I’m not sure where to begin with this letter given as much ink that has already been spilled regarding the proceedings of the Special Session of General Conference a week ago. Personally, I wasn’t sure what to say; and rather than jump in with a quick word, I have chosen to remain silent up until this point. I would be lying if I didn’t say I’ve also sat with anxiety and even fear of how my words might be received. I have vacillated between all kinds of feelings – disappointment, anger, sadness and hope. I needed some time to gather my thoughts. Needless to say, I have spent the past few days praying, thinking, and considering what to say.
Regarding General Conference, I had my hopes there would be levity granted for Annual Conferences, Boards of Ordained Ministry, and local congregations to decide regarding issues of human sexuality within their local contexts. I was an advocate of the One Church Plan. I am not ashamed to say so. Yet, as you have likely discerned, the One Church Plan did not pass. What passed was known as the “Traditional Plan.” It sought to maintain the current language in the Book of Discipline that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching”. Additionally, it seeks to tighten the restrictions and punishment upon any who break the Discipline by ordaining self avowed gay individuals or clergy persons who perform gay weddings. However, much of the plan had already been determined to be “unconstitutional” by the United Methodist Church’s Judicial Council. (For those who may not understand our polity, the UMC is organized by a Constitution. It is the first 99 paragraphs in our Book of Discipline. The Judicial Council helps to ensure any legislation passed is in line with our Constitution. The Constitution can be changed, and there is a mechanism for said change, but that was not part of this Special Session). While some of the plan was amended during the session to bring it inline with our Constitution, much of it was not.
The Judicial Council is meeting in April and will likely rule most parts of the plan unconstitutional. As I mentioned, before the Special Session, all the plans were submitted to the Judicial Council to “test” their constitutionality. This was to prevent what happened at the 2016 General Conference from happening again. Basically, in 2016, legislation had passed but then later was ruled unconstitutional; and we were back where we began. Regarding the Traditional Plan, here are some items in the decision which were ruled “unconstitutional.” One of the pieces of the legislation, as I mentioned, sought for stricter and specific punishment of clergy who perform a gay wedding. Yet, according to our Constitution, it “forbids selective or partial enforcement of Church law at all levels of the connection and demands that The Discipline in its entirety be followed without distinction.” In other words, we can’t punish one behavior we see as wrong more strictly than another. Regarding examination of individuals for ordination, which the Traditional Plan sought to ensure, people were thoroughly vetted regarding sexuality. The Judicial Council wrote these words,
“The General Conference has the authority to require that the board of ordained ministry conduct a careful and thorough examination to ascertain if an individual meets all disciplinary requirements and certify that such an examination has occurred. But it cannot reduce the scope of the board examination to one aspect only and unfairly single out one particular group of candidates (self-avowed practicing homosexuals) for disqualification. Marriage and sexuality are but two among numerous standards candidates must meet to be commissioned, or ordained; other criteria include, for example, being committed to social justice, racial and gender equality, and personal and financial integrity, that all should be part of a careful and thorough examination.”
While the Judicial Council has yet to rule, and will meet in April to do so, many suspect a majority of the plan passed is unconstitutional. In fact, many knew even in passing it, that would be so. Which means, we are basically where we started in this process two years ago legislatively. However, we are not in the same place relationally. The divisions within the United Methodist Church have continued to grow and splinter. The Special Session was quite emotional and difficult to watch. The stakes were high and people were poignant in their words. For this reason, I view this past General Conference as a great failure. The hope that the Special Session was to find some sort of compromise, many tried to reach across lines not asking for everyone to think alike, but to give room hoping to keep the Church together. The value of unity was greater than the value of everyone thinking alike for many. Yet, we are back where we started.
Moreover, this was not about an issue, but people. Many had hoped and were willing for a give and take if it meant for some flexibility for some churches. Caught in the middle of the arguments were individuals who identify as LGBTQ+ and supporters; and as such, what they experienced was hurtful. To say otherwise is disingenuous to their real experience. Many have wondered if they are truly valued within the church and are now deciding, including some within our own congregation, whether or not to stay. I believe the words of Paul are all the more true today than ever, “When one part of the body suffers, the whole body suffers.” No matter where you stand on this issue, you have likely felt this hurt and pain.
So what now? Where do we go? What do we do? The United Methodist Church faces a critical year. There is even more talk of schism on all sides. Which was once a singular conversation of schism among many conservative churches within the denomination. It has now broken off into a church wide advocacy. The rhetoric on social media is even more heightened. As your Pastor, I can’t tell you what will happen with our denomination. Obviously, I cannot speak for an entire denomination. But I can talk to you. And here is what I know about us:
We, as a congregation, are a microcosm of the larger church. In other words, we are a congregation which has individuals on all sides of the issue of sexuality. We have members of our congregation who are gay, whose children are gay, as well as allies who fully support gay marriage and ordination. We also have individuals who see those who are LGBTQ+ as “incompatible with Christian Teaching.” As such, we mirror our denomination. We are “divided.” Yet, we can either act in fear or in love. For some reason, God has knit this body of people together. I believe this could be the greatest test or success we show the world and community for how we live together. One thing I have come to know, love is expressed in what we do, not in what we say. After all, 1 Corinthians 13 outlines love. Moreover, we can tell individuals we love them; but if we share no relationship with them, then that is not love. Might I add, love is more than being cordial. We like to believe as long as I am cordial to another person, I am loving them. Cordiality is maybe the first step, but it is not love. To love is seek out individuals and be with them. It is to share meals with them, listen to them, care for them, pray for them, hope with them, hurt with them, give yourself for them and more. Jesus lays the example of what love looks like. Paul states it well, “Rarely, one might die for a righteous person – though for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” We were God’s enemy, but God in Christ sought us out, and loved us. Can we do the same? Can we seek out those different than us and show the world what it means to love?
Secondly, let us approach this whole issue with humility. I seek to live this in my life. I personally find myself as an ally to those who are LGBTQ. Yet, I seek not to demonize those who are in a different place. I have taken much time to read Scripture, get to know people, research, and more and have come out on this side. I would gladly talk with anyone how I got there. However, as Paul reminds me in Romans, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment.” Moreover, I realize I see through a “mirror dimly.” I have come to this place today, but I still might find myself in error. I give room to myself to be wrong. But I also stand where I am. And I trust God’s grace is large enough and big enough if I am wrong. After all, when I stand before the judgment seat of Christ, all I will have to plead is God’s grace. I will have nothing to offer which will earn my salvation-only grace. Thus, I work out my salvation and my theology with fear and trembling. All to say, let us give one another grace where we find ourselves. I cannot demonize another who thinks differently; others stand on their convictions having read, researched, and thought as well. Yet, I hope by my actions, others have seen and continue to see I am person committed to Jesus Christ and loving as Jesus loves, and loving them.
Thus, I believe our Church has a wonderful opportunity to show our own Church and the community what it looks like to be a body together. In a country so polarized and a denomination splintering, we might be the example of what it looks like to live together, not in uniformity, but unity. I invite you to think deeply what unity can look like as well as to love one another. If you want to read more regarding the Plans and their constitutionality as ruled in the Fall of 2018, you can check them out here.
Nathan Kilbourne, Senior Pastor
** You are invited to join me at a Town Hall meeting this Sunday immediately following worship to address any questions you might have.