Much hoopla has been made of what the Connectional Table’s recent proposal does regarding LGBT inclusion in the United Methodist Church. The CT, the highest body tasked with visioning the future of the United Methodist Church, voted to submit legislation that would do three things to United Methodist doctrine if they pass at General Conference 2016:
- Allow United Methodist clergy to officiate same-gender weddings if they choose.
- Allow Annual Conferences to ordain and support LGBT pastors and those who officiate same-gender weddings.
- Remove the active language of opposition while retaining the historical objection to homosexuality.
For individual pastors and entire regions of United Methodism, the legislation changes nothing. But for the rest of Methodism, it can lead to incremental movements towards full inclusion of LGBT persons in the life of the church.
No Forced Changes in Marriage…
The local pastor already has and will continue to have sole authority–no accountability whatsoever–to deny weddings to anyone. They can be too young, black, interracial, hippies, Republicans, ugly, or whatever reason. The pastor decides, regardless of what the Connectional Table or the local board states. While there might be appointment repercussions for open hostility to a people group, absolutely nothing forces a pastor to perform a wedding or allow a wedding in their church. (See ¶340.2a/3a)
What this Proposal does is affirm the reality and give another freedom: pastors now can deny and affirm any marriage to anyone. If you don’t want this freedom, you don’t have to practice it.
No Forced Changes in Ordination…
The annual conference already has and will continue to have sole authority to approve ordination of clergy. This names the current reality: openly LGBT persons are ordained in some annual conferences, and rejected without a hearing in others. Charges are pursued in some conferences and dismissed in others. We do not have a standard understanding and each individual conference has an individual clergy covenant. When one is ordained in one conference, they cannot participate in the elected leadership of another conference, so annual conferences can continue to exclude clergy who they do not like. (See ¶33)
What this Proposal does is affirm the reality and give another freedom: annual conferences can now deny and affirm the ordination of anyone without fear they will be persecuted from outside the region. If annual conferences don’t want this freedom, they don’t have to practice it.
No Forced Changes in Doctrine…
The Social Principles already have and will continue to have language of exclusion to LGBT persons. Much like people who are pro-choice or pro-life can both look at our language about abortion and see their perspective affirmed, by striking the active opposition while retaining the historical position, both perspectives will be able to see themselves in it. Also: the likelihood of all the negative language being removed is highly unlikely in 2016, so Methodists will continue to see themselves in the language regardless of their beliefs.
People who like the church the way it is and live in a region that likes the church the way it is will experience no changes to their church. If people want to continue to think their church doesn’t affirm homosexuality, then they can continue to practice that belief.
…And Yet This Changes Everything
Make no mistake: like the many structural solutions in the past, the Connectional Table proposal is a structural way to affirm freedom to some while denying freedom to others. This is keeping in line with historic movements in the UMC whenever we gave freedom to particular people groups:
- The debate over women’s ordination led to a structural solution to license women to serve an agreeable local congregation, while denying connectional authority to them. This was the case from 1924 until full clergy rights in 1956.
- The debate over African-American clergy led to a structural solution to have African-Americans serve only in the Central Jurisdiction, a non-regional jurisdiction consisting of only African-American churches and pastors. This was the case from unification in 1939 until the merger with the Evangelical United Brethren denomination in 1968.
Today’s debate over LGBT inclusion has led to this structural solution (amongst others) that re-structures the UMC to limit creeping LGBT inclusion in some areas while affirming it in others. It is what we expect from institutional Methodism, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong…just typical!
Unlike the tired “we are not of one mind” approach that has failed many times before, this is “we make up our own mind” that, as Dr. Steve Harper of Asbury has shown, has been part of United Methodism from the beginning.
What will it take to pass?
This proposal comes from the highest levels of the UMC and with strong evangelical pastor support. But what will it take to pass and become church law?
It will take Pragmatic Conservatives seeing this is the best option to allow their anti-gay policies to live the longest in their regions. Conservatives lose very little. Conservative pastors would not be forced to do weddings, and conservative churches would be highly unlikely to get openly gay clergy. The only loss they have is the ability to throw charges at the pastor/church down the street or the next conference to the west or north that is doing something they don’t like. They might lose their view of the Church as a uniform entity, but that doesn’t affect the majority of pew-sitters who know the reality is that unity in diversity is already the Methodist way.
It will take Pragmatic Progressives seeing that incremental justice is better than the present doctrinal reality. While to many “justice deferred is justice denied,” (which is valid), are we not also denying justice to the ones who could make their churches more just now rather than waiting for 51% of the body to come around later? This proposal seeks an incremental way towards a more just church that may be more attainable than an overall just church.
It will take Pragmatic Central Conferences seeing this is the best option to move this debate away from General Conference. This bothers me because I want the global church to have this conversation so our LGBT brothers and sisters in Zimbabwe are supported when they are being killed or imprisoned. But to the growing majority of the church, the constant refrain is asking “why do we talk so much about LGBT inclusion?” Moving the conversation to the pastor and annual conference level allows for more time to be given to other world issues. I don’t agree with this sentiment, but I can see how it would be appealing.
The only question is whether this unlikely coalition of pragmatic people will have a majority or if “no change at all costs” will have the majority. We’ll find out in May 2016.