General Conference

Deciding a Way Forward

The United Methodist General Conference meets for a special session in February 2019 to determine the future of the denomination.

Deciding a Way Forward
Harriett Jane Olson, Yvette Richards, Annabelle Bricker, Bethany Amey Sutton, Emma Cantor at the 2016 General Conference in Portland, Oregon

In February 2019, a special session of the United Methodist General Conference will be held in St. Louis, Missouri. Taking place outside of the usual four-year pattern of the meeting of General Conference, this special session will focus only on the church’s stance on LGBT inclusion.

At the 2016 General Conference, the United Methodist Council of Bishops was authorized to form a commission to undergo a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church concerning human sexuality and explore options to help maintain and strengthen the unity of the church. This group was brought together and called the Commission on a Way Forward. It was made up of 32 people, including 11 laity, 2 deacons, 11 ordained elders and 8 bishops. Three bishops served as moderators. Fourteen members of the commission were women, 6 of whom were laity. (The other women included 4 elders, 2 bishops and 1 deacon.) This group represented United Methodists from around the world and from various backgrounds and theological understandings.

The members of the commission were named in October 2016, and the group met nine times from January 2017 to May 2018, when it presented its final proposals to the Council of Bishops.

The Council of Bishops called this special session of General Conference, from February 23 to 26, for delegates to receive and act upon this report from the Commission on a Way Forward based on recommendations of the Council of Bishops. The only other time a special session of General Conference was called was in 1970, called by the General Conference itself, to complete the merger of The United Methodist Church. It also met in St. Louis.

A history of contradiction

The United Methodist Church has been divided over LGBT inclusion since its founding. After becoming The United Methodist Church in 1968 with the merger of the Methodist Church and Evangelical United Brethren, the denomination’s division over the place of LGBT individuals within the church began in earnest in 1972, when the General Conference added new text to The Book of Discipline stating that the church finds the “practice of homosexuality” “incompatible with Christian teaching.” At the same time, this General Conference also added that “homosexuals, no less than heterosexuals, are persons of sacred worth,” and, also, “We insist that all persons are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured.”

Here begins the church’s contradiction of declaring all people as having sacred worth yet legislating the exclusion of “self-avowing, practicing homosexuals” from full participation.

The 1980 General Conference removed language from The Book of Discipline opposing same-sex unions and stopped a ban on gay and lesbian clergy. This ban succeeded, however, four years later, and has been in place in The United Methodist Church ever since. It has also been challenged at every General Conference ever since. From 75 percent support in 1992 to 60 percent support in 1996 to only 51 percent of General Conference delegates supporting a ban on gay and lesbian clergy and same-sex marriage in 2012, the backing for exclusionary language has decreased while the divide has seemed to increase. Among talk of a split in 2004, the church passed a Unity Resolution stating “we remain in covenant with one another, even in the midst of our disagreement, and affirm our commitment to work together for the common mission of making disciples throughout the world.” But by the 2016 General Conference, plans were being proposed for separation. It was in reaction to this that the 2016 conference called on the bishops to create the Commission on a Way Forward and the bishops to call a special session of General Conference.

In the meantime, the Western Jurisdiction elected the denomination’s first openly gay bishop, and conservative groups within the church formed a covenant association that has declared itself unable to be part of a church that allows for LGBT clergy and marriage.

Proposed plans

The Commission on a Way Forward brought two completed plans to the Council of Bishops in May 2018: the Connectional Conference Plan and the One Church Plan. The council of bishops then requested that a “traditionalist” plan also be included in the commission’s report to the General Conference and gave the commission two weeks to prepare it. The three plans will appear before General Conference delegates in February, with the One Church Plan recommended by the Council of Bishops.

A United Methodist Judicial Council decision in May 2018 declared that petitions to the special General Conference could be filed by any organization, clergy member or lay member of the church as long as petitions were in harmony with the purpose of the  session. The General Conference Committee on Reference has approved 78 petitions for consideration. One plan is called A Simple Plan, brought by the United Methodist Queer Clergy caucus, proposing to, as they state, simply “remove the language from the Book of Discipline that excludes LGBTQIA+ people from full participation in the church.” Other groups are calling on the General Conference to prioritize exit plans for churches who want to leave. Any calls for dissolution of the denomination have been ruled out of harmony with the call for the special session. All plans became available to delegates in November 2018.

The Commission on a Way Forward characterizes the three main values groups within the church as traditionalists, contextualists and progressives, defining them in the following way: “Traditionalists value marriage between one man and one woman and sexual activity within this relationship. Traditionalists also seek greater accountability at every level of the church. Contextualists want to translate the gospel into the varied settings in which God places us. They see this as a missiological calling and believe that the work of the church can be adapted in a global church. Progressives value full inclusion of all persons in the life of the church, at every level, and this includes the LGBTQ community. They also believe that the church can celebrate same-gender marriages.”

The commission spent its time developing the One Church Plan and Connectional Conference Plan, which allow for contextualization in different ways. The Traditionalist Plan appeals to traditionalist values, and the Simple Plan (not created by the commission) to progressive values.

