The Way Forward for The United Methodist Church. Human Sexuality. Same-Sex Marriage. Ministry with LGBTQ People. The Ordination of Gay and Lesbian Persons. You may be hearing, reading, and talking about these things in your Sunday School classes or small groups, with your friends and family, or you may not have heard or know about any of these things at all.
Whatever your knowledge level about these subjects may be, we hope that the information on this page is helpful for the people called United Methodist in the community and congregation of Arborlawn United Methodist Church. In the information below you will find all you need to know about what is happening in our global denomination regarding human sexuality and how our church is to be in ministry with LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Queer) persons, leading up to a special session of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church in February of 2019.
A Note about Our United Methodist Structure:
Before we get into the details about what is going on, it is helpful to first make sure we understand some of the essential elements of our United Methodist structure. At the general church level, The United Methodist Church is structured similarly to the United States Government. There is a legislative, executive, and judicial branch within both institutions. In The United Methodist Church these branches of government and structure are as follows:
The General Conference of The United Methodist Church is the top legislative-making body of the denomination, and is the only body that can speak officially on behalf of the denomination. General Conference meets every four years for approximately two weeks each time. The members of the General Conference, called delegates, are elected by the annual conferences [Annual Conferences are the basic units of The United Methodist Church. Each local church is a member of an annual conference, regional areas throughout the world that are also both organizations with structure and meetings that take place annually. There are 54 annual conferences in the United States and 75 annual conferences throughout Africa, Europe, and the Philippines]. There are an equal number of lay and clergy delegates at General Conference. Each annual conference is guaranteed at least one lay and one clergy delegate, and are then allocated more delegates based on the total lay and clergy membership of their annual conference. Approximately 60% of the delegates to the General Conference are from the US and 40% from other countries.
The legislative work of the General Conference centers around The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, typically referred to as “The Discipline.” The Discipline contains the Constitution of The United Methodist Church, our doctrine and theology, as well as our Social Principles, and the policies and procedures for everything in the church from how local church leadership is to function, to the work of bishops, to the requirements for entering into ordained ministry. Before each session of General Conference any United Methodist may submit legislation advocating for a change, addition, or deletion to The Discipline.
The Council of Bishops:
The Council of Bishops functions as the executive branch of The United Methodist Church. They are charged with leadership both within the annual conferences and for the general church. The Council is comprised of all of the bishops of The United Methodist Church, both active and retired. They elect leadership within themselves and meet together twice a year. Their executive function is more limited than bishops of other denominations, as it is the General Conference that speaks officially for the denomination.
Bishops in The United Methodist Church are elected for life, and must be elders in full connection and in good standing with the annual conference from which they were a member at the time of their election. Bishops are elected by the Jurisdictional and Central Conferences [Jurisdictional and Central Conferences are larger regional bodies across the denomination. Jurisdictional Conferences are in the United States, of which there are five. Central Conferences are similar to Jurisdictions, but are outside the US in Europe, Africa, and in the Philippines. The primary task of these bodies is to elect bishops. Both Jurisdictional and Central Conferences meet every four years in the months following General Conferences, with the same delegates, plus at least one clergy and lay delegate more for each annual conference.].
The Judicial Council of The United Methodist Church functions as the judicial branch of the denomination. The membership of this group is elected by the General Conference, and is comprised of nine lay and clergy members, with the balance alternating from five clergy and four lay members to four clergy and five lay members every four years. Members of the Judicial Council are elected for an eight-year term, with the possibility of being reelected for another eight-year term.
The Judicial Council meets twice a year to review decisions of church law made by bishops during a session of an annual conference, to hear appeals in the event of church trials, and to rule on the constitutionality of potential legislative changes to The Discipline at the request of the General Conference or the Council of Bishops.
How Did We Get Here?
In 1968, The Methodist Church and The Evangelical United Brethren Church united to become the denomination we are a part of today, The United Methodist Church. When this unification took place, the appropriate task forces and committees were formed to combine the Disciplines of each of the former denominations. Until this point, there was no mention of homosexuality in either Discipline, no prohibitions on same-sex marriage, and no mention of the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.”
At the General Conference of 1972, the report from the committee that had developed the new Social Principles for The United Methodist Church reported back this statement regarding homosexuality, “We declare our acceptance of homosexuals as persons of sacred worth, and we welcome them into the fellowship of the church. Further, we insist that society ensure their human and civil rights.” The debate over this report took place on the last day of the General Conference, and after a time of contentious debate, this wording was added to the statement, “though we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Regarding the Social Principles, it is important to note that while these statements are located in The Discipline, they are “non-binding.” Put another way, any United Methodist is well within their rights to find themselves in disagreement with these statements of the church.
