The United Methodist Church Council of Bishops has endorsed a proposal to soften the denomination's stance against homosexuality in order to prevent schism.
Over the past couple of years, the UMC has sought a resolution to the debate over its official position against homosexuality, gay marriage, and the ordination of openly gay individuals. In February 2019, the denomination will hold a special session of General Conference to determine what, if any, changes they will make to their official position on LGBT issues.
Ahead of that meeting, the Council of Bishops released a statement last Friday, noting that a majority of their members supported what is called the "One Church Plan."
This plan calls for changing the Book of Discipline to remove language labeling homosexuality "incompatible with Christian teaching," allowing churches in the United States to permit same-sex weddings and gay ordination while letting clergy and some overseas conferences retain their official opposition.
"The One Church Plan allows for contextualization of language about human sexuality in support of the mission; and allows for central conferences, especially those in Africa, to retain their disciplinary authority to adapt the Book of Discipline and continue to include traditional language and values while fulfilling the vision of a global and multicultural church," stated the Council.
"This plan also encourages a generous unity by giving United Methodists the ability to address different missional contexts in ways that reflect their theological convictions."
The Council stressed that while a majority of their members supported the "One Church Plan," there are still two other possible plans to be voted on at next year's General Conference.
There is the "Traditionalist Plan," which maintains UMC's current stance on LGBT issues, and the "Connectional-Conference Plan," which allows regional conferences to determine what stance they will take.
Newly installed Council of Bishops President Ken Carter said in a statement that the Council's majority vote support for the One Church Plan was based on "prayerful deliberation" that "reflected the diversity of the global denomination on the matter of homosexuality and many other matters."
"With convicted humility, bishops want to be pastors and shepherds of the whole church in order to maximize the presence of a United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible and with as much contextual differentiation as possible," added Carter.
Jan Lawrence, executive director of the Reconciling Ministries Network, which has long campaigned to change the UMC's stance on LGBT issues, said that none of the options provide "equity and justice to the LGBTQ community or welcomes and celebrates the lives of LGBTQ people."
"What value is there in presenting a traditionalist model that has harmed LGBTQ people and our loved ones for decades? What value is there in considering a model that is so complex we all struggle to understand it?" Lawrence posed. "The harm caused to LGBTQ persons is the singular reason this process was undertaken. Where is that focus?"
John Lomperis of the Institute on Religion & Democracy, who is deeply involved in the UMC debate over sexual ethics, had "mixed" feelings about the Council's announcement.
In a post on the IRD's website last Friday, Lomperis explained that while he was glad that the Traditionalist Plan remained for consideration, the Council's support for the One Church Plan went against "2,000 years of consistent global Christian tradition."
"And where is the basic honesty of advocates of the Liberalization Plan when they insist on marketing it as 'the One Church Plan,' when any intelligent observer can see that this would be the one possible plan most guaranteed to split apart the church?" wrote Lomperis.
Lomperis labeled the One Church Plan "dead on arrival," noting that a similar proposal failed in committee at the UMC 2016 General Conference.
"And the delegates to the 2019 General Conference will largely be the very same people as the delegates who already rejected this idea in 2016," he noted.