As previously mentioned, there’s an overabundance of straight white men talking about schism and unity in the United Methodist Church…myself included. So to round out those perspectives, we’ve featured a series of voices of LGBT Methodists who find themselves “talked about” but rarely “listened to.”
To continue this series, the following is a guest post by Sean Delmore, a member of Lexington UMC in Lexington, MA and a past delegate to the 2012 Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference. Delmore critiques the current proposals and makes one of his own.
Structure and Schism: The Missionary Solution
By Sean Delmore
As a member of the New England Conference who also is queer and transgender, I know that powerful change already is happening in The United Methodist Church. My own conference extends an invitation to clergy candidates across the connection who have been deterred by institutional discrimination, New York Bishop McLee showed us a powerful new way of being church together, and the Western Jurisdiction made a prophetic Statement of Gospel Obedience.
These examples sing of transformation. I believe real change happens BEFORE rules catch up to lived reality. If we can live in the tension without flinching long enough, I think unforeseen, radical change could be realized.
However, there IS urgency to stop deep harms of exclusion, unemployment, poverty, violence, and health inequities caused by anti-LBGTQ animus & fueled by our Book of Discipline’s “incompatible” language. Some changes can’t come fast enough.
Yet calls for schism fail to address the fact that LBGTQ people will continue to be part of every future denomination. My employer, home life, & local church all stand united against the kind of exclusions found in our Discipline. This context of unequivocal inclusion makes me feel a moral imperative to stand with LBGTQ people & allies who struggle in contexts where it’s much more dangerous to be LBGTQ. Indeed, some of our churches are in contexts where simply being SUSPECTED of being anything other than straight can imperil a person’s life.
In order to stand with LBGTQ people throughout The UMC, I must stand with The UMC as a whole. For me, that’s a strong “no” to schism.
What about the current proposals for structural change?
- The Slaughter/Hamilton proposal shifts us to a congregational polity and creates a “schism of identity” by eliminating defining aspects of our relational identity.
- Turning the U.S. into a Central Conference: for pro-LBGTQ people, this can be appealing because Central Conferences are permitted to make changes to the Discipline to reflect contextual, missional needs (provided nothing is contrary to the Constitution and the General Rules. See ¶543.7). A critique of this plan is that something similar was approved at the 2008 General Conference, but it required changes to our constitution, and the Annual and Central Conferences failed to ratify it as required.
- The Jurisdictional Solution would divide the U.S. into two nation-wide jurisdictions: one “more progressive,” one retaining “the present language” of the Book of Discipline. This proposal perpetuates the idea that congregations, lay members, and clergy all fall neatly into one of two “opposing” categories; would require even greater changes to our rules than the “U.S. as Central Conference” plan (especially since U.S. Jurisdictional Conferences are not presently permitted to change the Book of Discipline); and would still require Annual and Central Conferences to ratify any changes.
There’s got to be an achievable structural change that is also more just.
An Achievable Solution within our 2012 Polity
Here’s the interesting thing:
Central Conferences aren’t the only ones presently empowered to change the Discipline….
Missionary Conferences may as well.
That’s right: the Discipline already includes provisions for Missionary Conferences – which may be based in the U.S. – to adjust the Book of Discipline according to missional needs. ¶588 reads, in part:
“Missionary Conferences shall have the same rights as those given to the central conferences in ¶543.7, .8 to make such adaptations regarding the ministry and ordination of ordained ministers as the effective use of indigenous leadership in the missionary conference may require.”
I would argue that adaptations regarding the ministry of effective indigenous leadership includes changes far broader than rules on ordination.
Missionary Conferences are designated as such for reasons including “its particular mission opportunities” and “its unique leadership requirements.”
Flip open your Book of Discipline and begin reading at ¶585 to learn more about Missionary Conferences. Some highlights:
- Creating one does require the approval of General Conference, but not ratification by Annual and Central Conferences.
- They CAN overlap geographic bounds with Annual Conferences
- They elect lay & clergy delegates to General & Jurisdictional Conferences
Missionary Conferences: A More Just UMC?
Let me be clear: I wouldn’t argue for a LBGTQ Missionary Conference (segregation, yuck!). Rather, the question is: what adjustments to the Book of Discipline does any given mission field require in order for The UMC to more effectively be in ministry there? Can we think about structural change proposals through the primary lens of what would best serve local communities, rather than what would resolve our internal disputes?
The creation of more missionary conferences in the U.S. could provide opportunities to break out of an emphasis on maintaining the institutional church, and allow us to refocus on mission throughout the U.S.
It also could be a powerful move of solidarity with Central Conferences, standing against the colonialism of our Annual & Central Conferences format.
- What could happen if we asked every Annual Conference to become one or more Missionary Conference(s)?
- What would be the practical and spiritual implications?
- What if we focus on mission in word and deed, in name and lived reality?
Obviously this could be a risky strategy that would require humility, but I like that it provides new options that fit within our existing rules AND has the potential for passing the necessary voting bodies.
What do you think?
- How might such ideas be grown into achievable plans?
- Are there other options our structure chats have yet to engage?
I’d really really like to hear responses to this proposal…Thoughts?