1972 was just the beginning of our denomination’s significant disagreement regarding homosexuality and how we are to be in ministry with LGBTQ persons, with new developments and changes or additions to The Discipline coming every four years. In 1976, the statement on homosexuality was upheld, and this prohibition was added in another section of The Discipline, “No board, agency, committee, commission, or council shall give United Methodist funds to any ‘gay caucus’ or group or otherwise use such funds to promote the acceptance of homosexuality.”
The General Conference of 1980 opted not to alter The Discipline, however a study committee on human sexuality was formed and tasked to report back to the 1984 General Conference. The report was received in 1984, with recommendations based in science, psychology, biblical studies, and theology to remove the current statement that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” from The Discipline and include LGBTQ persons fully in the life of the church. However, this report was disregarded, in favor of adding more restrictive language to The Discipline regarding the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” The language was as follows, “...required to maintain the highest standards represented by the practice of fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness. Since the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.”
By 1992 another study committee on human sexuality had been formed at the 1988 General Conference, reporting back their findings, “The present state of knowledge and insight in the biblical, theological, ethical, biological, psychological, and sociological fields does not provide a satisfactory basis upon which the church can responsibly maintain the condemnation of homosexual practice.” However, once again the report of the study committee was disregarded.
In 1996 acknowledgement of The United Methodist Church’s divide regarding homosexuality was made by the Council of Bishops, “We, the Council of Bishops of The UMC, acknowledge the serious differences that exist among United Methodists on issues related to homosexuality. These differences are also reflected within the COB. We have been praying together and have been talking with one another in a new spirit of honesty and openness that is both painful and hopeful.” During this session of General Conference a prohibition on clergy performing same-sex unions was also added to The Discipline.
The General Conferences of 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012 continued to be contentious, with long debate about the church’s position on homosexuality taking place each time. Given the events of the General Conferences outlined above, it should be noted that our divide over human sexuality in The United Methodist Church has been much more nuanced than simply whether or not homosexuality is a sin, but has been a broader argument highlighting the diversity of theology and scriptural interpretation found within our United Methodist and Wesleyan tradition.
In 2016, General Conference was in a similar place as it had been before, embattled and stuck, with a split of the denomination possible, but during the second week of General Conference, the body voted to table all legislation dealing with human sexuality, and instead, ask the bishops to lead the denomination on this matter. It was understood that a commission would be formed to devise a “Way Forward” for The United Methodist Church and a special session of General Conference would be called by the Council of Bishops before 2020.
The Council of Bishops met immediately following the 2016 General Conference and in the fall of 2016 announced the 32-member Commission on a Way Forward, comprised of lay, clergy, and bishops, women and men and gay and straight United Methodists from across our global denomination.
The work of the Commission was as follows:
Mission - "to inform deliberation across the whole church ...to find a way forward."
Vision - "..design a way for being the church that maximizes the presence of a United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible, that allows for as much contextual differentiation as possible, and that balances an approach to different theological understandings...".
Scope - "embodying unity;" "consider new ways of being in relationship across cultures and jurisdictions"
Theological Framework - An Ecumenical Church; Grace and Holiness; Connection and Mission; A Convicted Humility
Where We Are Now
The Commission on a Way Forward completed its work in the spring of 2018, submitting their final report to the Council of Bishops in May of 2018. The report, downloadable here, was published in the official languages of the church at the end of July 2018. There are three proposed plans contained within the report, two within the body of the report and one as an appendix to the report, suggesting possible models for moving The United Methodist Church through its current impasse regarding human sexuality and ministry with LGBTQ persons. The two reports contained within the body of the report fit with the vision, mission, and scope of the Commission, while the plan found in the appendix was a last-minute addition at the request of the Council of Bishops.
The called session of General Conference, meeting February 23-26, 2019 in St. Louis, Missouri will receive each of these plans, as well as other legislation, and deliberate as to how the church is to move forward. It should be noted that all legislation submitted to General Conference is open to amendment by the body. It should also be noted that the final outcome of the 2019 General Conference may be the passing of some version of one or more of these plans, or possibly no action at all. We simply do not know what the final outcome of the 2019 General Conference will be.
