At our District-Wide Charge Conference, the three plans from The Way Forward Commission were presented in bullet points. This presentation directly following the FAQ that we were recently given. I want to speak directly to the bullet points used to outline the One Church Plan.
The first bullet point, as presented, was about how this plan removes current language about the practice of homosexuality being incompatible with Christian teaching.” That’s all that was said. While the plan removes language, it does not add language to imply that the opposite is true. In fact, it immediately “adds language that intentionally protects the religious freedom of all who choose not to perform or host same-sex weddings….” The point is repeatedly made that conferences, bishops, congregations, and pastors will not be compelled to act contrary to their convictions. This is the second sentence in the summary of the plan. After this point is made, the plan “offers greater freedom to many who desire change but do not want to violate the Book of Discipline.”
The second bullet point, as presented, states that this plan changes the definition of marriage. This popular talking point is a mischaracterization of the plan itself. Here are the actual statements in the plan: “We affirm the sanctity of the monogamous marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity, traditionally understood as a union of one man and one woman.“ Throughout this plan, the default position is traditional marriage. It does not mandate a change. The plan repeatedly affirms “those who continue to maintain that the Scriptural witness does not condone the practice of homosexuality.” It continuously concedes to those who have a more traditional perspective.
Here is another key statement from the plan: “We affirm that sexuality is God’s good gift to all persons. We call everyone to responsible stewardship of the sacred gift. Although all persons are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous marriage between two adults.” Here the phrase “two adults” is not a change in definition but an acknowledgement that the church affirms sexual relations in a monogamous relationship and only among adults. In this statement, the phrase “two adults” is not the subject. To make this the main point is a misrepresentation and ignores the important and primary point being expressed – a point that would serve us well if it was to become our shared emphasis.
If I am reading the right document (and I had to question this based on the bullet points), there is only one place where the phrase “two adults” is used in connection with a definition of marriage. Read it carefully: “Where laws in civil society define marriage unions between two adults, no United Methodist clergy shall be required to celebrate or bless a same sex union.” Again, every possible concession is given to the traditional perspective. In another place the plan changes the language from “heterosexual marriage” to “monogamous marriage.” One more time — this does not mandate a change in the definition of marriage but rather affirms the biblical principles of monogamy, mutual support, and shared fidelity over promoting an agenda about sexual identity. What is wrong with promoting biblical values? And, by the way, the plan includes pages of biblical and theological foundations, worthy of our attention as we seek holy discernment.
The third bullet point, as presented, “gives pastors the authority to perform same gender weddings.” First of all, the correct language in the plan is “same sex” not “same gender.” Next, throughout the plan the default position is that a congregation will not perform or host such a ceremony unless the church intentionally votes to changes its wedding/union policy. This is the only time a vote would be needed by a congregation. Thus, the plan does not give a pastor this authority, at least not as a representative of the congregation or within a church, without explicit consent.
The next two bullet points, as presented, were about protecting the “rights” of pastors and bishops to not conduct “same gender” weddings or ordain “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” First of all, the language of “rights” is not a part of the plan except when it comes to due process. Secondly, in the actual document, this point is made much earlier and clarified in multiple places, as we have already seen. It is not an afterthought. These protections are woven into the whole plan, while also wanting to provide “a generous unity that gives conferences, churches, and pastors the flexibility to uniquely reach their missional context without disbanding the connectional nature of the United Methodist Church.”
I must concede how hard it is to present these three plans in a way that “just gives the facts.” I respect the attempt. At the same time, I hope that we will all dig a little deeper. These bullet points do not tell the whole story and, by themselves, can too easily cultivate a false narrative. I’m afraid that they push proverbial buttons that keep people from giving it a fair hearing. With the stakes so high, I hope we can do better.