Prizm News / June 10, 2019 / By Joshua Culbertson
Reflections from the recent West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church
By Joshua Culbertson
As someone who has spent time on the far right of both religion and politics and now finds myself having shifted significantly to the left, faith and political spaces represent an intriguing range of emotions for me. They are spaces filled with reminders of past friendships lost and of new communities gained, spaces of enormous hope and crushing defeat. But I have to admit that my mood was pretty neutral this past Sunday night as I drove my car through the gate of the community in Marblehead, Ohio known as Lakeside.
Each year, within the gates of this tiny community along the shore of Lake Erie, the annual gatherings of the East and West Ohio Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church takes place. I live and attend church within the West Ohio Conference. These gatherings bring together representatives—called Members—who are a combination of clergy and lay persons from across their region of the state. Clergy automatically are considered to be Members, and, for each clergy person serving a local church, that congregation can send an equal number of lay persons. There are also a number of at-large delegates appointed by the Conference office.
The purpose of these gatherings is for the collected Members to vote on the administrative details of running such a large collection of local congregations. We vote on budgets, debate and vote on policies (as long as we are within the boundaries of the denomination’s governing Book of Discipline), and, the big event this year is that we will be voting on delegates to represent our Annual Conference at the 2020 General Conference. A General Conference normally only happens every four years, and it is at these gatherings, with representatives from all of the Annual Conferences within the United Methodist Church from all over the globe, that legislation can be put forth to amend the Book of Discipline which would thus change denominational law.
The United Methodist structure functions much like the U.S. government. The General Conference acts like Congress and introduces, debates, sometimes amends our governing documents, and passes or does not pass laws. The Council of Bishops, with one resident Bishop presiding over each Annual Conference, acts as the administrative branch, and the denomination’s Judicial Council serves the role of the Supreme Court, evaluating laws passed by the General Conference against the denomination’s Constitution. Yes, we really do have our own Constitution.
My first stop upon arriving at Lakeside was the Wesley Lodge, a communal building near the house where I stay each year for the conference. There was a 9 PM gathering of United Methodist Centrists and Progressives scheduled. Usually, the crowd is not huge, typically ranging from 40 to 60. It was clear as folks began to enter the hall that this year was going to be different. Over 300 people crowded into the space reserved for the meeting.
As I began engaging in conversation with those around me, I heard many say that this was the first of this type of gathering for them. It was increasingly clear that the outcome of the Special Called General Conference in February of this year, which re-affirmed the denomination’s stance that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” was the impetus for driving so many people to the meeting. Persons who previously had not given serious thought to the plight of LGBTQ+ persons within the denomination were now horrified at our church’s stance.
With the next regularly scheduled General Conference coming in 2020, the focus of this year’s Annual Conference would be on electing delegates to go to General Conference in hopes of changing the church’s laws to be more inclusive and accepting. The challenge is that, while there is overwhelming support within the denomination for LGBTQ+ persons in the U.S., said support quickly turns into a minority voice within the global context of the denomination. During the meeting, we were provided with slates of both lay and clergy candidates that are sympathetic to LGBTQ+ concerns. We were also provided with updates from recent gatherings within the wider denomination: the UM Forward meeting in Minneapolis and UMC Next meeting in Kansas City, which both took place in May. The UM Forward brought together persons from across the idealogical spectrum with a focus on small group conversations, allowing participants to hear from others who think very differently from them within a safe setting to identify what common values are held even in those differences. The UMC Next meeting produced a set of four guiding principles—which they called pillars—that those gathered hope to see either in the future of the denomination or in a new denomination that is birthed out of the existing United Methodist Church. Those pillars are:
- 1. We long to be passionate followers of Jesus Christ, committed to a Wesleyan vision of Christianity, anchored in scripture and informed by tradition, experience, and reason as we live a life of personal piety and social holiness.
- 2. We commit to resist evil, injustice and oppression in all forms and towards all people and build a church that affirms the full participation of all ages, nations, races, classes, cultures, gender identities, sexual orientations, and abilities.
- 3. We reject the Traditional Plan approved at General Conference 2019 as inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ and will resist its implementation.
- 4. We will work to eliminate discriminatory language and restrictions and penalties in the Discipline regarding LGBTQ persons. We affirm the sacred worth of LGBTQ persons, celebrate their gifts, and commit to being in ministry together.
