While I was busy at the NRA Convention last weekend, two significant developments emerged out of the Council of Bishops meeting that concern the United Methodist Church. Both were clouded in confusion, lack of clarity, and messy roll-outs.
After talking to the bishop and reading a number of articles and documents, I think I finally understand what happened. So let me try to explain as plainly as I can, without editorial comment …
First, the bishops heard the recommendations of the Commission on the Way Forward, which was created in the wake of the 2016 General Conference. This commission was tasked with presenting the bishops with a plan for unity amidst the denomination’s differences on homosexuality. The bishops were presented with three plans; I won’t bore you with the details of each plan (you can read that here).
All you need to know is that one plan was approved overwhelmingly by the bishops. It’s being called the One Church Plan, and it simply calls for the removal of discriminatory language about homosexuality and same-sex weddings in the Book of Discipline. It would be up to individual churches and pastors to determine whether or not they will perform same-sex weddings, and each annual conference would determine whether or not it will ordain gay clergy.
This is the plan that the bishops will present in February 2019 at a specially-called session of the General Conference in St. Louis, Missouri. One thousand delegates will decide whether or not to accept this plan. They will also be free to amend it, change it, or perhaps even go back to one of the other two plans. Or they may do nothing.
The problem is that the bishops bungled the communication of this news in the press release. The release stated “the Council of Bishops will submit a report to the Special Session of the General Conference in 2019 that includes: All three plans (The Traditionalist Plan, The One Church Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan) for a way forward considered by the Commission and the Council; The Council’s recommendation of the One Church Plan; (and) An historical narrative of the Council’s discernment process regarding all three plans.”
The fact that the bishops stated that “all three plans” were being submitted in the report led conservatives to seize on the idea that all three options were still on the table, one of which is their own preference — the Traditionalist Plan. They conveniently ignored the fact that the bishops clearly plan to recommend the One Church Plan.
I don’t know what will happen in St. Louis next year. Judging by the results of the 2016 Conference, and considering that most of the same delegates will be present, I don’t know how likely it is that the One Church Plan will be adopted.
Second, the bishops also revealed the results of worldwide voting on five constitutional amendments, only three of which passed. Amendments are passed by General Conference but must be ratified by a 2/3rds vote in all Annual Conferences around the world.
The amendments which did not pass revolved around gender equality. Amendment 1 would have added the following new paragraph to the Discipline:
As the Holy Scripture reveals, both men and women are made in the image of God and, therefore, men and women are of equal value in the eyes of God. The United Methodist Church recognizes it is contrary to Scripture and to logic to say that God is male or female, as maleness and femaleness are characteristics of human bodies and cultures, not characteristics of the divine. The United Methodist Church acknowledges the long history of discrimination against women and girls. The United Methodist Church shall confront and seek to eliminate discrimination against women and girls, whether in organizations or in individuals, in every facet of its life and in society at large. The United Methodist Church shall work collaboratively with others to address concerns that threaten women and girl's equality and well-being.
This amendment failed to get the required 2/3rds vote, falling less than a 100 votes short: 31,304 “yes” votes were cast against 15,753 “no” votes, falling short by .2%.
Why it fell short is hard to explain. Some perhaps felt that the statement was redundant; the Discipline speaks of gender equality in other places. But there were also conservatives who took issue with the second sentence of the statement, fearing it to be part of the liberal agenda to remove masculine language from God in worship, or to deny the divinity of Jesus.
Amendment 2 would have amended a paragraph in the Discipline which would now read (additions in bold):
The United Methodist Church is part of the church universal, which is one Body in Christ. The United Methodist Church acknowledges that all persons are of sacred worth. All persons shall be eligible to attend its worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments, upon baptism be admitted as baptized members, and upon taking vows declaring the Christian faith, become professing members in any local church in the connection. In the United Methodist church, no conference or other organizational unit of the Church shall be structured so as to exclude any member or any constituent body of the Church because of race, color, national origin, ability, or economic condition, nor shall any member be denied access to an equal place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church because of race, color, gender, national origin, ability, age, marital status, or economic condition.
This amendment failed by a larger margin: 29,049 “yes votes against 18,317 “no” votes, for a majority of only 61.3%.
The problem with this amendment was, apparently, the use of two words, “age” and “gender,” in the last sentence. Conservatives feared that, by prohibiting discrimination based on age, the bishops would be unduly empowered. Here’s how one conservative commentator explains it: “Outlawing any discrimination over ‘age’ would have ended UMC’s longstanding requirements for bishops and other leaders to retire before reaching a certain age. Thus, this provision would have effectively served as a power grab for bishops seeking to consolidate and hold onto their power for far longer than what would be healthy for the church.”
Concerning the inclusion of the word “gender,” conservatives feared that this was a back-door attempt to legitimize LGBTQ acceptance in the church.