POWELL, Tenn. (Aug. 29, 2018) -- “Hold steady.” That’s what the head of Holston Conference’s delegation told church leaders Sunday during the first of several district discussions about the shaky future of The United Methodist Church.
“Let’s just hold steady and seek to hold together,” the Rev. Kim Goddard said to church leaders during the Tennessee Valley District’s meeting at Powell United Methodist on Aug. 26. “We are Methodists for a reason. We are methodical if nothing else, so let’s just hang on.”
Goddard spoke to about 150 pastors and lay members from Knoxville-area churches, gathered for annual business but also to hear two Holston delegates speak about the denomination’s deep divisions over human sexuality.
The Rev. Wil Cantrell joined Goddard at the front of Powell's sanctuary. Together, they are two of 16 Holston delegates traveling to St. Louis, Missouri, for a special session of General Conference on Feb. 23-26, 2019. The 16-member Holston delegation includes 12 voting members and four alternates.
In February, Holston’s representatives will assemble with 864 total delegates from all over the world to attempt to decide if the United Methodist Church will change its stance on homosexuality or strengthen the ban on same-sex marriages and gay clergy. While many United Methodists pray for unity, others fear the General Conference outcome will lead to schism or a mass exit of members who disagree.
“It’s important to have these conversations,” Cantrell said, preparing the Powell crowd for a subject he acknowledged is sensitive and difficult for many. “We can have them prayerfully in the sanctuary or emotionally in the parking lot.”
Following up on a promise made earlier this year – and following the lead of delegations and bishops in other annual conferences – the Holston delegation has scheduled discussions in each of Holston’s nine districts, including 11 in the New River District of southwest Virginia where Goddard serves as superintendent.
The next discussion is scheduled for the Smoky Mountain District at 3 p.m. on Sept. 16 at First United Methodist Church in Maryville. The discussions will continue throughout Holston until the final gathering on Nov. 12, when the Clinch Mountain District meets at 7 p.m. at State Street United Methodist Church in Bristol. See schedule.
In addition, at least two sessions will be scheduled in the southern and northern regions of Holston Conference, Goddard said. See schedule.
Future gatherings will be similar in content to the information presented on Aug. 26 at Powell, Goddard said: “An overview of the three models from the Commission on a Way Forward along with a bit of the history of how we got to this point and something of how General Conference works.” Participants will sit around tables and time will be allowed for discussion in small groups.
Not all but a few of Holston’s delegates will attend each of the gatherings, Goddard said.
TUG OF WAR
Speaking at Powell United Methodist, Cantrell provided a quick background and historical context behind the United Methodist tug of war that has occurred since 1972, when the General Conference added this statement to the Book of Discipline: “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Cantrell is associate pastor at Concord United Methodist Church in Knoxville and author of the book, “Unafraid and Unashamed: Facing the Future of United Methodism,” which explains in detail the denominational struggle and what’s at stake if disagreements cause formal schism during or after General Conference 2019.
Goddard explained the “One Church Plan” and the “Connectional Conference Plan” for restructuring the denomination’s future. Cantrell explained the “Traditional Plan.” The three plans, crafted by the Commission on a Way Forward, are expected to be considered at General Conference in February but could be amended, altered or discarded altogether, Goddard said.
(For more explanation on the plans, see "Plans prayerfully pondered by United Methodists.")
Goddard and Cantrell’s presentations were followed by a question-and-answer session. Church leaders queried the two delegates on whether local churches will have opportunities to vote their preferences; if the delegation will vote uniformly or individually; scheduling of additional district discussions; scriptural basis for the “One Church Plan”; if other groups throughout the U.S. are having similar discussions; clarification on church property ownership if any of the three plans are approved; and protection for clergy refusing to officiate same-sex marriages.
On the latter, Goddard pointed out that no matter what plan is approved or rejected, pastors will not be required to perform same-sex marriages. “We don’t have to marry anybody now,” she said. “We’re not agents of the state so clergy would certainly be protected [if they refuse to marry any couple].”
In pleading with her audience to “hold steady,” Goddard reminded them that on the first Sunday after General Conference 2019, regardless of the meeting’s outcome, United Methodists will return to their local churches to worship and carry on the Lord’s work.
“There are going to be people who still need the love of Christ, no matter what,” she said.
Goddard also reminded her listeners to visit UMCprays.org and sign up for guides to pray for the church’s future between now and February 2019.
Contact Annette Spence at email@example.com.
General Conference 2019 (UMC.org)
Holston delegates prepare for special session (The Call, 6.11.18)
'Way Forward' leads Cantrell to write book (The Call, 9.28.17)
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.