I try not to be too dramatic. Okay, maybe I try not to be needlessly dramatic. But I’m convinced that with hindsight it will be clear: This is the moment that a new structure for an existing denomination– or an entirely new denomination– will begin its birth pangs. I hope it’s that first thing, hear me. In any case, this is the beginning of the re-formation of The United Methodist Church.
In my previous post, I laid out how we got to this place, the in-breaking of the Spirit and the reclaiming of relationships as foundational to who we are as United Methodists ministering in Christ’s example and image.
And here is where we are: The New England Annual (regional) Conference has voted by a supermajority to take an “Action of Non-Conformity with the General Conference of The United Methodist Church.” You can read an article about that here, which also includes a link to the text of the resolution, or check out the one from the denominational news source.
This is not an act of schism. It is what it says it is: an action of non-conformity. It is a principled, self-differentiated stance. It is a position being taken that says We are United Methodists, and we wish to remain United Methodists. We wish to follow Jesus and the Wesleyan heritage, theology, polity, and connection of The United Methodist Church, but we will not agree to harm or discriminate against people on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity while we do so. However, because it was taken as an Annual Conference as a whole, it has massive implications for the global system of The United Methodist Church. Here’s why.
The Annual Conference is the basic body of The United Methodist Church (Discipline para. 33, Article II of the UMC Constitution). It is the body that holds in trust the property and assets of The UMC within its bounds (Discipline para. 2501). So, while the New England Conference has said it will not conform to the discrimination enacted by the General Conference of The UMC, and while we fully expect this (the first item of it, at least) to be ruled against the Discipline by both the Bishop and the Judicial Council, what power is there to make this body come into alignment with The UMC denomination? The latter “is not an entity, nor does it possess legal capacities and attributes. It does not and cannot hold title to property, nor does it have any officer, agent, employee, office, or location.” (Discipline para. 141). Who does? The Annual Conference.
I pray that the New England Annual Conference remains steadfast in this self-differentiated position, saying simply that this is how we must act if we are to do the ministry of Christ in our region. We are excited about living faithfully in this place as United Methodists. We do not wish to leave the denominational body of The United Methodist Church. Our process- and resolution-drafting team considered actions that would directly lead to that, and rejected them. However, if other parts of the body decide that there is no room for our principled dissent within The UMC, then we could be forced to leave, taking every. single. asset. with us. Every church building (even those whose congregations might disagree, unfortunately, because their buildings and assets are held by the Conference). Every investment. Every warm, beautiful, breathing body who will have us.
And I’ll bet a nice, juicy, Big Apple that the New York Annual Conference would vote to do the same. Maybe Baltimore-Washington, too. Maybe others in the Northeastern Jurisdiction (bigger regional body). And this leaves the Northeastern Jurisdiction in an entirely unsustainable place. We need one another to be functional, to be whole.
Therefore, it is in the best interest of the Northeastern Jurisdiction, which will have its once-every-four-years meeting in July, to consider taking a similar principled stance together. I will advocate for the Northeastern Jurisdiction to commit to similar non-conformity with the Book of Discipline‘s discriminatory paragraphs if it can. And I advocate that we definitely send to the Commission being formed by the Council of Bishops a clear proposal for structural change in The UMC– change that allows Jurisdictions to adapt the Discipline to better equip regional, contextual ministry. In the context of the Northeast, that means no longer being complicit in the harm The UMC inflicts upon people on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity. This proposal needs to communicate that without such structural change, the Northeastern Jurisdiction can no longer function because it could lose two or more Annual Conferences in their entirety.
And I’ll bet a nice, crunchy bunch of farm-fresh kale that the Western Jurisdiction will send a similar statement, especially since two Annual Conferences there have already passed resolutions akin to the one in New England. Maybe some or all of the North Central Jurisdiction is in the same place. And this leaves the denomination in the United States– no, actually, the entire global connection of The United Methodist Church– in an unstable place. We need one another to be whole.
We need one another spiritually, as well as logistically. All those assets, all those people, all those apportionment dollars and mission dollars. In one quadrennium, how much time, talent, gifts, service, and witness do the Northeastern and Western Jurisdictions, and a handful of North Central conferences contribute to the administrative support of The UMC? To missions and disaster relief? To communications, and publications, and seminaries, and general agencies, and all the ministry of the denomination? Are we, the denomination, willing to sacrifice that collective strength and witness and work so that we can control who gets to sign marriage licenses for whom, whether or not a church can have a ministry that “promotes the acceptance of homosexuality,” and how an Annual Conference upholds the high standards it places on its candidates for ordination?
In this moment, I think we have a powerful opportunity as a church and as a movement. Jurisdictional Conferences have not yet met. My hope is that many Annual Conferences, and their Jurisdictions, will take a powerful, principled stance. Let us join together in saying We are United Methodists. We wish to remain United Methodists. We seek to follow Christ in our ministry in every time and place. And we will not be complicit in inflicting harm or discrimination upon LGBTQIA people as we do so. There must be room for this principled witness within The UMC, and we implore the church to find a way to make it so. Because we need one another to be whole.
It is my sincere hope that this moment is not the beginning of a new denomination, but the beginning of a more nimble one, with enough contextual flexibility to allow conferences like New England to be self-differentiated and principled in our rejection of discrimination. Whether or not this is the case, it will play out over the next five years. Will the Bishops’ Commission return a proposal for missional, contextual structure realignment for the world-wide denomination? Will that proposal pass a special session of the General Conference? A full session? The process of being ratified in all the Annual Conferences? If it does, then a newly-formed United Methodist Church is already being created. If it does not, then there is a new denomination gestating in this moment, waiting to begin its birthing.