Annual conferences mixed on bishops' plan

Members of the 2018 Michigan Annual Conference meet in Traverse City, Mich. Conferences, including Michigan, voted on resolutions that signal their aspirations for the special General Conference in 2019. Photo by Kathleen Barry, UMNS.
Members of the 2018 Michigan Annual Conference meet in Traverse City, Mich. Conferences, including Michigan, voted on resolutions that signal their aspirations for the special General Conference in 2019. Photo by Kathleen Barry, UMNS.

After singing “And Are We Yet Alive,” a number of U.S. annual conferences have weighed in on how The United Methodist Church might live in the future.

Various annual conferences have voted on resolutions related to the Council of Bishops recommendation for a way forward through the denomination’s potentially church-splitting divisions over homosexuality.

In May, a majority of United Methodist bishops recommended what they call the One Church Model.

Some conferences have endorsed that plan, which would leave questions of the ordination of LGBTQ clergy up to annual conferences and same-gender marriage up to local churches. Others have called for stronger enforcement of the denomination’s current prohibitions against same-gender weddings and “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy.

The resolutions are aspirational. Ultimately, decisions about the denomination’s direction will be in the hands of the 864 lay and clergy delegates — elected by annual conferences — to attend the special General Conference in 2019.

The U.S. annual conference season is still very much in full swing with more votes to come. Here is a brief overview of some of the actions thus far. 

More on annual conferences

Annual conferences are yearly, regional gatherings around the globe that combine United Methodist worship and business. They celebrate the licensing, commissioning and ordination of new clergy and as well as clergy retirements.

United Methodist News Service is posting annual conference reports as we receive them.

See reports.

At least two annual conference sessions — Baltimore-Washington and Northern Illinois — approved resolutions that support the One Church Model.

The Baltimore-Washington Conference, by a vote of 310 to 233, approved a motion to “welcome the leadership of the Council of Bishops in its proposal of the One Church Plan to the 2019 Special Session of General Conference.”

In the Michigan Conference, voters approved the “Call for Unity in Diversity” resolution that urges the General Conference to "affirm unity in our diversity, and challenge in love all that divides and offer to all people God's saving grace through Jesus Christ that transforms the world."

The vote for the resolution was overwhelming and brought together United Methodists across the theological spectrum, said the Rev. Melanie Carey, a General Conference delegate who presented the resolution.

“In our families, we don’t agree with everybody,” she said. “The church is like a giant family. We don’t agree, but we still get together. Sometimes in families, people don’t talk to each other or they break apart. But we’re hoping we’ll be able to work it out.”

The North Alabama Conference voted against a similar resolution on unity by a written vote of 412 no to 240 yes.

The Holston Conference substituted a One Church Model endorsement with a motion calling on its General Conference delegation to study the upcoming bishops’ report and subsequently set up listening sessions around the conference ahead of the 2019 session.

The New York Conference, which encompasses United Methodists in the greater New York City area and western Connecticut, reaffirmed its longtime stance that the denomination should remove language excluding LGBTQ individuals from the life of the church. The resolution also urges General Conference delegates to consider the marginalized in any proposed changes in church structure.

The conference — as permitted by the denomination’s Book of Discipline — also elected a new slate of eight delegates and eight reserves to the special General Conference. Of the 16-member delegation, seven are LGBTQ, 11 are people of color, 10 are women and five are immigrants. Some of the straight delegates elected identify as LGBTQ allies.

The high number of LGBTQ United Methodists was by design, said Dorothee Benz, who is openly gay and will be a lay delegate in 2019.

“At the very center of this effort was our conviction that we must do whatever we can to rectify the exclusion of LGBTQI people not just from equal standing in the church but from even being in the conversation,” she said. The initials stand for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex.

The Upper New York Conference voted against two resolutions — one urging the end of all forms of discrimination against LGBTQ individuals and another urging a four-book study that advocates a traditionalist approach to sexual ethics and celibacy for gay people.

The conference did approve a resolution urging the General Council on Finance and Administration to add a “non-binary” column to the denomination’s membership statistical reports to allow the reporting of members who do not identify as male or female.

Other conferences are calling for an alternative to the bishops’ recommendation.

The South Georgia Conference approved a resolution urging affirmation of “the present standards of our Discipline” with added accountability when the Discipline is violated.

The South Carolina Conference also referred a resolution affirming the current language in the Discipline to its General Conference delegation. The conference also amended a resolution on lay volunteers and lay staff to say it would “encourage all United Methodist congregations in South Carolina to follow” employment and volunteer practices that are aligned with the denomination's Social Principles.

The resolution goes on to encourage local church policies for lay volunteers and employees "based solely on merit and without regard for sexual orientation or gender identity."

The Peninsula-Delaware Conference, similarly, amended a resolution that called for “openness to diverse perspectives in matters of human sexuality” to instead “maintain the current language” in the Discipline concerning matters of human sexuality.

At the same conference, Chelsea Spyres announced she was withdrawing from appointment as a licensed local pastor as long as LGBTQ individuals are barred from ordination.

For those who want to maintain the church’s prohibitions, the Rev. Rob Renfroe promised a traditionalist plan will be on the table at the special General Conference. Renfroe is the president of Good News, an unofficial advocacy group that seeks to strengthen enforcement of church laws on homosexuality.

At a luncheon with likeminded United Methodists in the Texas Conference, Renfroe declared he and other traditionalists would defeat the One Church Model at General Conference.

He also urged bishops who support that model to leave The United Methodist Church.

“Admit you no longer have the moral authority to lead this church,” he said. “And if you want to lead others out to something other than The United Methodist Church, we will bless you as you go.”

The bishops plan to make their report to General Conference public after it is translated into the main languages in which the church does business — English, French, Kiswahili and Portuguese. The deadline to submit legislation to the special General Conference is July 8.

The U.S. annual conference season will continue through the end of June with more annual conference meetings planned around the globe before the special General Conference.

Delegates often take annual conference actions into consideration, but they are not obligated to reflect the opinions of those who elected them. The church’s Judicial Council has stated that delegates must vote “as their conscience dictates” for what is good for the church of Jesus Christ.

Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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