It's been brewing for decades. In 1972, the United Methodist Church added a declaration that it "does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching" to its rulebook, the Book of Discipline . Such sentiments were unfortunately typical of the time, though by no means universal. Homosexuality, some argued, arose from demonic influences, or was a communist plot, or was at best a step removed from rape and pedophilia, or if nothing else was unnatural and disgusting.
This language, and related language barring LGBTQ+ people from holding leadership positions, have lingered in the rules ever since. Enforcement, on the other hand, has been inconsistent. This upsets those who have an attachment to these rules, and such people often insist that the rules must have teeth.
In the meantime, though, the position enshrined in the Book of Discipline has become increasingly controversial, as heterosexist attitudes have over and over proven to be unjustified. And so some within the United Methodist Church have participated in or outright performed gay weddings, in defiance of the Book of Discipline, even before the United States Supreme Court affirmed marriage as a civil right for all consenting adults, regardless of sex or gender, in 2015. There are openly LGBTQ+ clergy, too, including a lesbian bishop in the Pacific Northwest Conference of the Western Jurisdiction. In everyday life, more and more people within the church, even if not gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or whatever else themselves, have found that they have friends, neighbors, and family members who are. Many feel, too, that the attitude of exclusion embodied in this policy runs contrary to the very nature of Christianity.
(Note that although the church does not, to the best of my knowledge, have any explicit policies regarding transgender people, prejudice against diversity of sexuality and diversity of gender very often go hand in hand, and the prejudiced rarely bother to make the distinction regardless. A significant fraction of transgender people, furthermore, are not heterosexual anyway, and even those who are may not be regarded as being so.)
For years, something of an uneasy truce has existed, as the church's governing body, the General Conference, has been unable to reach any meaningful decisions. As of the end of February, however, all that has changed.
After failing to make any headway, coming to an impasse, and nearly collapsing, the 2016 meeting of the General Conference agreed to the formation of a Commission on a Way Forward to explore options and make recommendations . The commission initially came up with two possible plans, called the One Church Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan. Pressure applied after the initial report also compelled the addition of a third option, somewhat disingenuously (given that it concerns itself only with a very specific and relatively recent tradition while ignoring countless others) known as the Traditional Plan. These options were eventually to be presented, debated, and voted on in General Conference. This recently occurred as a special session held at the end of February, from Saturday the 23rd through Tuesday the 26th .
As I've previously written on my personal Facebook page, the One Church Plan is essentially the "easy way out" plan. It would do little more than remove the offending language from the Book of Discipline, and in effect tell individual congregations that what they do is between them and God. Though there's some merit to this, and it's the least problematic of the plans presented, it's basically ducking the question. There was also some talk of something called the Simple Plan that would also have removed the offending language; I'm not sure of the specific differences between the two, but it seems the result would have been largely the same. Note that this would have had no effect whatsoever on those conferences and congregations that had no interest in allowing inclusion. It's the very epitome of milquetoast centrism.
The Connectional Conference Plan, aside from being something of a convoluted mess that would have required rewriting a sizable portion of the church constitution, called for changes that led me to dub it the "back to the Civil War era" plan. It wouldn't officially have resulted in a schism, yet I can't imagine that reorganizing the American church into queer-affirming, queer-rejecting, and hypothetically neutral branches would have been much different in practice. Something very similar happened in the 19th century when the Methodist Episcopal Church fractured into three pieces: a Northern branch that endorsed abolition, a Southern branch that embraced slavery, and the Methodist Protestant Church that had split off some years before over other issues and did its best to take a head-in-the-sand sort of approach to slavery. While some endorsed this plan as being the most likely to produce stability in the long run, the sheer complexity of it made it unlikely to gain much traction.
The Traditional Plan, pushed into consideration over the objections of the commission that was supposed to have been trusted to deal with this, came across as more of a "Westboro Baptist" plan. It would effectively embrace the motto of "God hates f-gs", if not necessarily in those words. Aside from affirming the dated language already present in the Book of Discipline, this plan would emphasize enforcement, and many of its supporters were eager to take that a step further and demand that dissension lead to expulsion. Christy Thomas, a retired church elder, dubbed it the "Mean Girl Manifesto", writing, "Any rational group of delegates, assuming they are mature adults, seasoned with grace, and aware of their own foibles, would laugh this plan out of the room" . Under this plan, some Christians are more equal than others, and anyone who doesn't like it can get lost.
