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Who Else Should We Exclude?

The United Methodist Church (UMC) last week held a Special General Conference to clarify the denomination's teaching regarding LGBTQ inclusion. The Book of Discipline (BoD), the guidebook that outlines the rules for Methodists to follow, has long held contradictory statements. On one hand, in its rules for pastors the BoD states, "Homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching." This has been interpreted by church court to mean United Methodist pastors cannot be in a same-sex relationship themselves, and cannot officiate at a gay wedding. Some pastors, following their consciences, refuse to be restricted by these rules.

On the other hand, the BoD's Social Principles, which talk about what it means to be a community of Christians, states, "Certain basic human rights and civil liberties are due all persons. We are committed to supporting those rights and liberties for all persons, regardless of sexual orientation." This statement is in tension with the other if we believe that marriage and/or ordination are among these basic rights and civil liberties.

More than 800 delegates met last week in St. Louis to attempt to resolve this tension. The Council of Bishops offered a set of plans for consideration. The simplest, known formally as the Simple Plan, would have removed all mention of homosexuality from the BoD. A second plan, known as the One Church Plan, allowed local congregations work out the tension themselves, with the understanding that they might reach a different answer than another congregation but also with the recognition that all congregations are part of a larger church.

Some conservatives threatened to leave the church rather than have fellowship with people who saw things differently, so the Council of Bishops crafted a plan known as the Traditional Plan, which would strengthen penalties for pastors who break the rules.

James Howell, writing for Red Letter Christians, explains why the Traditional Plan isn't really so traditional.

Marriage in the Bible isn’t simply one man, one woman. Sometimes in the Bible it’s one man, five women and a few concubines. In the Bible, marriage is a mystery, two people called together by God to seek and serve God. In our marriage service, we Methodists urge the couple to be generous friends to those to whom love is a stranger. Marriage is an exercise in holiness and humility. I’ve seen same-gender marriages that are holy and humble, exemplary to so many straight couples who have struggled so mightily and damaged the reputation of marriage severely.

Leading up to the conference, the Bishops pushed for the One Church Plan, believing it would be the best path forward to keep the church together. At the same time, they published an open letter to the LGBTQ community apologizing for the hurt the church has caused by even holding this debate.

Meanwhile, conservatives have already been working in previous General Conferences to increase the number of delegates from Africa, Russia, and the Philippines, where the church is growing. These are also regions where the church is more intolerant of homosexuality.

The result, after three days of debate, was a victory for the Tradtional Plan. As Bishop Will Willimon put it, "In the four decades I’ve been an ordained leader in the UMC, we have lost 30 percent of our membership. Our response? Spend millions of dollars and hours of work to decide who else we can exclude."

So what happens now?

Some have suggested that the easiest solution for congregations unhappy with the vote results would be to simply leave the denomination and form a new one of our own. But this would be difficult due to the UMC's Trust Clause, which states that the local congregation does not own its building, but merely holds it in trust for the denomination. Whoever stays gets the church building, and whoever leaves has to find a new one. But the issue goes beyond church buildings. The UMC also oversees thrift stores, food pantries, community centers, hospitals, universities, summer campgrounds, mission and outreach projects, membership databases, and more. A congregation choosing to leave the UMC over the latest General Conference vote would lose out on all these resources—and the opportunity to join with other congregations for missions and service projects.

And so, the best option for liberals and moderates may be to prepare the way for this decision to be overturned in the future.

A group of young adults issued a statement signed by more than 15,000 people under the age of 35, asking for greater representation for their generation in church decisions. Although they represent the future of the church, people under 35 made up only 7% of the delegates in St. Louis.

And while we are looking forward, it wouldn't hurt to also look back. The church had similar debates in the 18th century about slavery. The pro-slavery forces had their go-to Bible verses, while anti-slavery championsincluding Methodist founder John Wesley—focused on the worth of the individual. In the end, recognizing all people as beings of great worth, beings created in the image of God, won the day. Ultimately, that's what this fight is about, too.

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