Finding a Way Through: Options for the UMC and Homosexuality

Finding A Way Through: Options for the United Methodist Church and Homosexuality

Bishop Scott Jones, August 22, 2014

 

[This paper is intended to improve the quality of conversations taking place within the United Methodist Church around the issue of homosexuality. I have sought to be fair and objective. I have chosen to list the most significant of the options being discussed, recognizing that others are being formulated and many different versions of each will be proposed. I am not endorsing or opposing any of them but simply seeking clarification and improved mutual understanding.]

 

The current discussions about how the church should adapt to the controversies about same-gender marriage and the ordination of self-avowed, practicing homosexuals could be improved by a more explicitly theological approach and greater ecclesiological precision.

Theological depth would be enhanced if participants would address how their stated positions answer the following questions, based on the three aspects of our unity (Book of Discipline, ¶101): doctrine, discipline and mission.

With regard to doctrine, what does a sanctified Christian life look like with regard to practices of sexuality, marriage and family? For example, many progressives appear to teach that God has created many sexual orientations (such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and queer) and that their expression within certain limits should be blessed by the church. We need answers about how many sexual orientations will be blessed by the church. We need clarity about the boundaries shaping a sanctified life. A clear understanding of the Christian view of justice should inform our mission to transform the world. On the other side, many traditionalists have made accommodations for the remarriage of divorced persons and the acceptance of serial divorces despite the clear teaching of Scripture. A clearly articulated theology of divorce, marriage and celibacy would enhance the conversation.

With regard to discipline, how much latitude with regard to marriage and ordination should be permitted by our connectional polity? Can we loosen the bonds of connection in order to preserve unity and yet give space for diverse practices about same-gender marriage and ordination of persons who are engaged in non-heterosexual relationships blessed by the church?

With regard to our mission, what vision of discipleship is offered to potential Christians and how do we propose that the world should be transformed to conform to God’s will? We know that we have differences on these issues, so clarity about our mission should find as much common ground as possible. Our commitment to pursuing justice should be a hallmark of our mission.

Ecclesiological precision would be enhanced if proposals seeking to answer disciplinary questions spelled out in greater detail exactly what changes in our polity were included and not included. What follows is a list of proposals currently being discussed. Significant efforts to consult with proponents of each proposal have been made and the conversations have sought to clarify what is included and what are the potential ramifications. Many questions yet remain. Many of these proposals carry with them implications for doctrine and mission, but those have been left unaddressed in this list. The proposals are grouped along a continuum of increasing loosening of the connection.

Assumptions

1.  Some advocates for full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and queer (LGBTQ) persons seek marriage equality, full inclusion of LGBTQ persons as ordained clergy and other ways of advancing their understanding of justice. They will not cease advocacy for their cause until their goal of full inclusion is attained.

2.  Many traditionalists believe it is unfaithful to belong to a denomination that teaches that the practice of homosexuality, including in covenanted, two-person relationships, is a permissible way of life for believers. In our connectional polity, the possibility of a self-avowed, practicing LGBTQ person being assigned as their pastor, providing leadership in a connectional position, or serving as a bishop is a key issue for many. Providing money for the propagation of this teaching or the support of such persons’ ministry is also a key issue. For these reasons, disciplinary changes resulting in full inclusion of LGBTQ persons would, in their view, require dividing the church. In particular, many Africans and East Europeans believe they cannot belong to a church where gay marriage is doctrinally approved or routinely permitted.

3.  Whether there is a middle ground that would allow most traditionalists to stay and yet satisfy most of the progressives is an important question. Anything short of full inclusion means that the debates and disobedience will continue.

4.  Many on the traditionalist side believe that the main issue is the disobedience of bishops and elders and the actions of annual conferences to defy the church’s doctrine and discipline. Many on the progressive side see this as an issue of justice and that disobedience to the church’s law is being done for the good of the church.

5.  Many persons in the middle are prepared to stay in a church where others believe and practice differently. However, different groups have different concerns and tolerance levels for what compromise would be sustainable over the long run and not force them to leave.

6.  Each of the proposals may need to provide enhanced exit possibilities for progressives unable to live with current teaching and practice.

7.  United States courts will continue to strike down laws that prohibit same-gender marriage. Eventually, same-gender marriage will be permitted in all 50 states. Thus, in the US, cultural pressure to grant full inclusion of LGBTQ persons will increase over time. How various churches position themselves in this cultural situation will vary, with the United Church of Christ, Episcopalians and the Evangelical Lutheran  at one place, and Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists at another. How the UMC is positioned is our question.

8.  The percentage of African delegates to the General Conference will continue to increase over time. The percentage from the most liberal US conferences will continue to decrease over time.