Conspicuously, if unsurprisingly, absent was any plan that would consider affirming LGBTQ+ Methodists, much less anything that would call upon the church to advocate for acceptance in society at large. Essentially, the camps were divided between those who sought unity first and those who placed a higher priority on being punitive.
Yet acceptance arguably holds a better claim to the name of "traditional" than the Traditional Plan itself could ever hope to. While the parallels to the 19th century controversy over slavery are undeniable, there's a far older controversy in Christian tradition with a more closely related central disagreement: whether Gentile converts should be compelled to circumcision.
"What they've been saying about Titus and about people like him was all undeniably scriptural," writes Christian blogger Fred Clark about those who insisted on dictating what other people do with their genitalia . "The texts on circumcision are not ambiguous and they are too numerous to count." Far more numerous and less ambiguous, certainly, than the scant few verses that are often claimed to condemn homosexuality, but are at least as likely to be about predatory sexual behavior. "The Bible is eminently clear. It says that people like Titus cannot convert unless they are circumcised and pledge to follow the rules. Paul says no to that. He says people like Titus are his brothers and sisters, his full equals."
Paraphrasing part of Paul's letter to the Galatians, Fred continues, "This is the gospel that we must proclaim, and it is not in vain. Even Titus, who is with us, is not compelled to stop being queer. Those who would make the status of our LGBT+ kin conditional on their 'circumcision' are denying the grace that was given to Paul. They are denying the gospel that Paul preached, denying the freedom that we have in Christ, so that they might enslave us.
"This denial of Paul's gospel comes from those who are supposed to be acknowledged leaders, but what they actually are makes no difference to me; they have contributed nothing to me."
And James and Peter and John agreed. Scripture was not to be used as a weapon against others. Newcomers were welcomed as they were, so long as they put their faith in Christ and did no harm. Titus was not compelled to be circumcised. And there's even a book of the Christian Bible named after him. How's that for tradition?
Nor do I recall it being for affirming and accepting the in-crowd that Jesus was criticized and condemned. Or remember the words of Matthew 25, particularly the last section. Give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, shelter to the needy, clothing to the naked, commiseration to the outcast, understanding to the misunderstood. What of that tradition?
We have been shown what is good, and what the Lord requires. Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God .
And then there's something that was probably written as a joke, but functions as a modern-day parable. "I was told not to take it personally," says the central character upon returning to a church the week after having been turned away. "God has been trying to come here for years, and hasn't been allowed in the door, either."
In the weeks before the conference, I found myself wondering. Will we, as a church, respect truth, or ignorance? Will we act out of love, or out of fear? Is the church's one foundation Christ, or conservatism? Do we look to Jesus as a role model, or to the Methodist Episcopal Church, South? Is feeling more righteous than thou really worth actively harming people?
The bishops of the Commission on a Way Forward, for their part, strongly supported the One Church Plan. I have to wonder whether they might have endorsed a more accepting plan if they had thought it stood any chance of passing. Regardless, once they gave their report, the matter was out of their hands.
The conference, though... to start with, it doesn't help that the General Conference itself is a logistical mess. There are 864 delegates (half clergy, half laypeople) from across the world. Proposals are presented simultaneously in four languages. Before coming to the general assembly for a vote, proposed legislation must pass through the legislative committee, which consists of... the same 864 delegates. At first glance, that may seem to reflect terrible organizational skills, yet it seems the root cause is more a lack of trust . The delegates aren't necessarily prepared, either. You'd think that would be the least that could be asked of them.
On Sunday, in the legislative session, the One Church Plan was rejected by a narrow majority of about 53% with a vote of 386 for to 436 against. The Simple Plan was also rejected, by a larger majority of about 60% with a vote of 323 to 494 . I haven't been able to determine exactly what became of the Connectional Conference Plan, except that it also failed. Only the Traditional Plan advanced to a general vote, and since, as already noted, the legislative committee and the full conference are exactly the same group of people, there could be little doubt of what would happen in the final vote on Tuesday.
Not that there weren't efforts to sway opinion, particularly after the Judicial Council ruled substantive portions of the Traditional Plan to be in violation of the church constitution. A motion was introduced to reconsider the One Church Plan, but was voted down. Jeffrey "J. J." Warren, a certified candidate for ministry who is also gay, gave an impassioned speech advocating inclusion . The Global Young People's Convocation presented a statement in support of the One Church Plan that in just eight hours had received signatures from over 15,000 people under the age of 35 .
The motivations behind the Traditional Plan were also called into question. Usually it's sexual ethics, or simply "because the Bible says so", that are cited in support of an anti-gay position. And it's certainly true that a lot of religious people have a particular obsession with anything even vaguely related to sex. Yet there's usually a good deal of hypocrisy attached to that.
Masturbation, for instance, gets a lot of flak in a lot of Christian circles. And there are certainly such things as taking it to an excess, even to the point of an addiction. Yet the antagonism against it is often far more excessive. "If there's any kind of addictive behavior on display here, it's that of a church that's so addicted to obsessing over masturbation that it ignores the world beyond its own crotch," writes Fred Clack on the topic. "Ignoring a world of injustice and suffering in order to pursue your Higher Calling of not jerking off is bound to turn you into, well, a bunch of jerk-offs. . . . obsessing over our own purity has more to do with narcissism than with the pursuit of holiness" .
Sex outside of marriage has similarly treated as irredeemable—but only for some people. Others just seem to keep getting a pass. When the wrong high-profile person falls under scrutiny, it always seems to turn into a Let's not bring up what people may have done decades ago as teenagers. "I was told the opposite—that what I did now would set the tone for my entire life—and would affect and impact my entire life," writes Libby Anne, a feminist writer who suffered under purity culture. "I was not given any sort of a pass for wayward teenage behavior. . . . Evangelical leaders told me that if I had sex before marriage, my life would be impacted long-term" . It seems to be less about purity than about having something to hold over people's heads. Unless it becomes convenient not to do so.
Perhaps homosexuality gets so much attention because it's something that most people know isn't hanging over their own heads. Perhaps it was really about control, not sexuality, all along.
Of course, there's also the "think of the children!" angle. Which is of course complete nonsense. "Those who stir up fear pretend it's about the children when it's really about fear, and power, and personal dislike of trans people," writes Susan Cottrell, founder and president of the nonprofit group FreedHearts. "In the church, we have been through this before with left-handed people, women, blacks, interracial marriage. You would think we would have learned" . Yes, that's about transgender people specifically, but so many anti-trans tropes are just recycled anti-gay tropes, which are themselves just recycled racist tropes. Try looking up some old arguments in favor of segregation, or rhetoric against gay people from a century ago, or even further back in support of slavery. Except for a few key words, the same arguments are still being used today, with just as little evidence, and no more true now than they were then. It would be comical if they weren't somehow still taken seriously.
It also represents an abdication of the admonition against bearing false witness. "When we bear witness against a neighbor we incur the responsibility to ensure that this witness is true," insists Fred Clark . "We may do all of our due diligence and still wind up ourselves deceived or mistaken, thereby finding ourselves bearing false witness without ever intending to do so. That's still a violation of the commandment. That's still a sin." And it doesn't seem that even an effort to be honest is taking place here.
Besides, the children, and younger people in general, aren't nearly as worried about this supposed threat as the real and present threat posed by lack of acceptance in the church. Ask J. J. Warren. Ask the Global Young People's Convocation. Or ask a survey taken several years ago about the church and sexuality. Though I'm afraid I didn't save the link and the time and can't find it now, I clearly recall one finding that I found fascinating. Respondents were asked whether the church's attitude towards LGBTQ+ people was driving young people away. Results were divided, but there was a strong correlation between the answers and the age of the person asked. The older they were, and therefore the more removed from "young people", the less likely they were to say it was alienating young people. The younger people knew better.
"These little ones believe in me. It would be best for the person who causes one of them to lose faith to be drowned in the sea with a large stone hung around his neck" . Harsh words, to be sure. But these words are not mine.
