The North Central Jurisdiction has a well-earned reputation as a rather liberal jurisdiction.
It speaks volumes about the politics of this jurisdiction, in which I served as an elected delegate this year, that it has never elected a bishop who went to Asbury Theological Seminary (until this year), while twenty years ago it elected a bishop (now retired) who openly denies such basic Christian doctrines as the physical resurrection of Christ. The ever-present protest signs of Amy DeLong and her “Love Prevails” activists certainly contributed to the overall mood of the 2016 North Central Jurisdictional Conference in Peoria, Illinois.
This would certainly seem like fertile ground for the movement of liberal United Methodists calling for the non-enforcement of our denomination’s policies banning the ordination of anyone sexually active outside of monogamous, heterosexual marriage and the performance of same-sex unions. Indeed, much of the agitation of folk calling to “stop the trials” of United Methodist clergy who break these standards is within my jurisdiction.
And yet to my pleasant surprise the majority of delegates to this summer’s North Central Jurisdictional Conference voted against calling for no church trials over “human sexuality complaints.”
(Under current United Methodist Church law, if ministers violate our standards and stubbornly refuses offers for specific “out-of-court settlements” after a formal complaint is filed, the only effective way to hold them accountable is to organize a church trial for their case, with a jury of their peers deciding if they are guilty and if so, what the penalty will be. I submitted a proposal to the last General Conference, which now has been referred to new bishops’ human sexuality commission, which would allow for accountability without the need for costly trials.)
Here is what happened:
During the North Central Jurisdictional Conference last July, a luncheon was organized by some self-described “centrists.” (Multiple delegates who are significantly more liberal than me told me that in their observation, this particular group seemed a lot more liberal than moderate.) Among other things, speakers there unveiled a resolution they planned to introduce at the Jurisdictional Conference. They explained that they were taking their cues from resolutions in other jurisdictions.
The most key vote actually came on an amendment to this resolution. When the resolution was before us delegates, Pastor Andy Adams of the Illinois-Great Rivers Conference moved to delete one phrase that would have very broadly called for no church trials under any circumstances for clergy who choose to violate our biblical standards on human sexuality. Specifically, the Adams amendment was to replace the call for North Central bishops “to handle human sexuality complaints without further harm or trials” with “to handle human sexuality complaints by exploring options to help the church live in grace with one another including ways to avoid further complaints, trials and harm while we uphold the Discipline.”
So basically the North Central Jurisdictional Conference was faced with a choice about how to handle our Discipline’s biblical standards on marriage and sexual self-control: Did we want to keep the resolution’s original language, and call on our bishops to avoid any church trials at any cost, thus effectively giving wayward clergy free rein to violate these standards as much as they want? Or do we instead prefer to use the somewhat vague language of the motion adopted by General Conference to create the new bishops’ commission (language which did NOT create a moratorium on enforcing our standards, as several bishops subsequently clarified in strong public and private statements) to basically tell our North Central bishops that we don’t enjoy complaints and trials, that we will follow the Discipline’s own guidance to treat trials as a “last resort,” and that we want to minimize harm, but that we will ultimately commit as a jurisdiction to upholding the Discipline’s standards, which includes no clergy performing same-sex unions or personally being sexually active outside of monogamous and heterosexual marriage, and which also include the fair processing of complaints and holding church trials when necessary to enforce these standards?
By a vote of 98-82 (54.4-45.6 percent), the North Central Jurisdiction chose the latter.
Pastor Beth Ann Cook of Indiana highlighted how the resolution’s broad language about “human sexuality complaints” would protect clergy committing offenses not involving homosexuality, such as adultery and sexual harassment. (I have repeatedly pointed out how some, not all, liberal United Methodists who advocate ending our denomination’s opposition to homosexual practice are also working to roll back our opposition to premarital sex and adultery.) But Pastor Bob Philips of the Illinois-Great Rivers Conference did not shy away from defending the importance of maintaining the option to have church trials when needed for clergy who violate our standards related to homosexuality.
Delegates who spoke against the amendment, to effectively argue for no meaningful accountability for clergy violating any of our “human sexuality” standards, were Revs. Mike Slaughter of West Ohio, and Alka Lyall and Carol Hill of Northern Illinois.
After that amendment was adopted, along with another amendment to change references to “issues of human sexuality” to “conversations of human sexuality,” what remained was so vague and ambiguous that it was hard for anyone on any side to strongly disagree, and so the final resolution passed in an uncounted hand vote.
There were a couple of other helpful things about this resolution. It affirms that “the Body of Christ exists as covenantal relationships” and commits our jurisdiction to “live more deeply into our Wesleyan covenantal relationships” – which would have little meaning, particularly in the historic Wesleyan understanding of communal covenants, if those covenantal relationships lack firm boundaries or serious consequences for transgressions. With appropriate humility, it declares that “our theological task calls us to be neither indifferent towards truth nor to indulgently tolerate error.” Somewhat surprisingly, it even affirms Jesus Christ’s own teaching on accountability in Matthew 18:15-17, which explicitly recognizes that there sometimes comes a point when Christian faithfulness demands breaking fellowship with persistently disobedient people within the church.
I especially appreciate how the resolution calls on our North Central bishops “to cultivate a spirit within their cabinets and clergy sessions that treats all clergy respectfully and fairly whether their views are traditional, progressive, or indifferent on matters of human sexuality.” This jurisdiction has had a problem with some liberal bishops using their powers (especially of appointments) to mistreat traditionalist clergy in rather unfair ways.
Some other language in the resolution may seem liberal at first glance, and may be rhetorically unhelpful if looked at from one angle, but remains vague enough to allow for conflicting interpretations. When the resolution calls for allowing a variety of “contextually relevant ministries,” it does NOT explicitly call for an Episcopalian-style “local option” on same-gender unions. The vague wording could be interpreted to mean greater flexibility in annual conference structures, or allowing one annual conference to formally partner with a particular network of same-sex-attracted Christians committed to lifelong celibacy while a congregation elsewhere is not looked down on for partnering with the Restored Hope Network. I don’t mind giving people in my church freedom to pursue ministries “that are faithful to the leading of the Spirit,” since the Holy Spirit will NOT actually lead pastors to contradict the teachings the same Holy Spirit inspired the writers of Scripture to give us.
As for the commitment to avoid “resorting to complaints as a first or even second response” to differences on human sexuality, the fact of the matter is that orthodox United Methodists have for many decades, since before I was even born, been “seek[ing] deeper relationship with those who do not share our perspectives,” even including that subset of liberal United Methodists who go a major step further than disagreement to flagrantly break our covenant. Again and again, our church has extreme amount of patience and forgiveness, even to a fault, in the face of some rather extreme provocations. In light of this history, it is hardly accurate to characterize it being “a first or even second response” for orthodox United Methodists to file complaints against liberal ministers who after all these years still refuse to listen to the rest of the church and who still persist in disregarding our covenant.
While I have not seen a stand-alone electronic version of this resolution online, here is a scan of the well-used paper copy I was handed in Peoria, with my notes indicating the amendments made.
Yes, there were dissenting votes to the majority on both the Adams amendment and the final adoption of the resolution, just as there were dissenting votes to “nonconformity” motions passed in the Northeast.
But what is most significant about this resolution is that it overturned expectations of even the usually liberal-leaning North Central Jurisdiction, so that now its bishops have been officially notified that the majority of the delegates elected to represent the various annual conferences of our jurisdiction want our bishops to commit to upholding the Discipline’s standards on human sexuality and do NOT want them to categorically remove church trials as a valid way to respond to clergy who violate our sexuality standards.