Sunday 23 June 2019
The Second Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 12C
Not this last week, but the week before, I was at the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. We met in the same hotel as the Lutheran Oregon Synod meeting last month. The Oregon Synod Assembly in May was singularly focused on the election of a bishop, and we celebrate the election of Rev. Laurie Larson Caesar, the synod’s first female bishop. The Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference was singularly focused on the church’s General Conference last February in St. Louis.
As many of you know, the global United Methodist Church called a special meeting to deal with issues of human sexuality, particularly with regard to LGBTQ persons in the church. For several decades now, there has been a struggle in the church. The controversy mainly hinges on whether gays and lesbians can serve as clergy and whether the church can perform same-sex weddings.
Many Christian denominations have been dealing with similar controversies. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America made a landmark change in 2009, when the Churchwide Assembly voted to allow synods to lift restrictions on LGBTQ clergy. ELCA synods and bishops are still allowed to bar candidates for ministry based on their sexuality, but they are no longer required to. Our own Oregon Synod has taken a strong stand on being inclusive of LGBTQ persons in all areas of church leadership, including as clergy.
The situation in The United Methodist Church is a bit more complicated, unfortunately. The UMC started as a denomination in the USA, but it grew to include Methodist churches in other parts of the world. The UMC doesn’t include all of world Methodism. For example, none of the Methodist churches in Latin America are part of the UMC, nor is the massive Korean Methodist Church. But The UMC does include the Methodist churches in the Philippines, along with many Methodist churches in Africa and eastern Europe.
This means a church that is very culturally diverse. The church has long recognized this cultural diversity. We’ve understood that churches in rural Africa operate in a different environment than those in Portland. We’ve recognized that churches in Manilla have a different context than churches in the Columbia Gorge. So there is one book that governs the operations of The United Methodist Church. It’s called the Book of Discipline. But churches in jurisdictions outside the United States are able to make some changes and adjustments based on their local contexts.
However, churches in the United States don’t have that same flexibility. We are required to abide by every part of the Discipline. However, when it comes deciding what goes in the Book of Discipline, delegates from everywhere get to vote. This means that delegates from outside the US get to vote for rules that are binding in the US, but they themselves are not necessarily bound by the same rules.
For many years now, the Discipline has affirmed that gays and lesbians are of sacred worth, but it has also ruled that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and that “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” shall not be ordained. It also forbids same-sex weddings.
By rule, the General Conference of the UMC meets every four years, the same years as the Summer Olympics. It gathers about 1000 delegates from all over the world. For the last few decades, every four years, sexuality has been at the heart of the debate. And while Methodists in the US have been shifting toward inclusion, the demographics of The UMC have been shifting away from the US. As a result, the position of The UMC has been gradually becoming more conservative.
For at least a decade, our Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference, along with several other regional conferences, have been declining to enforce the church’s restrictions on LGBTQ clergy. In response, the more conservative parts of the church have tried to close loopholes. Every four years, the two sides have battled it out at General Conference.
After the 2016 General Conference in Portland, the Council of Bishops decided it was time for a new approach. They called for a special meeting of the General Conference, to be held in 2019, with the single purpose of dealing with issues of sexuality. The sponsored a special Commission on the Way Forward, with members from all over the world. Over three years, they met to try to develop a solution to what had become an intractable problem. Eventually they proposed a plan called the One Church Plan. It sought to do basically what the ELCA did in 2009, to acknowledge the disagreement in the church and to allow conferences, local churches, and clergy to act according to their own conscience.
However, that is not the plan that carried the day in February. Instead, a plan was introduced from the floor, called the Traditional Plan. It held the line against LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage, and it introduced several new punitive measures on those violated those restrictions. This is the plan that narrowly passed. Were the vote taken only among US delegates, the One Church Plan would have easily passed.
Which brings us to last week in Eugene, at the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference. There can be no doubt that Conference was dominated by the momentous action in February. We engaged in a series of small group conversations on the issue. We passed several resolutions affirming our baptismal covenant to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. We stated that we find the church’s current position to be inconsistent with the gospel, and we reaffirmed our commitment to resist the exclusion of our LGBTQ siblings. We elected delegates to the 2020 General Conference. Both of our delegates are members of the LGBTQ community, as is one of our two alternates. We voted to become a safe harbor conference, where LGBTQ clergy who feel at risk can transfer their membership. We commissioned and ordained new pastors and deacons. We worshiped together. We felt the movement of the Holy Spirit.
It is not clear what will come next. The new restrictive provisions of the Discipline will come into effect on January 1. It is possible that after that date, United Methodists from other conferences will try to bring complaints against our clergy. General Conference will happen again, on its regular schedule, in May of next year. Certainly these issues will be re-litigated there. It’s possible that it will result in a more moderate stance. It’s possible that things will stay basically the same, with a continuing impasse.
It’s also possible that there will be a division in the church. Methodists have split before. We split over slavery in the 19th century before coming back together in the 1930’s. It could happen again. If that were to happen, you can be sure that Oregon-Idaho, along with every other conference in the western US, would go with the side that favors inclusion.
When Elijah the prophet is feeling discouraged, when he feels like he has enemies on every side, when he thinks that everything he is striving for is amounting to nothing, he travels to God’s mountain. God asks him, “Why are you hear, Elijah?” And Elijah recounts his tale of woe. But then God reveals Godself to Elijah, not in the strong wind, not in the violent earthquake, not in the searing fire, but in the silence, in the still small voice.
Many in the church who have been striving for justice feel discouraged like Elijah. After all this work, after all this prayer, after all this organizing, it never seems to make a difference. And we are asked, “What are you doing here?” We have been passionate for the Lord God. We have been called to proclaim the radically liberating message of Jesus Christ. We have been called to announce good news. And though it may be hard to find God’s presence in the windy speech, or in the rattling tremors, or in the fiery tempers, we can still find God in the silence. We can still find God in the still small voice. We can still find God in the whisper of freedom.
And that may be enough to give us the strength to continue on. We do not know what the future may hold. We do not know where or how God might act. But we know that when we listen, God’s voice is there. We know that we are called to do our part. And we pray that God will give us the wisdom and the strength to live out the gospel, today, tomorrow, and always.