In any case, pleas were made, warnings for what this would mean for the church were given, and at times, it seemed that perhaps the delegates were listening. Yet despite everything, the Traditional Plan passed on Tuesday by a final vote of 438 to 384, almost identical to the vote that defeated the One Church Plan in the legislative committee two days earlier. It was as if nothing had happened in the meantime.
"Open hearts, open minds, open doors," reads a denominational slogan. "All are welcome," claims another.
Sometimes words are just words.
A majority of the General Conference delegates have rejected any hope of unity. Those people who are being actively harmed have been disregarded. "Catastrophic," one delegate called the conference. "[W]e will very soon lose an entire generation of leadership here in the United States," warned leaders of the United Methodist seminaries. "The church that was revealed in this debate here in St. Louis is not the church we understand ourselves to be serving," added Rev. David McAllister-Wilson, president of Wesley Theological Seminary. Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe, top executive of the denomination's United Methodist Board of Church and Society, agreed in a statement, "The United Methodist Church's special General Conference failed Tuesday (Feb. 26) to love LGBTQIA people, recognize their gifts in the church, maintain our unity in the midst of diversity, and to live out our Gospel mandate to seek justice and pursue peace." Traditionalist advocates saw things differently. "They forced a fight on us," argued Rev. Rob Renfroe, president of the group that pushed the Traditional Plan, notwithstanding that theirs was the only plan that refused to allow for any difference of opinion. 
Methodist teaching holds that scripture is the most important part of our faith, but that it can never be safely read in isolation, or without the knowledge that our understanding may be incomplete or mistaken. Christian faith should be understood in light of what has come to be known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, consisting of the four sides of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience . On this matter, however, one lens has been warped beyond usefulness, one has become filled with rot, one has not been in evidence at all, and one has been actively dismissed.
Methodist pastor John Pavlovitz wrote nearly two years ago about the futility of trying to have a fruitful discussion under such conditions. "They are thoroughly frustrating because they do not respond to facts, data, honest questions, personal stories, heartfelt pleas, civil discussion, or any of the things many of us grew up believing people wanted when engaging in disagreement. They are fully entrenched in their heavily fortified position of contempt and they are not budging." 
In a similar vein, when personal stories of children harmed by closed minds were shared to a UMC clergy group on Facebook several years ago, many of the responses were not encouraging. "These stories, though moving, do not change the situation. These complex issues are not determined by the measure of impact they may have on others," wrote Methodist pastor Alan Miller . Those are not the words of someone who understands, or who cares to understand. And such "moving" stories, the very essence of the experience that is supposed to be a pillar of the faith, do not seem to have moved anyone.
These decisions are not talking place in a vacuum, however much they may be handled as though they were. People are hurting, people are lost, and some people are even dying. If "Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law" , is either love or law being upheld now?
There will necessarily be a parting of ways—how can there not be?—and the only question remaining is what form it will take. And perhaps it's overdue. Striving to promote unity even at the expense of equality means accepting harmful discrimination in the name of the church. That's not something you can do nicely, and it ultimately drives people away. This undermines unity, all while giving the church a bad name. Better to just be accepting in the first place. There's no reason for equality to be divisive, except to the extent that people value their own prejudices over the welfare of others.
Some groups are poised to withdraw from the denomination as soon as the details can be worked out. Others are determined to remain and to push back as much as possible.
The official position of central church organizations is that "We continue to teach and believe that all persons are welcomed in the church, all persons are persons of sacred worth and we welcome all to receive the ministry of Jesus" . Realistically, that's nonsense, and I suspect that even the bishop making the official statements knows it.
"This should be a pass-fail deal breaker for people who claim to love LGBTQ human beings," writes John Pavlovitz about the probable impending split. "If LGBTQ human beings aren't able to fully participate in the life of your community, you aren't affirming or inclusive or hospitable or loving to them, regardless of how you label yourself." Anything else is just an exercise in semantics .
