by Chris Ritter
This month marks the six-month anniversary of the release of “A Way Forward for a United Methodist Church”. While nearly 3,000 clergy and laity have officially endorsed the plan, nothing much has been heard since. Authored by Adam Hamilton, the proposal states our divisions are all but irresolvable at General Conference and calls for local churches to be empowered to choose whether or not to conduct same-sex weddings. Annual conferences would be authorized to decide whether or not to ordain self-avowed, practicing homosexuals, but no church would be forced to accept these pastors.
Allowing that the plan was conceptual only, there was to be a study team working on this “Local Option” that would produce legislation for us to review. This has yet to surface. Mike Slaughter, lead pastor of Ginghamsburg UMC and co-sponsor of the plan, has since endorsed another proposal offered by “The Centrist Movement”. The silence about “A Way Forward” by its sponsors is perhaps to be interpreted as a passive admission that the plan has intrinsic and fatal flaws. Not the least of these is the fact that the proposed limit upon appointing homosexual pastors to only those churches willing to receive them violates our Constitution. Multiple Judicial Council rulings have nullified attempts at infringing on the appointive powers of bishops.
Nevertheless, in my discussions with others on the future of our denomination, I sometimes hear from prominent United Methodists who are dogged in their insistence that local churches and annual conferences exert local control of matters of human sexuality. Perhaps the basic premise behind The Local Option lives on in the minds of some. As one strongly opposed to this approach, I offer the following cautionary tales:.
First UMC in Anyburg is a mid-sized congregation for which the practice of homosexuality had not been a hot-button issue. When the Local Option was authorized, the church council decided not to take a stance apart from the default denominational position. One day, two men entered the church office and asked to speak with the pastor, Anne. They explained that they had decided to get married and, since one of the grooms, Tim, grew up at First Methodist, they wondered if the ceremony could be held there. The pastor explained that the issue of same sex marriage had never really come up before at First UMC. She added that United Methodist congregations are empowered to allow this, but it would require a time of study, prayer, and a congregational vote. Couple: “Could you please take that vote? Our wedding is not until next year and we would be honored to be the first gay couple married at this church.”
Pastor Anne was somewhat conflicted about same-sex marriage but did not want to stop the wedding based on her own misgivings. She called church leaders about initiating a prayer/study process and church conference vote. Because Tim was the nephew of Gladys, a prominent member of the church, Anne was repeatedly frustrated that the study process returned often to the topic of whether the church dare offend a key member.
The congregation found relatively low participation in the study process on the nature of Christian marriage but extremely high levels of participation in the actual church conference vote. Tim and his fiancé were present at the meeting, as were other members who had not been seen in years. A conservative faction came armed with Bible verses and quotes from traditionalist scholars. Someone brought a placard sign about God loving everyone. Though a statement from the study group was read and personal testimonies shared, it was clear that the church was not in consensus. The district superintendent, Janet, led the group in prayer and called for calm and unity.
As the basket was circulated to collect the ballots, church members realized that families would be lost no matter what decision was made. Pastor Anne braced herself for the worst possible outcome: A vote that fell just short of the needed supermajority. This would mean the likely exit of Gladys and her family and the possible departure of conservatives who would realize that the majority of the church members do not support a traditional interpretation of scripture.
The Wesley Circuit is a pastoral charge of three small UM congregations in a fairly conservative county. When the Local Option was enacted, the congregations were generally opposed but were accustomed to turning a blind eye to goings on at the denominational level. On July 1, Pastor Greg was appointed to the charge. The honeymoon for the new pastor abruptly ended four months later when a wedding announcement appeared in the local paper that indicated that Pastor Greg had officiated at a same-sex ceremony at a local winery. The District Superintendent was called and meetings were held. The D.S. asked Greg to keep his head down and try to ride out the storm.
Three months later, one church on the charge found out that Greg had agreed to conduct a same-sex wedding in their sanctuary. The SPRC met with him to ask if this was true. He said it was and that the Book of Discipline in ¶2533 stated the Board of Trustees “shall not prevent or interfere with the pastor in the use of any of the said property for religious services.” He would bring his parishioners into the 21st Century even if he had to do it with “kicking and screaming”. The laity realized at that moment that the Local Option rendered them powerless to stop same sex wedding in their sanctuary.
