Reflections on the Council of Bishops Chicago Gathering

Dear Congregation,

As some of you may be aware, our Council of Bishops met last week in Chicago to finalize plans for the proposal to the 2019 called General Conference to determine a way forward in the context of differing viewpoints within the United Methodist Church on how we should be in ministry with people who are gay and lesbian. Another agenda item at the Council of Bishops meeting was releasing to the public information about vote tallies in all of the annual conferences regarding five amendments to the Constitution of the United Methodist Church which were approved at the 2016 General Conference, but required ratification by a 2/3 majority among annual conferences in 2017.

One Church Plan

With regard to the press release from the Bishops and the corresponding myriad interpretations given by Bishops writing to their own annual conferences, it was a bit confusing. Some organizations and bishops seized on the notion that all three previously considered plans (“Traditionalist,” “One Church,” and “Connectional Conference”) would be available at General Conference for consideration. They presume any of those plans would be actionable for amendment and implementation. Other bishops sought to accentuate that the Council of Bishops were solidly recommending the “One Church Plan.” This plan allows clergy and churches the latitude to make their own decisions on whether or not gay and lesbian people will be able to be married in the church while not forcing any clergy to perform such weddings. The plan accomplishes this by removing language from the Book of Discipline that characterizes homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Another aspect of discipleship (besides marriage) which is not available to “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” is ordination. The “One Church plan” leaves the question of whether homosexuality disqualifies someone from the process of ordination up to regional Boards of Ordained Ministry.

While I believe the “One Church plan” might be enough of a compromise to pass that 2019 General Conference, I take issue with the fact that we will be institutionalizing disregard for the spiritual gifts of people called to ordained ministry simply based on a majority opinion on homosexuality, as we currently do. I would like to see us take a step forward though, and I hope that the momentum would carry us into a greater recognition of the “sacred worth” fully expressed in gay and lesbian people celebrating their weddings and ordinations in our churches.

I must confess that I would have doubts that our own Oklahoma Board of Ordination will remove the disqualification for “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” to be counted among my colleagues. If the One Church Plan passes, I will advocate for our own Board of Ordained ministry to “not see as the world sees” instead of getting so stuck on a person’s sexuality when considering the great gifts they bring to the table.

Regardless, it is still unclear what will be the agenda at the 2019 General Conference. Will the bishops’ recommended “One Church” plan be before the body for an up or down vote with the other plans available to the General Conference merely for historical reference, or will delegates be wrangling with all three plans and likely spending 4 of the 5 days of conference arguing about how the rules will be implemented? (as was the case in 2012?) I’m not quite sure yet, and the Bishops need to better clarify the agenda. The 2016 conference asked the Council of Bishops for guidance. I hope they respond with clear leadership that moves us forward as a denomination.

Failure to Pass Amendments 1 and 2

The bishops said it themselves–it was dismaying to see that Amendments 1 and 2 did not get the 2/3 majority ratification needed in the Annual Conferences around the world to be added to the Constitution found in our Discipline. There are certain paragraphs in the front of our Book of Discipline that are our “constitution” and require 2/3 ratification rather than a simple majority at General Conference to change.

To me, the results of the annual conference votes, which are now open to the public, are beyond dismaying. The women bishops responded with more grace and character than I feel like doing. I have long excused the ignorance and backwardness of my fellow Methodists by saying things to myself like, “well, we’re a big boat, so I’m bound to disagree with a large percentage of my ship-mates,” or “we’re a global church, and it’s good for us to operate with a bit of cultural humility.” Well, those excuses are kind of weak when the language of the two amendments which failed to ratify seem to be pretty solidly universally acceptable.

I remember the voting on these amendments last year, and while the Oklahoma Conference did vote in enough of a majority to ratify Amendment 1, we did not even get enough votes for a 2/3 majority for Amendment 2. Here’s how the first Amendment would have gone:

Proposed Constitutional Amendment – I

On May 16, 2016, at a session of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church held in Portland, Oregon, the following Constitutional Amendment was adopted by a recorded vote of 746 Yes, 56 No (Calendar Item 121, DCA p. 2106).

