Friday, February 22, 2019

A Prayer of Confession for GC2019

After nearly three years of anticipation and an increasing crescendo of opinions, debates, discussions, and strategizing, General Conference 2019 begins tomorrow. Knowing that the eyes of the United Methodist world will be focused elsewhere, UM & Global will take a brief hiatus until after the conclusion of the General Conference.

Since the General Conference will begin with a day of prayer, I leave you with this prayer of confession from the United Methodist Hymnal, A Service of Word and Table 1, p. 8. It is likely that none of us has nor will fully love God with all our hearts, souls, strength, and minds, nor our neighbor as ourselves through this process. For that, Lord have mercy.

Merciful God,
we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart.
We have failed to be an obedient church.
We have not done your will,
we have broken your law,
we have rebelled against your love,
we have not loved our neighbors,
and we have not heard the cry of the needy.
Forgive us, we pray.
Free us for joyful obedience,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

What are laws and views on homosexuality in Europe and Eurasia?

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

After examining the variety of laws and views regarding homosexuality in Africa and the Philippines, this post will examine such laws and views in Europe and Eurasia, the third region of United Methodist presence outside the United States.

As in Africa, Europe and Eurasia is a large region with multiple countries and cultures, so laws and public opinion vary. Moreover, both laws and public opinion are continuing to change, so please excuse any recent developments overlooked by this post.

On the legal side, no countries in Europe criminalize homosexuality. Instead, most of the variation is in the recognition of same-sex relationships, where countries range from banning gay marriage to recognizing same-sex civil unions to recognizing same-sex marriage. As of last year, 17 European countries recognize same-sex marriage, and an additional 11 recognize same-sex civil unions. Romania is moving the direction of recognizing civil unions after a referendum to ban same-sex marriage there failed. Same-sex marriage because legal in Austria on Jan. 1st of this year.

According to a 2017 Pew Research report, supplemented with additional online information, European countries with a UMC presence where same-sex marriage is legal include Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, and Norway. European countries with a UMC presence where same-sex civil unions are legal include Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, and Switzerland.

European countries with a UMC presence where there is no legal recognition of same-sex relationships include Albania, Belarus, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, and Ukraine. Same-sex relationships are also not legally recognized in the central Asian countries where the UMC has congregations. Some European and Eurasian countries that do not permit same-sex marriage have constitutional bans on same-sex marriage, while others encode such bans in elsewhere in their legal system.

This list of laws reflects an overall trend in public opinion: the farther east one goes in Europe and Eurasia, the more opposed people are to same-sex marriage and homosexuality in general. This result even holds up across age ranges. Large majorities in Northern and Western Europe are in favor of societal acceptance of homosexuality and governmental recognition of same-sex marriage. Opinion on both issues is split among central European countries such as Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia. Eastern European countries are likely to view both same-sex marriage and homosexuality negatively.

This is one of the ways in which The United Methodist Church in Europe is in a unique position in the denomination: it includes people of widely differing views on sexuality living in countries with different legal stances on sexuality, yet at the same time unity is a strong value for European United Methodists. Unity is seen as essential to survival for what is in Europe a small denomination which is often viewed with suspicion.

I know they have struggled themselves and had many difficult conversations in preparation for General Conference 2019, but perhaps European and Eurasian delegates can teach the rest of the denomination something about how to balance strongly held convictions, deep differences in opinion, and the recognition that we still need each other.

Monday, February 18, 2019

What are laws and views on homosexuality in the Philippines?

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

After examining last week the variety of laws and public opinions regarding homosexuality in countries in Africa with a United Methodist presence, this post examines the same set of questions for the Philippines, the only country in Asia with an established United Methodist presence.

On the legal side, the Philippines does not have laws criminalizing homosexuality. Same-sex marriage is not currently legal in the Philippines, though there has been an effort in the country's legislature over the past two years to pass a bill that would create same-sex civil partnerships. The Philippines Supreme Court also heard a case last summer that would legalize same-sex marriage, though they have not yet issued a ruling on it. Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has changed his position on same-sex marriage several times, but currently supports it. If the Philippines legalizes same-sex marriage, it would become the second Asian country to do so, after Taiwan.

On the side of public opinion, Filipinos as a whole are rather accepting of homosexuality. In a 2013 Pew Forum survey, 73% of Filipinos said that society should accept homosexuality. That is a higher percentage than in the United States, and the results led to the Philippines being labeled "among [the] most gay-friendly in the world."

