitions. But tonight is not the time to navigate all of the particulars. There will be plenty of opportunities for that in the days ahead. For now, allow me simply to offer a few priorities that are emerging from the weary but still-hopeful heart of this humble pastor.
- Open your heart to the fact that many souls are devastated by the church’s decision to adopt the Traditional Plan. Over the last two days, I have received over thirty e-mails and Facebook messages from people in my network of relationships who have begun to question their relationship with the United Methodist Church. Some have already made the decision to leave. I am asking you to be sensitively and prayerfully aware of pain that is probably not very far away from you.
- If you are a traditionalist, I greatly respect the sense of gratitude that you most likely have for an outcome that supports your heartfelt theological convictions. But, please, do not rejoice in this, as though the vote were a victory in a battle. Instead, allow the pain that others are experiencing to soften your heart and remind you that, if one part of the Body of Christ is suffering, the entire Body of Christ is suffering.
- Reach out to those in your family and church family who are broken over this. Help them to know that they are seen, heard, and valued. If you are a progressive, reach out to the traditionalists who have been wounded by the dynamics of our divided church. If you are a traditionalist, reach out to progressives who are now living in a denominational plan that feels painfully disenfranchising to them. If you are a centrist, reach out to the people on either side of you.
- Be intentional about building respectful and attentive relationships with the LGBTQ souls whose lives intersect with yours. If they have heard anything at all about what has transpired within the denomination, they most likely feel particularly vulnerable or marginalized at present. Your willingness to love them and to be loved by them may be some of your most urgent discipleship in the days ahead.
- Commit to making your church a place of radical hospitality for all people, irrespective of your stance on homosexuality. Start conversations in your church about what it means to communicate to every person who walks through your church’s doors that, no matter who they are, they are in a place where they will be honored, protected, and loved.
- Whatever your theological persuasion, resist the temptation to become so absolutely certain of your own rightness that you lose the capacity to engage with the hearts and minds of those on the other side of a variety of issues. We are a diverse church, after all, where Jesus is busy sanctifying conservatives and progressives, gay people and straight people, Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. We cannot afford to waste time bowing at the altar of self-certainty.
- Finally, breathe in and out the Gospel Truth—that Jesus Christ is still Lord; that he loves us with a love that will not let us go; and that nothing has transpired that has taken us beyond the scope of what God will beautifully redeem.
No matter your theological perspective, friends, I am alongside you in this. My deepest desire is for the authentic connection of our hearts as we learn from one another, nurture one another, and follow Jesus together.
Thank you for journeying with me through this General Conference. Thank you for being the church with me. Thank you for your prayerful encouragement. Thank you for reminding me of why the church is worth the struggle and pain.