By John W. Coleman
Members of the 2018 Eastern PA Annual Conference, meeting June 14-16 in Oaks, PA, took historic steps in the cause for justice by passing several key resolutions. But they stopped just short of advocating for the denomination to allow congregations that want to leave over proposed changes to church law regarding LGBTQ rights to do so with their properties.
Among 27 diverse resolutions submitted, the lay and clergy local church leaders voted almost unanimously for a Council on Finance & Administration (CFA) resolution (#24) to cancel all churches’ unpaid “prior-years’ balances” of apportionments and certain other billings, as of the end of 2017. Apportionments are amounts churches pay into three main connectional expense funds: the Connectional Ministries Fund to support conference-wide operations; and the World Service and General Church funds, which undergird denominational administration and programs.
But members went a step further for predominantly black churches’ by approving CFAs proposed cancellation of most of their additional balances-including unpaid property and liability insurance-“as an act of justice” (#25). Many of the 29 predominantly black churches belonged to the former, racially segregated Delaware Annual Conference, while several belonged to the former predominantly white Philadelphia Conference or were formed in the current Eastern PA Conference.
While many of the churches have large outstanding balances that would be daunting, if not impossible, to pay off, some attribute part of those balances to the costs that came with occupying large, deteriorating inner city church buildings left by declining white congregations decades ago. All the black churches would be relieved of responsibility for prior-years’ balances accumulated prior to December 31, 2017, except where the UMC’s Book of Discipline “disallows such action…in paragraph 639.4, concerning Pension Benefits and Health Insurance Benefits arrearages.”
The measure was taken as “one attempt at acknowledgement and atonement” for a racist history of segregation of the all-black and mostly white area Methodist conferences that ended with merger in 1965. That merger preceded the formation of the larger United Methodist Church from merger and desegregation in 1968.
“Resolution 2018-25 seeks to eliminate the historical balances of African American churches who have carried these debts for years, after inheriting deteriorating church structures that have handicapped their ability to do effective ministry,” said the Rev. David W. Brown, a Deacon on staff at Wharton-Wesley UMC in Philadelphia, a product of black and white urban congregations forced to merge for financial and property reasons. “We saw the passage of this resolution as a tangible act of justice that represents a step toward the ongoing racial reconciliation we hope to achieve as a diverse community of Methodists.” Brown and the Rev. William Lentz, CFA member, helped explained the resolution‘s rationale to the conference body.
“What a good opportunity to express Jubilee to our brothers and sisters in African American churches through this resolution,” said the Rev. Alan Smith, pastor of Good Shepherd UMC Lebanon.
An emergency resolution, presented in English and Spanish and unanimously approved in the conference’s final hour Saturday, called on the U.S. government to end its new policy and practice of separating parents and children immigrating here to apply for asylum as refugees from extreme violence in their Latin American countries. Calling it a “violation of international law,” the resolution cites the “traumatic” separation and incarceration of children in secretive detention centers that are operating outside the purview of elected officials.
It requests that “the U.S. Department of Justice and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a United Methodist lay person, immediately discontinue separating children from their families through the ‘zero tolerance’ policy.” It further urges bipartisan legislation to end this “child separation policy and calls for the resolution to be mailed to Sessions and Pennsylvania members of Congress.
Two other approved resolutions call on the conference to advocate against the offensive use of Native American team names and mascots in sports (#20) and for protection of sacred Indian sites and reversal of recent White House decisions to reduce the size of national monuments on public lands (#23).
And two more approved resolutions address rampant violence in U.S. society. One affirms the action of the 2016 General Conference calling for a reduction of guns, including assault weapons, and gun violence in America (#18). Another creates a new conference Committee on Domestic Violence (#13) from the current task force to help churches address that concern with more substantive programming and resources.
Yet another approved resolution (#27) urges greater awareness of and support for conference efforts to confront sexual harassment, sexual abuse, misconduct and misogyny in church and society, as “we stand in solidarity with the #metoo movement.”<
Only two resolutions related to The United Methodist Church’s “Way Forward,” as it considers, during a Special General Conference in 2019, whether or not to change church laws prohibiting LGBTQ members’ participation in pastoral ministry and marriage within the church.
Resolution #2018-14 asked the Annual Conference to “strongly urge the 2019 General Conference to include in any plan it passes provisions for a fair and gracious exit path for congregations who cannot in good conscience abide by the stance of the church regarding LGBTQ+ ministry…. Such an exit path should allow congregations to leave the denomination with their buildings and assets, assuming their own liabilities, but without demanding burdensome payments to the conference.”
That “Gracious Exit” resolution, submitted by the Rev. Joseph DiPaolo, pastor of First UMC Lancaster, generated lengthy, emotional debate; but it eventually failed by a close 285 to 241 vote.
The other resolution asked the Annual Conference to advocate to the Council of Bishops that “any restructuring of the Church in response to the Commission on the Way Forward must actively seek to redress the legacy of racism, heterosexism, ableism, classism, sexism, and all other systems of oppression.” Titled Agape Love for All and submitted by a group of 15 churches, it further called for General Conference to “remove all language that diminishes the humanity and dignity of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people-and thus, enhance the dignity of us all.”
That resolution (#22) was “postponed indefinitely” after some debate, in view of the imminent decisions to be made by General Conference in 2019.
Saturday’s debate over both resolutions followed presentations Thursday night on the Way Forward Commission’s three alternative proposals for the denomination’s future polity and structure. Bishop Peggy Johnson’s overview and argument for the Council of Bishops’ preferred One Church Model was followed by representatives of two opposing caucuses-the conservative Evangelical Connection and Reconciling Ministries-who presented their arguments for and against that model. A lively half-hour of dialogue by small groups of conference members and guests across the vast meeting hall ensued.
In other conference action, members approved unanimously a resolution (#26) calling for a special offering to aid the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico in its long, painstaking recovery from 2017’s devastating Hurricane Maria. The Rev. Nicholas Camacho, who heads the conference’s Helping Puerto Rico Rise Again campaign, proposed with support from the conference Cabinet, that churches receive a special love offering on Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018, the first Sunday of the annual National Hispanic/Latino Heritage Month (Sept. 15 to Oct. 15).
Offerings will be sent to the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico to support its churches’ recovery efforts that will likely last for many years. Only 10 percent of what the UM Committee on Relief (UMCOR) raises for Puerto Rico can go to repair or rebuild damaged churches, Camacho announced.
Bishop Johnson commended the conference body for its approval and announced that Bishop Hector Ortiz of the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico will visit Eastern PA to speak at its Clergy Lenten Day Apart in 2019.
Nine Advance Special projects are proposed for endorsement to solicit second-mile funding from churches. And one church, Avon: Zion UMC, was officially discontinued by the conference.
“The EPA 2018 AC was truly a time of holy conferencing with the name of Jesus lifted high in worship, preaching and conversation,” said Bishop Johnson. “Some personal highlights for me were: the opening worship with the Rev. Justin Hancock, Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koi Koi’s sermon, the New Life (UMC) Dancers, the “altar call” for persons called into ministry, the table talk around the Way Forward, and Dr Eric Law’s teaching (on Holy Currencies).
“The crafters of worship: Revs Candy LaBar and Monica Guepett brought much outstanding worship and Rev.Eric Carr’s music team lead us to high moments of praise. Many thanks to the many hard workers, too many to mention. The team work is outstanding! We need each other! Unity of diverse gifts is the best expression of God’s Word and work in the world.”
Further reporting on worship, resolutions and other aspects of Annual Conference 2018 will appear on the conference website in the coming weeks. Also, a full video recording of the livestreamed event will be posted on the website in July.