These last few days the United Methodist Church’s General Conference met in St. Louis, Missouri. Our church is, like the US, made up of conservatives, centrists, and progressives. Part of our strength is that we live in this tension with passionate Christians in these various groups.
The Bishops were charged with bringing forward a plan that would hold us together—conservatives, centrists, and progressives—on the issue of same-sex marriage. They appointed a commission who spent two years studying and bringing back a plan called the One Church Plan. It was approved by more than two-thirds of the bishops and recommended to General Conference.
One of the conservative caucuses of the United Methodist Church, the Wesley Covenant Association, effectively defeated the bishops’ recommended plan as a way forward for the United Methodist Church. In its place, they proposed an even more regressive plan that includes relieving gay and lesbian clergy and bishops of their positions, imposing penalties on bishops who do not enforce the Discipline, and on clergy who officiate at same-sex weddings, adding teeth to the current policies.
I prepared these words as a “speech against” the Modified Traditional Plan.
Bishops and delegates of General Conference, I rise to speak against the Traditional Plan that is before us.
For those who are discouraged today, I want to offer a reminder of a gospel truth: God has a way of taking our disappointment, our defeats, and God redeems them when we put them in God’s hands. Because of that I feel hope today for the United Methodist Church believing, in the words of Paul, that the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead will give life to this Christian body, the United Methodist Church.
Last night I looked around my hotel and saw centrists and progressives, some of whom seldom talk, dreaming together about the future of the United Methodist, and there was a surprising amount of hope and excitement about the future.
At this point I’m a bit unclear, however, what the WCA wants. For the last five years, the leaders of this movement have asked for an “amicable separation.” I thought you wanted to leave, but now it appears you want the rest of us to leave.
Centrists and progressives never wanted a divorce. We were never looking for a gracious exit. We were looking for a little space. You wanted to leave because you were tired of fighting about this. But with this you’ve alienated not only the progressives but also the centrists. Will these churches protest less or more for LGBTQ persons in the future? Those proposing the Traditional Church Plan, you have inspired a lot of people to action at this GC!
I’ve heard many tell us that this debate is about the authority of the Bible. I’d suggest the debate is not about the authority of the Bible, but about biblical interpretation. Paul says more about the role of women—women keeping silent in the church, women praying with their heads covered, women not teaching men, women submitting to men, women not wearing jewelry—than he says about same-sex acts.
The WCA has said that they support the ordination of women. I’m grateful. But in doing so, you have set aside the clear teaching of Paul: women keep silent in the church. Yes, Paul allowed women to lead, but despite that, he clearly said they must not teach a man and must remain silent in the church. How did you come to set aside the clear teaching of Scripture? You interpreted the Scriptures in the light of their cultural setting and by reasoning theologically in the light of more important themes in Scripture.
On this last Sunday, we began our deliberations, voting on our top priority. Do you remember what we voted for? It was not the Traditional Plan; it was our pensions. That was interesting given that Jesus said, “Don’t store up for yourselves treasures on earth,” and “Go and sell all you have and give it to the poor.” I’d like to invite all of you who want to read the Bible as if “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” to forfeit your pensions to cover the unfunded liabilities of our denomination.
We can interpret Jesus’ words about riches and Paul’s words about women, but when Paul says that gay and lesbian people are unnatural and shameful, we must take these literally without understanding the cultural context.
Who’s “picking and choosing” now? And actually, I don’t believe that you are picking and choosing; I believe you are interpreting the text, just as those who question Paul’s words about people involved in some form of same-sex acts.
But back to the Traditional Plan: I’d like to ask those delegates who supported the One Church or Simple Plans, around the room, please stand. These brothers and sisters supported plans that said to conservatives, Africans, and Russians, “We love you and want you in our church and we’re willing to guarantee your rights to hold a more conservative interpretation of Scripture on marriage provided you give us a little latitude.” But in the Traditional Plan you’ve said to us and to our congregations, “Accept our interpretation, or leave.”
Look around. Again, to those who are standing, it feels as if the Traditional Plan is saying, “Agree with us or leave.” But it is not only these delegates and their churches that feel alienated by this plan; there are thousands of our US churches who feel as they do. This includes many of our largest and most dynamic churches.
In addition to the thousands of churches who feel they are being pushed out by a plan like this, there are an overwhelming number of young clergy and seminary students who favor fully including LGBTQ persons. Do you really want to tell them we don’t want them?
Do you really want all of us to go? [You can be seated.]
But it is not just many of the brightest and best young pastors we’re pushing away, it is your own children and grandchildren, yours and mine. Three out of four of millennials who live in the US support same-sex marriage and do not want to be a part of a church that makes their friends feel like second-class Christians. Many of you have children and grandchildren who cannot imagine that we’re voting this way today. They wonder, have these people lost their minds?
For all of these reasons, I’m urging all of our delegates to say “no” to the Modified Traditional Plan. Please do not push our congregations, our young clergy, and our children and grandchildren out of the church we love. It is a plan that will hurt the people and sends the wrong message to our people.
Please vote “no” on this plan.