The next morning, those of us serving as Members to the Annual Conference for our congregations went to Hoover Auditorium, the massive structure within Lakeside where we gather each year to conduct and vote on the business of the conference. On that Monday morning, we heard a number of financial updates and were presented with proposals for benefits and compensation for clergy for the coming year. All business presented on Monday passed by without discussion or debate. I, and those around me, surmised that many in the vast hall were saving their energy for the voting for delegates the following day. Given that none of the votes were contentious or in jeopardy of going in a dangerous direction that day, I chose to escape the confines of Hoover for part of the afternoon so that I could take a walk along the edge of Lake Erie, gazing out at the water and listening to the waves breaking against the rocks. These moments are always essential to me as they remind me of the trivialities of the petty human divisions with which we consume ourselves. At the same time, I know that this work for full inclusion does matter, and it matters in very real ways, especially for those LGBTQ+ clergy persons who have invested their lives in the service of a denomination whose policies tell them that they are not welcome.
I then journeyed with others staying in my house, back to Hoover on Monday night for the Episcopal Address by Bishop Gregory V. Palmer. The Bishop did not speak directly about LGBTQ+ persons in his address this year as he did last year, but he alluded to the obvious anxiety within the denomination, much of which is focused around the inclusion or exclusion of us. He spoke about how he has, at times, recently found himself anxious about telling others what he does for a living because of the turmoil and controversy surrounding the United Methodist Church since the 2019 General Conference. He shared his very honest reflections and asked the question, “If my church is falling apart, what am I going to do? It’s all I know.” He called out both himself and those in the audience by pointing out that, “We love certainty,” craving a “precise mathematical or scientific answer…we don’t do well with ambiguity.” He also went on to say that, “everything that does not have Jesus as the foundation is not a church, including some of our incorporated congregations” and that while “they may be well-intended social clubs. They may be well-intended cultural, tribal gathering groups, whether around nationality, language, ethnicity…or theology.”
These reflections were shared on a stage at the front of Hoover Auditorium which was adorned, throughout the conference in a rainbow of colors. I also noted a few occasions were the colors of the lights above the stage were in the colors of the transgender flag. The organist, playing from the stage, wore an assortment of rainbow colored Pride bracelets on his wrist as a sign of solidarity with LGBTQ+ persons and those who support us. While the church laws are clearly aligned against us, and that is frustrating, it has also become a point of frustration to those who oppose us. Groups like the Wesleyan Covenant Association or the Evangelical Fellowship stand at odds with the many who refuse to obey those laws and that so many bishops and boards of ordained ministry have chosen not to enforce or to obstruct those laws.
Tuesday morning brought a high level of tension with it. For delegate elections, a precise vote count is needed, and, to help achieve this, hundreds of voting remote control devices are employed in order to allow each Members vote to be recorded. We began the voting process at 10 AM, following morning worship. After a lengthy training process with the remotes, we were able to get a few votes in prior to lunch, but no delegates received a greater than 50% majority from those rounds. Therefore, no one was elected.
Following lunch, things went much smoother, and we quickly elected two progressive and three conservative lay delegates to General Conference. The delegation is comprised of a total of fourteen persons, seven clergy and seven lay persons. In the next round of clergy votes, four progressive clergy delegates were elected. The rest of the afternoon went fairly smoothly. The final results of the day put us with six out of the seven clergy delegates being progressive/centrists and with 3 of the 7 lay delegates being progressive centrists. This gives us a majority LGBTQ+ supportive delegation, but it is still unclear how much that will matter when the delegates gather for the next General Conference in Minneapolis in May of 2020.
There was hope in the latter portion of this week that a resolution would be put forward that would state that the West Ohio Annual Conference adhere to the principles, or pillars, put forward by the UMC Next meeting. That did not end up coming to fruition.
Many still believe that the denomination is inevitably going to divide into two or three different denominations. It is appearing more and more likely that those who identify at centrists are going to join their more progressive siblings in the separation. In the mean time, we wait to see what the future of the United Methodist Church will look like and whether they will figure it out in time for any of the remaining factions to still be a relevant voice to those that they seek to serve.
Joshua Culbertson is a board member for Equality Ohio, and he serves as part of the Community Engagement Team for HRC Columbus. He works as a psychotherapist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and also engages in private practice counseling under the name Authentic Pathways Counseling & Consulting.