Uniting Methodists get strategic

The Rev. Thomas Steagald isn’t in love with the One Church Plan but sees it as the best way to hold The United Methodist Church together.

“I would hate to think this issue could divide Mr. Wesley’s church,” he said, speaking of the denomination’s longstanding division over homosexuality.

Steagald, pastor of Hawthorne Lane United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and an Upper Room Books author, was among 350 people in Dallas July 16-18 for a meeting of Uniting Methodists.

The gathering featured plenty of pep talks about the need for denominational unity and about the One Church Plan — which would allow U.S. churches and conferences autonomy on ordaining gay clergy and holding same-sex unions — as the way to have that.

But the group also made it clear that it’s pivoting toward strategy and tactics for getting the plan passed at the special General Conference set for February 23-26, 2019, in St. Louis.

The Rev. Cynthia Weems, who helped lead worship for the Uniting Methodists meeting and is a Florida Conference delegate to General Conference, feels hopeful, though plans like One Church have failed in the past.

“There’s a momentum around the church staying together, and it’s coming from people from very different perspectives on the matter of human sexuality,” she said.

The United Methodist Church has wrangled about how accepting to be of homosexuality for more than four decades. Its official positions, including restrictions against ordination of “self-avowed practicing” homosexuals and same-sex unions, have held despite open rebellion against them in parts of the U.S. church.

At the 2016 General Conference, with schism clearly a growing possibility, delegates put a hold on sexuality-related petitions and asked the Council of Bishops to try to lead the denomination through its impasse.

The bishops, working with their appointed Commission on a Way Forward, have recommended the One Church Plan. But a Traditionalist Plan and Conference Connectional Plan also will go to the special General Conference that was called by the bishops.

The Uniting Methodists formed last year, hoping to build a coalition of traditionalists, centrists and progressives who could argue persuasively that differences over homosexuality should not be church-dividing. The Rev. Rachel Baughman, part of the leadership team, said more than 5,000 United Methodists have registered online in support of the effort.

The meeting at Dallas’ Lovers Lane United Methodist Church was to have included in-depth discussion of the details of the One Church plan, and the bishops had said the Commission on a Way Forward report with legislation would be available by July 8. However, the release was delayed to complete translations, and in the meantime, the Commission on a Way Forward report became public mid-way through the Dallas gathering as part of the docket released for the Judicial Council’s fall meeting.

“Definitely frustrating,” Baughman said.

Much of the meeting featured speakers arguing that the denomination can best fulfill its stated mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world — including spreading the gospel, witnessing for social justice, and providing relief in times of disaster — by staying together.

Organizers scheduled talks by openly gay United Methodists, such as noted musician and composer Mark Miller, who called for a denominational “declaration of interdependence.”

Young adults were prominent speakers too, including Molly McEntire of the Florida Conference. She testified to the power of connectionalism in providing help after Hurricane Irma and challenged those in attendance to keep the denomination together.

“What will you leave for my generation?” she said.

The Rev. Adam Hamilton, pastor of the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, the denomination’s largest church, gave a talk titled “A High View of Scripture: Unity that Embraces Diversity.” It sought to challenge traditionalists’ argument that Bible-believing Christians must consider homosexuality a sin.

Other speakers focused on the case for the One Church Plan, including the Rev. Stan Copeland, pastor of Lovers Lane United Methodist.

He described his movement to a more progressive position on homosexuality, and his church’s embrace of its growing LGBT contingent.

Passing the One Church will let the church refocus on evangelism, Copeland maintained.

“I want to see us reaching people for Christ and not talking about sexuality at every General Conference,” he said.

West Ohio Conference Bishop Gregory Palmer also touted the One Church Plan, while acknowledging it’s a compromise that likely won’t end debate over the church’s teachings on human sexuality.

“I believe it’s a step in the right direction and it may be two or three steps,” he said.

The Uniting Methodists debuted “Room for All” in Dallas as their messaging slogan, and toward the end of the meeting focused on the challenge of passing One Church at the special General Conference.

Lonnie Chafin, Northern Illinois Conference treasurer and a General Conference delegate, led a separate strategy meeting for about 30 General Conference delegates in attendance.

Speaking to the entire group, he said, “Our goal is to have a one-on-one conversation with every potential delegate in order to bring them to the One Church Plan.”

Chafin asked those in attendance to do their own lobbying of delegates. He promised the coalition for One Church would be organized and ready to maneuver once floor action begins. He even said he’s looking for a “parliamentary ninja” to help, drawing laughs from the crowd.

Dave Nuckols, Minnesota Conference lay leader, Connectional Table treasurer and a Commission on the Way Forward member, told the group that strong U.S. support for the One Church Plan won’t be enough.

“Clearly we need to have support from all regions of the church, and I think it’s clear there will be support from Africa and the Philippines,” he said in an interview.

The meeting attracted at least one progressive pastor and one traditionalist pastor who are not General Conference delegates but lead large churches.

The Rev. Rudy Rasmus, pastor of St. John’s United Methodist Church in Houston, said he was “listening carefully” but wondered whether his congregation, which he said is at least 30 percent LGBTQ, can stay affiliated if the denomination doesn’t embrace full inclusivity for gay people.

And if the Traditionalist Plan, with stricter enforcement of current provisions, should pass?

“Game over,” Rasmus said.

The Rev. Talbot Davis leads Good Shepherd United Methodist Church in Charlotte, and he supports the current Book of Discipline positions on homosexuality as faithful to historic Christian teaching.

But Davis also said his church hasn’t discussed leaving the denomination and that he’ll be studying the various petition options with an open mind. Theology will guide the church, he said. But he added: “That’s different from the strategy of how we interact.”

The Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli, pastor of progressive Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., was among those in Dallas touting a plan they feel falls short.

“The One Church Plan is not for me the vision, but I do believe that at this moment, it’s going to provide us a way to create space to stay in relationship with LGBTQ people wherever they are,” she said.

Gaines-Cirelli has had concerns about whether the Uniting Methodists and allies would be ready for the St. Louis conference.

The Dallas meeting changed that.

“I feel like folk understand what the challenge is and what is required to meet it. And for me, that’s helpful and hopeful.”

Hodges is a Dallas-based writer for United Methodist News Service, contact him at 615-742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests. 

 

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