In February, the United Methodist Church decided to take an official stand for traditional marriage by adopting the Traditional Plan. The Plan, among other things, does not allow “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy and does not permit a UMC-affiliated church to perform same-sex weddings. The denomination’s leaders have waited with bated breath to see how progressive churches in the UMC would respond. A recent conference of progressive UMC leaders suggests a sizable number of them are going to stay and attempt to reform the denomination from the inside out, and some are willing to violate the denomination’s Book of Discipline in the process.
“We are going to look at resisting, staying and living into a better, brighter way forward for the United Methodist Church regardless of what the Book of Discipline says,” Adam Hamilton, senior pastor of the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, said.
The Resistance Movement Forming in the United Methodist Church
For many U.S. Methodists, the decision that came about from the General Conference was “not OK” as Hamilton puts it. Progressives in the church see the Traditional Plan, which opted to keep the Book of Discipline’s traditional language concerning LGBTQ issues, as akin to treating these people as “second class people.” Those who attended the conference see resisting the Traditional Plan as a way to “resist evil, injustice and oppression in all forms and toward all people.” At a press conference discussing what the group had decided upon, Ginger Gaines-Cirelli of Foundry UMC in Washington D.C. said they are committed to building a church “which affirms full participation of all ages, nations, races, classes, cultures, gender identities, sexual orientations and abilities.”
Gaines-Cirelli and Hamilton are both on the “convening team” of UMCNext, which is the name of the conference that was hosted at Church of the Resurrection. There are 17 people on this loosely-structured team of leaders and their goal is to facilitate discussion among those churches in the UMC who find the Traditional Plan unpalatable.
Will Those Who Resist Violate the Book of Discipline?
The group is divided between two options: reforming the church from within or leaving the church to reform from without. Hamilton described the situation as being similar to the Protestant Reformation with groups representing a more Martin-Luther approach of leaving and starting something new and other groups representing a Council-of-Trent approach to bring about change from the inside. The 600+ attendees of the conference, however, agreed that reformation needs to happen.
Gaines-Cirelli articulated that UMCNext was not rushing to choose one of the two options. “We, at this stage, are not trying to say that there’s one path,” she explained. In fact, the conversation at the conference made it clear that there may even be more than two options to resistance. The group is open to further conversation.
A question arose about whether resistance would mean violating the Book of Discipline, the instruction of which concerning LGBTQ issues in the church is due to take effect January 1, 2020. “People will have to decide how they will participate” in resistance, explained Junius Dotson, the General Secretary of Discipleship. For some churches, resistance will mean violating the Book of Discipline. For others, resistance might take a more subtle form, such as displaying a banner that says “We Are a Welcoming Church” or perhaps something more blatant.
Another question arose about how the group (which was comprised of leaders from U.S. churches) planned to involve the global church. Considering it was mostly the Central Conference of the UMC that was responsible for tipping the scales in favor of the Traditional Plan at the General Conference, this was a tough question. Hamilton assured the group there are already conversations happening with European leaders and even some meetings coming up with bishops and members of the Central Conference coming up in July.
Hamilton mentioned the General Conference shook a lot of “centrists” who had been sitting on the fence or who had been silent on the issue of LGBTQ inclusion. Identifying as a centrist himself, Hamilton believes the decision at the conference caused many to choose a side and vocalize it.
The particularly difficult position many UMC churches in the U.S. face is what to tell the people in their congregations who started attending their churches before the General Conference decision and now face the question of whether or not they’re welcome anymore. “Many of our churches have families, LGBTQ families—children, we have couples that are married, raising children in the churches,” Hamilton says. The question of what to do with already-ordained gay clergy also comes to mind.
DJ del Rosario, a convening team member, thanked those church members for sticking with the UMC. Rosario wanted to make sure LGBTQ individuals in the UMC know “we are better because of you, not despite you.”