The issue before delegates at the three-day 2019 United Methodist General Conference in St. Louis was whether to embrace the Traditional Plan or choose the alternative One Church Plan.
One would reinforce the church’s ban on ordination of LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage in the second largest denomination in the United States. The other would give annual conferences, congregations and individual pastors more flexibility on how to handle the issue.
On Tuesday, after voting down One Church Plan for the second day in a row, delegates voted 438-384 in favor of the Traditional Plan, to keep the ban in place.
For a denomination that has struggled during the past few years with how to continue as united Methodists, the vote showed just how divided the two sides are, with 53.3 in favor of the ban and 46.7 percent against.
According to an Associated Press story on the conference, the Traditional Plan’s success was “due to an alliance of conservatives from the U.S. and overseas. About 43 percent of the delegates were from abroad, mostly from Africa, overwhelmingly supported the LGBT bans.”
One African pastor, Rev. Jerry Kulah of Liberia, was quoted by AP as saying that if the bans were relaxed, “the church in Africa would cease to exist,” calling the Traditional Plan “the biblical plan.”
Rev. Tyler Amundson, pastor of Shiloh United Methodist Church in Billings who favored the One Church Plan, was a delegate to the General Conference. Flying home to Billings on Wednesday, Amundson said he was “exhausted and ready for sleep and lots of prayer.”
Amundson, in a telephone interview, said he knows people on both sides of the issue. A friend and fellow United Methodist from Kyrgyzstan, in central Asia, said the One Church Plan would bring persecution to her church in her country.
On the other hand, the Billings pastor has youth in his church who identify as LGBT with friends who feel rejected and who are committing suicide.
“There’s no easy answer,” he said.
Rev. Ron Kapalka, a retired pastor who lives in Billings, has followed the issue closely. In favor of the Traditional Plan, he knows people who have left the UMC because of the liberal shift they've seen it make.
He wasn't surprised by the outcome of this week's vote.
"I would have said the traditional point would have passed simply because the way votes have been going at each general conference this issue comes up," he said.
The genesis for the 2019 conference goes back to the 2016 General Conference in Portland, Oregon, when the denomination’s legislative body, which typically meets every four years, discussed the fraught issue of homosexuality.
Delegates eventually took the unusual step of asking the UMC’s Council of Bishops to give guidance when it looked like any kind of agreement was impossible. The bishops created the Commission on a Way Forward to study and possibly recommend revisions to the denomination’s core beliefs, called the Book of Discipline, related to human sexuality.
The bishops called the special General Conference for Feb. 23-26 to consider the plans that came out of the commission’s work. In May 2018, the bishops voted to recommend the One Church Plan, saying it would provide flexibility on the issue but still allow a connection to exist with the denomination.
When the General Conference began Sunday, Amundson said the mood originally was prayerful.
“As the days went by, the same behavior we saw in 2016 came out, as far as folks staying entrenched where they were,” he said. “It felt like the political nature of our country influenced the American delegation, that sense of if we give up ground, we’re somehow not faithful to who we are, and the other side has to be wrong.”
After the vote, Amundson said he felt “pretty distraught.”
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“The church I’ve been raised in is in a lot of tension,” he said. “Folks I’m pastoring are hurting on all sides of the issue.”
Asked what’s next, Amundson said that’s the question he and a lot of others are asking. People on both sides of the issue want to be faithful to the church that has raised and nurtured them, he said.
"While it appears the church is leaning in one direction, there's still an opportunity to remain a connected church if we rely on people's willingness to come together in God's love," Amundson said.
Another person who has seen great pain caused by Tuesday’s vote is the Rev. Karen Oliveto, bishop of the Mountain Sky Area of the UMC, of which Montana is part. When she was elected bishop by the Western Jurisdiction Conference in 2016, Oliveto was the first and only openly gay woman to serve as bishop of the UMC.
“Harm was done as we turned LBGTQ people into an ‘issue’ instead of beloved children of God who have a place in the body of Christ,” she said in written answers to questions posed to her Wednesday by The Gazette.
Oliveto said churches in the conference have great theological diversity “yet we are united by mutual love and shared mission.”
“This unity in the midst of diversity is something we can offer a world fractured by deep divisions,” Oliveto wrote.
Asked if it’s possible to keep the progressive and conservative sides of the denomination together, Oliveto acknowledged that the traditionalists “have voted to shrink the ‘big tent theology’ that has been a historic cornerstone of our tradition.”
“Most United Methodists in the United States — and certainly across my area — value diversity of thought within the church,” she wrote.
Oliveto pointed out that parts of the Traditional Plan has been ruled unconstitutional by the UMC’s Judicial Council. Yet despite that, delegates from around the world voted in favor of it.
The document has again been referred to the Judicial Council to determine if it is constitutional, she said.
“Our future is yet to be written,” Oliveto said.
Kapalka felt at the time Oliveto was elected, just a couple of months after the issue of sexuality was postponed in 2016 for further study, that her choice as bishop was "completely out of order."
"It was an act of defiance that basically said we don't care about the discipline of the church," he said.
In the aftermath of this latest vote, Kapalka is seeing comments from people in favor of One Church Plan, some in leadership, who intend to remain in the denomination but don't plan to follow the more conservative teachings.
"If you can't trust your leaders," it's a breakdown in relationship, he said.
Add to that the differences of opinion that have devolved into angry words and name-calling. Kapalka wonders if different factions of the denomination can stay together.
He also worries about the fallout.
"For people who are not involved, they look at this and think 'all they ever do is fight,'" Kapalka said.