The United Methodist Church’s judicial arm on Friday largely upheld parts of a plan which strengthens the denomination’s stance against same-sex marriage and the ordination of openly-gay clergy.
The Traditional Plan was narrowly approved earlier this year during a special session of the church’s General Conference in St. Louis.
The issue has drawn deep divisions within the mainline denomination, which has more than 12 million members globally and nearly 7 million in the United States. There are more than 467,000 United Methodists in Georgia.
In a statement, Ken Carter Jr, president of the UMC Council of Bishops, called the nine-member court’s decisions “clear and sound” and said they give helpful guidance to the church.
For others, though, there’s likely to be more conversation around the issue and continued fears of a split between progressives and more conservative congregations of the church.
The Book of Discipline, which lays out laws for United Methodists to follow, considers homosexuality to be incompatible with Christianity. and that “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” cannot be ordained as ministers, appointed to serve or be married in the church. Any clergy who performs a same-sex wedding will face a minimum one-year suspension without pay for the first offense and a loss of credentials for the second.
The ruling clarifies some points, but may leave some confusion and frustration over what comes next and what it means specifically for LGBTQ members and their allies at the local church level, said James Kingman, a lifelong United Methodist, licensed professional counselor and president of the LGBTQ Therapist Resource.”The global church has already lost members and will continue to lose more while also testing others’ patience and resolve. This really leaves it up to members talking with each other and their pastors about next steps for changes at the local level. “
The Judicial Council also ruled on other petitions that were included in the Traditional Plan. Among its key decisions:
A petition that would have required board of ordained ministry candidates to certify to a bishop whether they would follow the Book of Discipline in its entirety, including all ordination requirements, was found unconstitutional. The Judicial Council called the requirement “open-ended and unconstitutionally vague”.
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It also ruled illegal a homosexuality test of clergy candidates that included a search of candidates’ social media accounts.
Separately, the Judicial Council also ruled that an exit plan passed by the General Conference for local churches looking to leave the denomination is constitutional. Churches that decide to leave, must pay their share of pension liability. Exiting clergy retain their pension but it is converted to limit further liability to the conference.
The Rev. Beth LaRocca-Pitts, senior pastor at Atlanta’s St. Mark United Methodist Church, has always said whatever happens in St. Louis, her church would continue to welcome all people.
“Basically, now, the ball is in the court of the conservatives,” she said. “Traditionalists want the ability to control everyone’s behavior in the church and they didn’t get what they wanted. They wanted those of us who believe in gay marriage to quit doing it and that’s not going to happen.”
However, the Rev. Steve Wood, senior pastor of Mt. Pisgah United Methodist Church in Johns Creek applauded the judicial body’s decision.
“They did their jobs,” said Wood, who supported the Traditional Plan. “I think we have a good understanding, even though it passed by a slim majority at the General Conference, that we will maintain the historical Wesleyan tenants that we’ve had for a couple of hundred years. Many will disagree with this but we need to be grace filled and proceed with legislation that is mutually beneficial. We must also allow those people and churches to create what they would like to create if they cannot live with the way the General Conference has spoken.”
The plan will take effect in January 2020, just months before the regularly scheduled General Conference in May in Minneapolis, where many expect the issues to come up. Again.