I am sure that many of you heard on the news this week that the United Methodist Church (UMC) held a special General Conference last week where they tightened the ban on homosexual ordination and marriage. This morning, I want to share a little history on this issue, explain what happened, and then talk about what this means for First UMC Cocoa Beach. In the process, I will share from my heart about how these decisions have impacted me personally and as a pastor in this denomination.
The UMC has been deeply divided on issues related to human sexuality for a long time. Our Book of Disciple (BOD) states that all persons are individuals of sacred worth and are welcome to fully participate in all the ministries of the local church, including baptism, church membership, Holy Communion, and lay leadership. However, it goes on to say, “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and, therefore “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” cannot be ordained as ministers, same-sex weddings cannot be held in United Methodist Churches, and our pastors cannot preside over same-sex weddings.
Over the course of many years, a growing majority of American United Methodists have come to believe that this language is discriminatory and contrary to the spirit of Christ revealed in scripture. Some have worked to change church law so that gay and lesbian persons can truly be granted full-inclusion. About 60% of American United Methodists are in favor of moving in this direction, which (according to the most recent Gallup Poll) is consistent with the U.S. population. Approximately 67% (or two of three) Americans believe that marriages between same-sex couples should be recognized by the law with the same rights as traditional marriages. This is especially the case among young people with 73% of Millennials favoring equal rights for gay and lesbian persons.
In contrast about 30% of American United Methodists believe that the traditional language in the BOD is consistent with the teachings of scripture. For them, to remove the language and sanction homosexual ordination and marriage would be to forsake God’s word, encourage sin, and capitulate to the culture. Those who hold this view have fought to retain the prohibitions and to enforce stiffer penalties for bishops and pastors who violate them. For years, they say, the rules have been flagrantly violated and the supervising authorities have turned a blind eye, rendering the prohibitions as worthless as the paper on which they are written.
While the traditionalists have been a shrinking minority in the U.S, we must remember that the UMC is a global denomination. The highest legislative body in the church is The General Conference and is the only group who can decide church law and speak officially for the church. Like the U.S. Congress, this body is composed of delegates that are elected to represent their conferences. Of the 600—1,000 delegates that constitute a General Conference, there are clergy and lay representatives from America, Africa, Asia, and Europe. In the most recent General Conference held last week, over 41% of the delegates came from outside of the U.S. In many of these countries, homosexuality is either taboo or illegal. As you can imagine, many of these delegates (especially in Africa and Russia) hold very traditional views of marriage and are opposed to changing church law regarding this matter.
Over the years, as progressives have sought greater inclusion for LGBTQ persons in the church, traditionalists in the U.S. have partnered with conservative delegates outside the U.S. to thwart these efforts. Our divisions have grown deeper over the years, and at the 2016 General Conference in Oregon the UMC almost split.
Before this happened, the General Conference asked our bishops to develop a plan to keep us together. They formed The Commission on the Way Forward and asked this group to do a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph of the BOD concerning human sexuality. Again, the goal of the commission was to maintain and strengthen the unity of the church. Much time and effort were put into this process, and while three proposals emerged, a large majority of our bishops recommended what was called the One Church Plan.
The One Church Plan acknowledges that good Christian people have honest disagreements about human sexuality. It also acknowledges that ministry is highly contextual; that churches in Birmingham, AL are very different from churches in San Francisco, CA, and churches in California are very different from churches in Africa and Asia. To keep us together and focused on our mission of making disciples of Jesus, the One Church Plan essentially gives local churches the freedom to make their own decisions on this issue.
Had it been accepted, the default position in the local church would have remained traditional. Unless a large majority of church members wanted to be more inclusive, the assumption would be that they would not receive gay clergy or permit same-sex weddings in their churches. However, congregations that wanted to grant more inclusion by receiving gay clergy and permitting same-sex weddings could do this through a Church Conference with a 2/3 vote. In other words, this would have allowed traditional churches to remain traditional, while providing an avenue for more progressive churches to grant full inclusion to LGBTQ persons. This is the plan that was advanced and supported by a majority of our bishops and approximately 66% of the U.S. delegates.
However, the traditionalists saw this plan as a violation of scripture and planned to exit the UMC if it passed. In response, they put forward the Traditional Plan, which not only retained the prohibitions of current church law but increased accountability by streamlining the process to enforce stiffer penalties for clergy and bishops that violate them. For example, if I were to perform a same-sex wedding, the first offense could result in a one-year suspension without pay, and a second offense could result in the revocation of my clergy orders. Although this was the minority opinion among U.S. delegates, the traditionalists partnered with a large voting block outside of the U.S. to pass the Traditional Plan by a very slim margin, 53% for and 47% against.
Many United Methodists in the U.S. are deeply disappointed, and some feel as if a minority opinion reflective of non-American contexts is being forced on the American church. In fact, entire jurisdictions and conferences are in open rebellion, not to mention countless local churches and pastors throughout the U.S., some of whom are considering disaffiliation from the UMC. Unfortunately, instead of uniting us, this decision has further increased our division.
Now that the Traditional Plan has passed, it must be reviewed by the Judicial Council (which is like the Supreme Court of the UMC) to ensure the constitutionality of all aspects. While there may be some aspects deemed unconstitutional, most of the Traditional Plan has already been ruled constitutional by the Judicial Council and will probably not be reversed. Some take comfort in the fact that the decisions of one General Conference cannot bind the decisions of another General Conference, which means that the passing of the Traditional Plan could be undone in 2020 or in future General Conferences. The likelihood of this is up for debate, but if it passes Judicial Council in April 2019, it will become official church law in January 2020.