9.  The proposals below are subject to considerable amendment and revision between now and General Conference.

10.  Very little serious consideration has been given to analysis of whether any of these could actually pass General Conference and the annual conferences and how practicable they would be if passed.

 

The following are nine of the most significant options being discussed as ways forward.

 

 

 

 

1. Continuing Discernment with no substantive change

The General Conference makes no significant changes to the Social Principles, moral standards for ordination, appointment and conduct, or chargeable offenses regarding homosexual practice and same-gender unions and marriages.

During this time, US bishops will lead efforts to bring together persons of opposing views for dialogue and mission. In addition to dialogue, persons will be encouraged to spend the quadrennium working together on a project of charity, mission or justice.  For example, what if in 2020 we could point to 50, 100 or 200 habitat houses that were built as a part of our commitment to constructive conversation while we disagreed?

 

2. Proclaiming the Heart of United Methodism with Enhanced Exit Procedures

Leaders of the UMC redouble their efforts to share the mission, purpose and spiritual energy of the Wesleyan way of following Christ.  We find ways of communicating internally and externally the heart of United Methodism. We provide easier ways for local churches to leave if they are unable to accept our doctrine and discipline.

The Heart of United Methodism

We believe God has raised up the people called United Methodist to be a means of saving grace for individuals, societies and the world. We lead non-Christians and nominal Christians to saving faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. We proclaim the classical faith of the church as expressed in our doctrinal standards and statements. We believe God’s grace is at work preveniently in all persons, and the journey of grace through faith is most fully experienced in

  • vibrant contextual worship
  • spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible Study
  • baptism and holy communion
  • disciplined small groups pursuing personal holiness
  • works of justice and mercy to transform the world pursuing social holiness
  • sharing the gospel with others

We are a Church, and recognize that we are one part of the larger body of Christ. We are focused on our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We do this by holding in tension deep values of the Christian life, such as corporate worship and small groups, social justice and evangelism, preaching and the sacraments, global unity and local discipleship, episcopal authority and democratic discernment. Our goal is obedience to Christ and, by God’s grace, to be a useful instrument for God’s purposes of transforming individuals and the world to become the holy creation God intended.

Human Sexuality Actions in 2016

The General Conference makes no significant changes to the Social Principles, moral standards for ordination, appointment and conduct, or chargeable offenses regarding homosexual practice and same-gender unions and marriages. These remain in the Book of Discipline. Bishops and others make new efforts at continuing conversation and discernment. Authority for deciding changes resides in the General Conference.

The General Conference explicitly says that we recognize disagreements among us, and we recognize that some among us in good conscience, based on their understanding of the teachings of Scripture, can no longer live in connection with us. For those who believe the tension between obedience to the doctrine and discipline of the UMC and their understandings of justice for LGBTQ persons is unbearable, we do not want them to suffer or to forsake their perceived calling from God. Thus, the General Conference clarifies procedures for local churches to leave an annual conference. Paragraph 2548.2 will be amended to cover the following.  ‘With the consent of the resident bishop, a majority of the cabinet, and a majority of the local church conference, an annual conference may deed the property, furnishings and all tangible and intangible assets belonging to the local church to a local church belonging to another Wesleyan or evangelical denomination. The church must pay that year’s apportionments in full before the property is transferred. The motion requesting such a transfer of property must state that the persons voting in favor of such a request are doing so because they can no longer, in good conscience as Wesleyan disciples, serve Christ effectively under United Methodist doctrine and discipline regarding human sexuality, and that they intend to transfer their memberships to the congregation receiving the property and assets.”

The General Conference amends ¶422 to give the Council the responsibility of censuring its members when they fail to adequately enforce the Book of Discipline in their area. The handling of complaints against bishops is shifted to the Council of Bishops.

 

3. Integrity and Unity Led by Bishops

The issue is not ultimately one of sexuality alone, but of covenant and governance. The Council of Bishops bishops at the close of their 2014 fall meeting would issue a public statement to restore the unity of the church and the integrity of our life together. Faithful expressions of this governance in keeping with the Discipline of The United Methodist Church would include:

  • The Council’s commitment to promote, defend and uphold the church’s biblical teaching that marriage is a sacred covenant between one man and one woman;
  • A commitment from all active bishops that they will fully enforce the Discipline with respect to those clergy members who disregard church teaching and choose to preside at same sex services;
  • A strongly worded directive to all annual conferences and jurisdictions not to circumvent the Discipline’s teachings regarding same sex services or the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals;
  • A public statement noting that those bishops who have stated they will use their influence to prevent trials as a means of just resolution for clergy who preside at same sex services have been censured by the council; and,
  • A commitment from all bishops that when trials occur they will appoint as counsel for the church individuals fully supportive of the church’s teachings and the necessity for organizational accountability.

