The United Methodist Church has just concluded its historic, specially called 2019 session of General Conference. The General Conference is our denomination’s highest governing body.
This February 23-26 special session in St. Louis, Missouri, was called for the special purpose of seeking “a way forward” for internal United Methodist conflicts related to sexual morality. Our denomination has long taught both that we love and welcome all people, including members of the LBGTQ community, and that God’s good design is that sexual relations are only for monogamous, heterosexual marriage. However, in recent years there have been growing tensions, with some clergy and bishops openly breaking the rules banning “self-avowed practicing homosexual” ministers and forbidding our congregations from hosting or our pastors from performing same-sex unions.
Competing proposals to this General Conference would have taken our denomination in very different directions.
Those favoring the Traditional Plan (which would maintain our current position and increase accountability for clergy leaders) found ourselves facing one unusual barrier after another. For many months ahead of time, and through much of the final day, it looked like a real possibility that after all this time, effort, and money, we could actually have the result I had called “Option Zero,” of not passing anything. At one point this afternoon, a leader of a liberal caucus who is also a delegate gave a fiery speech denouncing the “hateful” Traditional Plan and openly admitting that he and other liberal delegates were pursuing any-means-necessary tactics to run out the clock for the sake of making the General Conference unable to pass proposals with which they disagreed. So much for the Golden Rule.
The conference showcased the very deep divides in our denomination. It was particularly odd to see liberal leaders call evangelical United Methodists hateful, “a bunch of evil folks,” and all kinds of names, and then at the same time see these same liberal leaders promote their primary liberal plan as reflecting their desire for “we’re better together” unity with us. There was plenty of loud, angry protesting. So much hurt all around. It was a rather stressful day.
I will likely have more to say about such things in the near future.
In the meantime, I know United Methodists back home are wondering what was actually decided and done by this General Conference.
It is no small thing that a majority of delegates defeated the “One Church Plan” to liberalize church teaching and standards, by a final vote of 449 to 374 (54.6 to 45.4 percent). This was a dramatic rebuke of the way in which the Council of Bishops has tried to lead our denomination for the last several years. If this plan could not get passed at this General Conference, with all of the focused money, energy, institutional support, and marketing thrown behind it, it is hard to see how a plan like this could ever pass at future General Conferences, which beginning next year will have fewer American delegates and more from the Global South.
Then we adopted a partial version of the Traditional Plan, by a final vote of 438 to 384 (53.3 to 46.7 percent).
Now here is where it gets a bit confusing. The Judicial Council had previously declared that some parts of the Traditional Plan impermissibly conflicted with our denomination’s Constitution, while others were fine and constitutional. Several of us orthodox delegates had a series of amendments we were trying to offer to the Traditional Plan that would address the Judicial Council’s concerns. But the cynical “hours of delaying tactics” (in the words of the United Methodist News Service) by an organized bloc of liberal delegates, along with the already rather cramped schedule and some unhelpful moves from bishops (again, more on all of that later), severely limited the time available for serious work of perfecting the Traditional Plan. So we ended up passing an omnibus package of a mix of some provisions that have already been declared unconstitutional (and so we cannot expect them to take effect) and others that HAVE been declared constitutional (and so which do become our church law now). Unless otherwise specified, anything adopted at General Conference becomes church law in our denomination of January 1 of the following year.
Here is what WAS passed in the Traditional Plan that the Judicial Council has already upheld as constitutional, and so which will be our new church law before too long:
First, we enacted a Traditional Plan petition (#90032) that clarifies the definition of what we mean when we say we forbid “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” to be ministers, candidates, or appointed pastors in our denomination. It was widely understood what the church meant by this. However, for many years, liberal bishops and others had treated this as a loophole, and claimed that unless even openly partnered gay ministers said the precise words “I am a practicing homosexual” or answered uncomfortable direct questions about their regular “genital contact” with someone of the same sex, then there was “no evidence” that they had actually violated our moral standards. Through such word games, some clergy in some liberal areas have been allowed to remain in good standing while knowingly violating our moral standards. This petition closes this loophole, by saying that from now on, anyone who “is living in a same-sex marriage, domestic partnership or civil union,” or “who publicly states that she or he is a practicing homosexual” automatically meets the definition of who is in violation of our ministry standards, with no required further questions about “genital contact” or awkward reliance on whether or not someone says the magic words. This will make enforcement of this longtime standard much simpler and easier to prove than it has ever been.
Secondly, we enacted another Traditional Plan petition (#90044) that limits the ability of bishops to dismiss complaints against clergy accused of wrongdoing. Our process for disciplining wayward clergy begins when someone files a complaint with his or her bishop. However, in recent years, we have seen liberal bishops simply dismiss complaints against clergy who violated sexual-morality standards with which the bishop did not agree. Such abuses of their ability to dismiss complaints had the potential to let each bishop unilaterally both nullify any part of our standards for clergy with which they disagree and also perhaps protect personal friends from facing accountability. But now this petition forbids bishops from dismissing complaints unless the complaints have “no basis in law or fact.” This petition also requires that any time bishops dismiss a complaint, they must share a written explanation with the person who filed the complaint, something which bishops had not always readily done. And all of this also applies to complaints against bishops.
Thirdly, we enacted another Traditional Plan petition (#90046) that reforms the “just resolution” process (the UMC equivalent of out-of-court settlements) that had been subject to such abuse by liberal bishops in recent years. This petition prevents how some liberal bishops had arranged “just resolutions” for violations of our sexuality standards that completely cut out the person who filed the complaint (the complainant) from the process. This new church law makes the complaint filer a party to the process, and requires that “every effort shall be made to have the complainant(s) agree to the resolution before it may take effect.”
