PLATTSBURGH — The United Methodist Church is under pressure in a crucible of theology.
Human sexuality and the ordination of LGBQTIA+ people in church leadership is at the heart of a widening rift among the 12.5 million global Protestant denomination.
A 16-member Mediation Team, comprised of bishops and caucus leaders, met with renowned mediator Kenneth Feinberg, who brokered the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund as well as the Agent Orange Settlement Fund and Deepwater Horizon Settlements.
They released a nine-page “Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation” on Jan. 10.
The Rev. Phil Richards ran interference before last Sunday's service since some media outlets had reported that the breakup of the UMC was a done deal.
“We have been wrestling with human sexuality and the ordination of LGBQTIA+ people in church leadership,” Richards, pastor of the Plattsburgh United Methodist Church, said.
“For many, many years we have been wrestling with those in our church of ordination of LGBQTIA+ people as well as pastors being able to officiate at same-sex weddings.
In 2019, a special session of the UMC's General Conference, made the standards stricter in the Book of Discipline.
“Since then because 2020, the new standards, if you will, the new rules went into effect,” Richards said.
“But many of the progressive-liberal congregations were saying we can't go along with this anymore. We just can't go along with this. This is not who we are.
“We want to be a church that is welcoming and inclusive of all people, and that means allowing our pastors to officiate at weddings. We firmly believe that everyone is a child of God. So for example, everyone should have the opportunity to be ordained into leadership into the church.”
The team's proposal is a huge moment in the history of the church founded in 1968 in Dallas, Texas.
The Plattsburgh United Methodist Church is part of the Upper New York Conference.
Bishop Mark Webb wrote:
“On Friday, Jan. 3rd, an independent mediation team, comprised of eight Bishops and eight representatives from advocacy groups, announced a proposal for the separation of The United Methodist Church that it intends to introduce to the 2020 General Conference. This "Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation" is one of several proposals that have been prepared for consideration by the General Conference.
“It is vitally important to remember our polity and our process. General Conference is the only body that can speak for the denomination and make changes to The Book of Discipline. At this point, no decisions have been made and none will be made until the General Conference meets May 5-15, 2020 in Minneapolis. The Protocol itself says it was developed in service to the General Conference delegates who will decide on its adoption or amendment. While there were some Bishops involved in this mediation process, this proposal does not come from the Council of Bishops but is the work and proposal of the independent mediation team.
“I have attempted to be consistent in stating that I believe deeper conversations are necessary regarding the future of The United Methodist Church, our differences and the ways in which we might find a path that blesses one another to be the Church we are called to be. This Protocol, along with many of the other proposals and legislation already submitted to the 2020 General Conference, invites us to such conversations. I am grateful for the individuals who have invested in this hard work and the proposals they have shared."
It is a tumultuous time within the Methodist body with the possibility of traditionalist churches separating and forming their own denomination.
“What gave me, if you will, hope was that a diverse group of people could actually come to an agreement,” Richards said.
“A recognition that we have to do something as a denomination. A recognition that the reality of it is we've reached an impasse as it comes to biblical interpretation, when it comes to views on human sexuality. We've reached a point as a denomination that impasse has affected everyone, and so a recognition we would have to figure out a different way and that's what this group of people did.”
The different factions within the Methodist body has been in disagreement over these issues for a very long time.
The Plattsburgh UMC falls within the progressive spectrum.
“We are a reconciling church,” Richards said.
“As a reconciling church, we believe that the church should be open. We actually have been ones who have worked toward full inclusion.”
The church thinks and believes:
all people have gifts and graces for ministry including ordination and including leadership in the life of the church.
marriage is a sacred covenant and all that people are welcome to participate and we celebrate the marriage of all people including LGBQTIA+
“The issue is because of church laws, we have not been able to fully function in that way because our church law doesn't allow us to,” Richards said.
“We have many leaders in our church who have been working to change the laws of our United Methodist Church to be open and welcoming.”
Richards recognizes within his congregation people on all ends of the spectrum, not just on the ends, but within the theological spectrum.
“What I have appreciated about this congregation is a joy and a celebration of our diversity, including theological diversity, within the church,” he said.
Richards is upfront about his church's stance when he leads new membership classes.
“People who choose to become members of this church know it is a reconciling church and know what a reconciling church stands for,” he said.
“So in other words, they know what they are getting themselves into. But again, we also recognize that we all come from all walks of life, too. We also have to respect and celebrate theological diversity.”
Some church members take a literal approach to scripture while others take a more liberal-progressive view of scripture.
“What we say is we live into that through conversation, and we live into that through celebrating one another,” Richards said.
The Mediation Team's proposal is a huge moment in the history of the church founded a half century ago.
In the 19th century, the earlier Methodist Church split over slavery.
“I think it split North/South for the most part,” Richards said.
“It took many, many years to come back together, so to speak. I think the United Methodist Church, in many ways, mirrors what is happening in our country today.”
He doesn't think the split this time will be delineated geographically as it was during the antebellum period.
“Ultimately, it's how one interprets scripture,” he said.
“I think, again, I hate to use labels, it's liberal-conservative, progressive-traditionalists. It's that kind of thing, and I think pastors as well as congregations, are on those kinds of spectrums. We have not figured out a way to live into the diversity.”
The Methodists are late out of the gate in this regard.
“The Episcopal Church in the U.S. is open and inclusive,” Richards said.
“The Presbyterian Church have already gone through this. The Lutheran Church has gone through this as well. So what I would say is the United Methodist Church is later in the process than these other Protestant denominations.”
Ecumenical colleagues tell him that they are in prayer for him and his denomination.
“They count themselves lucky enough to have already gone through this, Richards said.
“My feeling is that in May something is going to happen. There are a couple of plans. Something is going to happen.”
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KEY ELEMENTS OF MEDIATION TEAM PROPOSAL