 

4. Local Church Empowerment

Local churches would have the option of identifying themselves as inclusive of lesbian and gay persons, discerning or traditionalist. Lesbian and gay (LG) inclusive churches would be willing to perform same gender, two-person marriages and/or unions and would welcome ordained gay or lesbian clergy as pastors along with their spouse or partner. Traditionalist churches would not allow same-gender marriages or unions or allow their pastors to perform them and would not accept a lesbian or gay pastor. Churches that did not self-identify in one of those camps would consider themselves still discerning.

Clergy would self-identify in one of those three categories, and bishops would seek to match up clergy with congregations so that the categories match. Elders who self-identify as LG inclusive or traditionalist would agree to go on leave of absence if an appointment to a church with the same commitment is not available. Only clergy who self-identify as still discerning would receive guaranteed appointment.

Annual conferences would be permitted to determine whether they will or will not ordain self-avowed, practicing homosexuals while allowing local churches to determine if they would or would not be willing to receive gay and lesbian clergy.  In conferences where the ordination of gay and lesbian people was allowed, they would be held to the same standard heterosexual clergy are held to:  fidelity in marriage (including same-gender marriage or covenanted relationship) and celibacy in singleness.

The possibility of electing and assigning gay and lesbian bishops would be a decision made by each jurisdiction with input from the annual conferences’ members of the Jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee or by resolution of the annual conference. Bishops who self-designate as LG inclusive would be free to perform same-gender marriages and unions.

No provision for the full inclusion of bisexual, transgender and/or queer persons is provided in this proposal other than what currently exists.

 

5. Annual Conference Empowerment

Our UMC Constitution declares that the Annual Conference is the basic unit of our church – not the local congregation, not the Jurisdictional or Central Conference, not the Council of Bishops, not the Judicial Council, and not even the General Conference. Article IV also comments on the primary role of the Annual Conference (AC), as does ¶604, which describes the powers and duties of the AC. This proposal allows each AC around the world to make its own decisions on all matters other than those restricted by the Constitution. It allows each AC to be innovative and flexible on all matters other than our basic doctrine and theological task.

  • Each Annual Conference would be allowed to adopt its own Social Principles and approve its own resolutions applied to the cultural and political settings of its geography and people.
  • General Conference would retain authority over doctrinal standards and doctrinal statements subject to the restrictive rules. No Annual Conference would be allowed to change these.
  • Each Annual Conference would establish its own standards and processes to credential clergy and laity to serve their churches and mission field. For example, the list of approved seminaries, standards for moral conduct, the content of the course of study, processes and standards for exiting ministry and all other matters related to licensing, ordination and continuing appointment are determined by each annual conference.
  • Each Annual Conference would elect its own bishop, either for life or for a term and pay her/his salary and office expenses. Any General Church work would be paid for by the Episcopal Fund.
  • Salaries for bishops would be set by the General Conference on recommendation from GCFA.
  • Salaries and office expenses for bishops outside the United States would be paid by the Episcopal Fund.
  • General Conference would still set apportionments for all annual conferences, but at a much reduced level. General Church apportionments would support the General Administration, Episcopal (for salaries and office expenses of bishops outside the US and for all episcopal travel for General Church responsibilities), Africa University, Black College, and Interdenominational Cooperation funds. The World Service Fund and Ministerial Education Funds would be completely voluntary, decided by each annual conference.
  • Each Annual Conference would partner with the general agencies of the UMC for such services, resources and ministries which it determines that it needs.
  • Each Annual Conference would assume complete pension liability for its pre-2016 pension obligations.
  • Each Annual Conference would establish its own policies about how much latitude they would allow for ministry to gay and lesbian persons, especially taking into account the differing laws of various states in the United States and countries outside of the United States
  • Each Annual Conference would structure itself in the best ways to accomplish our mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” in each AC’s unique setting
  • Jurisdictions in the United States would be abolished.
  • General Conference would focus on its primary task of adopting policies, mission goals and budgets for the whole of the UMC
  • General boards and agencies would be partners with the Annual Conferences, and would have permission to raise funds by charging for services rendered,

 

6. Strategic Disunity through Jurisdictional Empowerment

First, the five geographically-defined jurisdictions would be replaced by two ideologically-defined, non-geographic U.S. jurisdictions. (This would require Constitutional updates). Both jurisdictions would be national in scope. One would be in keeping with the present language of The Book of Discipline, and the other would take the more progressive approach.  These two jurisdictions would be equivalent to Central Conferences outside the U.S.

