A message from our Bishop on special General Conference

The following was published by our resident Bishop Peggy Johnson with regard to the UMC’s vote on “A Way Forward.”

Arch of Justice

photo of Peninsula-Delaware Conference Bishop Peggy JohnsonAccording to the Visitor’s Center at the “St. Louis Arch” National Park, this city has always been “the gateway to the west.” The earliest major trails that the settlers used to travel to points west went through St. Louis, Mo.  This city is also known for some strategic and historic court cases during the 19th century. One was the case of Dred Scott (1799-1858), a slave who petitioned the court for freedom in 1847. He won his freedom only to have this case face numerous appeals that eventually landed in the Supreme Court. They ruled that slaves were “property” and had no right to sue. He and his wife Harriet were sent back to bondage but in the years that followed, they returned to that same courthouse and were finally emancipated in 1857.

Another historic case in St. Louis dealt with the issue of women’s suffrage. Virginia Minor (1824-1894) sued the state in 1874 for the right to vote according to the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. She was denied and her petition also ended up at the Supreme Court where the decision of the lower courts was upheld. Sadly, Minor never lived to see the passage of the 19th Amendment that finally gave the right to vote to women in 1920. However, her valiant efforts were part of the movement that eventually gave equal rights to women at the voting polls.

The General Conference of the United Methodist Church met in St. Louis last week (February 23-26, 2019) for an historic special called session of General Conference. The order of business was to decide about the denomination’s ban on same gender marriage and the ordination of self-avowed, practicing homosexual people. For two and a half years a carefully chosen, inclusive group of 32 United Methodists from all over the globe gathered 9 times and presented three possible plans for consideration: “The One Church Plan,” “The Connectional Church Plan” and “The Traditional Plan.”  The Council of Bishops overwhelmingly supported “The One Church Plan,” however the decision was in the hands of the 833 delegates to this world wide denomination, who assembled to vote on this matter.

The gathering began with a spirited day of prayer, then a day of legislative committee work and finally a day of plenary voting.

The voting process was confusing to say the least with many amendments and points of order and rulings from Judicial Council. In the end the body voted to support “The Traditional Plan” by a narrow margin. This maintains our current policy that does not allow people who are self-avowed, practicing homosexuals to be our ministers and does not permit our pastors to perform same-gender weddings/holy unions. Some enforcements to the current Book of Discipline were also added in this plan. The full “Traditional Plan” is now in the hands of the Judicial Council who will vet it for constitutionality.  Some petitions have already been ruled as unconstitional but time and the tedium of Parliamentary Procedure did not allow for much correction. The Judicial Council will rule on which parts remain valid at their April 23-25, 2019 meeting.

There is deep disappointment and a hurt in the LGBTQIA community and among their family and friends at this time. Hundreds of people came to St. Louis to advocate for “The One Church Plan,” which would have removed the restrictive language in the Book of Discipline and allowed pastors, churches, Boards of Ordained Ministry and Annual Conferences to act out of their conscience on these matters. Among those were 15,000 young adult United Methodists who signed a petition imploring the church to begin to open the doors to the LGBTQIA community. I encourage you to remember them in your prayers and reach out for comfort and conversation.

After General Conference ended, I looked up and saw the Arch, this huge stainless-steel tourist attraction that reminds us about our history of western expansion. The slogan of the city is “still moving on.”  Likewise, the church is still moving on in mission and ministry for Jesus Christ. Nothing can stop the church from evangelizing and doing the work of Christ. People of good-will who believe differently around the important issues that were voted at General Conference can “still move on” together to reach a hurting and broken world.  We have a “charge to keep and a God to glorify” yet!

Given the history of the old courthouse museum located next to the Arch there is another message for those whose hearts are grieving at this time. Martin Luther King, Jr. was once quoted as saying “Arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” I would say the “Arch” does too! Dred and Harriet Scott were eventually a freed from slavery. Women finally got the right to vote. Some important moments in history happened right there in St. Louis.

Something important happened for the United Methodist Church this week as well. We will never be the same. I believe with all my heart that eventually the United Methodist Church will become a welcoming and affirming denomination in ministry with the LGBTQIA community. The wait is long, the struggle goes on a long, long time. The temptation is to give up but I implore the church to continue the work of relationship-building and conversation until there is a new day, where the conscience of all will be respected.

Habakkuk 2:3 says “For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end, it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not delay.”

—Bishop Peggy Johnson