We have watched from the sidelines as the United Methodist Church held a specially-called General Convention February 23-26. The bishops of the UMC were charged with developing a proposal for the UMC to address questions around ordaining LGBTQ clergy, hosting same-sex weddings in their churches, and having clergy perform same-sex weddings. All of these had been forbidden by the Book of Discipline, the UMC policy manual, but these rules were not always enforced, particularly in North America.
The plan that the bishops came up with was called the One Church plan, which would have allowed local pastors and regional conferences to decide whether or not to call LGBTQ clergy and perform and host same-sex weddings. This was in an effort to keep the denomination together. The UMC is not just a denomination in the United States, as the ELCA is; rather, it is a global denomination. While congregations in the US are fairly evenly split over questions of the church’s acceptance of LGBTQ persons, there are areas of the globe which are much more conservative.
The delegates at the General Convention voted yesterday to confirm the Traditional PLan, which strengthens the bans on full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the life of the church.
Under the current interpretation of the Book of Discipline, there are LGBTQ pastors who serve UMC congregations against whom no action has been taken. Under the new Traditional Plan, the UMC would be compelled to expel these pastors from their calls. It may take months or years for this process to unfold, but the damage has been done. Faithful United Methodist LGBTQ Christians are mourning the fundamental damage that has been done to their denomination, and we mourn alongside them.
This action taken at the General Convention will likely shatter the United Methodist Church. Many progressive and moderate congregants are finding themselves in a church body that can no longer identify itself as welcoming of all; some progressive and moderate churches will look to leave the denomination, no longer seeing themselves under its umbrella. Others will stay and try to reconstruct a denomination that they love from the rubble. Even some conservative congregations may leave, knowing that this struggle will continue.
As members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, we too have fought – and continue to fight – this battle, very imperfectly. Our denomination split in 2010 with the founding of the North American Lutheran Church, in response to the very issues the UMC is grappling with today. We continue to struggle with these same questions. Less than 10% of ELCA communities are Reconciling in Christ, and LGBTQ seminary graduates wait months or years for call, as many ELCA congregations refuse to even consider a candidate who is not straight and cisgender. And considering a candidate and issuing a call are two very different things.
I believe, with every fiber of my being, that God is radically inclusive and loving. I believe that Jesus calls me by name and loves me every bit as much as anyone who is straight. I believe that I am just as welcome at the Lord’s Table as anyone who is straight. I believe that my marriage is as blessed by God as any straight marriage. And I struggle with the fact that my church, which I love, has not caught up with me yet.
Pastor Merle and I talked this morning about the power of being an ally: allies can build bridges and help create understanding where none exists. Allies can prayerfully stand alongside our UMC siblings who are hurting in the wake of this vote, and alongside those of us in the ELCA who wait impatiently for our denomination to catch up with our understanding of God’s radical inclusion. Me? I’ll be standing here, firmly anchoring this end of the bridge, so you can build it.