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U.S. delegates name GC goals

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A group of U.S. delegates, including several from the Michigan Conference, has released a statement on three legislative proposals they will endorse at General Conference.

UM News

Key points:

    • A group of more than 270 U.S. delegates has publicly endorsed three legislative proposals as General Conference approaches.
    • They see the statement as an opening to dialogue with fellow delegates and an invitation to more delegates to sign on.
    • The statement comes as delegates expect a different gathering than the rancorous 2019 special General Conference.

A month before General Conference opens, an ad hoc group of more than 270 U.S. delegates is giving public notice of their three legislative priorities for The United Methodist Church’s top lawmaking assembly.

Those priorities are what many delegates have taken to calling “the three R’s” — regionalization, the Revised Social Principles, and the removal of exclusionary language against LGBTQ people.

The Michigan Conference’s delegation recently presented on the General Conference legislative process and highlighted “the three R’s.” Click the button below to watch Rev. Paul Perez’s explanation and commentary on these three legislative priorities. Begin watching his remarks at 21:15. Perez is one of the Michigan Conference delegates who has signed this statement.

The primary and reserve General Conference delegates are also inviting their fellow U.S. delegates to sign on to the statement ahead of the denomination’s international gathering, set for April 23 to May 3 in Charlotte, NC.

After the battles of the 2019 special General Conference and the strains of COVID that delayed the next regular session to this year, the delegate signers expressed their desire for a different kind of legislative meeting.

“We hope that the gathering in Charlotte, NC, will bear witness to a more perfect way of faithful service to Christ, who makes all things new and reconciles all people unto himself,” said the delegates’ statement, referencing 2 Corinthians 5:16-20.

The delegates said they “pray that we may transcend the conflicts that have so long divided us.”

Perez echoed this statement in his presentation to the Michigan Conference on these three legislative priorities. “What lies before us,” he said, “are decisions that only the General Conference can make that will turn the page and move the denomination forward in starting a new chapter in the life of The United Methodist Church, here in the U.S.A. and around the world.”

Their statement comes as United Methodists are grappling with the disaffiliation of 25% of the denomination’s U.S. churches over the past four years. Those churches left under a policy instituted by the special 2019 General Conference that allowed churches to leave with property “for reasons of conscience” related to homosexuality, if they met certain conditions. The disaffiliation policy expired at the end of 2023, but a number of proposals submitted to the coming General Conference seek to extend disaffiliation.

That’s not the goal of the delegates who signed the statement. Instead, they note they are part of the 75% of U.S. congregations that remain United Methodist. They also say they are eager to work with fellow United Methodist delegates in Africa, Europe, and the Philippines in healing, reconciliation, and rebuilding the denomination.

“My heart really yearns for a church that, first of all, is Christ-centered,” said the Rev. Dawn Taylor-Storm, one of the delegate signers. She is the director of connectional ministries and assistant to the bishop in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference.

“I also yearn for a church that really embodies what it means to have open doors and open hearts and enables some contextualism in our global connection.”

She and other delegates see supporting the following legislative goals as a way of moving toward a shared global church that is more focused on Christ than conflict.

Those proposals are:

1. Worldwide Regionalization, a plan submitted by the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, that aims to put the different regions of the denomination on equal footing. The majority of the standing committee’s membership comes from the central conferences — seven church regions in Africa, Europe, and the Philippines.

The proposal would create eight distinct regional governing bodies in what are currently the seven central conferences in Africa, Europe, the Philippines as well as in the United States. Each region would have the same authority to adapt portions of the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s policy book, to their missional context. Worldwide regionalization requires amending the denomination’s constitution. For ratification, an amendment must receive at least a two-thirds vote at General Conference and at least a two-thirds total vote at annual conferences, bodies consisting of lay and clergy voters from multiple congregations. Most other legislation requires a simple majority.

“We support this legislation because we are committed to greater self-determination and self-governance,” the delegates’ statement said. “We also believe that expanding regional decision-making will allow annual conferences within each region to thrive.”

2. Revised Social Principles, multiple petitions submitted by the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, that revise the denomination’s social witness. The proposals are the result of an eight-year revision process prompted by the 2012 General Conference to make the denomination’s social teachings more “more globally relevant, theologically founded and succinct.” More than 4,000 United Methodists from around the globe have contributed to the revisions.

As proposed, the revision would no longer make reference to homosexuality at all. Since 1972, the Social Principles have stated that “the practice of homosexuality . . . is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Taylor-Storm emphasized that the Social Principles have always dealt with far more than human sexuality. The revisions, she said, aim to address international concerns around topics as varied as agriculture and polygamy. “This isn’t just about the U.S., and this isn’t U.S.-based legislation,” Taylor-Storm said.

