United Methodists in Coweta County are waiting for a ruling by the denomination’s judicial council to see what the official stance on homosexuals in their church will be.
A series of informational sessions for United Methodists is being held in the North Georgia Conference to explain the implications of the recent General Conference vote, and members from churches in the LaGrange District attended one of them on Sunday at Cascade United Methodist Church in Atlanta.
The meeting at Cascade was for churches from the LaGrange, Griffin and Atlanta-College Park districts. United Methodist churches in Coweta County are in the LaGrange District.
Speakers included Sue Haupert-Johnson, bishop for the North Georgia Conference; Dr. Bernice Kirkland, Atlanta College Park district superintendent; Susan Landry, LaGrange district superintendent; and Richard Winn, Griffin district superintendent.
Sybil Davidson, public information officer for the North Georgia Conference, said more than 300 people attended the meeting at Cascade, which included worshipful music, communion and information on the February meeting of the United Methodist General Conference.
The General Conference voted in February to follow the Traditional Plan, which leaves language on sexuality unchanged in the church’s rulebook – thereby preventing gay couples from being married in Methodist churches or by Methodist pastors and precluding practicing homosexuals serving as clergy.
While Methodists will not know for a month or more what the final version of the General Conference decision will entail, the leadership at the Cascade meeting made it clear that they want the church to embrace all people.
Landry drew applause when she said, “LGBTQ persons are welcome in our churches.” She added, “All persons are of sacred worth to our Lord. I remain – and we remain – a people of faith as we’re all moving toward perfection.”
The General Conference is the only body that can create new rules for the denomination, which are published in The Book of Discipline. The February meeting in St. Louis was specifically to address human sexuality in Methodist churches.
“In 2016 we found ourselves at an impasse. We found ourselves off the course of our mission,” Kirkland said.
The Commission on a Way Forward was established to study the issue of sexuality in the church and make recommendations.
Winn explained the United Methodist Church is a global church – with congregations in the United States and in the Philippines, Africa and Europe.
“Because of the cultural, geographic and demographic differences, Methodists in different places have different viewpoints,” Winn said.
“We really are worldwide. We really are seeking to be the body of Christ that goes across the ocean,” Landry said.
Proposals to allow gay members full membership in terms of ordination and marriage had support from 70 percent of U.S. delegates at the General Conference, but delegates from other parts of the world were more uniformly opposed to those changes.
Winn noted that even within congregations in the United States, however, there are diverse opinions about human sexuality.
“There’s no congregation on one mind of this matter. Human sexuality is a topic on which United Methodists dwell together with different views,” Winn said.
“We are not all the same, and we do not have to be all the same to be in ministry for Jesus together,” Landry said.
“We are here today to be with one another, to pray about what God is doing, to learn about what happened at St. Louis at the called General Conference and to continue to move forward as the people called United Methodists,” Kirkland said.
Landry explained Methodist polity. The church has no single executive leader. Duties are divided among the General Conference, the Council of Bishops and the Judicial Council.
The General Conference meets periodically and makes decisions that are binding to churches, denominational agencies and pastors. The Council of Bishops meets at least annually, has general oversight and offers spiritual leadership.
The Judicial Council, comprised of nine people, operates similarly to the U.S. Supreme Court. The council will be reviewing the General Conference report from April 23-25.
“Whatever they say at that point becomes church law,” Winn said.
The new rules will take effect on Jan. 1.
The Judicial Council will review the entire Traditional Plan decision. In addition to keeping Discipline language regarding ordination and marriage, the General Conference vote would establish penalties for clergy who married a same-sex couple – one year without pay for the first offense, a surrender of credentials for the second.
The General Conference vote also would allow churches to leave the denomination if two thirds of their members voted to leave and the congregation agreed to pay long-term pension liability and an extra years of apportionment. The apportionment is an amount assessed congregations each year – based on membership – to fund denomination-wide work.
A part of the Traditional Plan that many think may not pass muster with the Judicial Council is a requirement for all members of the Board of Ordained Ministry to certify they will fully follow the discipline.
“There are no easy answers to this right now,” Kirkland said. “We are in a season of waiting, a season of transition.”