By Jessica Brodie
ST. LOUIS—Culminating a day of tears, frustration, peaceful protests and impassioned debate, General Conference delegates have passed an amended
Traditional Plan for the denomination.
The Traditional Plan affirms current language in The United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” (Para. 304.3).
The very close vote came at the tail end of Day 4, Feb. 26, passing 438-384—a 53.28 percent majority.
After the vote, delegates flooded the center of the room, chanting and singing in reaction—some in protest, some in solidarity. In the risers circling the floor, visitors and others led speeches and rally cries citing Scriptural prophecy from Isaiah and other books and demanding the church turn from oppression to love. Then the conference shifted into a time of holy song, cranking up the volume on the praise band, which sang “Spirit of the Living God.”
Behind the music, and later as business progressed, others in the crowd chanted “No more harm!” sometimes so loudly it made proceedings difficult to hear. Reports of arrests and other police action spread throughout the room.
The rest of the afternoon saw debates on the two disaffiliation plans—which the UMC Judicial Council had ruled unconstitutional earlier that day in Decision 1377. One disaffiliation plan, adopted as the minority plan, passed by a close margin, but it was referred to the Judicial Council.
Day 4 closed with an abbreviated worship service.
“It’s been a tough day,” South Carolina Resident Bishop L. Jonathan Holston said. “Regardless of how we feel on certain issues, we are still one church. There is so much that divides us, and we must look to things to unite around.
“It’s not a day to talk wins or losses. This is the church of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. We have to find a way to be God’s Kingdom.”
Why did we have a GC2019?
The special session of General Conference 2019, held Feb. 23-26, was held to help the global denomination move beyond its debilitating disagreement over human sexuality. Per the official call, GC2019 was “limited to receiving and acting upon a report from the Commission on a Way Forward based upon the recommendations of the Council of Bishops.” The Way Forward Commission was created at the will of the last General Conference, in 2016, and charged to examine paragraphs in the UMC Discipline concerning human sexuality and help the UMC move beyond its impasse around ministry and human sexuality.
The Way Forward Commission developed three plans for the church: the One Church Plan (recommended by the Council of Bishops and found to be constitutional by the Judicial Council), the Traditional Plan (ruled partially unconstitutional) and the Connectional Conference Plan (which would have required a full constitutional rework).
The idea was that if the decisions are addressed in 2019, then the next main General Conference, set for May 2020 in Minneapolis, will be able to focus on the full mission of the church and not one issue.
Sixteen delegates from South Carolina (eight lay and eight clergy) joined a total of 864 clergy and lay delegates from around the world for General Conference.
“When you come here, you vote your conscience,” said South Carolina delegate Herman Lightsey. “I don’t know if we made any great strides, but we made a decision, a step in the right direction. No matter what plan we picked, we’d be going through this. And no matter what we do, God’s got a church for us. God’s got a plan for us.”
What happened at GC2019?
GC2019 began Saturday, Feb. 23, with a full Day of Prayer to anchor the global church in God’s Word. There was a twofold prayer focus, both for the conference itself and for increased effectiveness in the mission of the church. The day featured a plenary prayer service, an experiential prayer guided by bishops from four different regions of the world and a service of Holy Communion.
Day 2 was jam-packed, tackling far more work than many expected. Delegates set their legislative priorities, voting to address the Wespath Recommendations first (pension liabilities and the Clergy Retirement Security Program amendment), followed by the Traditional Plan, then two disaffiliation legislation sets (first Taylor, then Boyette), then the One Church Plan, then the other disaffiliation legislation (Ottjes), then the rest.
Joe Harris, Oklahoma Conference, was elected chair of the Legislative Committee. Betty Kazadi Musau, North Katanga Conference, was elected vice chair, and Carlene Fogle-Miller, a young adult from the Florida Conference, was elected secretary.
Before the session adjourned for the day, delegates began addressing the Wespath Recommendations, ultimately approving them.
On Day 3, delegates continued their tough work in legislative committee. They narrowly voted (53.04 percent) not to pass an amended One Church Plan. They did approve an amended version of the Traditional Plan, as well as two sets of legislation allowing churches to disaffiliate with the UMC (with some limitations).
