Paragraph 304.3 in the United Methodist Book of Discipline =
"While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world. The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church."
The petition before us would have changed it to =
"While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world. The practice of homosexuality is not considered by all to be incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore, authority for discerning suitability for ordination continues to rest with the annual conference as provided in para. 33 of the Constitution, following candidacy procedures as provided in the Book of Discipline, and authority for making appointments continues to rest with the bishop after a consultative process to determine the suitability of such an appointment."
This was part of a plan called "A Third Way," created as a compromise that neither extreme was going to like, but those of us truly in the middle could live with.
The essence is: remove "being gay" as a disqualification for being ordained as a pastor across the entire church, and leave that decision to individual conferences.
This petition came out of the subcommittee with a 19-9 vote in favor, which was encouraging! Broad support in a subcommittee is a good thing, because those are the people who know each other best, have talked together, worked side by side on the petition, and now were commending it to the full committee.
The discussion in full committee was respectful and gracious. I commend the chairperson, Bill Arnold, for setting a very collegial tone for the group.
I spoke. I stood to speak in favor of the petition, and talked about unity and freedom. If we are truly one church, united in Christ, the question is how much freedom will we allow someone else in their practice of ministry? If I see things differently than you do, am I willing to allow you to do your work differently than me, in the way that you have determined works best in your context, for the sake of the one mission and purpose of our church? And would you do the same for me?
The response, in the next speech against, was dramatic. What kind of freedom, the speaker asked, is it really, when giving freedom to one person is "putting a noose around the neck" of another?
You may want to go back and read that again, just to make sure you got it.
The speaker's point was that in Africa, there is so much hostility toward homosexuality and homosexual people, that to allow anyone, anywhere to ordain a gay person would be literally physically dangerous to pastors and churches in African conferences. So the argument against allowing individual conferences to decide whether or not sexual orientation should be a qualification for ordination is, ordaining for example a gay man in New England would kill a pastor in Africa.
And finally, it was time to vote. And it failed by a vote of 30-34. That's pretty close, and it means the petition will be calendared for debate on the plenary floor. And so we'll see what happens.
And so it goes.
But the coolest part of the whole thing was what happened AFTER all of that. On a break, out in the hall, I met my friend Nestor Gerente. It turns out Nestor had been translating in the room in which I had been working. He had translated my speech (and the others, of course) into Tagalog (I think) for the Faith and Order committee that day. What a cool connection!
He thanked me for my words, and told me how hard it is for him to not get overly emotional when he is translating, particularly when the content is our denomination's inclusiveness of people who are gay. We spoke a while, and took a picture to mark the occasion.
And that is one small example of the good stuff of General Conference. The people with whom you can connect. The woman I had never met before who embraced me after that session. The pastor who is on the "other side" of the issue from me who shook my hand afterwards and thanked me for what I had said. The young man I spoke with this morning who has sensed a nudge to be a pastor, but is not allowed to follow that divine call because of the doctrine of his church.
We are a profoundly connectional church, we who are called United Methodist. And that connection is so much deeper than our Book of Discipline. Our connection is eye-to-eye, hand-in-hand, hugs and handshakes. And singing. Oh man, can we ever sing!
The point being, far too many United Methodists derive our connectional identity from the Book of Discipline. Frankly that's not where we are connected; that is precisely where we are most fractured.
We are called to a much higher standard than Robert's Rules of Order.
We are called to a much deeper connection than the trust clause.
We are called to a profound unity that is not derived from our clergy pension fund.
We are more than what is happening in legislative committees and plenary business sessions. We are more than our doctrine. We are more than our Discipline. And if there's only one thing I hope people know about General Conference 2016, I really hope it is that the United Methodist witness to the world extends beyond those mundane things. We are so much more.
(Check out the We Are More website right here.)