February 27 Update following General Conference from Pastor Steve
God Loves All. Period.
Dear Messiah Family,
This is a long message. I hope you will read its entirety and especially the final paragraphs. I want to help you understand what has taken place at this week’s special General Conference. I will attempt to be as clear as I can be – even though there is much I do not understand yet.
For nearly fifty years, the United Methodist Church has debated human sexuality and how to be in ministry with LGBTQI persons. At the 2016 General Conference (which is the UMC decision-making body), the bishops were asked to provide leadership that would maintain unity and find a way forward through the ongoing debate. The bishops implemented a two year study commission that brought a plan to the Council of Bishops that would maintain unity in the denomination and provide some breathing room where churches and clergy could make their own decisions regarding same-sex marriage. This plan, called the “One Church Plan,” was approved by the majority of bishops and sent to a special General Conference. There were other plans, namely a “Traditional Plan” approved by a minority of bishops also sent to the General Conference.
864 delegates from around the world met as the General Conference on February 23-26. Forty percent of the delegates came from outside the United States, most from Africa. Of the delegates from the United States, two-thirds supported the “One Church Plan.” Most of those outside the United States and a third of those within the United States supported the “Traditional Plan.” Almost immediately, the “Traditional Plan” had the support of the majority. Efforts to introduce the “One Church Plan” were rejected. Ultimately, the “Traditional Plan” was adopted by the majority. The vote was 438 to 384.
What is the “Traditional Plan”?
“The Traditional Plan” maintains the current language of the church’s Book of Discipline, which forbids churches and clergy from performing same-sex marriages and forbids the church from ordaining LGBTQI clergy. But this plan also took the step of adding penalties and enforcement to any who would cross these boundaries. Over the past couple of decades, the interpretation of the boundaries had allowed for flexibility and great differences throughout the denomination. The action of the General Conference also sent a message (whether intentional or not) that LGBTQI persons are not welcome in the church. (And by association, also those who stand in ministry with LGBTQI persons.)
What Does This Mean?
As you might imagine this has sent a shock wave through the United Methodist Church in the United States. This action does far more than just reaffirming existing language in the Book of Discipline. For a denomination that has historically provided room for a diversity of interpretations, and even celebrated works of justice for all who are marginalized, many now feel that their church has just been yanked away from them. There is no victory in this week’s decision-making. Retired Bishop Will Willimon, who teaches at Duke Divinity School, is quoted in the Washington Post as saying, “The traditional plan is a misnomer. We really have nothing in our tradition to justify this sort of punitive, exclusionary mentality.”
I don’t think anyone knows what is next. The entire action of General Conference has been referred to our judicial body called The Judicial Council. Parts and perhaps the entire action may be ruled unconstitutional according to our church constitution. There is another General Conference meeting in May 2020 in Minneapolis. I am certain this action will consume that conference. This week’s action provided some direction and encouragement for churches and clergy to leave the denomination but even that process is unclear and untested. It will take time to understand what has happened.
What About Messiah Church?
I woke up on Wednesday morning ready to continue the important ministry of Messiah Church as hopeful as ever that God is at work in and through this community of faith. I spoke more about this in my message on Sunday, March 3. (Click here to view it.) I encourage you to be thoughtful and prayerful.
The Bottom Line
I know that many are deeply wounded by the reports from the General Conference. I stopped reading social media because I was not reading anything that was redemptive. Let me be absolutely clear: The ministry of Messiah Church is not defined by the denomination. Each person is a person of worth and value, loved by God, not based on what we do and certainly not based on whether we conform to anyone’s notion of what is right. God loves all. Period. Messiah Church is about including and extending love and compassion to a hurting world. In my 19 years at Messiah, that’s what we have been. That’s what my 39 years of ordained ministry has been about. And that will not change.
As we move forward in an ever challenging world, let’s stay close to God and to each other. Messiah Church has an important witness that has and will continue to change lives as we work toward God’s Kingdom here on earth.
I love all of you and remain extremely proud to be your pastor.
In Christ’s love,
As questions come up about the decision made at General Conference, we invite you to submit them to our pastors and leadership team. We will address your questions and concerns as we can in future communications.
A Word from Bishop Bruce Ough: We are all Beloved Children of God
At the close of the Special Session of General Conference, Bishop Bruce Ough gave a summary of the decisions made. He reminded us, “No matter what actions were taken here, it doesn’t change some fundamental things. It doesn’t change the fact that every one of us is a beloved child of God.”