NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: human sexuality and the United Methodist Church.
Last week the Methodist Judicial Council met in Evanston, Illinois. The nine members sought to decide whether recent governing amendments about sexuality are constitutional.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: In February’s special session of the General Conference in St. Louis, a majority of delegates approved what was known as “the traditional plan.”
That calls for a return to Biblical teachings on marriage. It also proposed changes to the Book of Discipline.
Opponents of Biblical teaching on marriage hoped the Judicial Council would throw out the legislative petitions on constitutional grounds.
Here’s Paul Butler on what the Judicial Council decided.
PAUL BUTLER, REPORTER: On April 25th, the United Methodist Church Judicial Council released its landmark decision. It announced that by-and-large it would uphold the “Traditional Plan” passed by the 2019 General Conference.
Chris Ritter is pastor of First United Methodist Church in Geneseo, Illinois. He was one of the 862 general conference delegates.
RITTER: Since general conference in February, we’ve seen…a collective sigh of relief on the traditional side of our denomination. There’s a sense that, the flood walls held against hurricane force efforts to overturn the Biblical teachings of our church on marriage and human sexuality.
After the 2019 conference, Traditional Plan supporters like Ritter worried that constitutional challenges might overturn the progress made during the legislative session.
But the council surprisingly ruled that the petitions could be evaluated one-by-one instead of as a whole. Meaning the unconstitutionality of some would not automatically undermine the rest.
In all, the council declared eight petitions constitutional, though seven were not. The decision now makes the amended Traditional Plan the denomination’s guiding rule. The changes to the Book of Discipline include minimum sentences for clergy who conduct “same sex weddings:”
RITTER: Previously, pastors had often received a slap on the wrist, sort of a penalty for violating our teachings on marriage. Now it’s a one year suspension for the first violation and loss of credentials for the second violation.
Additionally, the Judicial Council approved a petition that clearly defines who is a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” and maintains they are unfit for ordination. Another codifies how to file a complaint against non-compliant leaders.
Most provisions go into effect January 1st, 2020, but one begins immediately. It deals with disaffiliation, or how churches can leave the denomination with their assets.
RITTER: It’s not a wide-open process, but there is a process now for congregations to leave the denomination.
Rob Renfroe, a Methodist pastor just north of Houston, appeared in a UMC video earlier this year. He argued for a gracious exit:
RENFROE: We don’t exist for ourselves. We don’t exist so that the United Methodist Church will thrive. We exist so that we can bring the grace and truth of Jesus Christ into the world…Now, if all of our fighting keeps a local church from doing that, then yes, I think we need to offer a gracious exit.
Some liberal churches are considering leaving the denomination, while others are vowing to fight. In an email to supporters last week, Mainstream UMC called for civil, and uncivil disobedience of the new regulations. A handful of ministers have declared they will perform same-sex weddings in protest. Retired pastor John Ross from Grand Rapids, Michigan, is one.
AUDIO: I could lose my credentials. I’m glad to risk it because God is calling me to serve all people.
Audio from NBC affiliate WOOD-TV.
The fallout is wider than just local churches and conferences. It’s also reaching seminaries and Methodist colleges. Just hours after last week’s decision, Ohio’s Baldwin Wallace University severed ties with the denomination. Others have threatened to do so.
Chris Ritter believes Traditional Plan opponents hope to elect more liberal delegates for the 2020 general conference. If they can swing enough votes, they may be able to reintroduce alternate plans, weaken the new rules, or even overturn them.
RITTER: Well, general conference 2020 is going to be…contentious…no doubt about it…The polarities in our church are just too extreme for it to be any other way right now.
Critics of the new standards argue the church must be inclusive. One group took out a national newspaper ad alleging that the Methodist Church is now anti LGBTQ. But Ritter says that’s simply not the case.
RITTER: You know, the New Testament is about gospel transformation, gospel accountability, new life in Christ. The issue that we’ve been disagreeing on is not whether LGBTQ people should attend our churches…whether they’re people of sacred worth, we all agree on that…we want to, see them drawn closer to the Lord Jesus Christ, through the ministries of our church.
Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Paul Butler.
Paul’s earlier report on the 2019 General Conference and the battle for the Traditional Plan.