One Church Plan:
- Removes restrictive language in the Book of Discipline
- Outlines pension responsibility for churches who cannot abide by these changes
- Leaves it to BOM [The Board of Ordained Ministry: this is the body within each annual conference responsible for determining the readiness of persons for commissioned and ordained ministry.] and clergy session on ordination of LGBT persons
- For same-sex weddings to take place in local churches, a church conference vote must be taken
- Allows for clergy to marry all couples they deem fit, no one is forced to preside at a same-sex wedding
- Defines marriage in the Social Principles as “between two people”
- Inserts new wording into the “Our Theological Task” section of the Discipline, ¶105 stating that we are in disagreement as a denomination regarding human sexuality
- Allows for ministry to continue as it currently is at all levels of the church
- Makes clear that Central Conferences have adaptability regarding ordination and what weddings they will/will not perform
Connectional Conference Plan
- Requires a number of constitutional amendments
- Would take until 2025 to fully implement
- Abolishes the Jurisdictional Conferences in the US and creates three new Connectional Conferences
- Three new Connectional Conferences are established based on beliefs on human sexuality: Traditional, Both/And, Full Inclusion
- Central Conferences are renamed Connectional Conferences and have the option to join one of the newly formed Connectional Conferences in the US
- Placement in the US into the newly formed Connectional Conferences begins with a Jurisdictional Conference vote and works down, all the way to local churches and individual clergy
- A global Book of Discipline is established, with each Connectional Conference being able to supplement with their own unique Discipline
- Outlines procedure for the Council of Bishops to hold their membership accountable to upholding the Discipline in its fullness regarding self-avowed practicing homosexuals
- Adds multiple layers of accountability and enforcement for clergy candidates and BOM’s for enforcing the Discipline regarding the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals”
- Inserts minimum punishments for clergy persons convicted of performing same-sex weddings
- Develops extensive “Gracious Exit” plans for both annual conferences and groups of 50 or more churches to leave the denomination, circumventing existing exit policy in the Discipline
What Does All of This Mean for Arborlawn?
Arborlawn United Methodist Church, like many churches, is diverse in thought, background, and yes, even in gender and sexuality among our membership, staff, and leadership. We understand that each of us has arrived at our thoughts and positions regarding human sexuality and ministry with and by LGBTQ people in different ways and with various levels of personal cost. We are all different, and yet, together we faithfully engage in the work of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, even though we may disagree with one another.
Ultimately, on February 27, 2019, regardless of the action of the General Conference, we will still be Arborlawn United Methodist Church, engaging in the same faithful and fruitful ministry that we had been doing the day before. Nonetheless, in the season after the 2019 General Conference there may be some decisions to be made or some changes that take place impacting our life together.
The following are some possible effects to Arborlawn if one of the above plans is to be passed in its entirety by the General Conference.
The One Church Plan: If the One Church Plan were to pass, immediately our LGBTQ members could ask our appointed clergy persons to perform their weddings. These weddings would have to take place away from the Arborlawn campus until a Church Conference vote is taken (a Church Conference is a meeting in which the entire membership of the church is allowed to vote), with greater than 50% of the vote being in favor of allowing same-sex marriages on our campus. In addition to wedding changes, in time, it is possible that an openly gay or lesbian married person could be appointed to serve Arborlawn.
The Connectional Conference Plan: [It should be noted that this plan has an incredibly slim chance of passing the General Conference.] If the Connectional Conference Plan were to pass, Arborlawn’s membership in one of the newly formed Connectional Conferences would first be determined by our Jurisdictional Conference, and then the prescribed timeline would unfold, with our leadership and membership ultimately needing to discern which of the three Connectional Conferences we most would like to be a member.
The Traditional Plan: If the Traditional Plan were to pass, the clergy persons appointed to Arborlawn would have to decide if they can remain a part of a denomination with the current prohibition on same-sex marriage and the ordination of openly gay and lesbian persons. The congregation would also ultimately have to decide if our church could abide in a church with these same prohibitions.
At this present moment, the pastors, staff, and leadership of Arborlawn are preparing for a variety of outcomes of the 2019 General Conference. In this season we are inviting the congregation into a time of prayer, discernment, and conversation regarding how we are to be in ministry with LGBTQ people—ultimately this is a question of who are we to be as the people of Arborlawn United Methodist Church?
The first opportunity for guided conversation will take place in October 2018. These “Holy Conversations” will be a time of conversation in which we will gather in small groups around tables to discuss questions and share stories related to how we arrived at our positions regarding human sexuality and ministry with LGBTQ people. These conversations are not a time to change each other’s minds, but rather are a time in which we simply listen.
Future discussion, learning, and discernment regarding human sexuality and ministry with LGBTQ people will follow in the coming months in the form of more moments of Holy Conversations, Worship Series', Bible Studies, and other learning opportunities. These will be announced as they are decided. The pastors, staff, and leadership of Arborlawn United Methodist Church invite all persons in our community to be in prayer, discernment, and conversation as we move forward together, both as a part of The United Methodist Church and as a congregation.
We are fortunate to have two members of the Central Texas Conference Delegation as a part of our Arborlawn UMC community, Tom Harkrider (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Ethan Gregory (email@example.com) are happy to answer your questions related to the upcoming General Conference.
Rev. Chris Mesa (firstname.lastname@example.org) is happy to answer your questions and hear your concerns related to how the Way Forward will impact our congregation.
Finding Our Way: Love and Law in The United Methodist Church Edited by Rueben P. Job and Neil M. Alexander
Our Strangely Warmed Hearts: Coming Out into God’s Call by Karen P. Oliveto
Unity of the Church and Human Sexuality: Toward a Faithful United Methodist Witness Study Guide produced by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry
For other books from Cokesbury regarding the Way Forward: