By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor
In a significant move toward a possible future change to United Methodist Church’s doctrine and discipline, the Pacific Northwest Conference’s 2016 Annual Conference voted for non-conformity to the Book of Discipline’s mandates proscribing gay marriage, gay ministers, and the disbursement of funds toward gay causes. In effect, the measure declares that the PNW Conference will not participate in any judicial or disciplinary actions against those who violate these laws enumerated within the Book of Discipline. This represents a strong departure from doctrine.
The subject of homosexuality has in the United Methodist Church traditionally brought decades of internal conflict within the Church from parishioners, clergy, bishops, and the various conferences; especially since the choices in the row have been polar in nature–either the status quo or to completely allow acceptance of homosexuality. The non-conformity action might finally offer a middle ground for the Church Community to move closer to that of society and of the secular laws.
The PNW Annual Conference for 2016 was held in Puyallup, Washington from June 24th through the 26th. The conference is compromised of Clergy, the Bishop, lay leaders, and general laypersons appointed from each individual UM Church from the various districts within the Conference. The Conferences also each send these representatives to the quadrennial General Conference (a conference representing the entire church world-wide). The United Methodist Church has no lead executive as is the case with the Catholic and Anglican churches.
During the conference, a member within the plenary submitted a motion to propose adoption of the Action of Non-Conformity by the Pacific NW Conference, seconded, and then opened for debate within the membership. At first I suspected this would either be immediately voted down, since it is contrary to the discipline and could be ruled unconstitutional, or it would be quashed through parliamentary chicanery to forestall any vote toward adoption, which was certainly possible given the demographic makeup of the PNW Annual Conference.
For the purpose of brevity, I will provide only the final text of the proposal which reads:
ACTION OF NON-CONFORMITY WITH THE GENERAL CONFERENCE OF THE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH
Trusting in the Author of Life who makes no mistakes when creating her children, inspired by the nonconforming Christ who taught us to defy oppression in all its forms, and led by the Holy Spirit who continually liberates us from our addition to law and into the life of grace, The Pacific Northwest Annual Conference as a body affirms our commitment to be a radically hospitable church.
With a deep appreciation of our common ministry, a desire to practice Biblical obedience, united in God’s love for one another, and a commitment to allowing for our many understandings of following Christ, we the People of the Pacific Northwest move together.
The PNWAC will not conform or comply with the provisions of the Discipline which discriminate against LGBTQIA+* persons, including marriage (161.B), the incompatibility clause (161.F), ordination and appointments (304.3), homosexual unions (341.6), AC funding ban (613.19), GCFA funding ban (806.9), chargeable offenses pertaining to being “a self avowed practicing homosexual” or to officiating weddings for couples regardless of the sex of the partners (2702.1b,d)
The PNWAC and its members will not participate in or conduct judicial procedures related to the Discipline’s prohibitions against LGBTQIA+* persons.
The PNWAC will realign its funding to reflect these commitments, using no reserve funds to pay for judicial procedures related to the Discipline’s prohibitions against LGBTQIA+ persons, and instead asking the Connectional Table to lead and fund efforts in cultural competency, anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-ageism, anti-homophobia, and anti-oppression training at the conference and district levels, as well as for advocacy and implementation efforts related to the same.
*LGBTQIA+ is an acronym names the identities including Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, and the many other forms of identity related to gender and sexuality.
The Book of Discipline, as referenced above, reads in parts pertinent to our discussion:
161.B Marriage—We affirm the sanctity of the marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman. We believe that God’s blessing rests on such marriage, whether or not there are children of the union. We reject social norms that assume different standards for women than for men in marriage. We support laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
161.F Human Sexuality—We affirm that sexuality is God’s good gift to all persons. We call everyone to responsible stewardship of this sacred gift.
Although all persons are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant and monogamous, heterosexual marriage.
We deplore all forms of the commercialization, abuse and exploitation of sex. We call for strict global enforcement of laws prohibiting the sexual exploitation of children and for adequate protection, guidance, and counseling for abused children. All persons regardless of age, gender, marital status, or sexual orientation, are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured and to be protected against violence. The Church should support the family in providing age-appropriate education regarding sexuality to children, youth, and adults.
We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and the self. The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian or gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.
304.3 While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world. The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not the be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church.
341.6 Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.
