FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
ABOUT GENERAL CONFERENCE 2019 AND ST. STEPHEN’S UMC
Questions about General Conference 2019
What is a General Conference?
General Conference is the supreme decisionmaking body of the United Methodist Church, and meets every four years. It is made up of delegates from each Annual Conference.
Why was there a General Conference in February?
During the regular General Conference in 2016, the denomination almost split over the issue of human sexuality. The delegates asked the Council of Bishops to come up with a proposal, and the Bishops proposed a commission that would attempt to find a way forward for the church that would maintain some degree of unity. A special session of the General Conference was called for February 2019 to receive and act on the commission’s report.
What does the United Methodist Church say about human sexuality?
The controversy concerns the church’s stance towards LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning) persons. The UMC Book of Discipline (which provides church law) states that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” It also prohibits the ordination of LGBTQ persons, prohibits clergy from celebrating the marriage of LGBTQ persons, and prohibits marriages between LGBTQ persons on church property. In addition, the Discipline also calls for the protection of the human and civil rights of all persons regardless of sexual orientation, and implores families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay people.
What did the 2019 General Conference decide?
It rejected a plan, called the One Church Plan, recommended by a substantial majority of the Council of Bishops, that would give annual conferences, clergy, and churches freedom to decide if they would ordain and marry LGBTQ people. It instead adopted a plan, called the Traditional Plan, that maintained the current rules but made enforcement much more strict. These new requirements will go into effect on January 1, 2020, unless found unconstitutional.
How are we represented in the General Conference? How did they vote?
Delegates are elected by each Annual Conference. The Virginia Annual Conference elected 22 delegates, half clergy and half lay, to represent us at Annual Conference. Delegates are expected to vote their conscience, rather than represent the views of a constituency. No records are maintained of each delegate’s individual votes.
I’ve heard that the decision of the General Conference may be unconstitutional. What does that mean?
Before the vote, the Judicial Council (the “supreme court” of the UMC) found that a number of parts of the Traditional Plan violated the UMC Constitution. The Judicial Council will consider the constitutionality of the Traditional Plan again at the end of April 2019. If it is found unconstitutional in whole, then it will not go into effect. It is also possible that the parts will be found constitutional and will go into effect in January of 2020.
Reactions to General Conference 2019
Is the United Methodist Church going to break up?
The future of the institution is unclear. More progressive parts of the church have indicated they will not abide by the Traditional Plan. Some centrist and progressive leaders have talked about the possibility of creating a new denomination. A leading group of conservative churches has also suggested it might leave if the church does not retain the traditional language. There is another regular General Conference scheduled in 2020, in which these issues will continue to be debated.
I really disagree with this decision. Why shouldn’t I just leave?
Many people are asking this question. If this is you, we ask you to consider the following. First, give it some time. Spend some time in prayer and discernment to look for where God is calling you. See what develops at St. Stephen’s and in the larger church over the coming months as we grapple with the fallout from the decision. Second, consider if the concerns that are prompting your desire to leave might be better directed towards making the community of St. Stephen’s a better reflection of the love of God. No other church you might find will be perfect, and St. Stephen’s will be a better place with you here.
What’s the big deal? Hasn’t the church just decided to keep things the same?
While the rules remain the same, the enforcement has gotten stricter. Many people see this as an elimination of “play” in the system that provided room for differences of opinion within the church. They view the General Conference’s decision to reject the One Church Plan, which would have allowed different approaches on LGBTQ issues, in combination with its adoption of the Traditional Plan with its stricter enforcement, as an indication by the church that people who believe in LGBTQ ordination and marriage should leave.
Questions about St. Stephen’s
What does St. Stephen’s think about this decision?
We know that there are people on all sides of the issue at St. Stephen’s, but no one knows how those views are represented in the church. After the General Conference 2019 decision, the pastors released the following statement in the weekly email:
As you may know, the special General Conference has now concluded its work on the Church’s policies and teachings about human sexuality. There were several pieces of legislation which received passing votes, most of which were grouped under an umbrella term: “The Traditional Plan.” We don’t know for sure what will be finally implemented because this legislation will be reviewed by the Judicial Council at their April meeting. We’ll know more then. We know the news of this General Conference has been emotionally taxing, even hurtful, for many. We hear you, and we are here for you. We will continue to be faithful United Methodists. We will also continue to welcome everyone. We most certainly love you and always will. May God bless you as we continue this journey together. [Click here for a message from our Bishop.]
-Your Pastors, Mark, Drew, and Jiyeon
I’ve heard that people are upset with this statement by the Pastors. What’s wrong with it?
Many found the pastors’ response appropriate and loving. Others who strongly disagree with the General Conference’s decision found it inadequate. They believe, as a part of the core of their faith values, that St. Stephen’s needs to express disagreement with the decision at General Conference. If St. Stephen’s cannot do that, then they do not believe they can stay.
Why didn’t St. Stephen’s join in the Washington Post Ad?
On March 8-10, 2019, a group of local UMC churches ran a half-page advertisement in the Washington Post expressing grief at the decision of the General Conference and making clear they loved and welcomed LGBTQ persons. A number of churches in our area, including Burke, Messiah, and St. Matthew’s, signed the statement. The leadership at St. Stephen’s was given only a short time to decide whether it could agree to the ad, and given the uncertainty of where St. Stephen’s membership stood on the issue, they did not feel like they could join it.
Why do we have to talk about this now? St. Stephen’s has done well by focusing on where we agree rather than where we disagree.
The Committee on Church and Society believes that St. Stephen’s can no longer remain silent on the UMC’s stance towards LGBTQ persons for two reasons. First, though the details are cloudy right now, structural change in the larger church around differences on LGBTQ issues seems inevitable, possibly resulting in two or more denominations. St. Stephen’s should begin the work now to develop a common understanding of where the congregation stands on these issues to be prepared for these changes. Second, and more importantly in the near term, are the requests by congregants for a clearer response by St. Stephen’s to the General Conference’s decision. They argue that a refusal to make a clear response is itself a decision and that their voices should be heard before such a decision is made. And many feel like they need a clear congregational response to the General Conference’s decision in order to decide whether they can remain with the church.
Won’t a survey at St. Stephen’s be divisive, creating winners and losers?
Other local churches that have done a survey have not found it to be divisive. The survey is one part of a larger effort to discern what St. Stephen’s will is regarding the decision of General Conference 2019. It will be done with love and respect for all views. We do not expect unanimity with whatever statement is arrived at, but we aim to ensure that that all will felt heard and have confidence that it accurately expresses where we are corporately as a church.
What are next steps for St. Stephen’s?
The Committee on Church and Society is leading an effort to develop a congregational response to General Conference 2019. It will have three steps. Step 1 will be a congregational survey administered on April 26-29. Step 2 will be a series of small group meetings to reflect on the survey and what our values are around LGBTQ issues. Step 3 will involve the development of a draft statement by a committee selected by the Church Council reflecting what was learned in Steps 1 and 2. The final draft will be presented for approval by the Church Council. The Church Council, at its regularly scheduled March meeting, approved this proposal.
How can I find out more?
St. Stephen’s has created a webpage with information about the project and a schedule of events to come at www.ststephensfairfax.org/gc2019/. The congregation will be notified when church committee meetings are held to discuss the matter and all are welcome to attend. And all are encouraged to participate at every step of the process.