The Rev. Dr. James Howell, pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, NC, recently put out a misleading video on the significance of the Traditional Plan recently adopted by the special 2019 General Conference of the United Methodist Church. Howell served as a delegate from the Western North Carolina Annual Conference at the Special General Conference and was a leader of the Uniting Methodists caucus. That caucus pursued an odd combination: pushing hard to liberalize church teachings and standards on homosexuality (to an even greater extent than the liberal policies that split apart the Episcopal Church) while at the same time framing their messaging around a professed desire to maintain the “unity” of the denomination, seemingly at all costs. Unfortunately, we are also seeing divisive rhetoric in response to votes not going his preferred way.
Below we’ve highlighted some of the worst misrepresentations, errors, and mischaracterizations found in the Facebook video, which you can watch here.
The Traditional Plan’s “goal is to stamp out homosexuality from the church, and to stamp out even those who are sympathetic to it. This plan, they wish to be rid of centrists, of moderates, of certainly progressives, even thoughtful conservatives.”
This statement is unhelpful and inaccurate hyperbole. The Traditional Plan makes no attempts to change the UMC’s welcome to all people to attend services, participate in programs, become members of a local congregation, receive sacraments, and more. For example, Paragraph 4 of the Book of Discipline says that all persons are of sacred worth, and Paragraph 214 says all people may become members in any local church in the connection, and these fundamental ideas have never been in question. LGBTQ people are welcome to participate in the life of the church. Nothing in the Traditional Plan excludes or kicks out anyone from participation, membership, ordination, or even denominational leadership solely on the basis of their personal beliefs. The Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) has repeatedly affirmed its welcome to all people, including the LGBTQ community.
“It occurs to me under this plan, none of our pastors who serve our church could be ordained, because they ask really hard questions about ’Will you accept gays in your church?’ and so on, and if you answer ‘yes’ to this you can’t even be ordained. So none of us would qualify for the ministry any longer.”
This is patently false. No such question or any inquiry like it appears anywhere in the Traditional Plan. As John Lomperis explained, the petitions of the Traditional Plan do not require any clergy to agree fully in belief with the Discipline on matters of sexuality. Rather, they must promise to uphold the standards of the Discipline with their actions, which is not a new mandate. The Traditional Plan simply aims to ensure that candidates will uphold their vows by adding clarity to the process and keeping clergy accountable when they violate the UMC’s standards. The pastors at Myers Park UMC would be barred from ordination if they professed to be practicing homosexuals but not if they merely wished that a future General Conference would liberalize church law.
By contrast, the One Church Plan, heavily promoted by Howell and his caucus, would have effectively prevented many traditionalist pastors from getting ordained in the UMC and purged many from leadership positions. Read more about this from John Lomperis here.
As stated previously, LGBTQ people are fully welcome in the UMC, and no part of the ordination process requires clergy candidates to promise to bar such people from the churches they will lead.
“We have seminaries where we train our clergy, and most of them are associated with universities. Those universities: Southern Methodist University, Emory University, Duke University, are in process right now of severing ties with our denomination if this mean-spirited Traditional Plan… and this is obvious, right?”
This is false. Only five of the thirteen official United Methodist Seminaries in the United States are associated with universities. They are Boston University School of Theology, Candler School of Theology at Emory University, Drew University Theological School, Duke Divinity School, and Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University (SMU). I reached out to Duke University and Duke Divinity, SMU and Perkins, as well as Emory and Candler, the schools Howell specifically names in his video. A Duke University public relations administrator I spoke to would only point me to Duke Divinity’s official General Conference response, authored by its dean, which says nothing on disaffiliation. Dr. Jan Love, Candler’s dean, told me that her seminary is not anticipating disaffiliating from the UMC, although she should could not speak for Emory University. Emory, SMU, and Perkins did not respond to my requests for a comment, and I have seen no other news or announcements that these schools have begun a process of disaffiliation, as Howell claims.
“Our Judicial Council is a little bit like the United States Supreme Court right now, it leans very far to the right. Even that group regarded much of what was passed as unconstitutional. The reason is it’s in the constitution of Methodism to be open, to be welcoming, to be a big tent church. This kind of exclusionary… it’s not in the nature of Methodism.”
Here Howell begins with a rather pejorative-sounding claim and a dubious one. For such a strong assertion, Howell does not provide any examples of recent decisions by the Judicial Council that would prove it to be a “very far to the right” body.
Howell also mischaracterizes the Judicial Council’s past rulings on why parts of the Traditional Plan were unconstitutional. It is not because the plan goes against fundamental Methodist values. The objections of the Judicial Council last fall to parts of the Traditional Plan largely centered around the concern that if accountability is going to be enhanced in the ordination process and over annual conferences upholding the Discipline, new standards of accountability must be applied across all relevant portions of these church laws, not just those parts related to homosexuality. John Lomperis gave a more comprehensive and nuanced review when the rulings came out last year.
“I think it became clear in St. Louis that it’s time for some kind of separation, some kind of amicable divorce. It’s hard to stay together as is now.”
There is nothing inherently wrong with Dr. Howell’s statement here, but it is worth highlighting because it is a major change in direction for an outspoken Uniting Methodists leader like him. As part of the Uniting Methodist caucus’ coordinating team, Howell championed the One Church Plan and frequently wrote about why conservatives and progressives should stay together in the UMC. As traditionalists have argued, the fundamental and unwavering theological differences held within the church make the formation of a new Methodist denomination the most logical choice. The resolve of the delegates in St. Louis to pass the Traditional Plan has made this reality clear to at least some leaders across the aisle like Howell, and they are encouraging those within their spheres of influence to move on with them.
If this video teaches us anything, it is that hurtful hyperbole and misinformation on the status of the UMC is coming from seemingly-credible sources and that progressive leaders are continuing to fight the Traditional Plan. The special General Conference is continuing to stir up the emotions of pastors and lay people alike across the U.S., and all must be wary of accepting any assertion at face value without verifying or cross-checking it. Even if the church is headed for a split, as Howell suggests would be best, bearing false witness and unfairly demeaning those with contrary beliefs hurts the witness of the church. For Christ to be honored in this time of deep vision in the United Methodist Church, cooler heads must prevail and the decisions made by key bodies like General Conference and the Judicial Council must be communicated with care and clarity.