By Forrest White
In the house divided that is The United Methodist Church, denomination members agree on at least one thing – at some point, in the days following the 2019 special General Conference, hurt and anger gave way to immense resolve among those who opposed passage of the Traditional Plan and its strengthened bans on same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBTQ clergy.
Opponents didn’t simply voice outrage, they organized, determined to repeal the legislation at 2020 General Conference and create an inclusive way forward for the denomination.
Within the Virginia Conference emerged “Virginia Methodists for a New Thing” – described on its Facebook page as “a grassroots organization that seeks to follow Jesus’s call to love all people and fully include them in the life of the church” – which put forth a slate of 62 candidates who oppose the Traditional Plan for delegate election at 2019 Virginia Annual Conference.
Each of those 62 candidates was elected to fill spots on the 64-member delegation to 2020 General and Jurisdictional Conferences.
A 63rd progressive candidate emerged during clergy session at Annual Conference and was elected to fill the final clergy alternate spot for Jurisdictional Conference. There are 22 members – 11 clergy, 11 laity – on the General Conference delegation. The remaining 42 are either delegates or alternate delegates for Jurisdictional Conference.
“For those who were hurt and discouraged after General Conference 2019, this year’s Annual Conference was energizing and hopeful,” said the Rev. Grace Han, lead pastor at Trinity UMC in Alexandria and a clergy delegate to 2020 General Conference.
“After General Conference 2019, many clergy, lay people and churches felt like giving up and walking away. In the months that have followed, we have seen unity among churches, among clergy and lay people, among LGBTQ+ persons and straight allies, among young and old, to come together to vision for a future that draws the circle wide and welcomes God’s children.”
The Rev. Dr. H.O. “Tom” Thomas, president of the Evangelical Fellowship of the Virginia Annual Conference, said he wasn’t surprised by the outcome of delegate elections.
“General Conferences 2016 and 2019 have unmasked centrists and forced their hand,” Thomas said. “They were forced to choose, and they have chosen to try to reconcile same-sex sex and ordination with biblical revelation, two millennia of Christian teaching, reason and experience.”
The Evangelical Fellowship posted a delegation voting guide on its website, endorsing 15 laity and 15 clergy candidates for the elections. It listed these criteria for vetting the nominees: would vote for Traditional or Modified Traditional Plan; supports the Book of Discipline on human sexuality and marriage; and would vote for amicable separation and the multiplication of Methodist expressions.
The newly elected Virginia delegation isn’t representative of the “rank and file United Methodists in the pew,” said Dr. Carlos Liceaga, the lone traditionalist among the Virginia delegation. He was among the Evangelical Fellowship’s recommended laity candidates.
Liceaga cited a February 2019 United Methodist Communications survey of United Methodists in the United States where 44 percent of 541 who responded identified themselves as theologically conservative/traditional in their beliefs (28 percent moderate/centrist; 20 percent progressive/liberal; eight percent “unsure”).
“I don’t see this as a seismic shift for the conference but as a continuation of the liberal trend that has been occurring for years in the leadership of the conference,” Liceaga said.
Supporters of the Traditional Plan were not alone in their displeasure over Virginia’s delegate elections.
In a statement, leaders of the Conference Ethnic Minority Caucuses (CEMCA) said they were not included in the creation of “any list of recommended candidates.”
While the intent may have been “to extend grace to a marginalized group,” the CEMCA statement said, “the actions and subsequent results have denied grace to other children of God by circumventing the process of Holy conferencing.”
CEMCA leaders said they were especially concerned by the results of laity elections.
There were eight laity of “color and diverse ethnic heritage” nominated and one elected – Liceaga. He will serve as the last laity alternate for Jurisdictional Conference.
“If I were an ethnic person I may wonder along with everybody else why those who have advocated diversity for so many years could be so uninterested in a fully inclusive slate,” Thomas said. “Many lay persons in our annual conference will feel disenfranchised and without voice at General Conference 2020.”
The Rev. Tom Berlin, clergy head for the 2020 General Conference delegation, acknowledged the Virginia delegation was elected “in large part as a referendum on the Traditional Plan.”
