As delegates, bishops and all those who watched from home recover from the United Methodist Church’s Special Session of the General Conference in St. Louis, which concluded Tuesday, the question of what lies ahead looms large. Many are surprised by the outcome of the vote on the denomination’s official stance on homosexuality. While polls indicated two-thirds of the clergy and delegates from the U.S. were in favor of the more progressive One Church Plan, the Traditional Plan won out. The reason why this happened has to do with the delegates coming from countries outside the U.S.
As a statement released by the Wesleyan Covenant Association explains, the UMC is growing fastest overseas, in “Africa, the Philippines and parts of Eurasia, where there is clear commitment to the historic teachings and practices of the church universal.” For this reason, 43 percent of the over 800 delegates came from outside the U.S. The majority of these delegates were in favor of the Traditional Plan.
“We are gratified that the church reaffirmed its historic teachings on the definition of marriage, its sexual ethics and its standards for the ordination of clergy,” said WCA president, Rev. Keith Boyette.
Conservatives in the U.S., such as those belonging to the WCA, joined with delegates in the UMC’s Central Conference, which represents Eurasia, Asia and Africa, to glean a majority vote for the Traditional Plan. The Traditional Plan does not allow for the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” and penalizes clergy that perform same-sex weddings. Under the Traditional Plan, clergy who perform such ceremonies will face a minimum one-year suspension without pay for the first wedding, and permanent removal from ministry for the second.
Dr. Jerry P. Kulah, Dean of Gbarnga School of Theology, United Methodist University in Liberia, spoke at the Reform and Renewal Coalition Breakfast on Saturday, February 23, 2019. Kulah emphasized the fact that the UMC is not solely represented by the U.S. and that Methodists in Africa do not need “to hear a progressive U.S. bishop lecture us about our need to ‘grow up’” when it comes to sexual ethics.
While some argue that believers in places like Africa have not had to wrestle with the issue of homosexuality to the extent that the U.S. has, Kulah does not believe this is the case. “We Africans, whether we have liked it or not, have had to engage in this debate for many years now. We stand with the global church, not a culturally liberal, church elite, in the U.S.”
What About Those in Support of the One Church Plan?
According to a statement from Michigan Bishop David Bard, “research indicated approximately 2/3rds of delegates representing U.S. churches voted for more inclusive plans.” A study by Pew Research indicates that 51 percent of United Methodists said homosexuality should be accepted in 2007, and 60 percent said so in 2014.
Many U.S. pastors are posting letters to their social media pages and sending emails to congregants assuring them their churches will remain inclusive of LGBTQ+ members and seekers. However, the road may be rocky ahead. While nothing in the Traditional Plan prohibits welcoming LGBTQ+ members, it is very clear that clergy may not be practicing homosexuals. This will inevitably create problems for more progressive conferences that have ordained such people already.
For instance, Karen Oliveto became the first lesbian to become a UMC bishop in 2016. While it was determined that Oliveto’s status as openly gay technically meant she was in violation of the UMC’s Book of Discipline, she remains in her position of Bishop of the Mountain Sky Area, which includes Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana and parts of Idaho. For now, Oliveto’s job is safe, but tenuous at best. Speaking to the Billings Gazette, Oliveto said traditionalists “have voted to shrink the ‘big tent theology’ that has been a historic cornerstone of our tradition.”
Since the Judicial Committee of the UMC deemed certain parts of the Traditional Plan unconstitutional, that body will be reviewing the plan at an upcoming meeting in May. For this reason, Oliveto says the UMC’s trajectory concerning homosexuality “is yet to be written.”
Pastor Adam Hamilton, who leads Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, the UMC’s largest congregation in the U.S., was a very outspoken advocate of the One Church Plan. Speaking to reporters, Hamilton said he fears the vote sends the message that “LGBTQ persons are second class in the church.”
Hamilton will be addressing the decision with his congregation this weekend and deciding in the coming months whether his church will stay with the UMC or not. According to the Washington Post, Hamilton plans on gathering Methodist leaders from across the country to discuss more options in May.
The Future of the UMC
While the UMC is growing overseas and will likely continue to grow overseas, leaders in the U.S. fear this most recent decision will stifle growth among American youth.
A statement from the Association of United Methodist Theological Schools, which represents 13 seminaries across the United States warned “if the Traditional Plan passes, we will very soon lose an entire generation of leadership here in the United States.” This is due to the fact that younger generations favor inclusivity in church. In fact, Rev. Thomas Wolfe, president and CEO of Iliff School of Theology (a UMC seminary), says 30 percent of the school’s students identify as LGBTQ+.
The UMC stands to lose many colleges and universities in the U.S. as well, not just seminaries. “According to the recent statement by the National Association of Schools and Colleges of the United Methodist Church, many if not most of our colleges and universities and seminaries will separate from the UMC,” the statement says.
As far as the Central Conference of the UMC is concerned, though, the Traditional Plan will allow them to continue ministering and engaging in missions around the world. Unfortunately, it appears the plan may cause a big division along national lines in this global denomination.