Then, in the aftermath of the One Church Plan rejection, they voted in an overwhelming majority (91.98 percent) to reject en masse all remaining petitions except A Simple Plan. Later that day, after lengthy debate, the body voted to reject A Simple Plan (60.47 percent majority), as well.
Also on Day 3, South Carolina delegate the Rev. Tim Rogers made a motion before the body that the Judicial Council review the constitutionality of all amended petitions approved by the committee. Rogers’ motion for the declaratory decision was approved.
The final debate
Finally on Tuesday, Feb. 26, the last day of General Conference 2019, the body reconvened in plenary session.
Per Rogers’ motion the day prior, General Conference Secretary Gary Graves announced Judicial Council Decision 1377, noting the UMC’s top court ruled the majority of the key aspects of the Traditional Plan were constitutional. These include aspects of qualifications for ministry (Paras. 304.3 and 304.5), episcopal responsibilities (Para. 415.6), minimum penalty (Para. 2711.3), complaint process (Para. 362.1e), just resolution (Para. 2701.5) and church appeal (Para. 2715.10).
Nine petitions were ruled unconstitutional. The court ruled six other aspects of the Traditional Plan unconstitutional: three on episcopal accountability violate Paras. 20 and 58, and three (on composition of Board of Ordained Ministry and full examination) violate the principle of legality.
It also ruled the second sentence in another petition, 90045 (Traditional Plan #4 Episcopal Accountability, Para. 422), was unconstitutional.
It ruled both disaffiliation plans (Boyette and Taylor) unconstitutional; the Boyette plan violates Paras. 33 and 41 and the Taylor plan violates Para. 33.
“It was a long day and a very difficult day,” South Carolina delegate the Rev. Mel Arant said, calling it a frustrating but necessary process.
“We’ve been divided since 1972, and it’s obvious that continues,” Arant said. “We did exactly what General Conference 2016 wanted us to do. We did not do what everybody wanted. Some were pleased, and some were disappointed and even hurt. All of us are here because we care deeply about The United Methodist Church, and when our family’s divided, it hurts. But one issue we can all agree on is that God is God and Jesus is Lord, and it’s time to celebrate what we hold in common and move forward in mission.”
South Carolina delegate Barbara Ware said she also found Day 4 to be a very difficult time in the life of the UMC.
“I would equate it with a family having a disagreement and trying to find a way to solve it,” Ware said. “And there is pain and sadness sometimes when we disagree with family members. My prayer for the UMC is that we can continue to be a source of strength for a hurting world.”
‘We shall press on’
Delegates entered a time of prayer just before noon CST, then had the chance to vote on whether to substitute the One Church Plan for the Traditional Plan. They voted (majority 54.56 percent) not to substitute.
The afternoon was spent amending and debating aspects of the Traditional Plan.
Finally, just before 5 p.m. CST, the vote on an amended Traditional Plan was called—and it passed.
South Carolina Delegation Chair the Rev. Tim McClendon said he believes the Traditional Plan will pass muster in the Judicial Council, but he believes the minority report on disaffiliation will be unconstitutional.
“It’s a sobering reality-check about how divided we are,” McClendon said. “There are a lot of hurt people, and it’s not a win-lose.”
South Carolina Delegate the Rev. Narcie Jeter said after the close of Day 4 that she is feeling a “jumble of emotions.”
“It was a very emotionally, spiritually and theologically exhausting day,” Jeter said—a day with much passion and tears. “We shall press on resting in the grace of God who calls us for this purpose to make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world.
“Both the Traditional and the One Church plans would have caused harm. We move on by grace, compassion and love for one another. Making relationships with others of opposing views is very much needed right now.”
It’s not easy or comfortable, she said.
“But no one ever said it would be easy.”
South Carolina reaction
In South Carolina, emotions are mixed.
Stanton Adams, a young adult in the Charleston District, shared with the Advocate that he is deeply saddened about the outcome.
“It is heartbreaking to me that the majority of the body determined to that doubling down on the Book of Discipline’s exclusionary language was the best way forward for our denomination,” Adams said. “The fight for justice for LGBTQ+ people in the life of The United Methodist Church is far from over—we aren’t going to go gently into the night. We will continue to hear God’s call on our lives, we will continue to seek justice and love for all people and we will continue to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world—whether The United Methodist Church chooses to fully acknowledge us or not.”
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