By Erik Alsgaard, Heather Hahn, and Sam Hodges*
The Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli, center, answers a question at the press conference following UMCNext. With her are fellow convening team members, the Rev. DJ del Rosario, left, and Karen G. Prudente. Photo by David Burke, Great Plains Conference.
The Baltimore-Washington Conference was well represented -- and very active -- as more than 600 U.S. United Methodists spent three days grappling with possible options for forging what they hope will be a more just and inclusive church future. At least 14 people from the BWC attended UMCNext, including one – the Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli of Foundry UMC in Washington, D.C. – who is one of 17 conveners for the group. Jan Lawrence, a member of Foundry and the Director of the Reconciling Ministries Network, is also one of the conveners.
What united those at UMCNext, which met May 20-22 behind closed doors in Kansas City, was their opposition to the Traditional Plan.
That legislation, which the special 2019 General Conference approved by a vote of 438-384, retains the church stance that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching” and strengthens enforcement of church bans on same-sex weddings and “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy.
The increased enforcement takes effect Jan. 1 in the U.S. But another General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly, is also just around the corner, in May 2020.
Those in attendance from the Baltimore-Washington Conference joined with others to identify two possible approaches toward a new Methodism. These include continued resistance to the Traditional Plan with the goal of reforming the church from within, as well as some form of negotiated separation to create something new.
No consensus on a single direction arose from the meeting. For now, those in attendance are working on a both-and-approach. And working groups will be developing plans for the next General Conference to consider.
Charlie Moore, a member of Community UMC in Crofton, attended UMCNext as a person with experience and gifts in stewardship and finance. A self-identified “centrist,” Moore said he came away from the meeting with a sense of hope, and also one of caution.
“I think the event served a useful purpose,” he said. “Progressives felt like they had been listened to, en masse, and there were acknowledgements of this being heard. I think centrists would say the same thing.”
What Moore witnessed in Kansas City, he said, was a direct result of the Special General Conference.
“St. Louis (the site of the Special Session) woke up the middle,” he said. “We can’t live with this anymore. It’s time to open up the denomination to everyone.”
That doesn’t come without risks, he acknowledged. Moore feels that “significant departures” could come from individuals and local churches, adding that annual conferences might leave, too.
Moore said a survey, taken at the start of the meeting to identify who was in the room, revealed that 35 percent of the group identified as LGBTQ. He lamented that, in his view, not enough racial diversity was present.
The Rev. Joe Daniels, pastor of Emory UMC in Washington, D.C., attended the gathering as well. He came away from the UMCNext meeting in a similar vein to how he left the St. Louis Special Session: frustrated, disappointed and angry.
That’s because, he said, both traditionalists and progressives have punted on a willingness to work to resolve the very issue he believes is at the root of the denomination’s struggle with all “isms” — the issue of deep seated, systemic racism and injustice against people of color.
“From our denomination’s inception, we have never resolved the establishment of a system of behaviors, values and actions initiated by one group to oppress another,” Daniels said. “That system is racism. From this unresolved system, every other system of oppression has been formed; formed against a group of people that the dominant culture in the church did not want to have any power, influence, or control.”
Until you deal with the root of this problem, Daniels said, you cannot legitimately resolve any other problem.
“Racism must be dismantled,” he said, “if injustices against the LGBTQ community, women, people of color and any others experiencing ‘isms’ are going to be truly dismantled.”
The unfortunate thing, Daniels continued, “is that neither progressives, centrists nor traditionalists seem to have a real desire to do this. We seem to lack the courage to name our problem, and then work with the Lord and one another to heal our problem. And so, we continue to hurt each other. Persons from the LGBTQ community continue to be hurt, and the wholeness and wellbeing of people of color is just blatantly disregarded. And all of us are left in pain. We do enough to ‘check boxes,’ but make no substantive moves to address the real issue. This was the case in St. Louis; it was the case again in Kansas City, even when the ‘spin’ would make one think otherwise.”
Daniels, who readily admits and believes that no one should be excluded from the church, said he is hoping that a fresh expression of Methodism will emerge from the chaos, one that is global in nature, and grounded in authentic Wesleyan theology, spirituality and biblical faith.
“I still have hope,” he said. “But it’s going to require us to have courage. Courage to refute narrow strategies that lead to limited victories; courage to broaden the table to include those who have been oppressed from the beginning of this country’s existence and those upon whose backs this country and church was literally built. Courage to wrestle until justice and fairness for all people is achieved.”
