The Council of Bishops of United Methodist Church have met this week to decide on a way through the difficult waters of human sexuality and relationships. The Commission on a Way Forward has made its recommendations and the Bishops, who have decided to offer all three options to the General Conference next year, whilst recommending one - the One Church Plan.
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.
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 One Church Plan removes the restrictive language of the Book of Discipline and adds assurances to pastors and Conferences who due to their theological convictions cannot perform same-sex weddings or ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals.
The alternatives are a reiteration of the current position but with much harsher sanctions on those who oppose it, or a system of different groupings akin to the Church of England's double integrities and one last used in the American Methodist Church to deal with differing attitudes to race.
All three options carry their own integrity and seek to clarify the position of the Church, as well as offer proper protections to all in the Church. Each seek to address the crucial cultural, missional, pastoral, theological and justice issues raised. Of course, should the option of reiterating the current position by endorsed - the so-called Traditionalist Plan - there is every likelihood of a schism whereby progressive United Methodists leave, or are forced out, of the fold.
How does this affect, if at all, the British Methodist Church? I think most people would like to think that our situation is completely different and the tenor, if not the context, of our debates has been more measured and less polarised. It is true that there has been less vitriol but, for those who have read submissions from Methodist congregations and individuals in recent years, it is far from absent. Homophobic actions and words are still all too present amongst us.
In the early part of this century, I found myself placed in a most difficult position. Despite the assurances I had been offered by District and Circuit as to my personal safety in accepting a new appointment, still, within a year, rumours were rife and investigations into my private life were being conducted before I was informed. I felt violated, and was told that, if I could affirm my 'innocence', then I could receive the support of my Superintendent. I had never before felt so utterly unprotected and open to the prurience and judgement of others. It shook so to my very core and forced me to quit the appointment and seek a job outside the control of the Church. Thank God I ended up in a chaplaincy appointment that, slowly and carefully, put me back together and helped me to rediscover my vocation to ministry. For many others who were forced down a similar path, it has not led back to the Church.
Fifteen years on, have things improved? There is a danger that we kid ourselves in Methodism that the status quo with regard to sexuality and relationships is somehow benign. In those fifteen years, some things have changed, but LGBTQ+ officers and ministers still find themselves in a limbo, open to charges and complaints and all the anxiety that brings. Perhaps that's why so many stay in the closet, seeking the plausible deniability of ambiguity.
Dignity and Worth has just launched a new way to report incidents of homo/trans/biphobia as a way of flagging up to the wider Connexion that prejudice, fear and even hatred are still to be found and thrive on silence. The status quo is not a safe or comfortable place for LGBTQ+ Methodists - let us hope the Conference of 2018 recognises that and seeks to move us on.