Responding to General Conference

Responding to General Conference

March 04, 2019 • Rob Fuquay

St. Luke’s UMC

March 3, 2019

This Is Us series

Our United Methodist Church

John 17:

We complete today a series called This Is Us talking about our United Methodist Church which just had a special General Conference session to decide on how we go forward given our divide over human sexuality. Let me begin with a story.

A guy was about to jump off a bridge when another person said, “Don’t do it!” “Why” said the would-be jumper, “Nobody loves me.” “God loves you” said the rescuer. “Do you believe in God?”

“Yes,” he said. “Well are you a Christian?” asked the other. “Yes, I’m a Christian.” “Great,” said the rescuer, “So am I? Are you Protestant or Catholic?” “I’m Protestant,” said the man. “”Me too!” said the helper. “What denomination?” “Baptist,” said the helper. “I don’t believe this. So am I” said the man. “Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” “Northern,” said the would be jumper. “Wow!” said the man. “So am I!” “Northern Conservative or Northern Liberal?” “Northern liberal,” he said. “Incredible! Me too.” “Northern Liberal Council of 1879 or Northern Liberal Council of 1912?”

The man said, “I’m a member of a Northern Liberal Council of 1912 church!” The other said, “Oh, you’re one of those modern heretics. You might as well jump then!”

That’s about as much humor as I can inject in this sermon today, because this past week in St. Louis, our bishops proposed a plan that would not force traditional churches to change one thing that violates their conscience, but allow for more progressive churches the freedom to be more open,” and the conference basically said, “Go jump!” The General Conference struck down the One Church Plan and approved a Traditional Plan by a vote of 438-384. What does this now mean for our denomination and more importantly St. Luke’s? That’s what I want to talk about, so I am going to try to keep this as clear and simple as I can and organize the message in three areas: What do we know? What do we not know? And what will we know?

What Do We Know?

First of all, a bit about the General Conference. We are a global church of United Methodists who operate much like the electoral college. The number of delegates represented at GC is based proportionately on population of Methodists in each conference. While the General Conference normally meets every four years, this was a special session to hear from a commission assigned to bring a proposal for going forward in our divide over human sexuality. The governing principles of our church are recorded in our Book of Discipline. To help you understand the problem, let me show you two statements from The Discipline…

304.3 “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church.”

341.6 “Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.” Then this statement:

161.J “We are committed to supporting the rights and liberties for all persons, regardless of sexual orientation.”

Would you call that a contradiction? We say we stand up for the rights of people regardless of sexual orientation, yet we condemn those rights in the same pages. There are strong feelings on both sides of this issue and much of it revolves around how we read the Bible. And I want to be clear as the pastor of a church that probably represents the diversity of opinion on this topic as much as our denomination. I believe there is room for both sides. My position and the one represented by the majority of our bishops was to provide a way where both camps could coexist. The trouble comes when one group says their interpretation of the Bible is THE interpretation and does not allow for those who think differently.

I had a conversation recently with someone who holds to a traditional view of scripture when it comes to homosexuality and the assumption was clear, I wasn’t following the Bible. I said, “I understand your position, but make sure you follow the all of the Bible, because you need to be in a church that does not allow women in ministry or to even teach a class. Also, make sure no pastor has been divorced or that the church marries divorced people. And be careful about having a pension fund because Jesus said, “Do not store up treasures on earth.”

But our discussion changed when I said, “be careful if there are racists in your church who believe slavery is okay, because no where does the Bible condemn slavery.” The person said, “No, but the Bible doesn’t say slavery is okay.” And I agreed. The Bible doesn’t say slavery is okay, so what do you base an ethic on that says slavery is not okay? Could it be that such a belief stems from the idea that it goes against the Spirit of Jesus? That we bring into consideration what we believe to be the approach of Jesus on such a matter.

I raise this to say, that is what centrists and progressives feel about scriptures dealing with homosexuality, that we consider them from a Spirit of Jesus, and understand them in the same light as we do other scriptures that are clear but not interpreted literally.

The General Conference instead adopted a Traditional Plan that says there is but one interpretation, their interpretation. It retains all of our current language in the Discipline on homosexuality and even more. It calls for new, unprecedented levels of punitive action if anyone violates the stands of the church. These include:

• Bishops are held accountable and forced into retirement or leave if they do not hold pastors accountable who conduct same-sex marriages or come out as self-avowed practicing homosexuals.

• Force members of Conference Boards of Ministry to examine candidates to find if they are self-avowed practicing homosexuals which includes scrutinizing their social media posts. Every annual conference will have to certify that their Boards of Ministry have only members on it who are totally compliant. Failure to do so shall result in removal of any funds that go from the general church to that conference. And that conference will not be allowed to use the United Methodist logo of a cross and flame.

• Punish pastors who are found to conduct same-sex marriages. First offense: removal from their church for one year without pay. Second offense: removal from ministry. In other words a father or mother who is a UMC clergy could not conduct the wedding of their gay son or daughter.

• Remove from position a gay clergy person even if they are already married unless that person agrees to change, which I suppose means they get a divorce or agree to be celibate.

Now here is what else we know. The Judicial Council, the equivalent of the Supreme Court in the United Methodist Church, has ruled most of these punitive petitions out of order. They will meet again the week after Easter to make a determination on the decision of the General Conference.

Some traditionalists celebrated this week’s decision as a vindication of American values, but not so fast. A UMNews survey two weeks ago found that less than half of all UM’s, 44%, identify themselves as traditional. And that number goes down each year. Two-thirds of American delegates did not vote for the Traditional Plan. This vote was secured by the international delegates of our central conferences. In places like Africa where one-third of all delegates are represented, they hold very different views on this topic from many in the United States. Most American Methodists wanted a church that welcomes both.

