AUBURN — Some 600 United Methodists gathered Aug. 26 in Auburn to hear their bishop discuss human sexuality.
The denomination will decide its “way forward” on sexuality issues in a special session of its General Conference, Feb. 23-26 in St. Louis. Indiana will send eight clergy and eight lay delegates.
Indiana Bishop Julius Trimble said he prays the headline from that meeting will not be about United Methodists going separate ways “over something that has been a longstanding challenge in our denomination.”
The United Methodist Church currently prohibits openly gay pastors and forbids its pastors to perform same-sex marriages.
After reaching an impasse on homosexuality issues at its 2016 General Conference, the denomination created a Commission on the Way Forward.
The 32-member commission recently reported back with three options, formally recommending none of them. The options include a “one church” model; a division into three branches based on sexuality values; and a “traditionalist” plan that maintains existing policies.
“Traditionalists do not want to be required to participate in same-sex weddings, the ordination of gay persons, or the financial support of a bishop in a same-sex marriage. Progressives want space to freely exercise ministries that include same-sex weddings, the ordination of gay persons, and the same-sex marriage of clergy,” the report says in summing up the conflicts in the denomination.
The report’s One Church Plan contends that United Methodists can disagree about sexuality issues and still work together.
Each congregation would make its own decisions about LGBTQ clergy and same-sex weddings. Pastors could follow their consciences about performing same-sex marriages and could be assigned to churches that match their preferences.
The denomination’s definition of marriage would be changed to say it is “between two adults.” The church would drop its declaration that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching” and its ban on gay ministers.
A majority of the denomination’s Council of Bishop recommends the One Church Plan, and 18 of the 32 commission members publicly support it.
A “connectional conference” plan would set up three branches of the denomination based on theology and values regarding sexuality.
The plan says that by remaining connected, the three branches could accomplish more in ministry across the globe than they could separately.
Under the three-branch plan, a “traditional” conference of churches would maintain existing policies against gay clergy and same-sex weddings.
A “unity” branch would give its churches the choice to employ homosexual clergy or permit same-sex weddings.
A “progressive” branch would expect its pastors to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies and its churches to accept homosexual pastors.
Bishops and clergy could choose which of the branches they wish to join.
The report says 12 commission members favor the three-branch model.
A third overall plan, known as “traditionalist,” would continue the denomination’s existing rules against gay clergy and same-sex weddings.
Individual congregations that disagreed with the traditionalist policies could withdraw from the denomination in a ”gracious exit” — keeping their buildings and other property. They no longer could use the United Methodist label.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people would continue to be welcome to attend worship services, participate in church programs, receive sacraments, be admitted as baptized members and become members of local churches.
No vote on the three options was conducted at the Auburn meeting. A brief question-answer session did not give a clear indication of which option might be favored by those attending.
One questioner mentioned that another denomination lost hundreds of thousands of members after its decisions about homosexuality.
Trimble responded that United Methodists already have been losing members on both sides of the sexuality questions.
Another member of the audience asked why a “gracious exit” policy is not included in all three options.
In response to a questioner, Trimble indicated his support for the “one church” model.
“The worst witness we can give to the world is to be a divided church,” Trimble said.
He added, “The United Methodist Church remains committed to making disciples and transforming the world as one denomination.”