Within our United Methodist Church, there is plenty of well-known bad news about the leadership (and lack thereof) by our American bishops.
But fortunately, despite all the considerable power and privileges our bishops enjoy, we often see more local United Methodist leaders refusing to follow the liberal direction in which even their own bishops have tried to move the church.
We saw a couple of powerful examples of this earlier this spring and summer in the Philadelphia Episcopal Area. This area is comprised of both the Peninsula-Delaware and Eastern Pennsylvania Conferences, and is presided over by Bishop Peggy Johnson.
At their 2017 annual conference sessions, actions were taken that amounted to rejecting Bishop Johnson’s liberal agendas in opposing the UMC’s orthodox teaching on homosexuality and in opposing basic legal protections for the freedom of conscience for Christians who do not share her liberalism.
In 2015, Bishop Johnson made a choice to join Bishops Thomas Bickerton and Jeremiah Park in releasing a public letter advocating for the then-latest LGBTQ activist cause, in a way that not only ignored the traditionalist United Methodist teachings on marriage each bishop vowed to uphold, but also rather lovelessly misrepresented the character of Christians who do not want to be forced to directly participate in same-sex union ceremonies. Their letter took a rather extreme position of limiting religious liberty to only “the right to our own personal beliefs,” as long as it does NOT extend to protections for people being allowed to actually behave according to their personal beliefs outside of church walls. At the time, IRD Director Mark Tooley noted troubling questions raised by the Bickerton-Park-Johnson letter.
More recently, Bishop Johnson proudly marched in the Philadelphia Gay Pride Parade, and then wrote a blog post celebrating the participation of some area United Methodists and a picture of herself and one such minister holding a “GOD IS GENDER QUEER” sign (pictured above).
Encompassing much of the “blue” states of Delaware and Maryland, the Peninsula-Delaware Conference, located within the rather liberal Northeastern Jurisdiction, has hardly been a bastion of any sort of conservatism. So when a group of activists affiliated with the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN) had good reason to expect quick approval of a resolution essentially promoting the stance of the conference’s own bishop of broadly opposing any government or private actions that, in the resolution’s words, “misuse the principle of religious freedom in ways that do harm by denying services…to anyone.” This Resolution #R-3 (which can be read by clicking on “Resolutions” at this link) did go a bit further by targeting not only businesses and governments, but also “non-profit and religious organizations” that violate this principle. But it was driven by the same basic anti-liberty approach of Bishop Johnson.
Both the Bickerton-Park-Johnson letter and the resolution entitled “Rejecting ‘Religious Freedom’ as a Means of Discrimination” took care to avoid any direct and honest acknowledgement of the actual cases that are driving these recent debates over religious liberty as it relates to same-sex weddings. At the same time, both statements make such allusions as, in the words of the bishops’ letter, acknowledging that “[r]ecent events have highlighted the discomfort some religious people experience about providing goods and services to same-sex couples seeking to be married.” Such allusions indicate the authors’ awareness of the cases. For a quick refresher, here are links to some of the more high-profile cases of Christian small business owners (such as bakers or florists) who do not want to be forced to directly support spiritually harmful same-sex wedding rituals, or otherwise forced to endorse homosexual practice, facing heavy-handed government punishments under the banner of “anti-discrimination” laws – ranging from these brothers and sisters in Christ being forced by the inherently violent force of the government to pay crushing fines as high as $135,000, lose their livelihoods, print messages with which they morally disagree, or be thrown in jail (the latter potential punishment NOT being isolated to one state).
This is yet another example of liberal United Methodists like Bishop Johnson and the RMN crowd being far less willing to extend basic Golden-Rule compassion towards those outside their ideological tribe than we have seen from some more secular gay-rights advocates. Apparently for them, in order to maintain their rejection of biblical teaching about sexual self-control, they feel they must also choose to reject other biblical teaching, such as the obligation to be in solidarity with parts of the body of Christ suffering bullying, harassment, death threats, ruinous fines, and the threat of jail, all for their desire to not run their small businesses divorced from Christian values. And both the letter and the resolution seem far more interested in caricaturing the victims as being somehow unloving (for declining to encourage people to pursue a form of self-harm!) than actually listening to the nuanced, compassionate, and incredibly gracious perspective of such brothers and sisters.
Thankfully, the majority folk of even the Peninsula-Delaware Conference evidently feel rather differently. They voted to reject this resolution which, at its core, basically affirmed Bishop Johnson’s anti-liberty, anti-ecumenical approach. Given the great deference bishops typically enjoyed, this rejection of her agenda was rather striking.
Another proposed resolution noted that our denomination’s membership “holds diverse opinions regarding sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression,” but called on us to come together to support “gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender teens” who are at risk for bullying, depression, and family rejection. While there are problems with assigning such identities to children, and the resolution’s WHEREAS statement unhelpfully cited a sloppily bad past UMC resolution on “heterosexism” that has actually expired (and so is no longer an official UMC position), traditionalists can acknowledge that such resolutions do highlight a real, legitimate concern, as I have noted elsewhere. But in a pleasant surprise, this resolution was amended to ultimately expand its concern to include “all youth” (rather than ONLY those who check any sort of LGBTQ box) and express the goal “that they may be guided to accept God’s grace for themselves, to profess their faith openly, and to fully embrace and live out their true identity in Jesus Christ.”
A month later, the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference met and considered a large number of resolutions. This group ended up passing neither proposed resolutions in favor of religious liberty protections nor a proposed resolution opposed to such protections. The former were likely hurt by tying the cause of religious liberty to efforts to repeal the Johnson Amendment and allow churches to legally endorse political candidates (an issue that is very different from and more controversial than more modestly saying that Christian bakers should not be jailed).
More significantly however, the Rev. Herb Snyder (pictured above) submitted a resolution that would have promoted participation in LGBTQ “pride” parades and other events. As noted, Bishop Johnson is rather public about strongly favoring this position. She even touted the resolution on her aforementioned blog post.
However, the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference voted by a strong majority to gut the resolution by taking out the strong, specific, LGBTQ-affirming language, leaving in place a statement more non-controversially and broadly calling for congregations to welcome all people. When it became clear that they could not get the affirmation of LGBTQ activism, lifestyles, and “pride” that they wanted, despite even the bishop’s clear liberal biases, the sponsors withdrew the resolution.
We at UMAction have long documented various ways in which many liberal American United Methodist bishops have been trying to lead the church in harmful, unfaithful directions. But as the above examples remind us, often the rest of the church is standing up, pushing back, and refusing to go along. Thanks be to God!