As I watched the business of the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church, my mind flashed back to my childhood. I remembered being a lifeguard. I used to teach people how to tread water. This was more than a neat trick to learn; it was a life-saving technique meant to keep a swimmer calm in the face of danger.
No doubt about it. The United Methodist Church is facing danger. All around the world, insiders and outsiders alike are talking about the impending schism. Rather than trudge ahead with the conversations that would force the reality of a split, the United Methodist Church—during its 10-day assembly in Portland, Oregon—decided instead to tread water.
A little context for this treading-water outcome
General Conference is the top legislative body of the United Methodist Church. It is the only body that can alter the language in the Book of Discipline.
For many Methodists, the Book of Discipline is akin to the Holy Bible. It is studied, memorized and used to strive toward perfection in holiness. In this case, it is also used to justify the exclusion of LGBTQ persons from participating in the full life of the church.
This was the moment. 864 elected delegates from around the world had convened to conduct the business of the Church. Much of that business included the response of the United Methodist Church to the LGBTQ community in its midst. One question rose above all others: Will the United Methodist Church vote to change the language that has created internal strife for the past 44 years? This was the only body who could answer.
The conflict began in 1968 when the United Methodist Church was formed. In order to successfully merge the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren in Christ, a Commission was formed to study the Social Principles, the final piece of the United Methodist doctrinal Trinity. Along with the Bible and the Book of Discipline, the Social Principles are used when seeking clarity and direction. The Social Principles were written to help guide our thoughts and deeds about how we interact with and engage others in the world.
Four years later, the Commission released its report at the 1972 General Conference. In it was the controversial statement on the Church’s position on homosexuality. It read: “Homosexuals no less than heterosexuals are persons of sacred worth, who need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship which enables reconciling relationships with God, with others and with self. Further, we insist that all persons are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured.”
The report was read to elected delegates gathered in Atlanta, Georgia. After hearing the report, Russell Kibler, a delegate from the South Indiana Conference rose, made his way to the microphone and asked this question: What is meant by “homosexuals would have their human and civil rights ensured?”
Thus began the denomination’s first public debate on homosexuality.
The Conference chose to answer Kibler’s question by adding these infamous words slated for debate at 2016 General Conference: “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”
The bishops’ action: What really happened?
Thanks to the Council of Bishops, the debate continues. Rather than call for a just resolution on the issue, the Council of Bishops took a page—or literally, one sentence, from the 1968 General Conference: “We recommend that the General Conference defer all votes on human sexuality and refer this entire subject to a special Commission, named by the Council of Bishops, to develop a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph in our Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality.”
We must commend the Council of Bishops for stepping into a leadership role (at the request of the body) and offering the assembly a new way forward. With talks of a denominational split becoming more and more imminent, this statement keeps the Church’s head above water but does not move it in either direction.
The Bishops’ statement takes no stand at all; it is a desperate plea to tread water.
To some, this was the worst step the Bishops could take. This side was ready to tackle the more than 100 pieces of legislation about human sexuality. They were poised to vote down every petition that called for the removal of the incompatibility clause, sought to broaden the definition of family, or recommended age-appropriate comprehensive sex education for children, youth and adults.
To others, the adoption of this statement offers hope. This side needs and wants to believe that the Bishops’ statement is a step towards change that will alter the language in the Discipline that continues to humiliate, dishonor and harm LGBTQ people of faith.
In reality, nothing has changed.
Parishioners can still file complaints against LGBTQ clergy and their allies. Pastors who dare to live authentically can still be brought to trial.Allies of the LGBTQ community who choose to marry same gender-loving couples can still be defrocked and the Discipline’s language is still the same.
And that’s not the only thing that remains the same. The United Methodist Church isn’t treading water only on issues of human sexuality but on all issues related to civil rights.
Indeed it is worth fighting for LGBTQ persons, but what about other marginalized groups within the denomination—people of color, women, the poor, the disenfranchised, the homeless? Why has the denomination spent so much time, energy and resources on the issue of human sexuality to the neglect of these communities? Is the conversation about human sexuality merely a distraction from the real work to which we are called as disciples—“to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8)?
The United Methodist Church continues to declare that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” I suggest that it is the denomination’s silence on and therefore complicit participation in the injustices experienced by LGBTQ persons, people of color, women, the disenfranchised that is incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Time will tell if the Commission offers the United Methodist Church a way forward in unity with the LGBTQ community. Until then, thank God for our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. Unlike the Bishops, at least we know where they stand.
Throughout the 10-day conference, many of them participated in one direct action after another, calling attention to the need for the assembly to act. They committed themselves to disrupting every session that sought to cause more harm to the LGBTQ community. They even prepared themselves for arrest as a testimony of their faithfulness.
The LGBTQ community has been harmed by the Church for the past 44 years, is being harmed right now, and will continue to be harmed until the Church decides to fully live into its own motto: “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.”
Rev. Dr. Denise Donnell is an ordained elder in the Mississippi Conference of the United Methodist Church. Prior to five years’ service in a cross-racial appointment at Mississippi City United Methodist Church in Gulport, Mississippi, she served as pastor of Revels Memorial UMC in Greenville, and associate pastor at Broadmeadow United Methodist Church in Jackson. Presently, Rev. Dr. Donnell is the senior faith organizer for the Human Rights Campaign Arkansas. There, she spends every day as a theological activist, advocating for the religious rights of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, creating partnerships with faith leaders and engaging faith communities to create safer worship spaces.