United Methodists from around the world gathered together on Feb. 23 in St. Louis for a four-day Special Session of the General Conference.
The work of this gathering focused on human sexuality, specifically ordination of LGBTQIA+ clergy and same-sex marriage.
In 2016, the Council of Bishops was charged with presenting a plan that would help our diverse denomination find a way to remain together and get back to our greater mission.
They created a 32-member Commission on the Way Forward tasked with the work of deliberating on a possible plan that would be suitable for our international body of progressives, conservatives and centrists.
This commission met multiple times over the course of two years and presented a plan to the Council of Bishops that would receive an endorsement of two-thirds of the bishops. This plan would be called the One Church Plan.
The One Church Plan offered what many progressives and centrists felt was the best opportunity for all United Methodists to live out their faith and freedom of conscience in Christian harmony with one another, giving room for different biblical interpretations and expressions while maintaining a shared theological heritage.
The One Church Plan opened a path for the full participation of the LGBTQIA+ community in the life of the United Methodist Church (UMC) though some felt this would be restrictive to regional areas.
Three additional plans would be proposed and would come before the delegates: the Traditional Plan, the Connectional Plan and the Simple Plan.
Proposed by the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a conservative caucus of the UMC, the Traditional Plan would uphold the denomination’s current stance on prohibiting same-sex marriage and LGBTQIA+ ordination.
In 1972, United Methodists added the words “we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider it incompatible with Christian teaching” to the social principles, which are defined in the document as “statements to guide the church in its efforts to create a world of justice.”
Since the adoption of these words, United Methodists have debated human sexuality issues at General Conference every four years, where prohibitions have consistently been upheld.
In 2004, delegates accepted a statement of unity: “As United Methodists, we remain in covenant with one another, even in the midst of disagreement, and affirm our commitment to work together for the common mission of making disciples throughout the world.”
In 2019, this commitment to unity was deeply wounded.
On Sunday, Feb. 24, delegates began prioritizing petitions and plans that would go before the legislative committee.
Pensions and liabilities received the highest priority, followed by the Traditional Plan, two Disaffiliation petitions, the One Church Plan and all other petitions.
Pensions and liabilities, the Traditional Plan, and the two disaffiliation petitions moved on to the plenary session Sunday night and into Monday.
The Traditional Plan carried to plenary with a vote of 56 percent to 44 percent, a difference of 102 votes. The One Church Plan would fail in legislative committee by 50 votes.
The remainder of the motions would be stricken, though the Simple Plan was given the opportunity to be heard.
The Simple Plan, which would have eliminated the restrictions on the practice of homosexuality found in the Book of Discipline, would go on to be defeated with merely 37 percent of the votes.
Tuesday would hold a thin margin of hope for those in support of the One Church Plan, as it would be readdressed in a Minority Report, a process allowing it to be considered by the general conference delegates despite being rejected by the legislative committee.
The hope was that the conference would vote to rehear the One Church Plan. Overnight on Monday, a letter was written and signed by more than 15,500 young people from across the United Methodist Church.
This statement would be presented before the General Conference, acknowledging that they are not of one mind but urged the delegates to focus on their shared mission and the strength of a more inclusive body. The effort would not be enough, and the vote would fail.
The Traditional Plan eventually came up for an official vote on Tuesday, Feb. 26, after facing numerous amendments and speeches.
It passed with 438 votes cast in favor of the Traditional Plan and 384 votes cast against it, a difference of 54 votes.
Many in the United Methodist Church are now waiting for the dust to settle from St. Louis.
The Traditional Plan must go before the Judicial Council in April regarding its constitutionality.
Once the Judicial Council makes its ruling, we will have a better idea what if anything will be moving on and how that will affect the denomination.
Regardless of the outcome of the Judicial Council on the Traditional Plan, prohibiting language against same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQIA+ clergy will remain and be enforced.
In the meantime, United Methodists are prayerfully seeking a new way to be the church with one another if at all.
While some are defeated by the decisions made in St. Louis, others are rejoicing. Highlighting the further divide in the denomination.
It is my belief, that in one way or another, all Methodists are grieving, but possibly none more than our LGBTQIA+ brothers and sisters.
For them, the church has turned its back by reinforcing discriminatory practices. For this, Jesus weeps.
What is left in the dust cloud is a future not yet fully known and millions of broken hearts.
The people of the Methodist movement are resilient. We have work to do, healing to do, loving to do.
The Holy Spirit is moving and is far from done with us. The mission of the denomination that sits before every local church has not changed.
There is a movement, washed by blood and water, which is far from tapping out, in fact, it’s just getting started.
Congregations will rise up to serve Christ in all manners. Disciples of all walks of life, including LGBTQIA+ disciples, will be called to go and tell the good news.
Jesus will be proclaimed. All people will be seen and known and served and radically loved.
Churches will work together to transform families, communities and individuals. And with God’s help, we will find our way together.