Just as the global church is divided on this issue, so is our congregation. We have traditionalists in our church, just as most of us have traditionalists in our family. We must remember that just because someone has a traditional view of marriage does not mean that he or she is hateful or homophobic. People on both sides are often caricatured and mistreated by opponents, but most of my friends who hold a traditional view of marriage honestly believe that they are protecting the church from a corruption of scripture and are following God’s will. They claim to love and welcome their gay neighbor but do not want to be a stumbling block to their salvation by encouraging them to engage in (what they believe to be) sin. You can staunchly disagree with these ideas, you can vigorously debate them, you can protest what you believe to be injustice and fight for change—you can do all of this without assuming the worst about traditionalists, without demonizing and treating them with condescension, bitterness, or hatred. Jesus tell us that we must love everyone, even people with whom we disagree on matters of faith.
For those of you who hold a traditional view of marriage, you are loved by God and have important gifts that help the local church accomplish its mission. As our bishop said, “Too often, your stances have been misunderstood as driven by hatred, as opposed to being of deeply held faith. Your lives have been changed by the good news of Jesus, and you have a deep desire that others know this grace.” If you are a traditionalist at First UMC, I will work to ensure that you are treated with love, kindness, and respect.
It is also important to remember that many in our church and community disagree with the decision of the General Conference, and many LGBTQ persons, as well as their families and friends, are deeply hurt. If you are a Traditionalist, Jesus calls you to love them too, and right now loving them means providing a safe place for them to process and express their pain without judgement. It means listening to their stories and accepting that many will simply not conform to the decision of the hierarchy. Some will leave the UMC and others will stay and continue to fight for change.
As someone with gay and lesbian friends, family members, and parishioners, as someone who endorsed the One Church Plan and sought the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons, I am one of those people who are deeply disappointed and hurt by the General Conference decision. I cried real tears on Tuesday night as I wrestled with the realization that, for me, we have taken a step backward not forward.
I say these things not despite the Bible, but precisely because of my lifelong engagement with scripture. While the decisions of General Conference may be supported by an appeal to the strict letter of the law, I believe that they are contrary to the spirit of Christ, which is the only thing that gives the Bible life and authority. There are 31,102 verses in the Bible, and only six of these verses refer to homosexuality, and even these verses read in the light of the best of modern scholarship do not support the perpetual exclusion of LGBTQ persons in the church. While Jesus never mentions homosexuality in the Gospels—not once—he repeatedly insists that the outsider, the marginalized, the oppressed—those whom others regard as sinners—are loved by God and the primary focus of God’s gracious activity. Many will be surprised to discover that the people they reject will be first in the Kingdom of Heaven. In short, I believe that the spirit of Christ that is manifest in scripture as we read it in the light of, not only tradition, but also reason and experience, moves us to be more inclusive, not less.
To all my LGBTQ family, friends, and parishioners, I am sorry for how this decision has wounded you once again. I am sorry that you were told that we have open hearts, open minds, and open doors, that you are a person of sacred worth and welcome in the church, only to be told by the General Conference that you must change a fundamental part of your core identity to be acceptable to God. This must feel like a bait and switch, like a betrayal. I cannot imagine what it feels like to so faithfully give yourself to a church that refuses to bless your most loving and committed relationship, that acts as if your family is not a real family, and that will not allow you to pursue a call to ministry that God has placed on your life.
I believe that you are a child of God, created in the image of God, equal in worth to all in our congregation. You have blessed my family with your friendship and our church with your gifts, and we need you at First UMC Cocoa Beach to accomplish our mission. You are not a problem to be solved but a person of sacred worth to be loved. I see the Holy Spirit alive and at work in many of you. I see it in the way you seek to be a disciple of Jesus and strive to be a faithful part of his church, selflessly serving week after week. I see it in the way you refuse to give up on the church, even though the church has hurt you time and again. I see it in the ways you love others, even those who wound you.
As a pastor, I want you to feel claimed and loved by Jesus, even if the UMC has not made that abundantly clear. I don’t know how all of this will unfold in our denomination, but as long as I am your pastor, you will have a friend that will listen to your voice, value your story, and strive for your full inclusion in the life of the church.
So, what will change at First UMC Cocoa Beach? Nothing. We will continue to serve the mission of God by learning and practicing the teachings of Jesus in ways that create communities of love. In building a community of love, we will live into our core values by being authentic, inclusive, and compassionate. We will continue welcoming all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, age, gender, or sexual orientation, allowing them full participation in the ministries and sacraments of the church, including baptism, church membership, and Holy Communion. We will encourage all our members to use their gifts by serving in ministry, which may include leadership and staff positions. We will continue to be a diverse group of people working together to bring God’s healing, love, and justice to the world. No one will be excluded or marginalized at First UMC Cocoa Beach.
As we move forward, I pray that the traditionalists in our congregation will not become callous or arrogant, and that those seeking full inclusion will not become bitter and hateful. Despite our differences, Jesus calls us to treat each other with love and mutual respect. It is in this spirit that I encourage us to continue reading the scriptures together, using the best tools of modern scholarship, and to continue dialoguing about this important issue in ways that allow the voices of the marginalized to be heard. Above all things, I encourage us to remain focused on the mission that God has given to our church, to create a genuine community of love, so that we can make our city and world a more compassionate and just place for all. Moving forward, I hope we will remember that we serve a God who brings reconciliation to the broken and resurrection to the dead.
In closing, if anyone has questions about this topic moving forward, or if you have disagreements to discuss or hurts to share, my door is always open. Whether you are traditional or progressive or somewhere in between, if you allow me the honor of being your pastor, I am here for you.
Sermon Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jj4YW50tGRU
iTunes: Search “Pastor Mark Reynolds” in podcast app.