Second, each annual conference would vote to be part of the jurisdiction that best serves their missional needs. Conference property would go with the majority. Churches and pastors in the minority who feel they cannot stay in their conference would have a year or so to indicate their desire to be placed in the other jurisdiction. A jurisdictional committee would place these churches appropriately as they redraw the boundaries of their conferences. Displaced clergy could find a new appointment through a jurisdictional task force created to address this need. In the end, each jurisdiction would have an overlapping system of conferences that would en-compass the nation. Both jurisdictions would have freedom to do ministry anywhere in the U.S.

Third, our U.S. bishops would each choose a jurisdiction in which to serve and be assigned appropriately by their new Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy.

The most divisive matters related to ordination standards and human sexuality would be relegated to the central and jurisdictional conferences.  The Social Principles in The Book of Discipline could be reduced to something akin to the Preamble to our Social Principles that currently exists.  The bulk of the specifics in our social statements could be given to the jurisdictions and central conferences who could freely adapt them to best address their own convictions and social challenges.   The General Conference would continue to function under the rubric of Section IV of our Constitution and preserve the global connection of United Methodism.

The general boards and agencies would undergo reorganization to best serve the growing Central Conferences and two U.S. Jurisdictions.  For instance, the Board of Pensions and Health Benefits might require minimal change while the work of the General Board of Church and Society might be divided among the jurisdictions.  The goal would be to divide up the work of the church in such a way as to avoid future conflicts between jurisdictions.  (For instance, making The Episcopal Fund a jurisdictional matter might avoid a future conflict over apportionments in the more conservative jurisdiction going to pay the salary of a LGBTQ bishop elected in the more progressive jurisdiction.)

After the reorganization is complete, a church seeking to change its jurisdictional affiliation would be able to do so only by vote of their annual conference.  Clergy could transfer from conference to conference using the same process we currently have in place.

 

7. Full Inclusion of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Persons

The scriptures describe God’s creating human beings for loving and faithful relationships.  Committed relationships between LGBTQ persons were unknown in biblical times, and the application of biblical texts for the contemporary situation is very complex.   Human sexuality is a mystery, and culture has continually been a strong filter in the study of the Biblical texts.   God creates great diversity, and God’s loving purpose is loving redemption of the whole creation. The hymns of Charles Wesley resonate with the strong word “all,” describing the all-encompassing greatness of God, the all-sufficient grace available to all, and the mission of Jesus Christ to all people.  In our human family are persons who are heterosexual, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and queer. These persons have long been misunderstood and marginalized in ways that are contrary to the teaching of scripture.

The church should guide all persons into faithful, covenanted expressions of two-person relationships based on their sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is not a basis on which the UMC should deny church membership and leadership opportunity.  Persons should not be denied clergy rights on the basis of sexual orientation. United Methodist clergy and congregations should not be restricted from offering pastoral care and marriage to LGBTQ persons.  No pastor or church should be required to perform marriages either traditional or same-gender.  This is a matter of pastoral discretion.  Persons with gifts for leadership should be welcomed at all levels of the church.

 

8. Amicable Separation by Annual Conference

The Book of Discipline would be amended to give to annual conferences in the United States the same privilege available to those outside the US to withdraw from the denomination to become or join an autonomous Methodist, affiliated autonomous Methodist or affiliated united church (see ¶ 572). Thus, with permission of the jurisdictional conference, an entire annual conference could leave to form or join a new methodist or united church. Local churches that do not want to follow their annual conference into the new church would be allowed to separate under ¶2548.2 and join a United Methodist conference, thereby remaining in the UMC. Any new church formed through this process would determine its own doctrine, discipline and name.

 

9. Amicable Separation into Two Different Denominations

The United Methodist Church would divide into two different denominations with an equitable and gracious division of general church assets. Each annual conference would choose whether to align with the Progressive Methodist Church or the Traditionalist Methodist Church. Congregations that did not want to follow their annual conference would have a period of time in which to change conferences. This might well result in two denominations each of which had at least one congregation in all fifty US states. All clergy, including bishops, would choose which denomination to belong to. If one denomination had too many active bishops, the bishops would decide who should retire or be assigned to serve as pastor of a local church.

The two new denominations would quickly move to choose their own names, neither of which would be “The United Methodist Church.” General church assets would be divided equitably and amicably. Both denominations would continue to belong to the World Methodist Council. Both would continue to be served by the General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits and the United Methodist Publishing House. Each church’s general conference would retain as much or as little of the present Book of Discipline as it wishes.