Upper New York for Full Inclusion was born in the wake not just of General Conference 2019 but of Upper New York Bishop Mark Webb’s canceling of scheduled in-person regional gatherings after the February 2019 special session.
Those who would call themselves UNYFI came together March 9 for an initial gathering, making use of a time and space once reserved for a required all-clergy meeting to instead meet, mourn and get to work organizing for a better United Methodist Church.
Teams were created around communications, annual conference legislation, general conference delegates, direct action, Reconciling Ministries, meeting with Upper New York moderates and hospitality, with a team of leaders leading each group. The movement has a Facebook page, Twitter page and blog. And, now, a newsletter!
The group was further galvanized after a disappointing livestream event hosted by the bishop, and it met again in a large gathering March 30 to continue strategizing for full inclusion, especially as the 2019 Upper New York Annual Conference approaches.
On March 29, members of the lead team met with consultant Angela Neal to focus on goal-setting. Together the team determined that the goals for UNYFI were the following:
Full Inclusion in the United Methodist Church.
Removal of the exclusionary language from The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church.
A new bishop appointed at during the 2020 Northeast Jurisdiction conference. She or he would begin September 1, 2020.
Supporting a gracious exit plan.
More delegates to General Conference 2020 who want full inclusion and more presence at General Conference 2020 of those who are not delegates.
Protect the vulnerable and mitigate harm being done in Upper New York, including candidates for ministry, licensed local pastors, LGBTQIA people, youth and clergy brought up on complaints/charges.
If you feel called to help with one of the teams, let us know at UNY4Inclusion@gmail.com, and we’ll put you in touch with the team leads.
Two open letters have been circulating in the Upper New York Conference, both inviting Upper New York United Methodists into the work of full inclusion and to stand against institutional oppression.
The letter titled “Invitation and Traditional Plan Rejection” invites everyone to join the work of justice and Jesus by calling on Upper New York leadership to not abide the punitive Traditional Plan, passed at General Conference 2019, that has pushed our church backward, not forward. A second letter titled “We Refuse” calls for a bold defiance of the Traditional Plan and the Book of Discipline’s exclusionary language against LGBTQIA+ siblings.
Consider adding your name to these statements and let the Upper New York Conference, The United Methodist Church and the world know how you feel about a church with closed doors.
Save the dates:
May 4-5: Regional meetings are being planned for the weekend of May 4-5. We’ll share more information as details are finalized.
June 4: Pre-annual conference gathering at University United Methodist Church in Syracuse at 7 p.m.
Please continue to pray for our church and for our work together, and continue to invite others into the work.
A few weeks ago Upper New York Bishop Mark Webb held a livestream gathering to discuss General Conference 2019. Like many of us that Sunday, I sat in my pew and felt shame—shame as every piece of legislation passed by the special session of general conference was read, shame with each concession of what had been deemed constitutional or not, shame knowing the potential progress that could have come out of that time of holy conferencing, and shame knowing that we have caused harm onto the LGBTQ community for decades and there is not yet an end in sight. As I continued to sit in my pew I listened to Bishop Webb’s appeal that we are at a point of doctrinal difference. That was when I stopped feeling ashamed and remembered the message of the church that raised me.
Our institution is far from perfect, this recent reckoning of our current “doctrine” confirmed that. However, we are not now nor have we ever been a people who are content with leaving things as they are. The insinuation was made that gathering together in community to come to terms with our reality and vision for the future of our church is causing further division. This is false. People coming together to support one another in a time of grief and sorrow isn’t a threat; it reflects the strength we have in our connection. People organizing to find ways to make our church and our connection more just isn’t aggression, it’s living out leaning into our heritage. Seeking justice for the oppressed and marginalized doesn’t hurt the oppressor, it brings us closer to God.
