By Clarita Anderman Krall*
In February 2019 the General Conference (GC) of The United Methodist Church (UMC) will gather to conclude unfinished business of the 2016 GC. For over 45 years, since language about the practice of homosexuality was first adopted into The Book of Discipline (BOD), the denomination has, every four years, been repeatedly revisiting and rehashing the BOD’s paragraphs on this topic.
Through all these years, it has been obvious that the denomination has been at odds with itself. In 2016, GC delegates asked the Council of Bishops (COB) to lead the denomination on a “way forward” so that the denomination can continue its unified witness to the love of our Creator for all creation, to the redemption of our shortcomings in the name of our Savior and brother Jesus, and to the continuing revelations promised to us through the Holy Spirit.
The COB formed a Special Commission to consider this over four-decades-old impasse. Thirty-two UMs with differing points of view, both clergy and laity, representing both North Americans and others from around the globe, were invited to become members of the commission.
After meeting nine times over two years, the commission presented three plans to the COB. The COB voted by a nearly 2/3 majority to recommend the plan known as the One Church Plan. Of the three plans, this one maximizes the witness of the UMC in the world, providing for contextualization of differing beliefs and points of view about homosexuality, and keeping the UMC unified to continue its main mission “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
We are stronger together. Under this plan, there would be no structural changes made within the denomination. (Structural changes, as outlined in the Connectional Conference Plan, would require annual conferences to vote on proposed constitutional changes over the course of the next year.)
As presented, the One Church Plan calls for the removal of language stating that the “practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” It would further remove the prohibition against same-gender weddings being conducted on UMC properties or by UM clergy. And it would end our prohibition against ordination and appointment of homosexual clergy for ministry.
However, it would insert language protecting pastors who choose not to participate in same gender weddings and churches that decide to not allow same gender weddings on their premises. The plan would also make provision for each church to covenant with its bishop on whether or not the congregation will accept an LGBTQ pastor.
The One Church Plan acknowledges that, while all UMs are not of one mind on this issue, it is not something that should rise to the level of dividing our beloved church. The construct of this plan recognizes that UMs of good conscience and thoughtful study of Scripture have differing understandings of God’s intent for creation. It concedes that, depending on the cultural context within which churches live, UMs can have different points of view and interpret biblical passages with different insights and meanings.
While continuing with the mission “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” the One Church Plan would allow UM pastors, where civil law permits, to celebrate civil unions or to conduct same gender wedding services, though it would not force pastors to do so. It would end the trials of clergypersons who, in their ministries to gay and lesbian congregants, perform wedding ceremonies. It would end the trials of clergypersons who are living in marital communion with same-gender spouses.
The UM standard of sexual ethics, which calls for its clergy to be celibate in singleness and faithful in marriage, would be applied to straight and gay clergy equally. (The Traditional Plan, which intensifies current prohibitions, would most probably increase the number of trials.)
As a 21st-century, North American Christian, I believe that God is alive and interactive with the whole of creation through the Holy Spirit. It is important to me to remain prayerfully open to new understandings that God is revealing through the Comforter, the Counselor, the Divine, the Helper, the Friend, the Companion, the HOLY SPIRIT – the one Jesus promised would come once he went away (John 16:7).
There is much we do not know now. We have much yet to learn. I pray that we UMs can remain open to the visions and experiences that God continues to communicate. Even the apostles remained open to God’s leading, through the Holy Spirit, as they engaged in their ministries after Jesus was taken up into heaven.
I remember Peter’s vision regarding the foods he thought he could not eat because of Hebrew food restrictions. Acts 10 is the account of Peter’s new understanding, correcting his thinking and helping him to see God’s law in juxtaposition to the Hebrew law. In the vision, Peter realized that God offers what is needed; and he came to understand that he should never consider “unclean” what God has made pure.
The vision also helped Peter understand that Jesus offered himself not only for the religious, ritual-abiding Jews, but for all, even the gentiles. It is hard for Peter at first, because he was taught it was sinful for him to associate or visit with non-Jews. With his new understanding of his responsibility to share the gospel of Jesus Christ to Cornelius and Cornelius’ relatives and friends, Peter declares that God has taught him to never call a person impure or unclean.
The One Church Plan, endorsed by the Council of Bishops, is a way forward for our global UM denomination. Not one of the three plans would be easy. The One Church Plan, however difficult, is the way to keep us together. It is a way for us to recognize that, although we do not all agree on our understandings of sexuality, we remain committed to our main focus of “making disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” in the different cultural contexts in which we live within our global church.
*Clarita Anderman Krall, a lay delegate to General Conference, is member of First UMC of Germantown.