613.19To ensure that no annual conference board, agency, committee, commission, or council shall give United Methodist funds to any gay caucus or group, or otherwise use such funds to promote the acceptability of homosexuality or violate the expressed commitment of The UMC “not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends” (pp 161F). The council shall have the right to stop such expenditures. This restriction shall not limit the Church’s ministry in response to the HIV epidemic, not shall it preclude funding for dialogs or educational events where the Church’s official position is fairly and equally represented.
806.9 It [General Council] shall be responsible for ensuring that no board, agency, committee, commission, or council shall give United Methodist funds to any gay caucus or group, or otherwise use such funds to promote the acceptance of homosexuality or violate the expressed commitment of The United Methodist Church “not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends” (pp 161F). The council shall have the right to stop such expenditures. It shall not limit the Church’s ministry in response to the HIV epidemic.
2702.1 [Chargeable Offenses and the Statute of Limitations] A bishop, clergy member of an annual conference (pp 370), local pastor, clergy on honorable or administrative location, or diaconal minister may be tried when charged (subject to the statute of limitations in pp2702.4) with one or more of the following offenses:
2702.1.b practices declared by The United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teachings, including but not limited to: being a self-avowed practicing homosexual; or conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions; or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies…
2702.1.d dis-obedience to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church[.]
Within the Plenary, much time was allocated to the topic of non-conformity. I did sense that having the understanding this was controversial for decades, that is, homosexuality and its acceptance by the Church, the matter proceeded quite professionally despite many participants having strong convictions, especially those being the focus of the prohibitions.
To understand how deeply held the controversy has been I will share an anecdote I witnessed nearly thirty years ago when I was a member of a different congregation in a conservative district of the PNW Conference:
Sometime during the middle 1980’s I served as a representative to the Church and Society group within a local congregation. An external support group specializing in counseling teenagers having difficulty adjusting to society’s expectations with regard to their own sexuality requested to use our church facility to hold meetings. The meetings were to be apart from the general religious services held, such as is the case with Alcoholics Anonymous, polling stations, Boy Scouts, and the like. Primarily the organization focused its efforts on preventing teenage suicides; deaths often attributed to gender identity conflicts within the heart and mind of the teen.
After listening to the organization’s proposal I thought at the time, and still do, that this was not something requiring of me much deliberation as I felt the need and virtue of this organization to be self-evidently important and of benefit to the community. Our committee favored allowing them to use our facility but one committee member requested to allow the congregation generally to have a voice in the matter. While agreeing to the need to maintain transparency and inclusiveness among the membership, I feared this would result in a bad reaction by many.
When another meeting was held between our committee and the advocacy organization, the general membership was invited. Those who attended were probably in large majority opposed or even hostile to the notion of any support afforded the gay community, even when serving a noble cause certainly supported in any case by society in preventing teenage suicide. Despite the organization’s representatives making what I felt was a persuasive case, the meeting degenerated into a difficult ordeal culminating with several lay members declaring the entire topic was an “abomination” with vexations of anger and fear. I suspected that both men who represented the charity were gay and to witness the taunts, hostility, and intolerance directed toward them was shameful and nearly mortifying to me as a United Methodist.
Later, the organization wrote us stating they were withdrawing their request since it seemed to them too disruptive and divisive among our congregation. They indicated this has happened several times before and they would find another venue. We voted however to allocate a few hundred dollars for them to help pay for a facility to use. I thought it was a decent thing to do, but I suspect now it probably violated the discipline at the time.
Having that in mind, I knew the subject matter would generate a struggle at the annual conference. In fact, several persons behind me in the plenary seemed to be vocal about the status quo being maintained. I suspected this was going, if we were permitted to vote, to be very close at best.
Following Robert’s Rules, many representatives spoke airing their concerns, amendments to the proposal, and general motions. The side in favor of adopting the non-conformity (“for”) began with individuals voicing how painful the prohibitions were for them. Many were members of the UMC since childhood and in coming of age began to accept their gender identity despite such negative experiences in their life caused by those who disapproved and how degraded they felt that the church would not fully accept and welcome them as the church did others. Another mentioned how society as a whole began to change and that other churches adopted either non-conformity or acceptance in alignment with that of their communities.