Ken Carter and I were colleagues back in NC. He is now the president of the Council of Bishops and summed up this reality well: “We are a global church. That is a great gift in that God blesses us with diversity and the gospel is lived and shared across cultures. This is a great challenge in that we have different understandings of the LGBTQ community and, indeed, the LGBTQ persons in our own churches.”

My deep concern is that the plan passed at General Conference takes our church in the direction of a police state. This is not who we are as United Methodists, and it is not where the majority of our churches are. So something else you should know is I have asked our finance office to hold all apportionment giving to the greater church at this time. The reason for this is the international vote is being manipulated by traditional organizations inside the United States. 70% of the funding of the entire denomination comes from the US churches. Therefore if central conference churches are dictating the policies of congregations in the US, I believe we should pause on our giving to give our finance committee and Governing Board time to discern exactly the right and best way to support the church that does not conflict with our values and beliefs. We are not making a permanent decision, just a pause for now.

One final thing we know is how hurtful this is to our LGBTQ community. I thought a friend of mine summed it up well the other day. These conferences continue to wound and hurt LGBTQ people, people who do not want to be an issue or a problem to be solved. They just want to be members of the body of Christ like anyone else. So I have asked two members of St. Luke’s to share with us today about their experience of St. Luke’s and the General Conference’s action…(Lori Ball and Lisa Hicks)

What We Do Not Know

So quickly let’s talk about what we don’t know. There are really more questions than answers from General Conference. We don’t know what the ruling of the Judicial Council will mean. There has even been talk of churches in the traditional camp leaving the denomination. While they won the vote, if they don’t have the power to punish and hold accountable they may want to leave anyway.

I had a brief conversation yesterday with Adam Hamilton, pastor of Church of the Resurrection UMC in Kansas City. He said there are three conversations happening:

1) With the traditional organization called the Wesley Covenant Association to see if this is what they really want and what can be changed.

2) Conversations with leaders around what other structures could be find that might allow us to yet stay together and bring before the 2020 General Conference; and

3) many bishops and large church pastors are talking about forming a new United Methodist Church of centrists and progressives. This is another place where misreporting flourished at GC. Many people spoke about other denominations that declined because they took a more inclusive position with LGBTQ members. But, Jean Hawhurst, ecumenical staff officer for the Council of Bishops, says, this is not so. She points out that it is a misconception to correlate church decline and debate about gay ordination and marriage. And she says that withdrawals from other denominations over this issue are exaggerated.

So a few more things we need to know. If you care to follow livestream conversations that are happening, here are several:

First Bishop Trimble, our episcopal leader here in Indiana, will have a live facebook chat today at 5:30…

 Mark Holland who spoke here last October will have a live chat representing Mainstream UMC today at…

Adam Hamilton will be talking to his congregation tonight and you can follow at 7:30 our time (6:30 EST) at

Finally, we have an event planned for next Sunday and Monday that was already planned to help us deal with discussing divisive issues with grace and humility. These are called Living Room Conversations, a discussion model that equips people to deeply listen, connect and engage one another. These conversations increase understanding, reveal common ground, and sometimes even allow us to discuss possible solutions. The leader for this event is…

These will be next Sunday March 10 at…or Monday at…. Sign up online today or connect with Pastor Nicole, Scott Severns or Bill Eckert to learn more.

What We Will Know

So finally, let’s talk about what we’re gonna know. We will keep you informed of decisions and considerations being made by our leaders. This will not be immediate. Over the next 12 months we will see what actions are taken and which way we feel compelled to go.

This much I will say, the openness and acceptance of LGBTQ people, and providing full acceptance like the right to have marriages performed in our building and by our pastors is not a matter of if but when. This is a matter of justice and we are going to be a just, inclusive, Christ-like community.

There were not many highlights from General Conference, but there were a few. First, the majority of United Methodists in America think what we did was wrong. That’s encouraging. Here’s just a small number of letters being posted by pastors and church leaders stating their conviction this must change.

But perhaps even more, is the response of young people. The young people who spoke at GC gave me hope. A statement went out during the conference asking young people to sign it calling for a more inclusive UMC. Before the end of the GC over 16,000 youth nation-wide had signed it.

A 2016 Pew Research Center study interviewed people under 35 who left the church. The top two reasons? Questions about religious teaching and disagreement over the social/political stands of the church. Well, our General Conference vote this week did nothing to help the church of the future. Retired Bishop Will Willimon stated it well: “This feels like one generation locking down the church for the next. That’s a death sentence.”

One high school student sent this letter to us this week…

Call for youth/young adults to join me…

● My name is Rob Kapaku; my wife Kerry and I have been attending St Luke’s for five years.

● As 20-somethings, it has been a joy to find this welcoming, inclusive community of Christ-followers. I’ve loved helping to grow and flourish our young adult ministry.

● This last week was tough. I watched our United Methodist Church try to tear itself apart.

● I’m heartbroken. As an ally, I’ve witnessed the pain and suffering this brings to our LGBTQ friends here at St Luke’s, particularly amongst our young adults. Many have been rejected before.

● Today, I come heartbroken, but I also come hopeful. I love this church. And inclusion is so, so important to me.

● I’m here, today, a full member, because years ago, St Luke’s made a choice. A choice to be welcome, to be open for all, to include all types of people. I am forever grateful to those who came before, to those of you right now, in the pews, working to make this space welcoming and full of God’s love.

● Our young adults so badly crave a vision of God’s kingdom that can welcome ALL.

● Together, I know and trust and believe that we will make this right. We will keep laying a foundation in inclusion, in young adult ministry, and in this whole church that will last for generations and generations to come.

● Thank you for all you do to keep this family of Christ followers open to all. And to our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, know that we will defend you, and we love you, and we recognize your immeasurable value as a fully beloved child of God.

● Amen.