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Commentary: Widening the church’s sexuality divide

Recent actions by several annual conferences within The United Methodist Church are widening the divide within the denomination. These annual conferences appear to be jettisoning our connectional covenant and embracing regionalism in order to separate themselves from the global United Methodist Church.

Board of ordained ministry actions

In the run-up to General Conference, four conference boards of ordained ministry announced they would no longer enforce the Book of Discipline’s prohibition on the candidacy or ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals. Their new policies state language similar to: “sexual orientation and gender identity are not and will not be considered in the evaluation of candidates by the Board of Ordained Ministry” (from the Northern Illinois policy).

The Book of Discipline has never envisioned “sexual orientation” as a barrier to candidacy or ordination. Instead, the focus is on practice, not orientation. Whether gay or straight, the qualification for candidacy and ordination within The United Methodist Church is “fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness.” And our church defines marriage as being between “one man and one woman.” To make the issue “orientation” instead of behavior is to distort the church’s teachings and requirements.

These board policies are clearly designed to circumvent the requirements of the Discipline. Such an approach flies in the face of settled church law that “annual conferences may not legally negate, ignore, or violate provisions of the Discipline with which they disagree” (Judicial Council decision 886). Consequently, such actions are schismatic and undermine the order and unity of the church.

Other more recent actions by annual conferences constitute formal acts of schism and take the disregard for unity to a new level. In respective resolutions, these annual conferences — California-Pacific, California-Nevada, Desert-Southwest, New England and Pacific-Northwest, as well as the clergy session of Oregon-Idaho — have voted to “not conform or comply” with certain provisions of the Discipline. Such a vote is itself an act of disconnection from the church, creating a separate set of rules and policies under which these dissident annual conferences will now operate.

The actions of the six annual conferences are a repudiation of the United Methodist covenant and connection, setting these conferences apart from the rest of the church. Similar resolutions of non-conformity will undoubtedly be considered at some of the jurisdictional conferences to be held in July.

Complicity by bishops

Even more disturbing is that the bishops of these annual conferences allowed the resolutions to come to a vote. By church law, bishops are required to declare out of order any resolution that expresses an intention to violate the Discipline. One can only conclude that the respective bishops in these conferences supported the actions taken, since they failed to rule them out of order. These bishops are making a mockery of the Council of Bishops’ proposal at General Conference 2016 to lead the church into greater unity, as we seek a faithful way forward as a church.

Most recently, two annual conferences have endorsed self-avowed practicing homosexuals as candidates for bishop. The election of an openly gay bishop was the precipitating event that split The Episcopal Church. I have no doubt it would do the same for our United Methodist Church.

These actions by annual conferences and anticipated actions by jurisdictional conferences threaten to accelerate the division of the church even before the bishops appoint the members of the special commission regarding the church’s future. These schismatic actions will limit the scope of possible solutions the commission can propose, severely hampering its work. Such actions call into question the desire and ability of these annual conferences to live together within the United Methodist body, casting the future existence of our denomination into doubt.

The best way to preserve unity is to restore the integrity and accountability of our Discipline as enacted by our globally representative General Conference. The unwillingness of some annual conferences, clergy and bishops to live within the boundaries established by General Conference means we have already begun to separate from each other.

Regrettably, the church cannot long endure this type of splintering away from the body. The disrespect shown to our brothers and sisters in Africa, Asia and Europe, not to mention United Methodist evangelicals in the U.S., is staggering. This cascade of provocations threatens to push many traditionalists over the edge of what they could tolerate, jeopardizing the unity and funding of the denomination. It is tragic that progressive annual conferences are unwilling to allow the bishops’ commission on the future of the church to do its work. Their attempt to create “facts on the ground” is sowing the seeds of schism and separation in The United Methodist Church.

Those of us desiring to maintain a common witness to biblical, Wesleyan faith will be left with little choice but to strengthen a connection among those of like mind to foster vital ministry based on the long-standing doctrines and teachings of Methodism. We cannot submit to what we consider false teaching, nor will we surrender to ecclesiastical pressure tactics. We will find a way to be in ministry and pursue a faithful future, with or without those who disregard our covenant.

Lambrecht is vice president and general manager of Good News, an unofficial United Methodist renewal group.