On Feb. 27, 2019, will United Methodists wake up united, divided or in limbo?
The special called 2019 General Conference, set for Feb. 23-26 in St. Louis, will focus on moving the denomination past its decades-long struggle with issues around homosexuality. Proposed plans offer a way to stay together and ways to split.
The One Church Plan, Traditional Plan and Connectional Conference Plan and probably several other pieces of legislation related to homosexuality will be debated and voted on by 864 delegates from around the globe.
In the meantime, United Methodists are pondering and praying about the three plans.
A 231-page document submitted to Judicial Council was made public July 17 when the denomination’s top court published the docket for its October meeting. The proposed legislation was the work of the 32-member Commission on a Way Forward, approved at the end of General Conference 2016.
Margie Briggs, a certified lay minister for two small rural churches in Missouri, is a delegate to the special General Conference.
“I have been a delegate at the past six General Conferences. I have read with exhausting pain the three plans. There is not much I can say about them except I know what I have read will not be the final form that will be voted on,” she said, talking about the hours of debates that legislation often goes through before a final version is brought to the floor for a vote.
“I pray that not a single delegate takes off for St. Louis in February 2019 with their mind made up. I’m counting on God to lead us in a mighty way where we can be what God has called us to be, ‘disciple makers,’” she said.
Many people are also praying and dreaming of what the church will be.
“My greatest prayer as we approach General Conference 2019 is that we will seek to love one another in the midst of significant disagreement,” said the Rev. Beth Ann Cook, an Indiana pastor and a delegate.
Cook believes the Traditional Plan is the best option.
“It preserves our church’s biblical and balanced teaching on marriage and sexuality,” she said. “All people are of sacred worth; all people are also called to holy living.”
Key issues of the Traditional Plan affirm current language in the Book of Discipline which bans “self-avowed and practicing” gay clergy and the blessing of same sex unions. It would also enforce those bans swiftly and strictly.
The plan’s legislative petitions also provide a way for churches and annual conferences that disagree with strict enforcement to set up self-governing or “autonomous, affiliated or concordant” churches or conferences.
The Rev. Michael D. Grant, Ohio pastor, said the Traditional Plan is the only one with a “gracious exit option for those who cannot in good conscience live within our system.” That is one of three reasons he supports this plan.
His other reasons for supporting this plan are because it maintains the current language in the Book of Discipline and it holds pastors and bishops accountable “to the covenant they made before God and the church.”
The Rev. David Wilson, conference superintendent of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference and a delegate, supports the One Church Plan.
“I feel like the One Church Plan gives annual conferences more flexibility on our specific ministry contexts. After reading the other plans they seem less flexible and are more punitive than seeking to find common ground in which we can work together,” he said.
Key elements of the One Church Plan include eliminating the Book of Discipline language, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Also deleted is the requirement that ordained clergy cannot be “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” Each annual conference board of ordained ministry and clergy session may determine standards for ordination or certification, including standards related to human sexuality.
The plan also allows ordained clergy to perform same-sex marriages but does not require them to do so. Churches can vote on whether to hold same-sex marriages in their buildings. Clergy are also free to transfer to other conferences or churches based on the standards for ordination regarding homosexuals.
The Connectional Conference Plan addresses constitutional issues head-on, said the Rev. Robert Frank Zilhaver, a delegate from Western Pennsylvania. “I tend to believe that if you are going to fundamentally change the way that we live together in the church it will require constitutional amendments,” he added.
The Connectional Conference Plan would replace the five U.S. jurisdictions with three connectional conferences that are “values-based” rather than geographic in nature.
The denomination’s current central conferences, which are outside the U.S., could join one of the three U.S. conferences to form a global conference or create their own connectional conference. However, the individual annual conferences that disagree with the decision of their central conference have the option of voting to join a different connectional conference.
Each connectional conference would create its own Book of Discipline that includes items “commonly agreed upon by United Methodists,” with the authority to adapt other items not included in a General Book of Discipline.
“My prayer for the special session is that, in spite of my fears, God might find a way for The United Methodist Church to remain faithful to an orthodox living out of scripture to minister God’s eternal and abundant life full of grace and truth,” Zilhaver said.
The Rev. Christopher M. Ritter, a delegate and pastor from Illinois, supports both the Connectional Conference Plan and the Traditional Plan because they allow sorting at the annual conference level. However, given that the connectional plan requires constitutional amendments, he feels it is unlikely to pass.
“The Traditional Plan contains some creative provisions for which I have been advocating,” Ritter said. The idea that any 50 congregations could form their own autonomous yet affiliated conference would allow multiple expressions of Methodism to flourish across America, he believes.
The Rev. Jerry P. Kulah, a delegate from Liberia and dean of Gbarnga School of Theology, United Methodist University, believes the Traditional Plan promotes biblical Christianity in Africa. “It is this model that governed the life, mission and ministries of The United Methodist Church since its founding by John Wesley and others,”
The Rev. Henry Roque, Northeast Pangasinan District in the Philippines, said his “basic training and conviction affirm that the Traditional Plan provides biblical foundation about salvation, mission, and ministry. In terms of inclusiveness, it allows everyone to become a member of the church, partake of its sacraments and participate in its ministries and mission.”
However, Rolando M. Canda Jr., a young adult from St. Mark United Methodist Church in Sampaloc, Manilla, supports the One Church Plan because it provides a safe space for and stops the harm being done against LGBTQ people.
“The One Church Plan is the best way forward that keeps the church united, focused on mission and eliminates the harmful language in the Book of Discipline. It is not perfect, but I think it will take us to another level of seeking full inclusion of LGBTQ community.”
Susie Stonecipher, a 17-year member of First United Methodist Church of Hurst, Texas, said the One Church Plan most closely aligns the church to foundational Wesleyan beliefs.
“We are mandated by Christ to offer unconditional, unlimited, unqualified and unending love to all, and the One Church Plan comes closest to moving United Methodist law into that beloved community where God’s love is fully, freely and fearlessly given to all through us,” she said.
The Rev. Austin Adkinson, pastor of Haller Lake United Methodist Church, Seattle, Washington, also feels that the One Church Plan, while flawed, does the least harm.
“All three plans in the commission’s report continue discrimination and harm by The United Methodist Church. … Even the plan endorsed by the bishops codifies the permissible modes of discrimination that would be adopted by large portions of the denomination,” he said.
Adkinson is a member of UM Queer Clergy Caucus and that group is sending legislation to the 2019 General Conference that removes the language from the Book of Discipline that excludes LGBTQ people from full participation in the church, called A Simple Plan Forward.
For Briggs, the bottom line is, “Jesus told Mary to go and tell.”
“We serve a risen Savior and there is a world that desperately needs to be introduced to Him. Perhaps there just might be more ways than one, two, or three plans.”
Gladys Mangiduyos, a United Methodist correspondent based in the Philippines, contributed to this report.