Christy Thomas asserts, "The damage is real and probably permanent. The name 'Methodist' will be now forever linked with bigotry, intolerance, and rampant, inexcusable ignorance about human sexuality and the nature of the biblical witness." She doubts, however, that sexuality was ever much more than an proxy for larger disputes. "Many of you seem to think this is really only about us queer folk," she quotes United Methodist layman Cody McMahan. "It's not. It's about power . . . fundamentalism and patriarchy and control . . . Dominionism and remaking the good old days that never were" .
Patrick Green, a former Episcopal minister with a transgender child, focuses more on the personal harm done. "To the UMC and people of faith who oppose LGBTQIA+ inclusion I hold you accountable . . . as a parent of a child who has lost at least three friends to suicide and as a parent who comforted another parent who lost a child due to religious-based Christian hate," he declares. To those who still seek reconciliation, he writes, "The time to love is now. You cannot serve two masters. You have to choose between love and the book of discipline. They no longer co-exist." 
In any case, I'll defer to Fred Clark again for a summary of this past week in religious news.
"Two potential huge stories this week on the religion beat both turned out not to be stories at all but just more of the relentlessly same routine.
"The Catholic Church had a chance to get real about the sexual abuse of children by clergy. They didn't take it. The United Methodist Church had a chance to get back to Pentecost and stop thinking they can exclude their way into heaven. They didn't take it either.
"So neither big story turned out to be news at all. Dog bites man isn't 'news.' And at this point neither is church kicks victims." 
The name of the Methodist denomination is tainted as it hasn't been since the Civil War era. Whether it can be redeemed remains to be seen.
And then it got more personal
But my local congregation has always been good to me and seemed welcoming of people regardless of background. Though most have moved away and return only occasionally to visit family and friends, in my generation alone I know of at least one lesbian, one gay man, one pansexual woman, and one person who's a flavor of queer that I'm not exactly sure what it is except that it's not really any of my business anyway. And then there's me, whatever I am.
I've never noticed any meaningful tension on any of those counts, though, to be fair, I've been known to be oblivious about a lot of things, especially in my younger days. So I was thinking that I could wait things out until the worship service tomorrow and gauge the local congregation's reaction before deciding what the inevitable parting of ways would look like for me. Then on Friday I read the local congregation's weekly announcements.
"For now, nothing has changed," writes the pastor.
I had to re-read that to make sure I hadn't imagined it. But there it was.
"Nothing has changed."
Nothing has changed? Superficially, perhaps.
But realistically? It couldn't be further from the truth.
I can't pretend that nothing has changed. I can't pretend that I don't feel the General Conference has betrayed the church and its people. I can't pretend that reading the pastor's words didn't fill me with dismay. I can't pretend that the thought of hearing the same sentiments in person doesn't fill me with dread. I can't pretend that I didn't spend an hour lying on the floor in a darkened bedroom, torn between feeling miserable and perversely gleeful that I was actually able to cry for the first time in years, eventually devolving into a bizarre mixture of sobbing and laughing at the absurdity of what I was feeling, all the while not sure whether I didn't want anyone to walk in and see me or whether I did want them to so that they would have little choice but to confront the wrongness. I can't pretend that I didn't have to, for the first time in more than ten years, fend off vague thoughts that death actually sounds pretty nice (I should probably see a therapist about that, and a myriad of other things). I can't imagine how much worse it must be for people who were in a more precarious position to begin with. And, most of all, I can't pretend that everything is all right.
And I don't think I can bear to face it if the community tries to keep up the pretense that nothing has changed and everything is fine.
Even if the Judicial Council throws out the changes—and it might yet do just that—the die is cast, the damage is done, and there's no going back to what once was. There's no room for assuring ourselves that it's only a matter of time and a few formalities before the discriminatory language is purged. What lies behind the facade of civility and unity has been seen and cannot be unseen. Everything has changed.
Fred Clark has words for such a veneer of civility, too . On the topic of race relations and baseball in the 1960s, he writes, "Equality under the law would be political. Inequality was merely polite." So when hotels refused rooms to non-white players, it was all quite civil. They were just avoiding problems, or not getting political, or trying not to cause problems, you see. "The linguistic and cognitive acrobatics involved in all of this are incredible (in every sense of that word). The very people enforcing the pervasive politicization of every aspect of life for non-white people were simultaneously insisting that they were avoiding politics. This tortured pretzel of a lie was what 'polite' meant. It was what 'civil' meant.
