Recently I was featured negatively in a letter provided to pastors who want to motivate their members to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church (UMC) to join the Global Methodist Church. In this post I respond in the hope that United Methodists who receive it might have more accurate and balanced information. Initially I thought this was one letter from one pastor to one church. A short time after I received the first email, the same paragraph was sent to me by a member of another church. Their pastor had made a few additions, but otherwise quoted the first letter verbatim. This leads me to conclude that an organization aligned with the Global Methodist Church is providing the correspondence for pastors who want their congregations to leave our denomination. The following statement is taken directly from the first letter forwarded to me. The emphasis in bold and colored type was present in the text of the first correspondence as I received it.
The Centrist Tom Berlin on the “Virus’ of the Traditional Plan
“When in 2019 the General Conference held its special session to finalize the human sexuality debate once and for all, centrist leader Tom Berlin said that the Traditional Plan (the plan that maintained our church’s current theology) would be like: “Putting a virus into the American church that will make it very sick.” For the delegates that disagreed, he asked those delegates to abstain from voting. He made the analogy of how many African nations had stopped Ebola by washing their hands and asked delegates to wash their hands and rid the church of this virus called the Traditional Plan.
Berlin’s perspective here is striking for a couple of reasons. First, the Traditional Plan was the plan to uphold our current theology in the church. If he thought it was a virus, why did he ever take vows to uphold it in the first place? Second, it gives us a view of how he as a centrist sees the historic/traditional understanding of human sexuality upheld by the church for 2000 years. Finally, what’s SO important to realize is that in the spectrum of leadership that will remain in the UMC, Berlin is more theologically center; he’s not on the far theological left. He’s going to be more orthodox in his beliefs and he is going to at least express more of a desire to let there be a middle ground where there are differences. But, this doesn’t sound like much of a middle ground to me.”
I would like to clarify the following:
In a speech at the 2019 General Conference of the United Methodist Church, I encouraged delegates from the Central Conferences (those beyond the United States) to abstain from voting for the Traditional Plan. This legislation, proposed for inclusion in The Book of Discipline that governs the UMC, uniquely punishes clergy who perform same-gender marriages, as well as bishops who license or ordain openly gay clergy to ministry. It was primarily focused on the United States, where same-gender marriages are legal and therefore possible. (The Book of Discipline only speaks to matters related to lesbian and gay individuals. It is silent on other orientations and identities.) I used the metaphor of a virus to communicate that if the Traditional Plan was enacted, it would lead to the splintering of the United Methodist Church in the United States. Churches in Sierra Leone, Africa, helped rid their nation of the Ebola virus by teaching people to wash their hands of germs. I asked them to wash their hands of the Traditional Plan. I wanted these delegates to understand that our church would become sick if the legislation was enacted. You did not have to be a sage or prophet in 2019 to predict that the Traditional Plan would lead to a great level of conflict in our denomination and its congregations if enacted. The letter to which I respond today is a fine example of that conflict. My speech did not have the outcome I desired. The Traditional Plan was codified in the Book of Discipline.
The Traditional Plan is not a plan to “uphold our current theology in the church.” It is a plan to bring more severe penalties to clergy who perform same gender marriages and bishops who license or ordain openly gay persons for ministry.
The Traditional Plan is unlike the rest of The Book of Discipline because it removes the just resolution process bishops use when clergy do not conform to the boundaries of The Book of Discipline. The Traditional Plan has penalties that are both prescribed and severe. The legislation was written this way with the intention that all United Methodist clergy and bishops across the connection would conform to it.
The Traditional Plan is not a treatise of our “current theology.” Theology is a very broad term that includes the doctrine, confessions of faith of the UMC, and our distinctive Wesleyan focus on grace. The Traditional Plan only speaks to penalties related to officiating same gender marriages and the credentialing of openly gay persons for ministry. Our theology is found in Sections I-IV of The Book of Discipline. All United Methodists would benefit from reading the theology found there. You will find our foundational beliefs shared with other Christians, as well as our rich heritage as Wesleyan Christians.
I am a lifelong United Methodist and have spent my vocation as a pastor upholding, affirming, and teaching the theology of the Christian faith. I have written books and preached innumerable sermons that give clarity that I hold orthodox Wesleyan Christian beliefs. I would like a more inclusive church that would allow gay persons to be able to be married by their pastor if she or he is willing to officiate the service. Clergy have discretion over what marriages they officiate now. I think they should be trusted with that same discretion in the future. I have not violated my vows of ordination by seeking greater flexibility for persons in the church related to marriage and ordination. Like many, I have family members, church members, friends and neighbors who are gay. I believe this is due to their sexual orientation, not the desire to commit a sexual sin. This is the great divide in the conversation related to homosexuality. I would like gay people to be treated equally to others in the church.
I understand that some feel that being gay or gay persons being in a committed, covenanted, life-long marital relationship is a sin. Those who consider the practice of homosexuality a sin call their members to repent of such actions. To be consistent, this new denomination will need to also focus its time on other actions related to sexual misconduct, especially those in the heterosexual community which will be far more prevalent in their congregations. This will include fornication (having sex outside the bounds of marriage), the use of pornography, or other matters that are destructive to lives and relationships. They will need to speak with vehemence against heterosexual couples in their congregations of all ages who commonly live together without being married. Perhaps in the future denomination they envision, clergy and laity will be disciplined for such behaviors that they actually demonstrate rather than maintaining such direct focus on the practice of homosexuality.
Related to “middle ground,” which the group providing the letter believes I do not offer, I would remind the pastor that I was on the writing team of the One Church Plan. This was legislation that was, by a rather small voting margin, not approved at the 2019 General Conference. This legislation stated that clergy would never be required by a denominational official to perform a same-gender wedding and churches would not be required to hold such weddings if they did not desire to do so. It had provisions to allow Annual Conferences to ordain only those candidates they deemed qualified. It was written with a desire to create a broad middle ground for everyone. It permitted same-gender marriages for those who desire to officiate them. It provided the ability of conferences to credential openly gay clergy qualified to serve. This was done with the understanding that in a 12-million-person denomination, there will be differences of opinion about such marriages as well as the credentialing of clergy, just as there are differences of opinions among members of the local church about whether their gay members, friends, work colleagues, and neighbors should enjoy rites and rights of marriage and vocation. I think the future of the denomination that I and others envision has a great deal more “middle ground” to the average person than a denomination where such marriages and clergy credentialing are seen as so appalling as to require a special level of punishment.
A week after the first letter was shared with me, a second email was sent by a church member of a different congregation. Their pastor added these sentences:
Please note that this man was nominated this year for Bishop by the Virginia Annual Conference and will very likely be one of our new UMC bishops. If this is one of our new bishops, and here are his ‘centrist’ views, again, it’s hard to imagine (no matter what he says otherwise) that he truly wants to respect and make space for traditionalists. If our church’s theology is an illness we need to rid ourselves of, how could he fairly treat pastors and churches who actually hold those virulent beliefs? It’s hard to imagine that he would be able to treat those pastors and churches fairly.
I find the phrase, “no matter what he says otherwise” often makes respectful conversation difficult and Christian conversation rather impossible. I am an episcopal nominee, but not in the Jurisdiction where this church is located. If elected, I would not serve as their bishop. I did not say and do not believe that our church’s theology is an “illness.” I did predict that the Traditional Plan would make the church in America ill, a predication that has been fully validated.
Many United Methodists disagree on the inclusion of gay persons related to marriage rites and credentialing for ministry. In these conversations it remains important to avoid false accusations and misrepresentations. This is simply the way Christians are called by Christ to treat one another.