Dear members of the Candler community:
I write to you from the St. Louis Special Session of the General Conference with a very heavy heart. I apologize in advance that this is a long message. Its conclusion, however, is very clear: We at Candler must demonstrate more than ever before our love and support of LGBTQIA+ persons.
At this meeting, the General Conference of The United Methodist Church has definitively rejected the possibility of an institutional compromise between those who want to allow ordination and marriage for LGBTQIA+ United Methodists and those who want to prohibit ordination and marriage for LGBTQIA+ United Methodists, a proposal called the One Church Plan. Instead, the delegates to General Conference have adopted a plan that accentuates and strengthens the enforcement of the prohibitions against LGBTQIA+ ordination and marriage, a proposal called the Traditional Plan. A plan offered by LGBTQIA+ persons and allies that makes no mention of any restrictions based on gender identity or sexual orientation, the Simple Plan, was debated briefly and resoundingly defeated.
All observers agree that, whatever the theological arguments are about each plan, the delegates disagree overwhelmingly across continental divides. The vast majority of delegates from the United States, who make up more than 50 percent of all the delegates, were in favor of the One Church Plan or the Simple Plan. The vast majority of delegates from Africa, Europe, and Asia (the Philippines), who comprise more than 40 percent of the delegates, were in favor of the Traditional Plan. These delegates from outside the United States formed an alliance with a minority of delegates from the United States, many of whom describe themselves theologically as “orthodox or neo-orthodox,” to push the Traditional Plan forward.
I joined with other heads of the 13 official UMC theological schools to state unequivocally that the Traditional Plan threatens the future of the UMC inside the United States. Here is part of our statement, which was read on the conference floor on Tuesday afternoon:
Ever since the 2016 General Conference in Portland, Oregon, our United Methodist students and those who are considering seminary have been waiting to see what will happen here in St. Louis at the called General Conference. Most of our students are young, with the majority under 30 years old. Public opinion polls in the United States clearly demonstrate that younger people in this country, including deeply devoted Christians, do not want to organize their spiritual and church lives around the question of excluding LGBTQIA+ persons… This may not be true in Africa or elsewhere in the world, but the future of The United Methodist Church in this country is at stake here today.
As a scholar of international relations and a representative of The United Methodist Church to the World Council of Church for more than 30 years, I have immersed myself in Christian communities all over the planet and benefitted enormously from their witness to the love and grace of Jesus Christ. I have published book chapters and articles arguing for close relations among Christians from across the globe. We are not faithful locally as Methodist Christians unless we understand ourselves as intimately tied to Christians in other places across our country and the world, especially Methodists.
I have also asserted, however, that shared church governance structures across radically different cultural traditions are a really bad idea. Churches from the Wesleyan tradition make decisions about their shared life together very differently depending on whether they come from the Philippines, Germany, the Congo, Liberia, Mozambique, Russia, or any other country. Moreover, from my point of view, the power disparities between churches in rich and poor countries are so stark that we risk reproducing new forms of colonialism when we naively seek to govern ourselves under one set of rules that reflect only Western cultural traditions.
My worst fears about the hazards of formal shared church governance across vastly different cultural differences, even with the best of intentions, have come true in this Special Session of the General Conference.
United Methodists in the United States are clearly divided on whether to ordain or marry LGBTQIA+ persons, but younger people overwhelmingly demonstrate greater acceptance of gays and lesbians than do older people. The median age of our Master of Divinity students is 27, and they are certainly not all of one mind. A critical mass have been present in St. Louis, however, and others are on campus watching the proceedings. No matter what their theological perspective, they have been remarkably brave, creative, and diligent in their witness during this Special Session, and I could not be more proud.
For example, they created a Young People’s Statement #GC2019 to promote greater inclusion, and it garnered 15,500 signatures across 13 hours. They supported each other last night amidst the obvious deep grief and pain. We worshipped together and held onto each other amidst the tears and almost crushing anguish.
Candler has been actively supporting LGBTQIA+ students, faculty, staff, and alumni for about 25 years as a fundamental matter of civil and human rights. For more than a decade, Candler’s Methodist Studies Program through the work of Associate Dean Anne Burkholder has operated a placement service for UMC LGBTQIA+ persons whose home annual conferences will not ordain them. She has helped these students find vital ministries in conferences that will ordain them. We have organized many chapel services to accentuate the gifts and witness of LGBTQIA+ persons. And much more.
Moreover, Candler has never wavered in its longstanding and resolute commitment to the Methodist values of evangelical piety, ecumenical openness, and social justice. We are both deeply Wesleyan and wonderfully welcoming, all while not sacrificing our determination to reach across deeply held differences among Christians. We will continue to stand by our LGBTQIA+ students, alumni, faculty and staff and support them in their efforts to witness to the transforming grace and love of Jesus Christ.
As I write, the implications of the decisions being made at the Special Session of General Conference are not yet clear, despite the passage of the Traditional Plan. No matter the outcomes of this meeting, however, Candler will remain dedicated to energetically pursuing our mission of educating faithful and creative leaders for the church’s ministries throughout the world, especially embracing and affirming our LGBTQIA+ sisters and brothers at this time of hardship, grief, and suffering.
We pray for strength, wisdom, and grace to persevere in prayer and love for all our sisters and brothers in Christ.
Grace and peace,
Mary Lee Hardin Willard Dean
Professor of Christianity and World Politics
Candler School of Theology
On March 5, Love was interviewed for Georgia Public Broadcasting’s radio program “On Second Thought” about the results of General Conference. Listen here.