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The ‘Splainer: What’s the United Methodist special session all about?

Supporters gather around Susan Laurie, center, during a service of Holy Communion on May 10, 2016, the first day of the 2016 United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Ore. Laurie, a lesbian, was ordained in an unauthorized service in the lobby of the Oregon Convention Center. Photo by Mike DuBose/UMNS

The ’Splainer (as in, “You’ve got some ’splaining to do”) is an occasional feature in which RNS gives you everything you need to know about current events to help you hold your own at the water cooler.

(RNS) — You’ve probably heard that the United Methodist Church is meeting this weekend in St. Louis and that it has something to do with sexuality and a possible schism.

The special session of the United Methodist Church General Conference runs Sunday (Feb. 24) to Tuesday at the Dome at America’s Center in St. Louis. Saturday has been designated a day of prayer and preparation.


RELATED: Ahead of St. Louis meeting, one United Methodist offers prayers along the way


What is this meeting all about, and what are all these plans? Let us ’Splain…

Didn’t the United Methodist Church just have a meeting?

Yes, the General Conference — the denomination’s decision-making body — meets every four years. The last meeting was in 2016 in Portland, Ore.

Locked in a stalemate over petitions regarding LGBTQ inclusion — with rumors swirling about schism and one delegate fretting, “I believe we are confusing God at this point” — delegates at that meeting voted to defer all decisions on related legislation to a specially appointed commission. They also left the door open for a special session.


RELATED: United Methodist conference seen as confusing even to God


Currently, the denomination’s rulebook, the Book of Discipline, includes language that bars gay and lesbian members from ordination and marriage.

Now the 864 General Conference delegates, which include both clergy and laypeople from around the world, will gather to receive and act on a report from the Council of Bishops, based on recommendations from that specially appointed commission, the Commission on a Way Forward.

The last time such a special session was called was in 1970, also in St. Louis, according to General Conference Secretary Gary Graves. That session completed the merger of the former Evangelical United Brethren Church and the former Methodist Church to create what is now the United Methodist Church.

A copy of the Book of Discipline rests on a table during an oral hearing on May 22, 2018, in Evanston, Ill. The United Methodist Judicial Council, the denomination’s top court, heard arguments regarding a request from the Council of Bishops for a ruling on whether United Methodist organizations, clergy or lay members can submit petitions for the special General Conference in 2019. The hearing was part of the court’s May 22-25 special session. Photo by Kathleen Barry/UMNS

Is this is a new debate?

Whether to ordain and marry LGBTQ people in the United Methodist Church didn’t suddenly become a topic for debate at the 2016 General Conference. The question has been part of the denomination from its beginning in 1968, said Barry E. Bryant, associate professor of United Methodist and Wesleyan studies at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary near Chicago. And it has been debated at every General Conference since 1972.


RELATED: Historic United Methodist church sees ‘hopeful’ time for LGBTQ Christians


That year, responding to a growing push for LGBTQ rights in the U.S. at the time, language was added to the Book of Discipline stating that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and that “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” cannot be ordained as ministers, appointed to serve or be married in the church.

In 2000, nearly 200 people were arrested in a peaceful protest against the denomination’s policies outside the Cleveland Convention Center at that year’s General Conference meeting.

What are these plans we keep hearing about?

The Commission on a Way Forward included three plans for the church in its final report.

Those plans include:

  • The One Church Plan, which would allow individual churches and regional annual conferences to decide whether to ordain and marry LGBTQ members.
  • The Traditional Plan, which would strengthen enforcement of current language regarding LGBTQ people in the denomination’s rulebook.
  • The Connectional-Conference Plan, which would reorganize United Methodist churches by conferences based on their LGBTQ policy, rather than by geography.

Last year, the Council of Bishops voted to recommend the One Church Plan, which gained two-thirds of all bishops’ approval.

Later, the United Methodist Church’s top court, the Judicial Council, decided to allow any organization, clergy member or lay member to submit petitions for consideration by delegates as long as they are “in harmony with the purpose” of the special session, which is to act on the bishops’ report. It also ruled parts of the One Church Plan and Traditional Plan unconstitutional, meaning delegates will have to amend those plans, according to Graves.


RELATED: United Methodist court filings detail proposals for averting schism on sexuality


So far, the General Conference Committee on Reference has approved 78 petitions to be considered by delegates. That includes the petitions that make up the three plans put forward by the Commission on a Way Forward.

It also includes two more plans: a modified Traditional Plan and the Simple Plan. The Simple Plan would remove all language about “the practice of homosexuality” from the Book of Discipline.

Pride flag colors at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington in 2013. Photo by Elvert Barnes/Creative Commons

So what’s going to happen at this meeting?

Nobody can say.

To begin, Graves said the Commission on the General Conference has proposed a “prioritization plan” that would have delegates assign high priority or low priority to each plan or petition that is not part of a plan in a vote on Sunday. That would determine what order delegates would vote on those plans and petitions.

Then the meeting could pass one of the five plans or parts of a plan or an amended version of a plan. It also could become deadlocked in the same amendments, motions and points of order that have paralyzed past General Conferences.


RELATED: What will happen at the special session? Here’s what United Methodists predict


And some say whatever happens in St. Louis will not be decisive. The Rev. Jim Harnish — one of the coordinating team members of the advocacy group Uniting Methodists, which supports the One Church Plan — said, “Whatever decisions are made in St. Louis, the conversations regarding human sexuality will continue. The changing concerns around this important subject will need continued attention from a biblical and theological perspective.”

Is a schism really likely?

It has happened in other denominations — Lutherans, Presbyterians and Episcopalians all have split over similar theological differences.


RELATED: A flourishing United Methodist church considers a way out


One group, the Wesleyan Covenant Association, which supports the Modified Traditional Plan, has said if another plan passes, it likely will form its own denomination with its 1,500 member churches in the U.S. The association has been preparing for that, according to WCA President Keith Boyette.

“While the WCA Council will make the final decision at the meeting on February 27 and 28,” Boyette said, “if the One Church Plan or the Simple Plan passes, my recommendation to the Council will be for us to announce the formation of a new denomination.” 

Why is everybody paying attention to this meeting?

For one, the United Methodist Church is a huge denomination, with more than 12.5 million members around the globe. It’s growing quickly in many African countries and the Philippines, and it’s the second-largest Protestant denomination in the United States, with nearly 7 million members alone. It includes not only churches, but also colleges, universities and theological schools; a publishing house; and more.


RELATED: Methodist university presidents call on denomination to amend LGBTQ policies


Jan Lawrence, executive director of pro-LBGTQ Reconciling Ministries Network, said the debate over LGBTQ inclusion is “a symbol for a lot of other stuff.”

“Don’t think this General Conference is about queer people or church unity,” she told supporters at a Reconciling Ministries event last month outside Chicago, adding there are “a lot of things we need to fix.”

Bryant pointed to different interpretations of Scripture and tradition, issues of race and the tensions of being a global denomination, to name a few.

“We’re certainly not the first and we’re not the only denomination dealing with it,” he said, “it’s just that, historically, Methodism is sort of a microcosm of American society.”

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

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