2019 Special Session of UMC General Conference

February 23-26, St. Louis, Missouri
Information presented at FUMCGNV- 1/27/19

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The special called 2019 General Conference will focus on moving the denomination past its decades-long struggle with issues around homosexuality.  The One Church Plan, Traditionalist Plan and Connectional Conference Plan and several other pieces of legislation related to homosexuality will be considered by 864 delegates from around the globe.

BACKGROUND

The United Methodist Church (UMC) has its origins in the Methodist movement that was started in the mid 18th century by Anglican priest John Wesley and his brother Charles. The UMC’s current structure was formed in 1968 by the joining of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church. The United Methodist Church now has 12.5 million members worldwide, with 7 million of those members in the the United States. The church is founded on three basic principles: (1) Do no harm, avoiding evil of all kinds; (2) Do good, of every possible sort, and as far as possible, to all; and (3) Practice "the ordinances of God," engaging in individual and communal spiritual practices such as prayer, Bible reading, worship and the Lord's Supper.

The global church structure mirrors the United States government with judicial, executive and legislative branches. The legislative branch—the General Conference—meets every four years to set church policy. Approximately 1,000 delegates (half lay leaders, half clergy) gather to consider revisions to the Book of Resolutions, which makes pronouncements on social issues, and the Book of Discipline, which details church law. Decisions of the General Conference cannot be questioned until they are raised at its next convening. Feeding into the General Conference are Annual and Jurisdictional Conferences focused on immediate concerns within the denomination’s five U.S. jurisdictions and Central Conferences for outside the U.S.

WHERE ARE WE TODAY?

The church’s 2016 Book of Discipline recognizes the “sacred worth” of all persons but also states that "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching" and bans financial support of LGBTQ-based groups.

ON MARRIAGE EQUALITY

The United Methodist Church does not recognize or celebrate same-sex marriages. According to the Book of Discipline, “Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.” The UMC’s official policy includes support of laws that define marriage as a union of one man and one woman.

ON NON-DISCRIMINATION

The Book of Discipline states, “Certain basic human rights and civil liberties are due all persons. We are committed to supporting those rights and liberties for all persons, regardless of sexual orientation.”

ON ORDINATION

Currently, "self-avowed, practicing" gay, lesbian and bisexual persons cannot be ordained in The United Methodist Church. According to the Book of Discipline: "The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church." Although some regions still raise obstacles, gay, lesbian and bisexual persons who take a vow of abstinence are eligible for ordination according to church law. In 2014, both the New England and California-Pacific conferences issued statements that they would not discriminate against LGBTQ people seeking ordination—an action that goes directly against church law.

At the 2016 General Conference, delegates voted to defer action on LGBTQ issues pending further study and a diverse, 32-member “Commission on a Way Forward” that was appointed by the Council of Bishops has spent the past 2 years working to address the denomination’s differences on this topic. In May 2018, the commission forwarded two detailed plans to the Council of Bishops for their consideration: the One-Church Plan and the Connectional Conferences Plan. A third plan, the Traditionalist Plan, was also discussed and presented as part of the historical narrative of the commission’s work.
  
Here’s a look at all three plans as presented at Minnesota’s 2018 Annual Conference:

One-Church Plan (recommended by Council of Bishops)

This plan would allow for contextualization in different parts of the world (adapting some non-essential practices to different mission fields to maximize our witness and success in each place). It is based on the belief that we can be a church with a large enough tent for people to disagree about homosexuality and yet remain together as The United Methodist Church. It allows us to affirm that our unity and mission are more important than our disagreements. 

Some of the key components of this plan:
It will neither affirm nor condemn LGBTQ persons. It would remove the controversial statement that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching” that has been experienced as hurtful by gay persons and as alienating by younger generations.

It relies on pastoral discretion. Clergy would decide which weddings to officiate or not officiate. Clergy—through their normal Board of Ordained Ministry process—would discern who is fit and fruitful for clergy service in their annual conference. This plan would remove the current prohibitions without creating new obligations or affirmation. This plan should put an end to clergy trials that are damaging to individuals and to our public witness.

