MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: the United Methodist Church and the LGBT agenda.
More than 800 representatives from the worldwide denomination met in Saint Louis earlier this week. The gathering was a specially called “conference,” intended to settle a nearly 50-year old debate.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: The argument goes back to the church’s 19-72 Book of Discipline—the governing document of the United Methodist Church. It states that the church does not condone the practice of homosexuality because it considers it “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
BASHAM: But homosexual advocates within the church have attempted to change that wording for years. Over the last decade, liberal churches and clergy have publicly disobeyed church doctrine, ordaining openly gay clergy, and performing same-sex unions. Bottom line is the council of bishops has refused to take strong action with regard to offenders.
REICHARD: After two days of deliberation and debate, the delegates voted on a way forward for the church. What did they choose? Paul Butler joins us now to talk about what happened.
Good morning Paul. Who all attended the conference?
PAUL BUTLER, REPORTER: The United Methodist Church is a global denomination. Delegates came from Europe, the Far East, Russia, Latin and South America, and the Caribbean. A third of the 820 delegates came from Africa, which has seen incredible church growth in the last few decades, and continues to be a powerful conservative branch of the denomination.
REICHARD: I know there were three plans under consideration, why don’t you remind us of those.
BUTLER: The One Church Plan was endorsed by as many as 2/3rds of the U-S delegation. It allowed individual clergy, churches, or regional conferences to determine how to handle gay clergy and same-sex unions.
The Traditional Plan argued for holding to the church’s orthodox views on marriage and homosexuality. It called for increased penalties for clergy, churches, or conferences that broke with church doctrine. It also required a yearly affirmation of the Book of Discipline by bishops and clergy. This plan was supported by most of the African conference.
REICHARD: So Paul you’ve told us about two so far—the one church plan, and traditional plan—what’s the third?
BUTLER: The Connectional Plan, would have split the church into three sub-groups: a liberal, conservative, and centrist conference, but all still under the broad United Methodist umbrella.
But the Queer Clergy Caucus introduced a 4th plan, called the Simple Plan. Simple because it proposed merely removing the restrictive language from the Book of Discipline and redefined marriage as a covenant between two loving people.
REICHARD: So what happened?
BUTLER: Going into the special conference, the One Church Plan was the seeming favorite, as it had the backing of most the Council of Bishops. Delegates argued for keeping the church together, with many calls for unity. Jasmine Rose Smothers of Georgia put it this way:
SMOTHERS: The One Church Plan does not understand unity as uniformity. Rather as our unity in Jesus Christ…
BUTLER: But opposition to the One Church Plan was very strong, as can be heard in this comment from Rudolph Merab, a delegate from Liberia:
MERAB: It is better to be divided by truth, than be united in error. It is wrong for the Christian church to not talk about the full counsel of God in scripture.
BUTLER: In the end, the One Church Plan did not make it out of committee. The Connectional Plan and the Simple Plan were also rejected. Only the Traditional Plan made it through the committee process, largely due to support from the African conference.
REICHARD: So how did the Traditional Plan fare during the actual vote?
BUTLER: Well, proponents of the plan introduced amendments to strengthen it. But opponents tried a series of parliamentary strategies to hamstring the process. They tried to delay the vote, they submitted the One Church Plan for reconsideration—failing a second time—then throughout the rest of the day, they brought forward their own amendments.
Some seemed intent on merely bogging the debate down, others were more adversarial. Gregory Gross, a delegate from Northern Illinois, supported an amendment that included inserting polygamy, adultery, divorce, and remarriage as terms for disqualifying clergy from serving in the church, not just homosexuality:
GROSS: I am a man who loves another man. So let’s be equal opportunity here. If you’re going to go after me, let’s go after everyone.
BUTLER: Other delegates warned that a vote for the Traditional Plan would bring schism, which was a common theme throughout the week, and threatened many churches would leave the denomination, including the church’s seminaries. Debate carried on for hours, but the chair finally called for a vote with just minutes left. Delegates approved the Traditional Plan by a vote of 438 in favor to 384 against.
REICHARD: So what’s next for the United Methodist Church?
BUTLER: Some liberal clergy are saying they’ll stay and fight—forcing the Council of Bishops to penalize them. Others are talking of leaving. Provisions in the Traditional Plan allow for churches to take their properties with them.
REICHARD: But what about those who stay in the denomination?
BUTLER: During the conference, advocates for the Traditional plan repeatedly argued for a Biblical sexual ethic:
DELEGATE: The Traditional Plan affirms that the statements found in the Book of Discipline addressing human sexuality and sexual ethics reflect the teachings of scripture, relevant at all times and places…
BUTLER: And going forward they will have to continue to lovingly teach why this is a crucial issue for the purity and health of the church. After this vote, the traditionalists within the Methodist church are now poised to speak with one voice clearly on the issue.
Everyone acknowledged coming into this week, that no matter what plan was approved, there would be churches and clergy that leave the denomination, and the pending split will be painful and very public. But many who remain are hopeful.
REICHARD: Paul Butler is a reporter for WORLD Radio. Thanks so much, Paul.
BUTLER: You’re welcome, Mary.