On Tuesday morning, attendees were given an opportunity to rank-order vote on three different “paths” the group had identified. Each person was given 100 “points” to spread out over the three paths, Moore said.
The first ranked choice was “stay and resist,” he said, with 37 percent of the vote. Next was “negotiate for dissolution,” with 36 percent of the vote. “Leave and affiliate” came in with 27 percent.
Then, after that vote was taken, another vote – a “straw poll,” Moore said -- was taken on the top two results. “Negotiate” received 58 percent, or 329 votes; “stay and resist” received 242 votes, or 42 percent.
“There are churches who feel every urgency that they are going to leave now,” said the Rev. Adam Hamilton, one of the event’s conveners. “There are also churches that say we couldn’t leave even if we wanted to… so we’re ultimately going to have several pathways forward.”
Hamilton is the lead pastor of United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, the event host and the denomination’s most-attended U.S. church with nearly 7,000 in worship on average each week.
He and others at the press conference were also clear that resistance could mean violating the restrictions in the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s policy book, and risking their ministry. Resistance, conveners said, also could take less dramatic forms such as making sure their communities know all are welcome.
“The term resistance is grounded in our baptismal vows,” said the Rev. Junius Dotson, an event convener and the top executive of Discipleship Ministries. “We promise to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. So there are many forms of resistance, and people have to decide how they will participate.”
The UMCNext gathering drew together at least 10 representatives from each of the denomination’s 54 U.S. conferences — many of whom applied to go. Hamilton said the event had 2,000 more people apply to attend than could fit in the room.
Ahead of the gathering, Hamilton said that it was closed to the press because of concern “that the dialogue might be less frank, open and honest” otherwise.
But during the event, a number of participants as well as event critics took to Twitter and Facebook to air their thoughts and complaints — offering only snippets about what was happening.
The Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli said during the press conference that those gathered agreed to four commitments.
- To be passionate followers of Jesus Christ, committed to a Wesleyan vision of Christianity.
- To resist evil, injustice and oppression in all forms and toward all people and build a church which affirms the full participation of all ages, nations, races, classes, cultures, gender identities, sexual orientations and abilities.
- To reject the Traditional Plan approved at General Conference 2019 as inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ and resist its implementation.
- To work to eliminate discriminatory language and the restrictions and penalties in the Book of Discipline regarding LGBTQ individuals.
Table discussions, Gaines-Cirelli said, centered on people’s hopes for the church.
“I am excited about a big and holistic vision,” said Gaines-Cirelli after the event. “My deep hope is that as we ground ourselves in Scripture and our Wesleyan faith, and actively resist the Traditional Plan, we also stay focused on the larger call to intersectional justice, dismantling systemic racism, and creation of beloved community.”
T.C. Morrow was unable to attend Our Movement Forward due to a prior commitment but was an eager participant at UMCNext. A member of Foundry UMC, Morrow is a candidate for ordination as a full member of the BWC as an ordained Deacon this year. She has faced a rocky candidacy for deacon’s orders in the Baltimore-Washington Conference because she is married to another woman. Whatever happens, she said she remains committed to doing ministry that fights injustice and oppression.
“We don't know what the future will bring for the people now called United Methodists, but there are more people than ever on the journey for the full inclusion of LGBTQ people,” she said. “I am energized by this even as I know it is a messy, complicated time as we move forward into new ways of being the church together. We need as many people as possible to resist, risking their comfort and privilege, and join this fight for LGBTQ inclusion.”
The UMCNext event came on the heels of another gathering where the church’s future was on the agenda. The Our Movement Forward summit, on May 17-18 at Lake Harriet United Methodist Church, also brought together United Methodists who advocate for full inclusion of LGBTQ Christians.
The summit, which was open to any who wanted to attend, aimed to center on the liberation of the marginalized, namely people of color and queer and transgender individuals. The event also had similar options on the table, including both resistance and the formation of a whole new expression of Methodism.
Hamilton said at the UMCNext press conference that no general church or annual conference dollars went to fund the event. Organizers of the Our Movement Forward meetings said the same. At both events, people paid their own way to attend and the host churches also covered the costs of hosting duties. Organizers of Our Movement Forward also solicited donations to provide scholarships to people who could not attend otherwise.
Erik Alsgaard is managing editor for the Baltimore-Washington Conference. Heather Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for UM News. Sam Hodges is a UM News reporter based in Dallas.