With new restrictions looming for LGBTQ clergy in the United Methodist Church (UMC), certain groups within the mainline Protestant denomination are clarifying their stance on the controversial issue. While the National Chinese Caucus recently affirmed its support of the Traditional Plan, which prevailed at a General Conference special session in February, bishops in the UMC’s Western Jurisdiction declared they won’t enforce restrictions set to take effect January 1.
At a Council of Bishops meeting on November 6, the five active Western Jurisdiction bishops announced a Safe Harbor Declaration for LGBTQ clergy. Saying they’re “haunted by the actions of the 2019 Special General Conference,” the bishops write: “We do not believe The United Methodist Church has the authority or the power to impose limits on the movement of God’s Holy Spirit in the lives of God’s beloved LGBTQ+ children.”
Bishops of the Western Jurisdiction, which includes seven conferences, posted a video about the Safe Harbor Declaration and encourage fellow church members to support it. The move comes ahead of the Western Jurisdiction’s Fresh United Methodism Summit November 14 to 16 in California.
UMC Western Jurisdiction Bishops Defy Penalties
For the Western Jurisdiction bishops, opposition to restrictions on gay clergy isn’t new. But they say they wanted to affirm their beliefs and clarify how they’ll proceed after January 1. When new legislation from the Traditional Plan becomes effective, UMC clergy will face mandatory penalties for approving gay pastors, consecrating gay bishops, and performing same-sex marriages. Under church law, set forth in the denomination’s Book of Discipline, no other issue carries mandatory penalties.
Western bishops say while the Traditional Plan makes it easier to lodge complaints about gay clergy candidates, they won’t pursue those complaints. The declaration states they “do not intend to withhold or challenge ordination based solely on a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation.” They’re also “unwilling to punish clergy who celebrate the marriage of two adults of any gender or sexual orientation seeking the blessing of God and the church for their covenanted life together.
According to the declaration, they’ll ensure that all clergy, regardless of sexual orientation, “maintain the highest standards of holy living.
Bishops: This Is ‘a position of conscience’
Bishop Elaine Stanovsky of the Greater Northwest Conference says, “We make this statement out of a position of conscience with the clear affirmation that we don’t think the church has the authority or the power to limit the way God works in people’s lives.” She says the Western bishops wanted to testify about ways they’ve witnessed “the fruits of the Spirit” in the lives of gay UMC clergy. While acknowledging that Western bishops are “taking some risk,” she says they want to “be sure [we’re] fulfilling our responsibilities with integrity and standards.”
Karen Oliveto, who became the UMC’s first openly gay bishop in 2016 and oversees the Mountain Sky Conference, summarizes the declaration this way: “Sexual orientation alone is not a bar to serving God” and “When two adults find life-giving love together, for the church to withhold blessing from that is a sorry state.”
In the bishops’ video, Bishop Minerva Carcaño of the California-Nevada Conference says the Safe Harbor Declaration ensures a pursuit of “God’s vision, a vision of inclusion of all God’s children.” And Bishop Grant Hagiya of the UMC’s California-Pacific Conference says the church—“especially the United Methodist Church”—should be “a place of divine love and acceptance.” His goal is to make everyone feel welcome, he says, including traditionalists and people whose views differ from the bishops’.
Declaration Aims to Offer Hope, Ease Fears
In addition to taking a stand, the Western bishops say they want to provide encouragement and calm anxieties. The declaration, says Bishop Oliveto, offers “hope for people who are living in high anxiety,” whether clergy or church members. “For young people who wondered if there is still a home for them in the church,” she says, “I hope they see we in the West are saying, yes, there is a place for you. There is a home for you. You are a vital part of the body of Christ.”
One UMC pastor who appreciates the declaration is the Rev. Austin Adkinson, an elder in the Pacific Northwest Conference. “Queer clergy and our congregations are on pins and needles as we await the January 1 implementation of the punitive and discriminatory acts of [the] General Conference,” he says. Adkinson, convener of the United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus, hopes other bishops also will speak up about their plans “to protect LGBTQIA+ clergy in their conferences and beyond.”
The Western bishops concur, saying in the declaration they “do not intend to act alone.” Instead, they “call upon the entire Church to offer safe harbor for LGBTQ+ clergy and laity to participate fully in the life of the United Methodist Church.”