(Editor’s note: Language in the United Methodist Book of Discipline refers to LGBTQ people as “homosexuals” or “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals.” Except in direct quotes, the St. Elmo Banner will instead use the term LGBTQ, as is suggested by Associated Press guidelines.)
In a well-publicized special meeting of the United Methodist Church, delegates from around the world voted 438 to 384 to double down on the Church’s official stance that LGBTQ persons should not be ordained for ministry, that United Methodist ministers may not perform same-sex weddings, and that United Methodist houses of worship may not host same-sex weddings.
Church officials met in St. Louis from Feb. 23-26, one year before the regularly-planned international General Conference, in an effort to lay a decades-long discussion about LGBTQ policies to rest.
Back in 1972, a progressive arm of the Church added the statement “homosexual persons are of sacred worth” to the United Methodist Book of Discipline, the denomination’s conduct guideline text, while the evangelical sect added that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” For many years during the ongoing debate, some progressive United Methodists practiced civil disobedience with the Book of Discipline’s official stances, ordaining LGBTQ clergy and conducting same-sex weddings as some regional governing bodies chose not to enforce Book of Discipline stances on LGBTQ issues.
A few plans were up for vote at the St. Louis General Conference, chief among them the Traditional Plan and the One Church Plan. The One Church Plan would have “offer[ed] greater freedom to many who desire change but do not want to violate the Book of Discipline,” says onechurchplan.org. If the One Church Plan were adopted, it would have allowed pastors to individually decide if they would perform same-sex weddings, would have allowed conferences to ordain LGBTQ clergy without forcing any conference to act outside of its convictions, and would have allowed congregations to choose to host same-sex weddings on their church property.
The Traditional Plan, which ultimately took the vote, required conferences and clergy to abide by existing Book of Discipline language, while also “enhancing accountability” to the Book’s guidelines by adding penalties for offending clergy as well as encouraging non-compliant conferences, bishops, clergy, and congregations to withdraw from the United Methodist Church.
Paul Black, Director of Communication Ministries for the Illinois Great Rivers Conference (which oversees the Embarras River District, containing Altamont, Brownstown, and St. Elmo churches), stresses that the rulings at General Conference have not changed anything at present. “The Traditional Plan does not officially open or close any doors,” he said in a phone interview on Wednesday, March 13. The Traditional Plan, at its core, upholds existing Book of Discipline language that prohibits ordainment of LGBTQ clergy and prohibits United Methodist clergy from officiating same-sex weddings. Other Plan stipulations, including those covering penalties for offending clergy and those allowing for exit plans, are “on hold” until April, when the United Methodist Judicial Council will convene to rule on the constitutionality of the Plan. Black expects that a few sections of the Plan will be ruled unconstitutional and will not be featured in the updated Book of Discipline.
The Traditional Plan has already proved controversial in some circles. The United Methodist Church in Germany, for instance, has already announced that it will not impose the Plan’s stricter penalties as of their spring session in early March. “Regardless of our own content-related convictions, we have reached the unanimous opinion that the stipulations of the Traditional Plan are not acceptable for our church in Germany. [We] will therefore not follow the chosen way of controlling people in their disposition and imposing stricter penalties,” said the United Methodist Church in Germany in a statement to UM News on March 12.
Many have noted that the decision to take the Traditional Plan largely hinges on international United Methodist ideals. “The decision, while clearly disappointing to many, reflects the global nature of our worldwide denomination,” says Illinois Great Rivers Conference Bishop Frank J. Beard in a statement printed in the March issue of Conference’s publication, The Current.
A number of local United Methodists, however, have different views. “I’m just glad they decided to stay Biblical,” says Rev. Don Thomas of Brownstown United Methodist Church. “As long as they stay with the Bible I’ll be there.” Dan Laack, the lay minister leading St. Elmo First United Methodist Church, echos these sentiments with his own support for the traditional plan. “I think the majority of the congregation [supports the Traditional Plan], too,” said Laack. “[The Plan] upholds what we traditionally believed and taught.”
In Altamont, Rev. Paige Campbell notes in a statement to her congregation how she has come to accept the ruling. “At one time I would have been dismayed by that statement. But now I am not… It is apparent to be that we have not been sensitive enough to the views and needs of the international church and how its ministry context is different from that in the United States. We need more understanding on both sides of the debate of how issues of human sexuality affect different ministry contexts.”
Some national and international United Methodists shared the same sentiments. “I’m truly sorry if the truth of the Gospel hurts anyone; I love you and I love you enough to tell the truth, ” said Nancy Denardo of the Western Pennsylvania Conference, quoted in an article by UM News while speaking in opposition to the One Church Plan. In the same article, Rev. Jerry Kulah, a delegate from Liberia, was quoted saying “the Traditional Plan is not only traditional but Biblical; it ensures God’s word remains foundational to the life and growth of the UMC. I submit we love our LGBTQ friends.”
Back at home, some United Methodists have doubled down on the church’s “open hearts, open minds, open doors” promise. In an article published in the Effingham Daily News on March 8, Neoga Grace, Toledo, and Etna UMC pastor Rob Dillingham stated that all were welcome in the United Methodist Church.
“The local church… is a ministering body [not a legislative body,]” Dillingham said, “and we will continue to minister to everyone in the community. All are welcome, and no vote changes that.”
Through it all, many United Methodists remain positive about the ruling, hoping that the Traditional Plan will ultimately be good for the Church at home and abroad. “We started this process believing that God would lead us. Now is not the time to stop trusting the process,” says Bishop Beard.
“Faith does not see and then go. Faith steps out trusting that God will be with us and will indeed direct our path.”