"And it still is."
Anyway, back to those announcements. Trying to frame the current disagreement, the local pastor continues, "If you do not support my life style, then you must hate me. If you engage in that lifestyle, then we can find no common ground. Like the nation, the debate involves two armed camps unwilling to coexist."
No. The debate involves people who are just trying to be themselves—both as LGBTQ+ individuals and as followers of Christ—and people who call them "abominations" and disavow the consequences of doing so. People are literally dying because of this, and many more are suffering. This is not a "both sides" situation. There is no moral equivalence. Besides which, "support" wasn't even up for consideration at General Conference, just a choice between allowing a little breathing room or insisting on a stranglehold.
Not to mention that calling a person's sexuality a "lifestyle" is has for some time now been a dogwhistle of intolerance used only by those who don't know any better and those who have no interest in acceptance. I can't tell which is more accurate in this case, and I'm not convinced that ignorance in a leader is preferable to malice anyway.
"I try to live a drama-free life," the pastor summarizes, repeating what seems to be something of a personal motto. And the more I hear it, the more I think it's hogwash.
I've been wary of it ever since I first heard it, quite frankly. But I couldn't quite put my finger on why until Fred Clark wrote about the human tendency to excuse people in the past who were unambiguously wrong as being "products of their time", while simultaneously resenting those who were also of the same time but got it right. "We deplore the tone and the supposedly off-putting anger and impatience of such demonstrations. But, I am sorry to say, we fail to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about those demonstrations." 
That quote paraphrases part of a letter written from a Birmingham Jail by one Martin Luther King, Jr. "Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will," reads another part of the letter. "Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection." 
To paraphrase another section of King's words:
I fear that the "drama-free zone" is nothing more than the negative peace King warned against. Sometimes drama is necessary. Yes, it's nice to avoid pointless conflict, but to call this conflict pointless is to say that the people at the heart of it don't matter. Nor is this the first time something similar has happened. Placing too high a priority on avoiding drama suggests that nothing matters enough to take a stand.
It feels ludicrous that after all that's happened, it was the pastor's familiar insipid words that finally led me to break down. Doubtless it was less the words themselves than what they represented.
Sometimes words are more than just words.
And trust has been shattered. Until such time as the General Conference recants its position or the local congregation resolves, at the very least, not to condone it, I don't know that I'll be able to return. And that hurts.
But as things stand now, remaining would hurt more.
May God have mercy on us all.
↑ - GC2016 tackling 44-year stance on homosexuality
↑ - Commission on a Way Forward
↑ - 2019 Special Session of the General Conference
↑ - The Mean Girl Manifesto: The UMC Traditionalist Plan
↑ - Titus was not compelled to reparative therapy
↑ - Micah 6:8
↑ - Definition of A Dysfunctional Organization: The United Methodist Church
↑ - Traditional Plan advances as One Church, Simple plans fail
↑ - The Speech That Brought People to Their Feet
↑ - Young People Gather 15,000-Plus Signatures for One Church Plan
↑ - Wankers
↑ - Just Kidding, Sexual Purity Isn't Important After All!
↑ - Which Woman is Transgender? And Why it Doesn’t Matter.
↑ - 'Bearing false witness' is not a synonym for 'lying'
↑ - Matthew 18:6
↑ - Conflict defines General Conference aimed at unity
↑ - Wesleyan Quadrilateral
↑ - Hateful People Are Exhausting
↑ - If Looks Can Kill Then Words Can Murder: A Response to UMC Pastors
↑ - Romans 13:8-10
↑ - General Conference tightens language on ordination of LGBTQI persons, same-gender marriage in UMC
↑ - Church, It Isn't LGBTQ Inclusion Without LGBTQ Participation
↑ - It's Official: We Are The United Methodist Church That Hates Gays
↑ - United Methodist Church Won't Affirm LGBTQIA+ People: Now What?
↑ - Without getting killed or caught
↑ - 'The Soreno has politely said No'
↑ - Never been partial to shackles or chains
↑ - "Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.]"