It respects local church wishes. As for weddings, no local church would be forced to vote. However, the church property would not be used in same-sex weddings unless the local church updates its local church policy to specifically allow it. And as for clergy assignment, bishops would take local wishes into account concerning who is or is not a good fit for their appointment. So, practically speaking, there would be gay weddings and gay ordination in some parts of the United Methodist world, but it would not be forced on local churches.

It protects clergy rights to individual conscience. The Book of Discipline would protect clergy who do not want to officiate same-sex weddings. Likewise, all would be allowed to follow their conscience in matter of ordination.

Pros of this plan:
· Allows for contextualization in different parts of the U.S. (this already exists in Africa, Asia, and Europe).
· More coherent theology for unity because it no longer assumes that human sexuality is the defining theological issue for The UMC.
· No more clergy trials.

Cons of this plan:
· Does not completely satisfy the progressives because it does not bar some kinds of discrimination against married homosexuals in some parts of the UMC. 
· Does not completely satisfy the traditionalists because allowing same-sex marriage in any form violates their particular interpretation of scripture.

Connectional Conferences Plan

The Connectional Conferences Plan is grounded in a unified core that includes shared doctrine and services, and one Council of Bishops, while creating different branches that would have clearly defined values such as accountability, contextualization, and justice. 
In the U.S., the five geographically distinct jurisdictional conferences would be replaced by three overlapping conferences: one traditional conference, one progressive conference, and one centrist or “uniting” conference. Each annual conference would choose to be a member of one of the three connectional conferences based on their affinity to the conference’s theological stance on homosexuality.  Any local church that disagrees with the annual conference decision could vote to join a different branch conference.
 
Pros of this plan:
· Makes a place for all three viewpoints within the UMC and yet creates enough separation that there is clarity for each position.
· Conferences and local churches could make a clear choice on human sexuality and yet enjoy some of the missional advantages of remaining a global church.  

Cons of this plan:
· Creates a complex structure that is more congregational than connectional.
· It would take years of administrative work to put this in place—there would be many constitutional amendments that would be difficult to ratify in annual conferences around the world.
· Churches may split as they try to determine which branch they will join.
· Some traditionalists would still be upset that LGBTQ people are being affirmed in some parts of the UMC.
· Some progressives would still be upset that LGBTQ people are being discriminated against in the UMC.

Traditionalist Plan

The Traditionalist Plan would affirm the current Book of Discipline statement that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Boards of Ordained Ministry would still be prohibited from recommending LGBTQ candidates for ordination. Officiating same-sex marriages would still be a chargeable offense, and being a self-avowed and practicing gay clergy would continue to be a chargeable offense. 

The Traditionalist Plan would demand increased accountability to the Book of Discipline—not only for individual pastors but also for churches, bishops, and even annual conferences, all of which could face punishment.

Pros of this plan:
· Essentially preserves the status quo, which some want.
· Requires no changes to our structure.

Cons of this plan:
· It’s a plan for keeping the status quo; fighting will continue and it will compromise our mission with costly trials.
· Plan is not a plan for unity; it tells the progressives to leave.
· We would likely lose most of our millennials and the next generations.

Are the three plans from the Commission on a Way Forward the only options available to the called General Conference?

No. Delegates may also consider other petitions deemed by the Committee on Reference to be in harmony with the bishops’ call. The delegates can also amend the petitions submitted by the Commission.

http://www.umc.org/who-we-are/seventy-eight-legislative-petitions-headed-for-st.-louis

What Can We Do Now?

Follow Bishop Ough’s advice.

How can I follow the General Conference?

The General Conference special session will be live-streamed at http://www.umc.org/gc2019. United Methodist News Service, UMNews.org, will provide full coverage of the event. United Methodist Communications new leader communications team will also provide coverage through @ResourceUMC on Twitter and other social media channels.

For more information: