Dramatically taking on the denomination’s official stance on homosexuality, the New England Conference on June 17 approved a resolution titled “Action of Non-Conformity with the General Conference of The United Methodist Church.”
The resolution passed by a vote of 445-179, with a handful of abstentions. It says the conference “will not conform or comply with provisions of the (Book of) Discipline which discriminate against LGBTQIA persons.” (The acronym refers to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual.)
New England Area Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar has 30 days to make a decision of law on the legality of the conference action, which was challenged immediately after the vote.
The resolution also says the conference and its members “will not participate in or conduct judicial procedures related to the Discipline’s prohibitions against LGBTQIA persons.”
“It is up to us to resist homophobia and injustice and be proud of who we are and act,” said the Rev. Will Green, a provisional elder and pastor of Ballard Vale United Church in Andover, Massachusetts. He was a sponsor of the resolution.
Green volunteered that the resolution itself violates church law as recorded in the Book of Discipline, but said that was no reason not to pass it.
“In order not to follow an unjust law, we must take actions that are against the rules, but not against justice,” Green said to cheers as conference delegates met in Manchester, New Hampshire.
Church law declares all people are of sacred worth, but states that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The denomination does not allow ordination of “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” as clergy or allow clergy to officiate at same-sex weddings, which are now legal across the United States.
The divisions over these positions were clear at General Conference 2016 in Portland, Oregon, with open speculation that the denomination might split because of them.
The Council of Bishops asked for and was given permission to create a commission to address the denomination’s conflict over sexuality, with the possibility of a special General Conference to be called in two years.
Some at the New England Conference annual gathering argued that the Council of Bishops and the yet-to-be-named commission deserved a chance.
The Rev. John Marshall, pastor of South (United Methodist) Church in Manchester, Connecticut, moved unsuccessfully that the resolution be referred to Bishop Devadhar to take to the Council of Bishops and the commission.
“I followed the stream of General Conference relatively closely… the denomination was on the brink of schism, and the body asked the Council of Bishops for leadership,” Marshall said, and the council proposed the commission to study human sexuality.
Right after the resolution was approved, the Rev. Michael Pike of Portsmouth United Methodist Church in Rhode Island, requested that Devadhar make a decision of law as to the legality of the action.
“I believe this action is clearly and intentionality in opposition to and in conflict with the Book of Discipline,” Pike said.
Devadhar noted that he had 30 days under church law to answer Pike’s request and promised to do so.
The immediate aftermath of the resolution’s approval also saw the Rev. Donald “Skip” Smith, a local pastor, asked to speak to the delegates.
“I respectfully, sadly and through the power of the Holy Spirit leave this New England Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church,” said Smith, pastor of Berwick United Methodist Church in Berwick, Maine. “May God bless you.”
Devadhar asked from the floor for the chance to pray with and talk to Smith before he left.
The resolution says that the conference will not use reserve funds to pay for judicial procedures related to the Discipline’s homosexuality-related prohibitions. Instead the conference will, according to the resolution, fund cultural competency training programs as a means of combating discrimination, including homophobia.
The last paragraph of the resolution was amended Friday afternoon to remove the prohibition against using conference reserve funds to pay general church apportionments. Language was also added to charge the Connectional Table and the Conference Council on Finance and Administration with developing the cultural competency programs.
The resolution was initially considered by a Committee on the Whole, a mechanism in Robert’s Rules of Order that in effect allows a voting body to consider matters as if it is a committee. The Rev. John Blackadar, conference secretary, was chosen to preside over the Committee on the Whole, and he presented the resolution Friday morning.
Questions were asked Friday as to whether the resolution had legal implications. Conference Chancellor Bill Hewig said the only possible legal consequence would be a challenge that sends the matter to the denomination’s high court, the Judicial Council.
The New England Conference has, through the years, challenged the denomination’s stance on homosexuality. Recently, a number of annual conference boards of ordained ministry have said they will no longer consider the sexuality of ministry candidates.
Other conferences have reacted to the actions at General Conference by in some way reaffirming their intent to follow the Discipline and adhere to the denominational stance on sexuality.
South Georgia on June 10 approved a motion asking that the conference not accept clergy from any of the conferences that have publicly stated their intent to disregard the current language of the Discipline.
The Holston Conference received a “State of the Church Report” from Bishop Mary Virginia Taylor, who said, “The Holston Conference will honor and keep the Book of Discipline for those of us who are ordained.”
On June 16, the Oregon-Idaho board of ordained ministry joined the New England, Baltimore-Washington, California-Nevada, New York, Northern Illinois and Pacific Northwest boards of ordained ministry in the decision not to consider sexual orientation or gender identity when recommending people for ordained ministry.
Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. DiCocco is a communicator for the New England Conference. Kathy L. Gilbert, a United Methodist New Service reporter, also contributed. Contact Hodges at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]