GC2016: UMC approves ‘way forward’ for church amid divisiveness over sexuality
S.C. reacts with gratitude, frustration
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By Jessica Brodie
PORTLAND, Ore.—United Methodists now have a new way forward when it comes to uniting The United Methodist Church on human sexuality and other divisive matters.
General Conference voted 428-405 May 18 to approve a proposal by the Council of Bishops, “An Offering for a Way Forward.”
The plan recommends that General Conference defer all petitions on human sexuality (a total of 56) and refer the entire subject to a special commission, named by the COB, to develop a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph in the UMC Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality.
South Carolinians reacted with both gratitude and frustration over the vote, with some seeing it as a sideways move that does nothing more than pause needed action, and others seeing it as a good way to take a step back and breathe before deciding something so difficult.
Bishops’ plan references Galatians
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The COB had been asked near the close of business May 17 to outline a path forward for the church regarding sexuality and the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning people. The request came after an impassioned call for unity earlier that day by Council of Bishops President Bruce R. Ough, who implored the Holy Spirit to mend the church’s broken heart and gather all into the flock together.
During the morning plenary May 18, Ough returned to the stage to offer that path forward, referencing Galatians 3:25-29 (all one in Christ) and calling this time in the denomination’s history a “kairos moment.”
“We continue to hear from many people on the debate over sexuality that our current Discipline contains language which is contradictory, unnecessarily hurtful and inadequate for the variety of local, regional and global contexts,” the proposal reads in part (click here to read the full proposal). “We will name such a commission to include persons from every region of our UMC and will include representation from differing perspectives on the debate. We commit to maintain an ongoing dialogue with this commission as they do their work, including clear objectives and outcomes.”
The “way forward” notes that, should the commission complete their work in time for a called General Conference, then they will call a two- to three-day gathering before the 2020 General Conference and will consult with the General Council on Finance and Administration regarding cost-effective ways to hold that gathering.
The “way forward” lifts up unity, prayer, processes, next steps and discussion as key to the future. The COB proposal urges United Methodists to understand their unity is found in Jesus Christ and to affirm their commitment to maintaining and strengthening the unity of the church. It also promises that bishops will lead the global church in times of worship, study, discernment, confession and prayer for God’s guidance in all of this.
The COB said it is considering the possibility of a called General Conference in 2018 or 2019.
“We will continue to explore options to help the church live in grace with one another—including ways to avoid further complaints, trials and harm while we uphold the Discipline,” the proposal concluded. ”We will continue our conversation on this matter and report our progress to you and to the whole church.”
South Carolina reacts
Dr. Tim McClendon, South Carolina delegation chair and episcopal nominee, said the plan permits an opportunity for the UMC bishops to lead in significant ways.
But while he said he sincerely hopes this can help preserve the denomination, “Deferring all petitions on this subject will be seen as insufficient to persons on all sides.”
McClendon said the delegates to GC2016 will reconvene if the study is completed. The current language is still in effect, and the covenant to uphold the Discipline remains.
“The people of our churches, whatever their position, need to know that Jesus remains Lord and the Gospel (is) more needed than ever,” McClendon said. “Today’s decision should not cause panic, but a redoubled effort of prayer.”
Other South Carolinians had varying reactions to the bishops’ plan.
“I thought (Bishop Ough) was right on point,” said lay delegate Jackie Jenkins. “It gave us a breather, although some may opt to leave, but they may be ones who need to leave.”
Clergy delegate the Rev. Susan Leonard-Ray said, “This seems to me the way the body has found to see if there are ‘new wine skins’ that can be discerned to hold us together as a United Methodist church as we seek to find a gracious way forward together.”
Clergy delegate the Rev. Tim Rogers said, “Our hope is that we may, with our bishops’ guidance, reach a final resolution.”
Lay delegate Martha Thompson said she believes the plan will create much discord and frustration.
“Many people came to General Conference feeling the issues of human sexuality were to be discussed and voted upon,” Thompson said. “Now we have another two years and great expense.”
Weeping and strife prompt call to breathe
Prior to the vote on May 18, the body debated and ultimately voted down two related motions. In the morning plenary, the Rev. Adam Hamilton, a delegate from the Great Plains Conference, made a motion urging the body to support the bishops’ plan to create the study commission and pause on the 56 sexuality petitions before General Conference. Then the Rev. Chappell Temple, Texas Conference, made a substitute motion that would create the study commission but enable the body to still vote on the sexuality petitions.
Both of the motions were voted down.
Tensions began to increase as the day pushed on, much of it reflected on social media. At one point after lunch, both before and right after the Hamilton vote, two people accused presiding bishop William McAlilly, Nashville Conference, of bias and said he was mishandling proceedings and creating confusion. One of those delegates, Jen Ihlo of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, demanded that McAlilly step down as presiding officer, saying that he had “singlehandedly undone everything that was done this morning.”
McAlilly called for a short recess. When business resumed, he remained as presiding officer. Then delegate George Howard, West Ohio Conference, moved that the body accept the bishops’ recommendations. The vote passed narrowly.
South Carolina’s Thompson was outraged over the accusations about McAlilly.
“We witnessed bullying to the highest degree with no respect at all to our presiding bishop,” she said.
Fellow delegates said much the same.
Many in the plenary were weeping and requesting a time of deep prayer for compassion and respect in the midst of the division.
After the recess, Bishop Sally Dyck, Northern Illinois Annual Conference, offered a prayer for the body and implored the Holy Spirit to come into their midst.
“Calm our hearts that we may be open to your spirit, your nudging and the commitment to see the good around us and in one another,” Dyck said. “Open our ears that we may hear you. We need your spirit to help us be as one even as we disagree.”
Dyck said she hoped that as General Conference continues to do its work, people watching from around the world will say, “My, my, my, look at those United Methodists. They don’t agree, but they sure will love one another.”
Brodie is the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate.