The Back Story
You don’t even have to be United Methodist to be familiar with the debate about how the denomination relates to, regulates, or restricts churches and clergy regarding same-sex marriage and homosexual clergy. What is missing from most of those discussions, though, is the basic knowledge of how the United Methodist Church got to this point in the conversation and how it has dealt with divisive issues in the past. Rev. Dr. Lovett Weems brought exactly that to the Missouri Annual Conference, with a fact-filled presentation on the topic on Saturday morning.
Many in Missouri know Weems as the former president of Saint Paul School of Theology. He is currently employed at Wesley Seminary in Washington, D.C. where he serves as a professor of church leadership and founding director/senior consultant of Wesley's G. Douglass Lewis Center for Church Leadership. He is a retired of the Missouri Conference.
Weems started his presentation at the beginning. In the early 1970s, discrimination and sometimes acts of violence against homosexuals garnered attention in the U.S. and was part of public discourse. The first time the United Methodist Church took any stance or voice relating to homosexuality was at General Conference in 1972, when there was a proposal to include a statement that homosexuals are people of sacred worth. This passed, with an additional statement added to it that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.
The next time General Conference met in 1976, same-sex marriage was banned. At General Conference in 1984, language was added to the Book of Discipline that no self-avowed homosexuals could be ordained. At General Conference in 1988, language was added that banned United Methodist clergy from doing same-sex weddings and United Methodist Church from hosting same-sex weddings.
All of that discussion preceded by decades the first legal same-sex marriage in the United States, which happened in 2004. Many states began adopting same-sex marriage after 2004, with 70 percent of the U.S. population living in states with same-sex marriage by 2014. In 2015 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state bans on same-sex marriage, legalizing it in all 50 states.
In 2016, the General Conference requested guidance from the Council of Bishops on all issues in the Book of Discipline related to sexuality. The Council of Bishops formed the Commission on the Way Forward, composed of people on opposite sides of the debate as well as centrist. The Commission advocated for a One Church Plan, which would loosen restrictions and allow Board of Ordained Ministry to use their own discretion in who they ordain, and allow clergy and churches to make their own decisions regarding same-sex marriage, without compelling anyone to act contrary to his or her position. A special session of General Conference was called in February 2019 in St. Louis to approve a plan. Two-thirds of the U.S. delegates approved the One Church Plan, but it was rejected largely by delegates from Africa, a growing contingent. A Traditional Plan was passed with a 53 percent majority, which puts into place mandatory sentencing of clergy who perform same-sex weddings, as well as mandatory discipline of bishops who allow self-avowed homosexuals to follow their call to ministry.
“Annual conferences are older than General Conference. General Conference was created by annual conferences to deal with limited things of General nature,” Weems said. “The annual conference is the only body that can determine someone will be clergy in Missouri, and the Annual conference is the only body that can take away clergy standing. It seems to me that the General Conference over a number of years has taken upon itself greater and greater responsibilities.”
Next, Weems took a look at how Methodists have dealt with divisive issues before. The typical response is for the side seeking change to reject, resist and advocate. Sometimes the church divides by one side leaving. This happened numerous times in issues related to race and slavery.
Although those major splits around slavery are most often compared to the divisiveness in the church today, there are many other issues that have caused discontent in the Methodists.
From 1884 to 1928 Methodist clergy were prohibited from performing a marriage for anyone who had been divorced. From 1880 to 1968 clergy were prohibited from smoking. In 1888 Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Pittsburgh and the Rock River Conferences sent to first women to General Conference to serve as delegates. After days of debate the women were sent back home without having been seated at the Conference.
Although Weems said he wasn’t in Missouri to share his own opinions or position, he couldn’t conceal his disdain for the mandatory sentencing requirements recently passed in the Traditional Plan. He said there are many areas of the Book of Discipline that are not forcibly imposed. If strict legalism regarding the Book of Discipline is the new posture, it will create havoc. He noted the prohibition on rebaptism is in the Book of Discipline right next to the prohibition on same-sex marriage.
“If we’re going to move to a time where bishops have no room for grace, in Missouri you’re going to lose a lot more clergy over rebaptisms than you ever will over same-sex unions,” Weems said.
Recently Weems has been researching a lot about the breakups that occurred within the Methodist Church over slavery.
“When you read about the breakup and the proceedings that led to the reuniting there is a noticeable absence of any serious historical, theological or Biblical implications in their decision making,” Weems said. “In the debate today, notice how seldom you hear the words of Jesus, or of John Wesley, quoted when people are making their points. People are turning to their social or political preferences as if that’s where they find God’s will.”
Weems is troubled by people not looking to leadership within the church for guidance.
“I’ve known countless people who are more conservative than Christian. I’ve known people who are more liberal than they are Christian,” Weems said. “When their faith asks them to consider a position that is different than their favorite political commentator on TV or the radio, the politics win. They ask the church to change to fit their politics. They don’t ask the politician to change to fit their church.”
Weems mourns the energy that has gone into the debate and the talks of division and dissolution. He said people have asked him if they know of any instance of people who have been successful in engaging these issues and keeping their faith together. He said there are thousands examples of just that all around us.
“99 out of 100 of our churches figured this out a long time ago,” Weems said. “The people of their congregations don’t agree, but they live together, pray together and continue to do God’s work. I haven’t found a church member yet who believes someone who disagrees with them should be put out of their church, and I haven’t found one that is interested in telling a church down the road what they should or shouldn’t do.”
Weems is concerned about the debate being driven by the extremes on both ends. He called on people to consider how they got to where they are today.
“How many of you are worshipping in a church started before you were born?” he asked, and most of the hands in the room went up. “We in our current opinions are not the center of the universe. Most of what United Methodism is today was achieved before any of us were on the scene. Elect delegates you trust, but then tell them to find a way to honor conscience yet live together. Our unity has never been, and can never be, based on anything but Jesus Christ. May God guide and lead us in the time ahead.”