This is Part 2 of my report on the For Everyone Born conference held by liberal caucuses of United Methodists from July 26—29 in St. Louis. For Part 1, click here. The groups gathered for fellowship, to listen to members of the Commission on the Way Forward, and to plan for their presence at the United Methodist Church’s (UMC) special General Conference in February 2019. For Part 1, click here.
At play throughout the weekend was contempt for any rule from the Bible or based on its teaching that ran against their personal preference or judgement of right and wrong. The Rev. Dr. Jay Williams, the gay lead pastor at Union Church in Boston, shared his deep offense at being told by a bishop that it was unethical for him to live with his partner out of wedlock. “Only I get to choose how to live my life,” says a man whose vocation is to lead others to joyously obey God and to teach the goodness of His plans for our lives. He is tired of the language in the Discipline that he cannot accept, and says that “It is time for us to exorcise this evil and send it back to the pit of hell from where it came.”
Williams spoke with a directness that was uncommon throughout For Everyone Born, especially in his unequivocal lack of support for the so-called One Church Plan (OCP). In contrast to the OCP’s foundational assumption, he firmly believes that homosexuality should be a defining matter for the UMC. Why? He says justice is a defining matter of the church, and to him there is no justice if LGBTQ persons cannot have “full rights” in the church. “No, there cannot be unity at all costs,” he said in his address. Though they sit on the opposite side of the theological spectrum, Williams and traditionalists can at least agree that unity won by compromising your morals has no value.
In contrast to Williams, many at the conference were willing to express minor support for the One Church Plan, despite their deep reservations. Like traditionalists, very few of those gathered there are completely satisfied by the compromise of the plan, which they say reflects the goals of institutionalists. In a live video, Dr. Dorothee Benz voiced her concerns with the plan but said that she would vote in favor of it, given the options. She firmly believes the elimination of restrictions on queer clergy and marriages as well as the incompatibility language from the Discipline are significant and meaningful changes, something traditionalists agree with more than some of her friends on the left.
The conference viewed protests and disruptions as valuable tools, leaving open the possibility for such action at the upcoming special General Conference. Appraising past successes, Benz emphasized the impact of protests at General Conferences and overall resistance to the system. “Whatever can be won in 2019 General Conference will be won in the same way we got to this point,” she said. For example, she called the protests at the 2016 General Conference successful because they stopped anti-LGBTQ legislation even though the progressive coalition did not have enough votes “Protest is more of what got us here than parliamentary politics,” and will always be a part of church politics, she added. However, because she wants to see the OCP pass and believes it has a chance, she advocated for thoughtful consideration on how these organizations protest and disrupt in St. Louis, if at all.
It is not likely that with any result in February that the issue of sexuality will fade into the background in the UMC. Brian Atkins, a gay pastor who served on Commission on a Way Forward, shared that during the commission’s meetings he made it clear that many people will not leave even if they’re disappointed come February. “No matter what we do some people are going to stay… I think that’s particularly true of the Traditionalist Plan… it would be more defiance than they’ve ever seen, probably. The GCFA would spend all its time on copyright infringement lawsuits,” because people will not be willing to give up the cross and flame, a symbol they’ve held dearly for so long. (Emphasis added.)
Given their history of defiance and acting outside the institutions of the UMC, it makes sense that these most-progressive organizations do not plan to accept the decision of the General Conference. They see oppression instead of God’s guidance for our everyday lives, doctrine for domination instead of love, and cruelty in any view on sexuality that does not align with their personal experience. With conservatives and liberals unwilling to leave the UMC or compromise on their convictions, change may continue to come very slowly to the denomination. Let us continue to pray for wisdom, patience, and clarity on where God is leading.