Religiosity does affect view of homosexuality in the Philippines, as elsewhere. Not only The United Methodist Church, but the Catholic Church, to which the great majority of Filipinos belong, views homosexuality as a sin. Yet in forming their views on homosexuality, Filipinos draw not only on religious teachings, but also on long-standing Southeast Asian cultural traditions in which gender is a more fluid category and sex roles and sexuality are not as rigid.

Despite the overall favorable views of homosexuality, Filipinos may be less accepting of the idea of same-sex marriage. The most widely distributed survey of public opinion on same-sex marriage found that only 22% of Filipinos supported it, while 61% were opposed. Yet, as in South Africa and Taiwan, it is possible for same-sex marriage to be legal in a country even when the majority of the population has expressed opposition.

Friday, February 15, 2019

What are laws and views on homosexuality in Africa?

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

In his series of "Seeing a Way Forward" videos, Rev. Forbes Matonga makes the claim that the Traditionalist Plan is the only "legal" plan for Africans, since gay marriage is illegal almost everywhere in Africa. On one level, Rev. Matonga is incorrect in that it would be possible for the One Church Plan or Connectional Conferences Plan to pass and Africans to maintain prohibitions against gay marriage and gay ordination, nor much church policy and state policy always coincide. Yet it is worth exploring the range of laws about and views regarding homosexuality in Africa.

On one hand, Rev. Matonga is right about the legality of gay marriage in Africa. South Africa is the only country in Africa where gay marriage is legal. It was legalized by an 80% pro vote of parliament in 2006 after previous marriage laws were struck down as unconstitutional.

On the other hand, there's much wider variation on the legality of homosexual practices in Africa. It's true that some African countries, including some where the UMC is located, have criminalized gay sex, making LGBTQ+ people who are out vulnerable to arrest, detention, and other legalized harm. But there are also African countries, including those where the majority of African United Methodists live, where there are no laws prohibiting homosexuality, even though gay marriage is not legal.

The following lists come from a 2018 Amnesty International infographic:

Those countries with United Methodists in Africa where homosexuality is legal include the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote d'Ivoire, Mozambique, Rwanda, South Africa, and Central African Republic. Collectively, these countries make up about 69% of UMC membership in Africa.

Those countries with United Methodists in Africa where homosexuality is illegal include Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Gambia, Liberia, Nigeria, Malawi, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. These countries make up the other 31% of UMC membership in Africa. The severity and enforcement of these laws vary. In Kenya, the Supreme Court is in the process of deciding a court case that could legalize homosexuality there.

Beyond the issue of legality is the issue of public opinion. The most commonly cited source for African views on homosexuality is a 2013 Pew Forum study which covers several but far from all African countries. It does not include the DRC or Cote d'Ivoire, but does include South Africa. African countries, Muslim countries, and Russia stand out as the places least accepting of homosexuality. Even in South Africa, where gay marriage is legal, public opinion runs against homosexuality, and LGBTQ+ persons still routinely face discrimination and even violence.

One caveat to these results that I have heard from Africans themselves is that Africans do not talk about sex, even straight sex, publicly. It is treated as a taboo subject. This makes it difficult to have conversations about homosexuality. When those conversations do happen, views are perhaps less cut and dried than a yes/no question on a Pew Forum survey would suggest.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Recommended Readings: More African views on General Conference 2019

As commentaries continue to pour forth in the closing days before General Conference 2019 convenes on February 23rd, several pieces by African United Methodists give a sense of the variety of African viewpoints heading into GC2019.

The Africa Initiative issued a call to prayer for the week of Jan. 28 in preparation for the special called General Conference.

UMNS published a series of video interviews with Rev. Forbes Matonga of Zimbabwe on his views of the way forward

UMNS published a commentary on GC2019 by retired Congolese bishop and Way Forward moderator David Yemba

UMNS published a commentary on GC2019 by Congolese native Albert Otshudi Longe, who currently resides in the United States

One could compare these four pieces in terms of their views on homosexuality. The Africa Initiative and Rev. Matonga (who is a leader in the Africa Initiative) are clearly opposed. Bishop Yemba does not take a direct position. Mr. Longe speaks against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Yet another interesting comparison is to examine the range of terms the four pieces use to describe the upcoming General Conference and The United Methodist Church as a whole. The Africa Initiative speaks of GC2019 as "spiritual warfare." Rev. Matonga instead states, "This is not a war," and calls for gracious and civil behavior. Bishop Yemba speaks of the church as a worshipping community and theological entity. Mr. Longe describes the church using the African concept of "ubuntu."

While Americans often paint Africans with a broad brush, this collection of commentaries should serve as a good reminder that not only are there a variety of views among Africans about the issues at hand before GC2019, there are also differing African ways of understanding General Conference and the church itself.

Monday, February 11, 2019

What are the differences between the five exit plans?

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.


As indicated last week, one likely scenario for General Conference 2019 is that a exit plan will be passed without any other plan also being passed. But the question remains: which exit plan?

There are currently five different exit clause petitions that will come before GC2019 - Brooks (Petition 90051), Tull (Petition 90056), Ottjes (Petition 90058), Boyette (Petition 90059), and Taylor (Petition 90066). Here is how these five plans stack up on a variety of points of comparison.

Brooks (Petition 90051)
Breadth of reason for departure: Departure not limited to disagreements over sexuality
Timeframe for departure: Exits allowed during 2020
Timeline for process: Not stipulated
Local church majority needed to approve: 2/3 of church conference or church local conference
Role of District Superintendents, bishops, and annual conferences: DS presides at church local conference vote of disaffiliation
Payment of unfunded pension liabilities: Not mentioned
Local church assumes property debt: Not mentioned
Use of denominational reserve funds: Not mentioned
Payment of apportionments: Departing church pays apportionment for year of withdrawal (2020)
Other stipulations: Departing church must pay penalty of 50% average annual budget

Tull (Petition 90056)
Breadth of reason for departure: Departure not limited to disagreements over sexuality
Timeframe for departure: two years after passage
Timeline for process: Not stipulated
Local church majority needed to approve: 2/3 of church conference
Role of District Superintendents, bishops, and annual conferences: prohibited from delaying vote by local church
Payment of unfunded pension liabilities: Yes
Local church assumes property debt: Yes
Use of denominational reserve funds: Not mentioned
Payment of apportionments: Departing church pays twice yearly apportionment
Other stipulations: Departing church repays all moneys received from the annual conference in the previous two years. Departing church pays filing fees to release trust clause claims.

Ottjes (Petition 90058)
Breadth of reason for departure: Limited to disagreements about sexuality
Timeframe for departure: No limit
Timeline for process: Must include 90 days of discernment
Local church majority needed to approve: 2/3 of church conference
Role of District Superintendents, bishops, and annual conferences: Must facilitate departure
Payment of unfunded pension liabilities: Not mentioned
Local church assumes property debt: Yes
Use of denominational reserve funds: Not mentioned
Payment of apportionments: Not mentioned
Other stipulations: None

Boyette (Petition 90059)
Breadth of reason for departure: Limited to disagreements with the Book of Discipline
Timeframe for departure: No limit
Timeline for process: Must include 30 days of discernment
Local church majority needed to approve: 55% of church conference or 2/3 of charge conference
Role of District Superintendents, bishops, and annual conferences: Must facilitate departure
Payment of unfunded pension liabilities: Yes
Local church assumes property debt: Yes
Use of denominational reserve funds: Used to offset unfunded pension liabilities
Payment of apportionments: No
Other stipulations: None

Taylor (Petition 90066)
Breadth of reason for departure: Disagreement with changes to Book of Displine stance on homosexuality passed by GC2019
Timeframe for departure: Must finish by Dec. 31, 2023
Timeline for process: Not stipulated
Local church majority needed to approve: 2/3 of church conference
Role of District Superintendents, bishops, and annual conferences: DS appoints a task force on church viability after exit; bishop sets terms of departure with the cabinet
Payment of unfunded pension liabilities: Yes
Local church assumes property debt: Yes
Use of denominational reserve funds: No
Payment of apportionments: Departing church pays apportionments for the year before and the year following departure
Other stipulations: Departing church pays back last five years of annual conference grants. Departing churches can continue to sponsor benefit plans through WesPath.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Why "exit only" is the plan most likely to pass GC2019

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Most of the coverage of the plans laid before the delegates of General Conference 2019 has focused on four: the Connectional Conference Plan, the One Church Plan, the Simple Plan, and the (Modified) Traditional Plan. Yet the plan most likely to pass GC2019 is none of these. The mostly likely plan to pass GC2019 is an exit plan - that is, a plan that relaxes the trust clause which states that the denomination, not local churches, owns church buildings - which could be passed without being tied to a larger piece of legislation.

First of all, none of the other plans seem a shoe-in. Even the supporters of the Connectional Conference Plan and the Simple Plan acknowledge that they do not have enough support to pass. Traditionalists in Good News seem to think that the One Church Plan has insufficient votes, though they may be underestimating their opponents. At the same time, traditionalist messaging in support of the Connectional Conference Plan and exit plans and their unwillingness to declare preemptive victory suggests they doubt their own plan has enough votes. Centrist messaging has given fewer tells, so it is unclear what their take on the situation is. Moreover, the Holy Spirit and other surprises may always happen, but at this point, it does not seem a foregone conclusion that one of the four main plans will pass.

Yet, there seems to be building momentum from a variety of places on the theological spectrum for an exit clause to be passed. Traditionalists associated with the WCA have declared their intention to leave the denomination if the Modified Traditionalist Plan is not passed (and maybe even if it is). Good News is actively advocated the adoption of one of three exit clauses. Although Uniting Methodists has called for a referral of exit plans to GC2020, it is still likely that some centrists and progressives would like to let traditionalists leave, since it would strengthen their position in the remaining denomination. It is also possible some progressives might want to leave the denomination. Thus, an exit clause could have support across a range of American United Methodists. Because there are five petitions that present exit clauses alone, each of which will be voted on separately, it is entirely possible that such a petition would pass, but that no major plan would pass in addition.

Considering this possibility leads to three questions:

1. How would delegates from the central conferences view an exit clause?

It is unlikely that an exit clause could pass without some support among central conference delegates. Relaxing the trust clause so that American churches could leave the denomination could seem to central conference delegates like Americans fighting about American money, and thus an issue without clear implications for them.

This is where the terms of the exit clause become important. "Cheap" exit clauses - ones that pay unfunded pension liabilities but which pay nothing in apportionments or even drain denominational reserve funds are likely to be less palatable to central conference delegates. Apportionment dollars fund grants and programs that central conferences depend upon. Central conference delegates might see such "cheap" exit clauses as a betrayal of their trust in American partners and a direct financial hit to their conferences. If central conference delegates do support an exit clause, it is likely to be one that includes some level of apportionment payout for departing churches.

2. Which exit clause will be approved?

There are currently five different exit clause petitions that will come before GC2019 - Brooks (Petition 90051), Tull (Petition 90056), Ottjes (Petition 90058), Boyette (Petition 90059), and Taylor (Petition 90066). That body will have the responsibility of amending and refining as many of those as they want, but they are likely to pass only one. To do more would seem redundant. Good News has indicated support of three of the five (Ottjes, Boyette, and Taylor), though it has suggested amendments to two of them (Ottjes and Taylor). The other two exit plans may also find support from different quarters.

Yet the five different plans come with different terms for exiting, which may be further amended during discussion. Key differences include the following: How broad is the exit - must an exit be tied directly to the debate over gay marriage and ordination? How long will the exit window be open? What size majority within a local church must vote for exit? Will district superintendents, bishops, annual conferences, or others outside the local church have a role in approving exit? By what calculation will exiting churches pay for their unfunded pension liabilities? Will denominational reserve funds be used to underwrite exiting churches' unfunded pension liabilities? Will exiting churches be required to pay back apportionments or even a year or two of future apportionments? A post next week will run down how the five current petitions address these and other areas.

3. What will the denomination look like after churches take the exit clause?

If an exit only plan is indeed all that is passed by GC2019, who will take that exit? While the conventional wisdom would say, "traditionalists," the question still remains how many. Moreover, will others also take the exit? Are there progressives who would like to leave as well? Are there other congregations who would like to shed their denominational ties for reasons that are not directly tied to debates over sexuality? Would any churches in the central conferences use the opportunity to exit the denomination - either because of issues related to sexuality or because of unrelated power struggles among local leaders?

When the dust settles, how many people will be left within The United Methodist Church, where will they be located, and what will their theological and spiritual inclinations be? And how much money will they continue to give toward connectional ministries through the apportionment system? The GCFA board has already recommended a 23% reduction in US apportionments for the 2021-2024 quadrennium. If substantial number of American United Methodists leave the church, this will have further deleterious effects on general agencies and other connectional ministries.

My point here is not that an exit only situation would necessarily be good or bad. I pray that God lead the church and GC2019 in their decision-making. I know that whatever decisions are made, some change will come, and change always has both good and bad aspects to it.

I do, however, think that it would behoove GC delegates and other leaders to begin thinking about what an "exit only" scenario would look like and what it would mean for the church, rather than focusing all their attention on the other plans. The more prayerful time and reflection that goes into an "exit only" plan, the better it will be, if that is indeed what comes to pass.