On May 17-18, a progressive group of LGBTQ United Methodists and their allies held a summit, Our Movement Forward, to share their thoughts and articulate their position on the future of the United Methodist Church (UMC). The event was held at Lake Harriet UMC in Minneapolis, MN. These clergy and lay leaders discussed what LGBTQ-affirming United Methodists can do to shape the church, laid out some of their non-negotiables moving forward, and discussed the merits of staying in the denomination compared to creating a wholly new church structure. The gathering was also committed to elevating the voices of people of color, queer people, and transgender persons, who they feel have been marginalized and gone unheard.
The convening group, UMForward, is perhaps best known for promoting the “Simple Plan” presented to General Conference 2019, which would have liberalized church standards on homosexuality as well as adultery and premarital sex, and not paid even lip service to including traditional believers in the church. UMForward has deep ties and leadership crossover with the United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus (UMQCC), Methodists in New Directions (MIND), and the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN).
Compared to previous UMForward gatherings, Our Movement Forward displayed clear energy behind “creating a new thing,” and splitting off from the global, orthodox UMC. A common thread throughout the two-day meeting was that to keep their integrity and live out their deeply held beliefs, these leaders must be in a church that is uncompromising in its full affirmation of LGBTQ people and practices.
While the strategy sessions of the summit were not publicly viewable, the event’s livestream brought a great deal of insight into the mindset of the UMC’s most vocal progressive activists.
Dr. Jay Williams, pastor of Union UMC in Boston, recognized the strength of General Conference’s decision to uphold traditional teaching on marriage and human sexuality, describing it in grim terms to his friends, while also deriding conservatives:
“In February at the Special General Conference the United Methodist Church as we knew it died. The church died, and the Traditional Plan, the TP, and I mean TP, was responsible for this death. And there were a lot of folks complicit with the process. Organizations, and tactics, and coalitions that participated in what ended up as the death of the church as we knew it.”
However, Williams made it clear that compromise and centrism, not conservatives, are the true threats to their progressive mission. When asked what his personal non-negotiables were, he said: “We can’t compromise, period, [on] queer liberation… So any pathway forward cannot compromise to moderation, or to any form of centrism, that is more interested in numbers and holding kind of a big tent, versus living out the fullness of the gospel.” He views seeking compromise with centrists as not only valueless but harmful to himself and the LGBTQ cause: “the biggest threat to queer liberation actually isn’t conservatism. We know where conservatives stand. The biggest threat to queer liberation is centrism and moderation.”
Rev. M Barclay, the first openly “non-binary trans person” commissioned as a provisional deacon in the UMC, echoed Williams’ disdain of centrism in the UMC. “There has been so much use of the name and way of God to dominate people, and the One Church Plan was that. To say that God is for whatever you think is right in your context is dominance and control and evil.”
Many of these same sentiments made it into Loved and Liberated: A Proclamation from Our Movement Forward Summit:
Our primary commitment, as baptized Christians, is to the fullness of the Gospel and liberative change, and not to denominational preservation. While we do not rejoice in schism, we will not sacrifice PoC+Q+T people on the idolatrous altar of “church unity.” Emerging expressions of Methodism cannot start with coalitions that preserve and institutionalize oppression under the guise of “conscience,” “big tent Methodism,” “contextual ministry,” “religious freedom,” and “tolerance of all viewpoints.” We need something entirely new.
Those at the summit not only expressed a desire for a movement separate from the current UMC, but also one with a very different structure. UM News reported that “A frequent refrain in small-group discussions was a desire to have a radically different structure than the current denomination, leaving behind the current hierarchy of bishops and the clergy appointment system.” The proclamation that came out of the conference reflected this, stating that they “seek a new expression of Methodism” apart from the UMC, which they described as a crumbling connection.
During a panel discussion, Dr. Althea Spencer-Miller, a professor at Drew Theological School, said she envisions a more flexible and nimble church, one built by “a series of commitments we’re willing to renegotiate every time a shift happens.”
Summit attendees were also told that task forces to analyze and handle the legal and financial ramifications of separation will be necessary, and those with the willingness and skills to serve in these ways were encouraged to get involved.
While the future of the UMC is still very uncertain, Our Movement Forward unambiguously showed that some of the most progressive United Methodists are gearing up for a departure from the denomination, and that they do not intend to do it alongside so-called centrists like Adam Hamilton and the Uniting Methodists, who still emphasize compromise and contextualization on issues of marriage and ordination.
(An earlier version of this article stated that the conference was held at New Milford UMC. It has been corrected to Lake Harriet UMC.)