The One Church plan, endorsed by the Council of Bishops, removes all restrictive language regarding homosexuality from The Book of Discipline and gives annual conferences and local churches and pastors the ability to choose for themselves their stance on gay clergy and same-sex unions. Central Conferences outside the United States maintain the ability to adapt The Book of Discipline as they deem necessary, and the plan also protects the rights of those whose beliefs do not allow them to ordain LGBT individuals or perform same-sex marriages.

The Connectional Conference plan removes the five U.S. jurisdictions and sets up three conferences based on theology or perspective (not geography), with each annual conference voting to be a part of one of the three worldwide conferences. Local churches can also decide to join a connectional conference different from the one chosen by its annual conference. This plan requires the most changes to The Book of Discipline and structure of the church. The Traditionalist Plan maintains the restrictions on LGBT inclusion and increases the severity of the penalties for violating these restrictions.

In October 2018, the United Methodist Judicial Council ruled unconstitutional seven of the 17 petitions included in the Traditionalist Plan and identified unconstitutional portions in two other parts of the plan. The One Church Plan was found constitutional, save for one sentence in three different petitions. The Judicial Council did not have jurisdiction to rule on the constitutionality of the Connectional Conference plan because of the significant changes it proposes to the church’s constitution. The Council of Bishops had asked the Judicial Council to review the three plans proposed by the Commission on a Way Forward.

The General Conference

Unlike the usual duration of 10 days, this special session of General Conference will last only three, and the legislation being voted on will be limited to the three plans proposed by the Commission on a Way Forward as well as others deemed in harmony with the conference’s purpose. The Commission on the General Conference, a global group of clergy and laity who plan the conferences, met in early October 2018 to set the plan for the February special session.

During regular sessions of General Conference, delegates break into multiple committees to discuss legislation assigned to committee based on topic. Because all legislation in February will be limited to one topic, the entire 864-person delegation will become one legislative committee. Per The Book of Discipline, all petitions to General Conference must be voted on in committee.

The process and schedule approved by the Commission on General Conference includes a day of prayer and preparation on February 23, followed by a presentation from the Commission on a Way Forward to start of the first day of the conference February 24. The first day will also include plenary discussion to determine the plan(s) with which the delegates will move forward. On February 25 delegates will offer amendments and vote on petitions. On the final day, Tuesday February 26, delegates will take final votes and make plans for the next regular General Conference, to take place in 2020 in Minneapolis. Bishops will preside over each session except when in legislative committee, when an elected chair will preside. Every day will include worship and prayer.

General Conference is the only body that can speak for The United Methodist Church. Delegates to General Conference are elected at their annual conferences. The delegates comprise equal members of clergy and lay, and the delegate count for each conference is based on the number of clergy and professing lay members of the conference in a formula laid out by The Book of Discipline. The conference meets every four years to set denominational policy, revise church law, approve budgets for churchwide programs and adopt resolutions on current moral, social, public policy and economic issues.

What makes us United Methodist?

The United Methodist Church credits as its founder John Wesley, and much of the church’s beliefs and actions are based on interpretations of his teachings, including believing in prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace, sacraments of baptism and communion, a communion table open to all, social holiness and works of piety, mercy and justice, the equal role of laity and clergy, Wesleyan Hymns and the Wesleyan “quadrilateral” of Scripture, reason, tradition and experience, mission and service and advocacy, and a celebration of the Trinity and of diversity. Even our traditions of conferencing and enjoying potlucks bring us together as United Methodists.

The church’s mission statement is to make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world. It organizes itself to fulfill its mission statement using The Book of Discipline, constituting law and doctrine of the church, and The Book of Resolutions, which includes the church’s official stances on moral and social issues. What appears in both of these books is determined by the General Conference. To learn more about what unites us as United Methodists, visit umc.org/what-we-believe.

What comes next?

The outcome of this special session of General Conference cannot be predicted. What it means for your local church, the global church or United Methodist Women won’t be known until General Conference votes on a plan.

United Methodist Women is a laywoman’s organization focused on being in ministry with all people and providing the creative, supportive fellowship called for in its Purpose. Many of you participated in and led discussions on the church’s way forward in the leadup to the 2019 conference, hosting conversations on how the church might grapple with the breadth of opinion in its membership. Many of you prayed during your annual conference’s assigned prayer time during the denomination’s phases of “Praying Our Way Forward,” and you prayed for the church in your daily prayers. You shared your thoughts and ideas with your General Conference delegates, you read and discerned, you listened to and supported one another. Keep doing this. Keep sharing, praying, reading, listening, and opening up spaces for the Holy Spirit to wash over us. Keep putting faith, hope and love into action to make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world.


Tara Barnes is editor of response. Information on the status of the special session and the plans being brought to it was compiled from United Methodist News Service reporting. Find more at umns.umc.org

Posted or updated: 1/28/2019 12:00:00 AM
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