3. Removal of exclusionary policies against LGBTQ people. Since General Conference added the Social Principle on homosexuality in 1972, subsequent gatherings have added bans on “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy and the officiation of same-sex weddings. Also since 1972, every General Conference has been marked by rancorous debate over the place of LGBTQ people in church life. The clashes culminated in the special 2019 General Conference, which passed the Traditional Plan that aimed to strengthen enforcement of the bans and opened the door for the church disaffiliations seen over the past four years.

“This would return the Book of Discipline to where it was from 1784 to 1972, and remove the cause of so much of our friction and division for the last 50 years,” said the Rev. Adam Hamilton, one of the delegate signers from the Great Plains Conference. He is the senior pastor of Resurrection, a multisite United Methodist church based in Leawood, Kansas, that has long seen the denomination’s highest weekly attendance in the U.S.

Altogether, Hamilton said, the three priorities are an expression of where many United Methodist congregations, laity, and clergy are.

“I think it’s important for people to know,” he said. “There’s a whole lot of folks who feel strongly that it is really important that we support these things.”

Monalisa Tui’tahi, a delegate signer from the California-Pacific Conference, said that the statement reflects her deepest desire to be part of a Christian body “that seeks to be its best self in the face of a broken world.” Tui’tahi is a member of United with Hope United Methodist Church in Long Beach, California.

“These are not new concepts,” she said, “but they represent the ongoing efforts to bring equity into a colonial structure that is mired in oppressive practices normalized in the name of faith and doctrine. For me, signing the statement is a sacred vow to hold the church accountable to the true embodiment of the body of Christ.”

The statement also has the support of a number of United Methodist advocacy groups that seek full inclusion of LGBTQ people in church life. They include the Love Your Neighbor Coalition, Mainstream UMC, Methodist Federation for Social Action, Reconciling Ministries Network, Resist Harm, and UMCNEXT.

The delegate signers acknowledge that different regions of the denomination have different legal and cultural contexts. They also recognize that theological perspectives and biblical interpretation vary as well.

Regionalization would enable each region to establish its own clergy standards and if so desired, reinstate the bans related to clergy and weddings.

The Rev. Duane Carlisle, a delegate from the Indiana Conference and lead pastor of First United Methodist Church in West Lafayette, stressed that the proposals are all neutral with regard to homosexuality — neither disapproving nor approving.

At the same time, he sees removing the Discipline’s restrictive language around LGBTQ people as critical to his ministry and that of many other United Methodists.

“The reason that is important is that we need our ministers and our members of The United Methodist Church to be able to bring their whole selves to their ministry and into their work in the world,” said Carlisle, a member of the denomination’s Queer Clergy Caucus. “And some of these things continue to be barriers towards that.”

He said he hopes the statement will be seen as an invitation for further conversation with fellow delegates.

So far, the primary delegates signing the statement represent about a quarter of the primary delegates who will be at General Conference. Plans for the coming assembly call for 862 voting delegates — 482 from the U.S.; 278 from Africa, 52 from the Philippines, 40 from Europe and 10 from concordat churches with close ties to The United Methodist Church. Half are lay and half are clergy.

Efforts to change the denomination’s positions on homosexuality and establish regionalization have not succeeded at past General Conference sessions.

But many U.S. delegations in particular show indications of being different from those who attended the 2019 special General Conference. Immediately following that contentious gathering, a number of U.S. annual conferences elected delegates who explicitly opposed the Traditional Plan.

Since then, most of the churches that have left over the past four years have tended to be backers of the homosexuality bans. At least half have joined the Global Methodist Church, a conservative, breakaway denomination that launched in 2022. The church exits have also resulted in the departures of some delegates, changing the U.S. delegations even further.

Judith Pierre-Okerson, a United Methodist deaconess and veteran delegate from the Florida Conference, said she signed the statement in part because she is hoping to see General Conference move away from the friction that has defined it in the past. She sees regionalization and removal of the language around LGBTQ people as a way to do that. She also participated in one of the focus groups that offered feedback for the Revised Social Principles.

For too long, she said General Conference has seemed to be focused on just one thing — the status of LGBTQ people — rather than United Methodist ministry.

“If we want to move forward as a new denomination, we need to remove the harmful language in the Discipline,” said Pierre-Okerson, a member of Miramar United Methodist Church in Miramar, Florida. “And I’m afraid if we do not remove the harmful language, those of us who are faithful to the denomination will leave.”

She added that many United Methodists who stayed “truly believe LGBTQ people were created equally with everybody.”

Taylor-Storm said she comes to General Conference hopeful for the future of The United Methodist Church.

“Methodism began as a movement, in small groups around kitchen tables. The ministry of Susanna, John and Charles [Wesley] reflected the contextual needs of the day,” she said. “I see that same spark now as delegates come together dreaming and planning for a church that is Christ-centered, celebrates diversity . . . and models collaboration locally, regionally, and worldwide.”

James Deaton, Content Editor for the Michigan Conference, contributed to this report.

Last Updated on March 27, 2024

The Michigan Conference