Proposals about ministry, people expected to generate difficult debate
For Dorothee Benz, the debate is about "whether and how The United Methodist Church will continue to discriminate."
For the Rev. Bill Arnold, the debate is about what church unity looks like and how the denomination lives into its mission statement. "I consider institutional unity a minimum," he said.
Their conversation was a preview of what many United Methodists expect to be the most passionate and difficult debate at the 2016 General Conference. Benz and Arnold will be among the 864 delegates determining how the denomination ministers with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) people. They were also among the speakers at the Pre-General Conference Briefing in Portland, Oregon. During the gathering, United Methodists also tested an alternative process proposed by the Commission on General Conference for discussing legislation dealing with tough issues.
The Book of Discipline, the law book for The United Methodist Church, has since 1972 proclaimed that all people are of sacred worth but the practice of homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching." The denomination bans the performance of same-sex unions and "self-avowed practicing" gay clergy.
The debate has intensified in recent years as more jurisdictions and nations, including the United States, legally recognize same-sex marriage. More United Methodist clergy, including a retired bishop, have officiated openly at same-sex weddings and some United Methodists have raised the possibility of a denominational split.
At the same time, African bishops have explicitly called on The United Methodist Church to hold the line on its teachings regarding sexuality, especially the one that only affirms sexual relations in monogamous, heterosexual marriage. Bishops have neither vote nor voice – without special permission – in plenary sessions or legislative committees at General Conference, but their guidance can shape discussion.
Ninety-nine petitions related to the church's ministry with and official teachings about LGBTQ people have been submitted to General Conference 2016.
"The 99 pieces of legislation are about LGBTQ people — not human sexuality. This is about human beings," said the Rev. L. Fitzgerald "Gere" Reist II, secretary of the General Conference.
Parameters of the debate
Benz explained what she sees as the stakes of the church debate.
She spoke of a Nigerian gay man who found asylum in the United States after being threatened by his brother and tortured by police. She told of a 14-year-old boy who sent an anonymous email to a United Methodist pastor. The boy wrote that he was considering suicide because he could not shake his attraction to boys and believed God hated him.
"What we do as a church, what we do as General Conference delegates, has life-and-death consequences," Benz said. She is a delegate from the New York Conference and founding member of Methodists in New Directions, an unofficial advocacy group. She is also gay.
Stanislas Kassongo, a delegate from the Democratic Republic of Congo and a professor of medical ethics, offered a different take.
"In my tradition, the subject of sexuality is taboo," he said through an interpreter. "That means this subject is only discussed in a family, but really in the midst of the couple." He added that he did not discuss sex with his five children, four of whom are now married.
What the church teaches about sexuality he sees as God-ordained and in no need of further discussion.
Arnold, a delegate from Kentucky and Old Testament professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, noted that United Methodists are united in deploring violence and sharing doctrine.
But what he'd like to see is a stronger form of church unity. He is a backer of the Covenantal Unity Plan, which includes proposals to strengthen penalties for those convicted of chargeable offenses, as well as making it easier for clergy and congregations that disagree with church teachings to leave the denomination.
Benz said she is happy to affirm unity amid theological diversity. "What I wish we could get to is a genuine theological diversity that doesn't translate into prosecution and punishment of a minority," she said. "What I don't understand is why that persecution is necessary for people who don't agree with us to have their own theological integrity."
The Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai, a member of the Connectional Table from West Michigan, explained how the church leadership body developed legislation it hopes can be "A Third Way" in the debate. The Connectional Table's proposal essentially decriminalizes homosexuality in church law. If it passes, clergy would not risk church trials or the loss of their credentials for officiating at same-gender weddings or, in some conferences, coming out as openly gay.
Bigham-Tsai, a district superintendent, noted she still visits churches that do not want a woman pastor in a denomination where women have had full clergy rights for 60 years. She sees that as a sign of hope — that the denomination is holding together despite some profound differences.
"I made a choice to believe my LGBTQ brothers and sisters. I do not understand the complexities of any other human being. What if we just choose to believe? Let's believe the people we love and care about," she said.
Call for unity
Throughout the briefing, participants heard calls for the church to remain unified — if not necessarily uniform — and for church members to extend grace to each other.
"My prayer, my value, is that our theology of grace ... will permeate our conversation," Arnold said at the beginning of his remarks. "If I take a position or I say something you feel is hurtful, please assume that as best I can see in my heart it doesn't come from a place of hate but rather it comes from a place of love."
The Rev. Jean Hawxhurst, who works for the Council of Bishops' Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships, warned during opening worship Jan. 22 that infighting and disunity hurts the United Methodist "witness of salt and light."
"It's hurting our influence on culture," she said, "and making people like my brother think there is no hope because we're just like everyone else. That is hurting our witness of Jesus' love."
Heather Hahn and Kathy Gilbert are reporters for United Methodist News Service in Nashville, Tennessee.
To learn more
"A Third Way," bit.ly/athirdwayproposal
The Covenantal Unity Plan, covenantalunity.org
Proposed Rule 44 Group Discernment Process
At the 2016 General Conference, if delegates choose to adopt an alternative "Group Discernment Process" they may apply it to any discussion of difficult issues. They are most likely to do so when considering any of 99 petitions related to the church's ministry with and official teachings about LGBTQ people.
The proposal, nicknamed Rule 44 because it follows General Conference's Rule 43, abandons a debate driven by Robert's Rules of Order for small-group conversations aimed at respectful listening and language.
"Christian conferencing is what General Conference is all about," said Judi Kenaston, chair of the Commission on General Conference, as she outlined the process during the Pre-General Conference Briefing.
"We are a connectional church with many varied cultures and opinions. A unified church can accomplish so much more in the world by pooling resources. Because of our size, we are able to do so much more," she said.
If adopted as proposed and used, each delegate will be assigned to a group of no more than 15 members. A trained leader will engage the group in conversation addressing the designated petitions. Each group will make written recommendations for processing the petitions to a facilitation group. The facilitation group will then craft one or more petitions to be processed by the delegates in a plenary session using the Rules of Order.
Bishop Christian Alsted, who leads the Nordic and Baltic Area, said church leaders are praying the spirit of Christian conferencing will imbue General Conference.
"It's not just a method or process to be used at certain times on certain issues. It is more than polite disagreement, it's not a ‘feel-good' way to be together, nor has it been a way to come together. It's a Wesleyan way of being church in the world," Alsted said.
"Christian conferencing is a means of grace," he continued. "God is always present and conveys his grace when we practice."
Heather Hahn and Kathy L. Gilbert