Fourthly, we enacted half of another Traditional Plan petition (#90045) on “just resolutions.” This one requires that all just resolutions must “state all identified harms and how they shall be addressed.” This is an improvement over how previous “just resolutions” with clergy who violated our sexuality standards have avoided any pretense of addressing the concerns of the complainants.
Fifthly, we finally adopted another, particularly significant Traditional Plan petition (#90042), that has been filibustered for seven years since the 2012 General Conference, which requires mandatory penalties for clergy found in a church trial to have violated our covenant against performing pastorally harmful same-sex union ceremonies. Specifically, it requires that for a first offense, ministers must face a minimum penalty of a one-year suspension, while for any subsequent offence, they must be permanently removed from ministry. The idea behind this is not to inflict pain, but rather to prevent people from abusing the status of a United Methodist minister, and to ensure that there is a serious deterrent against our clergy harming people by violating this standard. Previously, disobedience to our standards has doubtless been encouraged and increased by the confidence liberal clergy in some regions have had that they would not face serious consequences.
Sixthly, we adopted another Traditional Plan petition (#90047) that establishes a church right of appeal. This is a key accountability measure evangelical reformers have been seeking for many years. Basically, if you had a case of “jury nullification,” in which a church trial refused to enforce certain church laws with which they disagreed, even when the facts of this church law being violated were clear, previously there was nothing that could be done. But now, for such extreme cases, there is be a right for those seeking accountability to appeal if there were clearly “egregious errors of church law.”
Seventhly, we enacted another Traditional Plan petition (#90043) that explicitly requires district committees on ministry and boards of ordained ministry to conduct a “full examination and thorough inquiry” into every ministry candidate’s compliance with our standards, forbids them from recommending any candidate who does not meet our standards, and requires bishops to prevent candidates who obviously violate our standards from being approved in clergy session.
Eighthly, we enacted another Traditional Plan petition (#90036) that establishes a duty of bishops to refuse to ordain or commission clergy candidates if these candidates are openly gay or if the board of ordained ministry (the group who reviews ordination candidates in each annual conference) has not provided certification that it has conducted the required full examination of whether or not this candidate meets our standards. This petition also prohibits openly gay candidates from being consecrated to become bishops, even if these candidates are elected by vote of their jurisdiction. There was an unfortunate unintentional error in the version of the Traditional Plan that was submitted, of omitting the key word, “practicing.” One of the amendments I and other traditionalist delegates wanted to make to the Traditional Plan would have fixed this to be clear that the barrier was only against openly “practicing homosexuals,” and not against persons who may be same-sex-attracted but who are committed to traditional Christian doctrine and a celibate lifestyle. And this amendment would have been made, were it not for the filibustering led by “Mainstream UMC” leader Mark Holland and others. This should be fixed at the 2020 General Conference.
All of the above petitions have been now enacted by this General Conference and have already been declared constitutional by the Judicial Council.
Additionally, we enacted a ninth Traditional Plan petition (#90037) which directly addresses the problem of how some boards of ordained ministry in some annual conferences have refused to screen candidates for their compliance with our expectation that United Methodist clergy abstain from homosexual practice. This new church law requires that before individuals can be appointed to the annual conference board of ordained ministry, they must be willing to uphold the entirety of our ordination standards. It also requires bishops to certify that they have only nominated people to this board who will uphold all of our ordination standards. An earlier version of this petition was ruled unconstitutional by the Judicial Council because of how it only focused on our ordination standards related to homosexuality. However, this petition was amended from the floor to broadly include such concern for all of our ordination standards (including but not limited to those on sexuality). While this amended petition is now being challenged before the Judicial Council, the updated version certainly seems to satisfy the Judicial Council’s expressed concerns.
There were also a few other noteworthy actions.
By a majority vote, we enacted a petition that establishes a process for how congregations can gracefully leave our denomination with their property, if they desire to leave “for reasons of conscience regarding a change in the requirements and provisions of the Book of Discipline related to the practice of homosexuality or the ordination or marriage of self-avowed practicing homosexuals as resolved and adopted by the 2019 General Conference, or the actions or inactions of its annual conference related to these issues which follow.” This was no small feat, given the fierce opposition of bishops and liberal caucuses as well as the factual inaccuracies in the floor debate.
This petition is currently a bit of a confusing legal situation. The petition’s language explicitly states (but not in what it adds to the Discipline) that it is to be “effective as of the close of the 2019 General Conference.” But the Judicial Council had hastily issued an advisory review of an earlier version of this petition, and six of the Council members bizarrely claimed that it was unconstitutional unless it required the permission of a two-thirds vote of the annual conference to let any congregation leave. Three other Council members sharply disagreed in a brief, must-read Dissenting Opinion (which can be read by scrolling to the bottom of this page). Before this petition was adopted, there was only time to make one of the two amendments needed to satisfy all Judicial Council concerns. As a delegate, I was in the pool to make the second amendment, but I was never recognized by the presiding bishop (who, to be fair, was dealing with a lot of stressful filibustering from many other delegates) before this was adopted. In any case, this puts our denomination’s highest governing body on record as supporting some sort of gracious exit for congregations to leave our denomination with their property if they find that they cannot live with United Methodism’s current approach to sexuality matters, in hopes of avoiding the ugly property lawsuits seen when congregations have departed from other mainline denominations over similar conflicts.
We also adopted another pair of petitions that help ensure the financial viability of pensions for retired clergy, including by requiring relevant fair-share payments from any congregations who may leave the UMC.