By Thomas Lambrecht
We are halfway through the U.S. annual conference season. Annual conferences represent local churches and clergy in regional areas of the country. There are currently 55 annual conferences in the U.S. As of Friday, 29 of those annual conferences have met.
Several of the annual conferences have passed resolutions opposing the 2019 General Conference enactment of the Traditional Plan. Some of these have been challenged by a question of law because they commit the annual conference to not enforcing the Book of Discipline. Other resolutions are legal because they merely register an opinion. Some other annual conferences have defeated or refused to consider such resolutions opposing what the General Conference did.
In addition, Baltimore-Washington, Michigan, Northern Illinois, and North Texas have ordained or commissioned openly gay clergy. The woman ordained in North Texas is living in celibacy, so she qualifies for ordination under our standards. The two clergy in Baltimore-Washington and one in Northern Illinois are living in same-sex marriages, so they definitely do not qualify. One of the two gay persons commissioned in Michigan is living in a same-sex marriage and thus does not qualify, while the other is not and so apparently does qualify.
This effort on the part of some annual conferences to explicitly defy the Discipline is part of the "resist" campaign fostered by progressives and moderates. Because they do not agree with what the church has decided, they are refusing to go along with it.
The "resist" effort is best summarized by a statement made by the Rev. Adam Hamilton, convener of the UMCNext Conference, at the close of that conference. "We are going to live and be the kind of church we want to be, regardless what the denominational rules says [sic]." A number of U.S. bishops have publicly stated that they are going to run their annual conferences as if the One Church Plan had passed, regardless of what General Conference actually enacted. Such an approach demonstrates even more vividly the division that exists in our denomination. The divide has been deepened and moderates have generally moved in the direction of the progressives.
Nowhere has this shift been illustrated more than in the election of delegates to General Conference. Part of the agenda of the moderate and progressive coalition is to switch enough votes among the U.S. delegates to overturn the actions of the 2019 General Conference in 2020. The passion and anger among those opposed to the church's position has motivated them to unprecedented efforts to elect sympathetic delegates. We have heard there has been a concerted effort to get many more retired clergy are attending annual conferences in order to vote for progressive candidates. We have also received reports of voter suppression in some annual conferences, where Licensed Local Pastors who meet the qualifications of the church Constitution have been denied the ability to vote for clergy delegates or have been required to provide extra paperwork, such as seminary transcripts.
So far in the election process, the number of conservative delegates has been reduced by about 20 percent compared to the previous delegation. It is not yet enough to switch the results of General Conference, but the progressive and moderate coalition is making progress toward that goal. In the end, the conservative delegation would need to lose about a third of its strength to give the progressives and moderates a realistic opportunity to reverse the outcome of St. Louis.
Interestingly, all of the traditional delegate losses have come among clergy. Overall, traditional lay delegates have actually gained slightly in numbers. This result points to the fact that the clergy and the laity in our denomination are generally headed in different directions.
In the delegation in St. Louis, 46 percent of the traditional delegates were clergy. So far in the 2020 delegation, only 30 percent are clergy.
There are several possible reasons why the clergy vote has shifted dramatically to the left.
Most obviously, many moderate clergy who in the past would have been "swing" voters, voting for both progressive and conservative candidates, have decided to cast their lot entirely with the progressives. This illustrates that there is no "middle" or "center" in the church anymore (if there ever was). All United Methodists are committed to the belief that all individuals are persons of "sacred worth." There can be no compromise about that tenet.
At the same time, we have argued for a long time that one either supports the practice of homosexuality or one does not. There is no compromise or middle ground between those two positions. One either favors same-sex marriage in the church or one does not. One either approves of ordaining practicing gays and lesbians as clergy or one does not. The decisions in St. Louis have sharpened the question for many who previously were trying to sit on the fence, and they have generally come down on the side of supporting the practice of homosexuality. One working definition of a "moderate" that has been floating around is that a moderate is a progressive who wants the change in the church to go slower.
A Northern Illinois Conference ordained two deacons and seven elders, including an openly transgender deacon. Four were commissioned as provisional deacons, including two openly LGBTQ candidates. Video image from Northern Illinois Conference livestream.
In the clergy shift, we also see the influence of our United Methodist seminaries, nearly all of whom explicitly support the ordination of practicing gays and lesbians as clergy. Many UM seminary presidents and deans signed statements before and after the special General Conference calling on the church to change its position. Many faculty at these institutions come from a progressive viewpoint-some very forcefully so. Many of our UM seminaries are taking steps to explicitly welcome and encourage LGBTQ persons to attend. Many UM seminaries emphasize social justice coursework and deemphasize biblical study. For many of them, the study of the Greek and Hebrew languages in which the Bible was written is optional. This approach to theology and the advocacy for LGBTQ equality deeply influences students at a formative time in their lives, leading to a clergy that is substantially more liberal than the laity who make up the people in the pews.
Clergy also tend to be institutionalists. We naturally gravitate toward protecting the institution of the church, since it is our livelihood and career. Many moderates believe the best way to protect the institution is to make it more relevant to the culture in which we live. They have bought into the mistaken assumption that a progressive Gospel will attract more members than a traditional one - a false premise that has yet to materialize into reality within any of our progressive mainline sister denominations.
Furthermore, when clergy hear a consistent progressive message from their bishop and other conference leaders, who also tend to be disproportionately progressive, they bow to that pressure. After all, if "getting ahead" or receiving a good appointment depends upon upholding the "party line" of the bishop and leadership, that is the direction many clergy will go.
Ironically, in a quest for diversity, the church is becoming less diverse. We are hearing that more and more of the delegates are coming from metropolitan areas, rather than rural churches. Support for traditional theological approaches is waning. Other mainline denominations have found that growing more progressive means growing older, whiter, and smaller. That may be where the moderate and progressive wing of the church is headed.
As we argued in the lead-up to St. Louis, many moderates would be willing to tolerate the presence of evangelicals in the church, as long as the moderates and progressives get to do ministry the way they want. Now that the church is trying to get serious about seeing that clergy live by its policies, however, they are singing a different tune. Many moderates cannot be in a church that does not allow progressives to perform same-sex marriages and ordain practicing gay and lesbian clergy. So they have cast their lot with the progressives.
The result of this approach would be to jettison most of the global church and adapt United Methodism to current American culture. That is the direction being chosen by many in these important delegate elections. That is the opposite direction from where most evangelical United Methodists would like to see the church move.
Since different parts of the church are headed in different directions, it would make more sense to allow the different parts to separate and move unencumbered in the direction they believe their ministry should go. It remains to be seen whether that is the approach moderate and progressive leaders are willing to take.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.