Those not supporting the non-conformity (“against”) camp brought up the argument that not only does the discipline prohibit the church from officiating gay marriages and openly gay clergy, but the teachings of the bible and that of Christ uphold the sacred nature of marriage and that this is fundamental to both society and those being children of God. The against camp voiced a credible fear that the matter was so divisive that if the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference adopted the non-conformity measure, it could lead to a schism within the church, especially with the General Conference where other societies, such as districts within Africa, tend to be more conservative than the United States.
The schism fear is a strong worry among both sides of the controversy, myself included. Such a destruction is in nobody’s interest, though those strongly in the “for” camp were prepared to endure schism since the cause and goal of having a completely open church, devoid of the intolerances, facilitates a community they hope for in their church. Given the decades of impasse, they believe the logjam will never be broken unless strong action is executed.
My own sense was that the possibility of schism has lessened over the decades.
I suggested to the plenary that the United Methodist Church is running into a demographic attrition that coincides with many of the mainline protestant churches’ declining memberships. That is, specifically, if we as a church remain so inflexible we risk becoming irrelevant. Younger generations of church goers or those considering the UMC will become increasingly unlikely to support a church that does not accept society’s changing mores. In fact, a teen lay representative from the church I described from thirty years ago remarked how she too wanted to move toward acceptance of the gay community. (We later spoke together while in recess. She described how her congregation was moving toward acceptance but to this day it was still challenged by the older generations of her fellow United Methodists.)
The discussion moved toward re-iterating that the non-conformity was not fully intended to change acceptance as a church platform overnight but the measure sought to establish the non-punishment of those acting against the Discipline with regard to homosexuality.
As I have commented on this blog in the past, the notion of prosecution can be a form of punishment in of itself.
A representative spoke to having served on a jury in a trial of a pastor accused of violating the Discipline related to homosexuality. He stated this was a painful ordeal in which he was torn between what he considered to be ethical and what he was tasked with in supporting the Discipline toward voting for conviction. Another representative proffered that a person subject to prosecution fears losing their pay, benefits, and retirement for following their conscience and providing the sacrament of marriage for two loving persons. During the time of prosecution and appeals, a person must endure worry for each and every day they might lose their congregation, their profession, and the church they love after they are defrocked.
Later, discussion switched to the notion of non-conformity being a form of civil-disobedience to the Discipline.
The United Methodist Church has a history and adopted as church doctrine that peaceful civil disobedience can be a form of social justice and in line with Christian teachings. Doctrine within the “Political Community” from the official UMC website states:
While our allegiance to God takes precedence over our allegiance to any state, we acknowledge the vital function of government as a principal vehicle for the ordering of society. Because we know ourselves to be responsible to God for social and political life, we declare the following relative to governments
Civil Obedience and Civil Disobedience
Governments and laws should be servants of God and of human beings. Citizens have a duty to abide by laws duly adopted by orderly and just process of government. But governments, no less than individuals, are subject to the judgment of God. Therefore, we recognize the right of individuals to dissent when acting under the constraint of conscience and, after having exhausted all legal recourse, to resist or disobey laws that they deem to be unjust or that are discriminately enforced. Even then, respect for law should be shown by refraining from violence and by being willing to accept the costs of disobedience. We do not encourage or condone any form of violent protest as a legitimate exercise of free speech or civil disobedience. We offer our prayers for those in rightful authority who serve the public, and we support their efforts to afford justice and equal opportunity for all people. We assert the duty of churches to support those who suffer because of their stands of conscience represented by nonviolent beliefs or acts. We urge governments to ensure civil rights, as defined by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to persons in legal jeopardy because of those nonviolent acts.
Some articles for review can be read HERE.
For me, and numerous others at the Annual Conference, we found a direct analogue of what is typically found in civil-disobedience in the secular world, such as protests against civil injustices as seen by those during the civil rights movement, congruent with our internal struggle with homosexuality and currently the non-conformity measure.
It is certainly reasonable to see civil disobedience in non-conformity as a struggle between unjust laws and church members. Whereas the UMC’s doctrine of civil disobedience relates in its lexicon to actions of government, in a way it is no different than that of the General Conference or the individual Annual Conferences.
Given the history I have witnessed, I have to believe that if we continue to wait every four years to bring forth changing the Discipline to repeal the articles listed above and make homosexuality a non-issue within the church, generations will continue to avoid the issue and there will be no possibility of change. By the same token ignoring this controversy will fail as well and those of or in sympathy toward the gay community must then continue their struggle and their anguish.
