United Methodist centrists and progressives struck a defiant tone this week after a meeting to discuss what’s next for the second-largest Protestant denomination in the United States.
In February, delegates from around the world reinforced the church’s stance against performing same-sex marriage and ordaining self-avowed, practicing gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender clergy. They also approved tougher penalties for those who violate the restrictions.
The decision has drawn condemnation from more progressive and moderate members.
More than 20 people from Georgia were among about 600 who attended a gathering at the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, to explore the denomination’s future and their role as members and clergy.
The newly formed grassroots movement, UMC Next, is intended to “identify, redress, and reform institutional discrimination in the United Methodist Church,” according to a release from Georgia UMC Next.
The new movement will include chapters in North and South Georgia.
Those gathered consider the so-called Traditional Plan discriminatory against LGBTQ members.
“We find it to be really not in line with the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” said the Rev. Jasmine Smothers, lead pastor at Atlanta First United Methodist Church and also a member of the convening team for the gathering. “It does not capture for a lot of United Methodists, the Wesleyan theology that governs how we treat people and interact with people of God.”
What could resistance look like?
It may vary.
“Pastors in New England would be able to be more aggressive in their resistance than those in rural areas of the South,” said the Rev. Glenn L. Ethridge, senior pastor of Oak Grove United Methodist Church in Decatur. “Some pastors may lend verbal support to removing the discriminatory language, while others may choose civil disobedience. Pastors and lay people will choose a level of response appropriate to their context.”
Georgia UMC Next will host a meeting to discuss the Kansas gathering and coordinate next steps at 6 p.m. June 2 at Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church, 1660 N. Decatur Road NE, Atlanta.
Conservatives, though, are holding steady to their support of the approved plan.
The Rev. Keith Boyette, president of the conservative Wesleyan Covenant Association, said while he expects continued evolution in the positions of individuals and groups as United Methodists move toward the 2020 General Conference, he fears the denomination will continue “to butt heads.”
For Boyette, who supported the Traditional Plan, “we cannot compromise on our understanding of the Word of God.”
From the Kansas meeting, the UMC Next conference adopted four guiding principles:
- To be passionate followers of Jesus Christ, committed to a Wesleyan vision of Christianity, anchored in Scripture and informed by tradition, experience and reason as we live a life of personal piety and social holiness.
- Commit to resist evil, injustice and oppression in all forms and toward all people and build a church which affirms the full participation of all ages, nations, races, classes, cultures, gender identities, sexual orientations, and abilities.
- Reject the Traditional Plan approved at General Conference 2019 as inconsistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and will resist its implementation.
- Work to eliminate discriminatory language and the restrictions and penalties in the (Book of) Discipline regarding LGBTQ persons. Affirm the sacred worth of LGBTQ persons, celebrate their gifts, and commit to being in ministry together.
This is not the first time the denomination — which includes more than 467,000 members in Georgia — has tackled the issue of homosexuality.
It came up in previous General Conferences — meetings with denomination delegates that generally happen every four years — and it’s likely to come up again at the next one in 2020.
“Everybody is exhausted,” about the back-and-forth, Smothers said. “It will come up again, and we have no idea what the outcome will be. Again.”
It’s long been feared that the issue would tear the denomination apart, with the formation of two or three new denominations. That was one of the issues discussed during the UMC Next gathering with some members supporting it and others not ready to make that move — yet.
“The United Methodist Church has been on the edge of some realignment for a number of years,” said Ethridge. “I think we are coming closer.”
He said there is no middle ground in the fight to make the church fully inclusive of the LGBTQ community, including marriage and ordination.
That, perhaps, is where there may be some agreement.
Says WCA’s Boyette of Fredericksburg, Virginia, “Certainly, there’s the possibility that conversations will produce some support or agreement that will result in a portion of the church leaving the denomination or the denomination morphing into more than one expression of Methodism.”
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