Disappointment in General Conference and “Not Losing Heart.”

I write to you, church, filled with the same disappointment and frustration that I’ve heard many of you voice over the weekend. Our General Conference concluded their assembly by refusing the leadership of the Council of Bishops, who had recommended the “One Church Plan,” which would give more latitude to context in deciding to offer marriage and ordination, and instead passing the “Traditionalist Plan,” which strengthens discrimination toward our LGBTQIA+ members and constituents. That result was communicated to the broader culture on every news outlet. Steve Inskeep’s interview with Council of Bishops president Ken Carter succinctly sums things up. It is a difficult time to be a United Methodist who has waited for the full inclusion of all of our people in every aspect of the church. Not only have we retained our discriminatory stance instead of opening the door to a new era of Spirit led marriage and ordination, the new plan seeks to make punishments harsher and more uniform for disobeying according to a pastor or jurisdiction’s conviction. Though my own marriage as a second marriage is “contrary to Christian teaching,” (Matthew 19) we as a church decided to “err on the side of grace” more than 50 years ago on that debate, and have allowed for remarriage in our churches and ordination of remarried pastors. (Even though, unlike homosexuality, this “Christian teaching” comes right from the mouth of Christ!) An amendment to add people like me to the list of “outlawed” pastors and marriages in the church (for the sake of doctrinal consistency) failed to be added to the “Traditionalist plan” late Tuesday by a vote of 65%-35%. I wonder about the cognitive dissonance of those who supported the traditionalist plan but not the amendment.

The “Traditionalist Plan” that was passed is largely unconstitutional, and will be reviewed by the Judicial Council for ruling at the end of April. It might be that it isn’t even applicable or enforceable. In the meantime, many proponents of the “Traditionalist” plan are now meeting in St. Louis for a follow up conference called the Wesleyan Covenant Association and had planned to leave the denomination before the General Conference even started. They had made the threat to the General Conference that there would be an even larger exodus if the Traditionalist plan wasn’t adopted without amendment. Despite that hanging over the heads of the General Conference, the delegates voted in substantial minority (45%) against the traditionalist plan. It seems clear that while 2/3 of the American church favored easing restrictions on marriage and ordination for gay and lesbian people, the vast majority of delegates from Africa (200+ of the 865 delegates) and Russia were solidly opposed. As Bishop Carter said in the interview with NPR, “we are both a democratic and a global church, and while that is a strength of our church, it is also a challenge.”

After reviewing the lectionary texts for this coming Sunday, I’ve decided to title my sermon after a phrase from 2 Corinthians 4:1, “We Do Not Lose Heart.” I haven’t started that sermon yet. I hope it comes to me soon, because I need to hear it. The full text is a guide for me as I seek to muddle through these days of disappointment. “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. 2We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.” (2 Cor. 4: 1-2) This text is about hope and transparency and faithfulness to the law of love. The previous verses speak about minds being “hardened” by a strict attentiveness to the “Law of Moses.” I would venture to say those who hold the church’s grace and ministry captive to a legalistic interpretation of exactly who is “incompatible with Christian teaching” are restraining the freedom of the gospel of love. “But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. 15Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; 16but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.17Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” (2 Cor. 3: 14-18). This Sunday is Transfiguration Sunday, when we celebrate the occasion that Jesus leads his disciples to the mountaintop to witness his divine nature—and their potential. We are looking for the transformation of our church into something new—not the same old discrimination with sharper teeth.

After transfiguration Sunday we enter the season of Lent. It is a season of discernment, fasting, and growth. Lent comes from an old English word “Lencten,” which means Spring, and shares roots with the word “lengthen” referring to the lengthening of daylight during this season. I hope that “more light” is shed over this season for a way forward that offers the light of Christ to the people whom we are already in ministry with at University UMC, and those who might be attracted to a more affirmative message. We will be attentive to the leaders inside and outside our denomination who value the diversity and gifts of LGBTIA+ people to discern how we might best be in ministry in the unique way the Spirit leads us at this church. I know that many in our congregation are ashamed of what our denomination has said to the world by affirming the “Traditionalist Plan” for a way forward on matters of ministry through and with gay and lesbian people. I am ashamed too. It was achieved through “cunning and falsifying God’s word,” in my opinion. In this statement I hope you hearing me “renouncing the shameful things that one hides” and being honest about our struggles as a denomination. But, I am not ashamed of the Gospel, which embraces all people as children of God. The General Conference does not have the power to legislate God’s love. And I see God’s love shining in the love that our members and friends in same sex relationships hold dear. The Spirit of the Lord is there—and it is in our church. And where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.