Once the Local Option was enacted, The Mid-State Annual Conference took a vote on whether or not to allow self-avowed practicing homosexuals as candidates for ministry. By the narrowest of margins, the measure passed to the applause of some and the dismay of others. The bishop brought calm by promising that, as a practical matter, no church would receive a gay pastor that did not want one. When the results of the vote were announced, Connie, a lesbian who worked on a church staff, announced her candidacy for ordained ministry and enrolled in a local seminary for that fall. Two pastors of that conference, Jane and Mike, each “came out of the closet” in letters to the editor of the conference newspaper and to their respective congregations.
The conservative backlash against the vote was significant. With the help of renewal groups, a grass-roots effort was enacted to get conservative laity elected by local churches and to get conservative pastors off the golf course and into the voting sessions of next year’s annual conference. The matter was successfully brought to a vote reversing the previous decision. Connie then realized she was $20K in debt for a degree that would not be of use in her home conference. Jane and Mike wished they had not been so bold as to reveal their sexuality to their colleagues.
Doug served the largest congregation in his somewhat left-leaning annual conference. He had built, over fifteen years, a powerful contemporary congregation on dynamic, evangelical preaching. The church tended to downplay denominational affiliation. When the local option was enacted, the fact that his conference voted to allow self-avowed homosexuals as candidates for ministry did not trouble Doug much. His church paid nearly a million dollars in apportionments into the conference annually and he felt like the bishop, whom he considered a friend, would do what was necessary to protect both him and the congregation. He was able to keep at bay those in his congregation who wanted to break away.
When a new bishop was appointed to the conference, Doug had reason for concern. He learned that a roster was being circulated listing churches, in order of size, which had not yet affirmed gay marriage. His church was at the top of that list. Gay couples and their allies were being recruited to challenge the position of these churches. Doug also heard from a friend on the cabinet that the new bishop’s goal was to “live fully into the new vision” and had floated the idea of offering large appointments to moderate and progressive pastors who were willing to do the hard work of changing the culture of the hold-out churches. Doug realized that there was a target on his back and that conservative churches in his conference were well positioned to be picked off one by one.
Certainly someone will say: “We can’t plan the future of the denomination based on a few worst-case scenarios, can we? Isn’t it unfair to tell horror stories?”
In response, I would ask a question to supporters of the local option: Are these scenarios far-fetched? Would requiring local churches to establish policies on theology and ministry previously established by General Conference not subject congregations to undue divisive pressures? Is it not true that pastors can conduct weddings for whomever they choose regardless of the consent of the congregation? Is it not true that our BOD gives pastors the power to determine what religious ceremonies are held in the church as long as they are permitted by the denomination? Is it not true that allowing annual conferences to determine ministry standards could subject pastors and candidates to the whiplash of conference voting? Is it not likely that hold-out churches could be successfully targeted by activist groups and bishops?
For these reasons and others it is important to lay The Local Option aside and work toward a solution that provides protections for pastors and congregations. While the Jurisdictional Solution includes a provision for a local church vote in those congregations that wish to dissent from the direction of their annual conference, this vote is one-time and not directly about affirming the practice of homosexuality. The rules governing the local church regarding human sexuality would be made at General Conference and adapted by the jurisdictions.
All serious proposals must produce legislation for review. If a plan cannot ultimately stand up to judicial council review it is an expensive waste of our time and energy. I believe the only plan currently to be translated into legislation is the Jurisdictional Solution. It also has the distinction of being the only plan affirmed by members of the left, center, and right segments of our denomination.
Adam Hamilton was very well-intended in his proposal and deserves kudos for moving a tough conversation forward. However, I would expect that he knows it is time to abandon the entire concept as unworkable. If not, we are overdue for a draft of legislation needed to enact the plan. In the meantime, you can read the full legislation associated with the Jurisdictional Solution here. This blog also has many articles about my proposal for the future of the UMC.