On July 16 – 18, the “Uniting Methodists” caucus hosted a conference to organize their support for the so-called One Church Plan proposal for the special United Methodist General Conference in February. Around 200 people gathered at Lovers Lane UMC in Dallas, Texas, along with another 200 watching online. The caucus urges the UMC to unite around the basic idea of ordaining homosexually partnered clergy and allowing but not requiring clergy to perform same-sex weddings, repeatedly claims that such proposals would bring unity to the denomination, and describes itself and its agenda as “centrist” despite actually being rather liberal. John Lomperis has written a series of articles analyzing the Uniting Methodists’ cause and leadership.
Many of the conference’s most memorable moments came from a panel discussion led by Rev. Mike Baughman, an ordained elder serving as the lead pastor for Union, a new church start in Dallas, Texas, and featuring four young millennial leaders from its worship planning team. Disappointingly, the millennial panel lacked the kind of theological diversity that should define any truly “Uniting” Methodists movement. All were fully LGBTQ-affirming. The unorthodox beliefs shared by these “Uniting Methodists” panelists appear to speak clearly to the heart and future aspirations of this caucus and its preferred plan.
Stephen Cristy was brought on the panel to share his story of changing from a conservative, traditional view to a progressive, “compatibilist” one. To Union Church’s credit, when he first came to the church with traditional orthodox views, he was welcomed and encouraged to share his contrasting outlook with the progressive majority. As he spent more time in the congregation, his beliefs shifted. After befriending and serving alongside many LGBTQ individuals there, he came to believe that homosexual practice is not sinful, to support same-sex marriage, and to support the ordination of openly homosexually partnered individuals.
Lauren Manza, who identifies as lesbian, was unabashed in criticizing the Bible itself. She too grew up in a conservative family, and felt conflict with her upbringing. When speaking on same-sex marriage and the verses that traditionalists use to argue against it she said, “I believe if I sat down with Paul today, Paul would say ‘I’m not down for that,’ but I think the Bible’s wrong.”
For the time, Manza refuses to formally join a UMC church because she feels the Book of Discipline calls all of her humanity “incompatible with Christian teaching.” She’s holding out for the UMC, though, hoping earnestly that the denomination that is her church home will change its ways. However, she made it clear that she will only join when all UMC churches fully affirm her sexuality, a goal the “One Church Plan” fails to meet.
Instead of providing a counterpoint to her attack on Biblical authority, Baughman continued Manza’s train of thought. Recalling meetings with some of these young church leaders at Union he said:
“There were times that folks like Stephen and some other members of the team would just say like ‘Can we just say the Bible’s wrong?’ and one of the things that’s been interesting is I think there is this sense among a lot of millennials that just because the Bible says something, that doesn’t mean it has any authority whatsoever.”
Angela Uno, who grew up outside of the church and joined Union a year ago, was surprised to discover that churches were still debating same-sex marriage and partnered gay clergy. She thought the American public as a whole had already “moved on” beyond these issues because the right choice was so obvious to her. “I think that by now, it shouldn’t be a question,” she said.
Sinclair Freeman is a young man who identifies as queer and feels strongly compelled to pursue a life of an ordained minister within the UMC. He currently works for Union as a worship community curator. He, too, grew up in a conservative family, and as a result battled with his sexuality in high school. Today, he is determined to fight for change from within the UMC, even if the “One Church Plan” is not adopted. Like many of the speakers at the conference, he emphasized “intersectionality,” specifically how he saw issues of race and sexuality as entwined. Like his black ancestors before him, he refuses to be denied what he believes are his essential rights: “I’m not allowing my God or a church that I feel passionately about to be hijacked from me.”
Baughman and the panel ultimately presented an approach of disregarding the fundamental concept of the Bible as the ultimate source of religious truth and authority. They commended this approach to their audience on the grounds that some young Americans at this particular moment in cultural history find it acceptable. All believers grapple with understanding the Bible and knowing how to best apply it to their lives, but this was something very different.
Unanimous affirmation of same-sex marriage and ordination of openly homosexually active clergy. Changing from traditional, orthodox views to progressive ones. Placing personal experience above Biblical authority. These were the ideals presented, and these peers of mine were put on stage as shining examples of who the Uniting Methodists hope will lead their congregations in years to come. If there was any doubt that the agenda of the “One Church Plan” and its most enthusiastic supporters is liberalizing the UMC, this panel made it clear.