Over the course of the Annual Conferences deliberations, I came to the realization that the non-conformity can be a middle ground for this decades long impasse. As I mentioned previously, the approaches used in the past have been so polar in nature people were not willing to accept other opinions and schism loomed overhead. Now, I see real change possibly on the horizon. From this approach, facilitating non-punishment is similar in the secular law to prioritizing the enforcement of laws.
As we have previously on this blog discussed, with regard to marijuana enforcement, some police departments such as the Seattle Police were tasked by the city council’s decree that marijuana enforcement would be the lowest priority; effectively creating a non-enforcement policy. Since decriminalization/repeal of the law would be met with resistance, I believe this facilitated a step forward that could be at least tolerated by those who are for or against marijuana enforcement laws. When the state later decriminalized the individual possession of small amounts of marijuana it did not come as such a shock to the criminal justice system in the city or its residents. I suspect in a way similar elements of the proposed changes will be found in the non-conformity measure.
With regard to the “for” camp, this represents a first tangible victory in their quest for finally accepting all members of the community into the Church. For the “against” camp if they are not fully opposed in all regards they can at least understand that their concern over the Church violating Christian teachings might be allayed since the non-conformity measure does not change the Discipline or fully condone these tough issues. Instead, it means that there will be no punishment. For them non-conformity at least does represent some comfort in a form of status quo they feel comfortable with.
Just prior to when the matter came up for a motion to vote, there was still some sobering news. Our Bishop mentioned that he was bound in his duty of office to declare this measure to be unconstitutional, but that it could be forwarded up to a special general conference to address the issue on a global basis. But even in the event that the General Conference or other Annual Conferences disapprove of the non-conformity measure, in acting under the principles of civil disobedience they can vote the measure down, but it doesn’t necessarily stop the Pacific Northwest Conference from simply ignoring the Discipline. If enough congregations disobey, the Church in general cannot prosecute everyone.
There was some understandable tension in the plenary just prior to the vote. Originally this was going to be a vote by a show of hands, but someone had the wisdom to call for a paper ballot. I am very glad the motion carried for two reasons.
First, one or two speakers expressed the idea that they would be torn in voting against because they felt pressure and feared being cast out if the plenary voted “for”. Paper balloting would remove this disenfranchisement so that every person could vote according to their belief and judgment. I should also mention that in the Annual Conferences, the appointee/representatives are not required or expected to vote strictly on behalf of what their congregation expects. This makes the vote very personal.
Second, a paper balloting has the quality of legitimizing the vote, however it concludes. Had there been a show of hands, there could be claims later of pressure to raise hands or fear of not being anonymous altered what would otherwise be a true representation of the will of each individual.
After officials counted and certified the vote, the result was as follows:
- Abstain: 6
- No (“Against” the Non-conformity measure) 74
- Yes (“For”) 315
The Pacific Northwest Annual Conference of the UMC passed the Non-Conformity measure by a wide margin. I think many were surprised at the percentage of which the measure passed, including myself given what I have seen over the years.
Notwithstanding the passage of the measure, we should also not ignore interests of the seventy-four individuals who were among the “against” camp. Surely the reasons for their choosing to vote as they did are as varied as there are voters. Their reasons likely ranged from those voting against on nomenclature or policy to those having deep reservations and closely held beliefs that theirs aligns with their interpretation of Christian belief. This is not a winner take all game especially in the sense that the UMC favors consensus rather than a hierarchy structure that delegates policy and canon law. Their individual views are just as valid as anyone’s.
I cannot nevertheless overstate how civil and respectful each of the participants in the conference were to each other during this sometimes difficult debate. Not once did I see any personal animosity directed at others. In fact, a prayer of reconciliation offered a welcome backdrop for which each person could welcome those on the opposition as fellow parishioners and United Methodists. For at least at the PNW conference level, in the end I saw no evidence at all for schism but instead a vision of a new beginning and in many ways a feeling of relief that we could together discuss even greatly controversial matters as friends.
I am very grateful to have been nominated to our Annual Conference. This and other topics for which we participated provided me with some true fulfillment for which events from many years ago detracted. I believe and hope that we are to see a new chapter for United Methodists.
By Darren Smith
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