Wednesday, February 27, 2019

General Conference Response

Here is the letter I sent to my congregation in response to the actions of the called General Conference. We are the only reconciling congregation in the New Mexico Annual Conference.

When I recognized the 100th birthday of Jackie Robinson a few weeks ago in worship, I mentioned that while he and Branch Rickey, the owner of the Dodgers who brought him to the majors, were both Methodists that they could not worship together because of our own church’s history of racial animosity and division. That division line of having separate churches for blacks and whites, and not allowing black pastors to serve in white congregations or to have authority over white pastors, which was argued from a scriptural basis, existed until 1972. That also happens to be the year that the General Conference added what came to be known as the restrictive language to our Book of Discipline which said that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

As some of you are probably now aware, the special called General Conference ended yesterday. The Traditional Plan passed with 53% of the vote, while the One Church Plan, which is what I had been advocating for, was rejected. There were many different amendments being offered to the plan, and I have not yet seen a final copy of the approved plan, but here is what I know at the moment: The plan retains the restrictive language and continues to forbid “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from being ordained, clergy from performing same-gendered marriages, or allowing them on United Methodist property, and puts more “teeth” into enforcement of these rules, including penalties for Bishops who refuse to enforce these rules.

The original plan called for clergy and churches to be forced to take an oath of allegiance to follow the Book of Discipline in all its parts including teaching and saying that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”  If clergy or churches would not take that oath, they would be (kindly) asked to leave the denomination. I don’t know if that language was retained, but as I said before, that is not an oath I am willing to take because it is not one I believe in. It is not who I believe that God is, and my allegiance is not to the church but to God. Because of our statement of reconciliation, I am also assuming that Mesa View would not be willing to take that oath.

So, where does that leave us? The answer is no one really knows.

The original Traditional Plan had 17 parts, of which the judicial council, which works as the Supreme Court for the church, ruled that 9 of those parts were unconstitutional. The Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA), which is a fundamentalist caucus in the church, reworked portions of those which was then presented to the General Conference in 15 different parts. The Judicial Council ruled this weekend that 9 of the 15 parts were unconstitutional, but that did not stop the conference from passing that plan. There were amendments made, but no one knows if they will pass constitutional muster.

Additionally, while there was a motion made to hold votes on each of the separate parts of the plan, that motion was rejected, and the plan was voted on in its entirety. That is important because the plan has now been referred to the Judicial Council, which will meet at the end of April, and most people believe most of the plan will still be found unconstitutional. If that is the case, there are some bishops who are saying that if some parts are unconstitutional the whole plan has to be thrown out since it was voted on as one piece of legislation. No one knows for sure how the judicial counsel will rule on that, so we will have to wait. If the plan is found constitutional, it will go into effect January 1, 2020.

There was also one plan for allowing churches to “graciously exit” the denomination that was passed, but it too had been found unconstitutional, so we don’t know the status of that either. Again, there were amendments made so I don’t know what the final language of that proposal is now.

The WCA had already said before the General Conference that not only would they leave if the Traditional Plan was not passed, but, even if it was passed, many of their churches would leave anyways. They are meeting this week to discuss their next steps, and I suspect, although I could be wrong, that many of those churches will seek to leave the denomination even though the Traditional Plan passed.

There had been no talk amongst centrist and progressive churches of leaving the denomination, because the vast majority believed that being in a connectional relationship was important, and that we could have unity without uniformity, which is what the One Church Plan was. But, now that the church has swung even farther to the right, and with every indication that it will continue to move in that direction in the future, we are not sure what that means. But, as Adam Hamilton said on the floor yesterday, the centrist and progressive churches have been united in a way that they were not before. He also announced today that there will be a meeting at the Church of the Resurrection, which is the largest United Methodist Church, after Easter to discuss where Methodism goes from here.

So, does that mean we will leave the United Methodist Church, or that we will be kicked out? I don’t know and don’t even want to speculate. But here is where I find hope.

According to the WCA’s own estimates, 2/3 of the delegates from the United States supported the One Church Plan. At a gathering of the youth of the church from around the world earlier this year, the One Church Plan was supported by more than 60% of the youth. More than 15,000 young adults signed a petition from the end of the conference on Monday evening to the beginning of conference on Tuesday in support of the one church model.

One other person and I have been very vocal on this issue in the annual conference, but we were supported by many clergy who were silent allies. Many of them are not silent anymore and have now publicly stated their support of changing the church’s position. I wish they had spoken out earlier, but I’ll take their support now. All those things give me enormous hope for the future.

What I also know is that this action has done and will continue to do significant damage and hurt to those who are LGBTQ. There were many organizations last night posting the number for the suicide prevention hotline to help those who were being told again that they are not worthy, that they are less than, and that they are not loved by God.

Now, more than ever, we need to be advocates on their behalf. This is where we must move beyond mere words on paper that we are welcoming of all, and actually live it out. We have posted a message of welcome on our Facebook page and I would encourage you to share that and reach out to friends and family who are lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgendered, queer or questioning, whether they are in the church or not, to let them know that they are loved and beloved. That they are children of God and they are worthy. If you are lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgendered, queer or questioning, please know that you are loved and beloved. That you are worthy. You are not less than. You are welcome here.

We cannot know the pain this is causing to many people, but we hurt with them, and I hurt. I hurt deeply and have shed many, many tears over the past few days about what is happening to my church. But, because it is my church, I also know that I still have a say and I can claim with integrity that what 53% of the church said on Tuesday is not who I am, it is not what I believe, and it is not who Mesa View is either. We can be the proverbial light on the hill proclaiming the good news, because if the good news is not for the least, the last and the lost, then we have missed the point entirely.

Let us remember that God is not the church and the church is not God. Sometimes the church and God are in alignment, and sometimes we are not, and we see plenty of examples of that in scripture, many of which we will hear in Lent.

I have to be honest and admit that I am struggling mightily with people I considered friends who have said that I cannot be in their church. I want to be like Diotrephes as we heard about in 3 John last week and not extend hospitality. I don’t want to be in prayer for them. I don’t want to even talk with them or associate with them. I know that many of you are probably there as well. But God is love and we are to love our neighbors, all of them, because God first loved us. As Edwin Markham once wrote about those who want to draw narrow circles: “But love and I had the wit to win: We drew a circle and took [them] in!

We are an Easter people, but to get to Easter we have to go through the darkness of the cross and the tomb. That is where I believe we are now. I don’t know what the resurrection will look like yet, but I have hope, and so do millions of others, because God is not through with us yet, and in the end love wins. God wins.