“Have you considered this is God’s will?” Browning asked.
It’s been a month since General Conference, when 53 percent of delegates voted for the “Traditional Plan” during the denomination’s Feb. 23-26 special session in St. Louis. Since then, reactions to the decision have been loud and emotional.
Many moderate and progressive United Methodists, including those in the 872 congregations of Holston Conference, expressed shock, sadness or anger that the newly adopted Traditional Plan did more than just retain church laws against “self-avowed practicing homosexual” clergy and officiating at or hosting same-sex marriage ceremonies. Effective in January 2020 in the U.S., the Traditional Plan also requires stricter enforcement for violations of church law.
Meanwhile, church members who supported the Traditional Plan express dismay that Christians who say they believe in the power of prayer are unwilling to accept an outcome that didn’t align with their hopes or expectations.
“Are our Methodist leaders so enlightened that they are totally oblivious to the 12 million people praying for three years that God’s will would be done?” Browning asked, while mentioning reports that the “holy spirit was moving among the crowd” on the first day of General Conference.
Browning, a member at Rutherford Memorial United Methodist Church in Corryton, Tennessee, was referring to the months of organized prayer, prior to the St. Louis meeting, practiced by many in the denomination’s 12.6 million members worldwide.
“Now after the conference vote, the reaction has been gloom and doom with sad and offended people,” Browning said. “Some Methodist church leaders have actually apologized for the vote outcome.”
Kelli Thompson, a member at St. Mark United Methodist Church in Clinton, Tennessee, said she was disappointed to see delegates use political maneuvering to fight against a majority vote for the Traditional Plan.
“We all prayed strongly and regularly … that we should lay aside our personal wants and needs so that the church can truly represent God,” said Thompson, who watched General Conference on live stream. “It makes me pause why those supporting this progressive agenda cannot grasp that perhaps all of those prayers were answered, accept it, and continue to be the loving church that brought me into this church over 17 years ago.”
Some Traditional Plan supporters said they can understand why people who supported the One Church Plan, which would have removed language banning same-sex unions and gay clergy, are rejecting the General Conference’s decision.
While American evangelicals and United Methodists from Africa and Asia united to pass the Traditional Plan, most U.S. delegates reportedly backed the One Church Plan. The Council of Bishops also supported the One Church Plan as the best option to save the denomination’s unity.
“I get it,” said the Rev. John Grimm. “If I were to campaign and posture for what I thought was best for the UMC and my position was defeated by an opposing plan, then I could be upset and angry.” Grimm is pastor at Hartman’s Chapel United Methodist Church in Mosheim, Tennessee, and Pine Grove United Methodist Church in Greeneville, Tennessee.
Others acknowledged the pain and separation caused by the General Conference decision or the church’s mistreatment of the LGBTQ community.
“If you have ever felt marginalized, persecuted, or unwelcomed at any Methodist church, I am terribly grieved by that and you have my sincerest apologies,” said Tyler Ricker, in a social-media statement shared by many church members in the Mountain View District. Ricker is a member at Love’s Memorial United Methodist Church in Greeneville, Tennessee.
However, many Traditional Plan supporters said that, despite the grief or division it causes, they could not compromise their Biblical belief that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” as it now states in the Book of Discipline.
“If my child has a same-sex attraction, I will love them with all my heart and soul, and I will love the person they are with. But I will never tell them that it’s ok, because it is crystal clear in scripture that it is not,” said the Rev. Ronnie Collins, pastor at Out of the Box United Methodist Church in Hillsville, Virginia.
“I believe the greatest love we can have for a person is to teach them the truth and teach what God says, even when that truth hurts,” Collins added.
As a young adult, Jake Nunn said he does not like being grouped with others assuming that all young adults want to change church law to be more accepting of homosexuality.
“I have friends that identify as gay or bisexual, and I’ve made sure they know I love them, would save them a seat in church because God loves them,” said Nunn, a member at Out of the Box UMC in Hillsville. “But at the same time they know I don’t agree with their lifestyle. I’ve lost a lot of friends and unintentionally hurt a lot of people by my stance ... But I can’t deny what I truly feel like God has already told us.”
MORE HARM THAN GOOD
Since General Conference concluded on Feb. 26, United Methodist leaders have had to respond to accusations that improper voting occurred. A 12-member task force has been appointed by the Commission on General Conference to investigate a report that the sons of two African bishops were ineligible delegates in St. Louis.
Traditional Plan supporters in Holston say they are grieved by accusations against conservative United Methodists outside the U.S. They also said they are hurt when they are labeled as “haters” or bigots because they support the Book of Discipline’s current stance on homosexuality.
“People seem to have forgotten that it is possible to love, even adore, people we don't agree with,” said the Rev. Joe Phillips, pastor at Norwood United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee.
“We pride ourselves in the UMC on being that church who is open to everyone and inviting, but the negativity now toward the African delegation breaks my heart,” said Collins.
Bishop Richard Looney, a retired United Methodist bishop who now lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee, addressed the response to the General Conference’s majority vote during a meeting of Scenic South District retirees on March 19.
“Don’t get caught up in the rumors,” Looney said. “We don’t hate gays, but we do have a disagreement about ordination and performing ceremonies.”
Many United Methodists have acknowledged that the special session of General Conference did more harm than good, and unity may not be possible.
“Instead of [General Conference] uniting the denomination, the sides can see a glimmer of life without the other,” said Grimm. “The turmoil is not over. Having watched family and friends go through divorces, there are no winners. The ‘new normal’ sets in over time. New horizons are discovered. Grace gets us through this and all situations.”
“You can’t live a life at 53-47,” said Looney, referring to the percentage of votes for and against adoption of the Traditional Plan. “Before you throw stones, realize we’ve got a real complicated church, and some respected leaders are now saying we may need to give up on a global community. I would hate that.”
Now more than ever, United Methodists should focus on the ministries that God has set before them, said pastors who spoke to The Call.
“We need to stop focusing on ‘can they be part of the church’ and focus on this: The high rate of suicides and suicide attempts for adolescent LGBTQ,” said Phillips. “Bullying is what causes that, and that needs to stop. No one should be bullied. And the church needs to stop being the bully.” (See related blog.)
“We do not understand why people who were for the other plans point at the people who were for the Traditional Plan and say they don’t love,” said the Rev. Sherry Seay Sellars, pastor at Wesley’s Chapel United Methodist Church in Dandridge, Tennessee. "As for me and my congregation, we choose to go about our work, loving everyone but not accepting sin in any form."
Resistance to GC2019 spreads (UMNS, 3.26.19)
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.
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