“(Delegation) members will need to find ways to hear the perspectives from a variety of groups – persons of color, traditionalists, persons from different areas of the state, and persons of different size churches – on the many issues that will be voted on at the General Conference,” said Berlin, lead pastor of Floris UMC in Herndon. “Only by understanding these perspectives and gaining the wisdom from the diverse membership of the Virginia Annual Conference will it be able to do its best work during the General Conference session.”
There were 18,874 laity in the Virginia Conference who fall in the “color and diverse ethnic heritage” demographic in 2018. That only eight were nominated for delegate election concerns Alison Malloy, a 2020 General Conference laity delegate.
“This leads me back to the failure of the Virginia Conference in recent years to equip lay leadership adequately,” Malloy said. “Without intentional development of lay leaders, our lay leadership will not know to submit their nomination forms (on time).”
Delegate candidacy is primarily a process of self-nomination for laity.
Laity nomination forms go to district conferences, which for 2020 elections began in the fall of 2018. District superintendents were required to notify the conference office of Connectional Ministries of district nominees by January 15, 2019, six weeks before the March 1 deadline for clergy nominations and nearly 40 days before 2019 General Conference began in St. Louis.
Some conference boards and commissions – including CEMCA and the Commission on Disabilities – can nominate laity after the district deadline passes in hopes of ensuring a more diverse delegation. CEMCA nominated one laity candidate for the 2020 delegation, David Brown, who was not elected.
Nominations may also be made from the floor of Annual Conference.
On the clergy side, 15 persons of “color and diverse ethnic heritage” were nominated.
Two of the 11 clergy positions on the 2020 General Conference delegation were filled by those who fall within the demographic or 18.2 percent. In 2018, among the 1,602 clergy within the Conference, 172 clergy (10.7 percent) were listed in the demographic.
The Virginia delegation is more diverse when measured by gender and age. Half of the 2020 General Conference delegation is female. There are 30 females among the full 64-member delegation.
“This is a younger delegation than we have seen in the past, which means we will hear new voices in the conversation,” Berlin said.
Virginia Methodists for a New Thing also prioritized younger clergy candidates with at least 20 years of ministry left before retirement age.
Around the Southeastern Jurisdiction, the Florida, Western North Carolina, North Carolina, South Carolina and North Georgia annual conference saw similar delegate election results as Virginia, with a shift toward progressives for 2020 General Conference. A traditional majority remains in delegations from the Mississippi, North Alabama, Alabama West Florida and South Georgia Conferences.
“Over 70% of U.S. delegates are part of a coalition of compatibilists who want to be a part of a church that is inclusive of LGBTQ persons who would like to be married or ordained,” Berlin said. “Overall, this voting indicates that Jurisdictional Conferences in the United States reject the exclusion and penalties of the Traditional Plan.”
When 2020 General Conference convenes next May in Minneapolis, there will be 862 delegates – half laity, half clergy – with nearly 56 percent from the U.S., though it will have fewer delegates than in 2019. African delegations gained 18 delegates, the Philippines two.
“There is not going to be a winner through all this but there could be a global church with much diversity, trust and honesty going forward, a Wesleyan movement without pointing fingers,” said Warren Harper, the laity head of the 2020 General Conference delegation, who admitted shortly after Annual Conference that he is tired of “being concerned about how my father and mother’s church was yesterday.”
“I want a church for tomorrow, a way forward,” Harper said.
Thomas cautioned against “excessive celebration or demoralization over delegation shifts” in Virginia and the United States.
World delegations remain overwhelmingly conservative theologically and opposed to ordaining LGBTQ clergy and to officiating at same-sex marriages.
“Ultimately, I pray that we are not a church that is defined by this one issue because, while Jesus calls us as we are in the fullness of who we are, Jesus also calls us to be united in mission and ministry,” Han said. “I pray that we can be united as a church that is committed to our primary task to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
Will gains made by progressives be enough to reverse course set in St. Louis?
Is a denominational split inevitable?
“On the face of it, General Conference 2020 looms as another titan clash between a divided house over a non-negotiable,” Thomas said. “It has all the appearances of being a monumental turning point for our Church. The United Methodist Church as we have known it is coming to an end. Something definitive, whether planned or precipitated, will result. Let us hope the result is the way of peace and blessing for all.”
-Forrest White is a news associate with the conference Communications Office.