On the eve of votes at United Methodist General Conference, supporters of the One Church (OCP) rallied for what they insisted was the only path to preserve unity within the deeply divided denomination.
“This is not just about legislation, it is about the character of persons called United Methodist,” asserted United Methodist Publishing President Neil M. Alexander before a reception room facing an illuminated St. Louis Gateway Arch on the evening of Saturday, February 23.
The OCP as introduced by the Commission on a Way Forward (CoWF) has characteristics of a “local option” plan. It would remove language from the denomination’s Book of Discipline that regards the practice of homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching.” If the plan is adopted, annual conferences would be permitted to either embrace or decline to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies or to ordain “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” on a conference-by-conference basis.
Delegates sipped hot chocolate and selected treats from a dessert bar as a series of speakers offered personal anecdotes from their congregations in support of the OCP.
Virginia Annual Conference delegate Tom Berlin confessed that he wished he had said more about racism, sexism and inclusion in the past.
“At some point you have to decide if you are going to say the things that need to be said,” Berlin assessed. “We do not need to fire up Twitter. We have to bring a bunch of votes to our side that are people who are right on the edge.”
Everybody in the room, Berlin suggested, has to find a way to connect with somebody in support of the OCP.
“By the grace of God we might actually make forward progress,” Berlin predicted. Recounting a 2002 church mission trip to the Sierra Leone Annual Conference, Berlin reported that today there is a hospital begun there by someone who was on the trip.
“Stand gently, stand firmly, stand strongly, and pass the one church plan,” Berlin concluded to applause.
Other delegates shared about family members who influenced their decision to support the OCP. Delegate Rachel Baughman of Oaklawn United Methodist Church in Dallas is a sixth-generation pastor in the denomination.
“Being a mother of a bisexual child is even more important to me,” Baughman stated, citing a statistic that youth who identify as LGBT “are 75 percent more likely to commit suicide than other youth.”
Conference Secretary Kim Ingram of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference told of a transgender woman at her congregation’s listening session. She was in tears but a couple who support the Traditional Plan comforted her.
“This is what the body of Christ looks like,” Ingram shared, telling of “LGBT and pansexual pastors’ kids” who cannot presently marry within the United Methodist Church.
“I’m supporting people like them,” Ingram announced. “We can be the church together.”
Several speakers claimed that the OCP was the best way to continue overseas relationships.
West Ohio Annual Conference Treasurer Bill Brownson, an openly partnered gay man, spoke of his conference’s continuing partnership with Congo’s North Katanga Annual Conference in helping to provide a medical relief plane.
Nigerian clergy delegate Eunice Iliya quoted Romans Chapter 12 verse 16: “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.”
Recalling the story of a male friend who came out to her as gay, Iliya shared her belief that “the One Church Plan will bring us together. There is beauty in diversity.”
Earlier in the day, delegates were invited to a luncheon in support of the OCP with a time of prayer, chanting and “holy conversation”. Prompted by a gesturing worship leader moving between tables, delegates chanted “what we need is healing here” as they pointed to one another’s hearts.
Delegates at the luncheon, who were overwhelmingly from the United States, wore pins advocating “No Schism” and “One Church Plan”. Display tables at the back of the banquet room featured books, t-shirts and rainbow-colored prayer stoles promoting affirmation of those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
Hosted by the self-described centrist group Uniting Methodists, the luncheon featured three speakers who offered testimonies as a basis of support for the plan. One woman told of her marriage to another woman and her drive from near Asheville, NC to St. Louis, stopping along the way to hand-deliver letters and pray before more than 30 United Methodist churches. Another woman from Congo’s North Katanga Annual Conference shared her support for a plan that she asserted had the best chance to hold the church together.