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By slim vote, Methodists maintain biblical marriage

ST. LOUIS (BP) — United Methodist bishops are promoting unity in the global church after delegates narrowly retained biblical marriage and a ban on LGBT ordination at a contentious 2019 General Conference in St. Louis.

Delegates approved Feb. 26 the so-called Traditional Plan by a margin of 53.3 percent to 46.7 percent, going against the One Church Plan backed by the United Methodist Church (UMC) Council of Bishops in advance of the conference. The One Church Plan would have largely left LGBT marriage and ordination in the hands of local church pastors, while the Traditional Plan strengthens church policy prohibiting same-sex unions and the ordination of practicing homosexuals.

The Southern Baptist Convention has long upheld biblical marriage between one man and one woman, teaching the union in its 2000 Baptist Faith and Message, and passing resolutions to that effect at annual meetings.

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, termed the conference “not only surprising,” but “stunning.”

“It should give hope to all biblically-minded Christians, and it should remind all of us of what we must always clearly see,” Mohler said in his Briefing podcast today, “and that is that there is no way for any church or congregation to move ahead in two contradictory directions at once.

“Eventually the choice comes down to faithfulness to the Scriptures or the abandonment of the Scriptures.” Mohler said. “When it comes to the clear teachings of Scripture, there really is no middle ground and that’s not just true for the Methodists.”

Opponents of the Traditional Plan used such tactics as points of order, proposed amendments, impassioned pleas and challenges to decisions of the chair to delay a final vote for hours, and at times erupted in vocal protests during the proceedings that were livestreamed.

John Lomperis, the United Methodist director of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), said the conference showcased “deep divides” in the UMC.

“It was particularly odd to see liberal leaders call evangelical United Methodists hateful, ‘a bunch of evil folks,’ and all kinds of names, and then at the same time see these same liberal leaders promote their primary liberal plan as reflecting their desire for ‘we’re better together’ unity with us,” Lomperis wrote today (Feb. 27) on the IRD’s Juicy Ecumenism blog. “There was plenty of loud, angry protesting. So much hurt all around. It was a rather stressful day.”

Council of Bishops President Kenneth Carter has pledged to reach out especially to progressives who lost, the UMC news service reported. Carter, who presides as a bishop in Florida, lamented the vote in a National Public Radio interview broadcast this morning.

“It is deeply disappointing and it’s our struggle,” Carter said on NPR. “In the U.S., we mirror the fragmentation of our culture and the polarization of our culture.” About 43 percent of delegates were from outside the U.S., the Associated Press reported.

Bishops in Africa, where the UMC is growing as it declines in the U.S., overwhelmingly support biblical marriage but also promote UMC unity, Maidstone Mulenga, director of communications for the UMC Council of Bishops, told Baptist Press today.

“While the bishops in Africa reaffirmed their position as traditionalists and view marriage as (the) union between man and woman, they do not support any plans for schism in The United Methodist Church,” Mulenga emailed BP. “As for the (bishops’) vote in support of the One Church Plan, the result was overwhelming. But since it was in executive session, the numbers were not disclosed.”

The Traditional Plan clarifies the definition of a practicing homosexual as described in the UMC Book of Discipline, limiting the term to anyone “living in a same-sex marriage, domestic partnership or civil union,” or “who publicly states that she or he is a practicing homosexual,” Lomperis said. Among other stipulations, the plan establishes mandatory penalties for clergy who violate LGBT marriage and ordination policies, Lomperis said, and gives churches the right to appeal when church leaders violate policy.

Susan Henry-Crowe, general secretary of the UMC General Board of Church and Society, pledged to work for LGBT rights within the church.

“The United Methodist Church’s special General Conference failed Tuesday to love LGBTQIA people, recognize their gifts in the church, maintain our unity in the midst of diversity, and to live out our Gospel mandate to seek justice and pursue peace,” she said in a Feb. 26 press release. “We worship a fully-inclusive, justice-seeking God.”

The conference has created a wound with lasting ramifications, she said.

“The wound may one day be healed by the grace of God,” Henry-Crowe said, “but the scar left behind will [be] visible forever…. Church and Society will never cease to work with God to build the fully-inclusive realm of God on earth.”

Carter affirmed the pain caused by the church’s stance on homosexuality.

“The pain and the disappointment is very real, and I have always said that LGBT persons are a sacred work. They are not the problem,” Carter said on NPR. “Really the problem is how the church can rediscover the grace of God through Jesus and hear His command to love one another, and it happens in the local communities and in families.”

The SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission offers a detailed explanation of the UMC vote at erlc.com.

“By voting to uphold the biblical view of sexuality, the LGBTQ faction in the denomination will almost assuredly split from the General Conference and thus disassociate from the other conferences and other local churches within the UMC,” ERLC communications specialist Joe Carter wrote. “Local churches and clergy have until the end of April 2020 to decide whether they will remain in the denomination or leave and join a self-governing body.”

The Council of Bishops, comprising all UMC active and retired bishops, is charged with the spiritual leadership of the church with nearly 12 million members spanning four continents. In the U.S., United Methodists have declined from 10.7 million in 1969 to an estimated 6.9 million in 2016, according to UMC figures. Conversely in Africa, where United Methodists numbered 5.3 million in 2016, the church grew by 7.5 percent between 2012 and 2015, according to the IRD.