In the 2012 Book of Discipline, Division One, add a new paragraph between current ¶¶ 5 and 6: As the Holy Scripture reveals, both men and women are made in the image of God and, therefore, men and women are of equal value in the eyes of God. The United Methodist Church recognizes it is contrary to Scripture and to logic to say that God is male or female, as maleness and femaleness are characteristics of human bodies and cultures, not characteristics of the divine. The United Methodist Church acknowledges the long history of discrimination against women and girls. The United Methodist Church shall confront and seek to eliminate discrimination against women and girls, whether in organizations or in individuals, in every facet of its life and in society at large. The United Methodist Church shall work collaboratively with others to address concerns that threaten the cause ofwomen’s and girl’s equality and well-being. If voted and so declared by the Council of Bishops, this would become the new ¶6, and the current ¶¶ 6-61 would be renumbered as ¶¶ 7-62.

That failed. Oklahoma passed it 543-77, but the ratification for the Book of Discipline is an aggregate of all the conference votes together. Some conferences, such as the Texas Conference headquartered in Houston, soundly rejected that amendment by a vote of 633-360. Texas Conference is in our own jurisdiction, and I’m really vexed by how such a thing could be so objectionable down there “deep in the heart of Texas.” I guess the heart of texas doesn’t have a heart for women and girls. Other conferences such as Congo, Liberia, and N. Katanga rejected the amendment unanimously by combined delegate votes of 2484-0.  I don’t know that such a thing can simply be chalked up to “cultural differences,” especially when just one conference away in E. Congo, delegates there approved at a margin of 789-5. What happened here? I am troubled by what the rejection of such an amendment says to our culture at large. Our lamp has been placed under a bushel.

Regarding Amendment 2, our own Oklahoma Conference wouldn’t have ratified that one by itself. It only passed 370-250. It would have read:

Proposed Constitutional Amendment – II

On May 20, 2016, at a session of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church held in Portland, Oregon, the following Constitutional Amendment was adopted by a recorded vote of 509 Yes, 242 No (Calendar Item 429, DCA p. 2212).

In the 2012 Book of Discipline, Division One, ¶4, Article IV, amend by deletion and addition as follows: After “all persons” delete “without regard to race,color, national origin, status, or economic condition”. After “because of race, color, national origin,” delete “status,” and add “ability”. At the end of the paragraph, add “nor shall any member be denied access to an equal place in the life, worship, andgovernance of the Church because of race, color, gender, national origin, ability, age, marital status, or economic condition.” Page 2 of 4 If voted and so declared bythe Council of Bishops, ¶ 4 would read: The United Methodist Church is part of the church universal, which is one Body in Christ. The United Methodist Church acknowledges that all persons are of sacred worth. All persons shall be eligible to attend its worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments, upon baptism be admitted as baptized members, and upon taking vows declaring the Christian faith, become professing members in any local church in the connection. In the United Methodist church, no conference or other organizational unit of the Church shall be structured so as to exclude any member or any constituent body of the Church because of race, color, national origin, ability, or economic condition, nor shall any member be denied access to an equal place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church because of race, color, gender, national origin, ability, age, marital status, or economic condition.

While the first amendment barely missed ratification at literally a hair’s breath 66.5%, or 100 votes short, the second Amendment was less popular, as you saw in our own Oklahoma tally. It only passed by a 61.3% aggregate. While the bishops seemingly shrug their shoulders about “not being completely clear about the motivation that caused them to miss the 2/3 required,” much of the conversation in our own conference, even lifted up in plenary discussion was that “gender is a slippery slope, and this is opening the door for people with ‘fluid genders’ to gain access to leadership positions in our church.”  I’m ashamed that such fear-mongering and discrimination motivates people to reject a document that is clearly and specifically advocating for full inclusion of ALL people in the equal place in the life, worship and governance of the church. Because you know what, that’s not assumed by the culture around us, and it especially isn’t now that we’ve rejected it.

This “big boat” Methodism that I’ve loved in spite of itself my whole life seems a little too big today. Turning around a big boat takes a lot of time, patience, and energy. That’s why I’ve stuck with it instead of seeking ordination in a denomination more affirming of the values I hold dear. To reject amendments like these two doesn’t just frustrate me, it infurates me. It may be a big boat, but clearly we need to find better, Spirit-led ways to rock it.