A church that celebrates the marriage of people wanting to extend their discipleship into the context of their relationship is not radical, it’s an extension of our baptism. A church that can uplift those with a call to ministry who wish to devote their life to building Christian community is not radical, it’s a church that wants to spread the good news. It’s exhausting to advocate for something that should be so logical. We, people seeking a fully inclusive church, are not radical just because our message has fallen on closed hearts and minds for decades. We are speaking to people who need to hear the message we are bringing. Our Church needs to be fully inclusive of LGBTQ persons if we are to be truly Christ-centered and justice-seeking. The “traditional” interpretation of Scripture that some tout as doctrine doesn’t make that less true.
People can put words on a screen and try to bring back old ideas for as long as they want. This sounds like a nice way to muddle a message. Regardless, the Church I know and the church I am here for is with all of the people here, in spite of our the denomination’s shortcomings. It is within us that I see the hope and feel the conviction to have a fully inclusive church. The shame I felt was deep, but the call to continue to speak truth and work for inclusion and is far stronger. Some have said that we need a resurrection for Methodism. If you ask me though, we’re already in Pentecost.
Marthalyn Sweet Lay delegate to General Conference Gouverneur First United Methodist Church
Bishop Webb is right. The United Methodist Church as it currently exists is no longer tenable. In addition to doing immeasurable harm, the passage of the so-called Traditional Plan served as a clear rejection of a theologically diverse denomination and a repudiation of compromise. John Wesley once asked, “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike?”
The answer, it seems, is no.
Those of us advocating for an inclusive church have not sought unanimity, merely liberty. Responding to the call of the gospel of Jesus Christ, we long for the freedom to embrace our gay and lesbian siblings through the rite of Christian marriage and to affirm their demonstrated gifts for ordained ministry. We are willing to be in the same church as those who think differently than us about this issue. The passage of the Traditional Plan tells us that the feeling is not mutual.
The American church largely favors compromise. By most counts, nearly nearly two-thirds of U.S. delegates voted in favor of the One Church Plan. Unfortunately, it was not enough. The unholy alliance of our most uncompromisingly conservative U.S. delegates with delegates from several central conferences meant that the One Church Plan never even made it out of the legislative committee (though not for lack of trying). Given the changing demographics of the American Church, it seems clear that the One Church Plan was the last realistic hope for a legislative solution to our current schism. The only remaining solution at this point, short of divine intervention, is structural change within the denomination.
It is possible, as Bishop Webb suggests, that the structural solution lies in the retooling of something like the Connectional Conference Plan. If this were the case, it should not be three “connections” but rather two: unity or traditional. We could support an expression of Wesleyan Methodism that allows for a range of theological understandings of LGBTQ+ clergy and same-gender weddings to coexist within the same Church. Our fear, as demonstrated by the action of the General Conference, is that we will again stand alone in that desire.
Another possible structural change would be for the United States (as a whole or in individual jurisdictions) to become its own central conference with more ability to govern itself. This would certainly be the most just solution for the global Church. For too long the U.S. church has treated central conferences as dependent children. It is time to build better relationships. A U.S. central conference would help the Church begin to view central conferences not as an exception but as a core part of the work of the Church. This mutuality would help us all live into God’s call for us in our own contexts while not enforcing one biblical interpretation over all others. It no longer makes sense for central conferences to have a stranglehold on U.S. governance nor for central conference delegates to have to fly thousands of miles to vote on an almost entirely U.S.-centric polity. Unfortunately, hard-hearted traditionalists recognize that this solution would almost certainly lead to an immediate repeal of the current discriminatory language in the U.S. discipline. As such, we fear it has little chance of passing.
It seems the only other viable structural solution to this quagmire is divorce. No one believes divorce is good, but sometimes it is best. Ironically, we have gotten past the biblical prohibitions against divorce to recognize its necessity from time to time. This may be one of those times.
We in the Upper New York Conference who want a fully inclusive Church stand with the Western Jurisdiction, the German Executive Committee, and the many others who have roundly and unequivocally denounced the Traditional Plan as causing unnecessary and lasting harm. Further, given the imminent necessity for structural change, we call upon Bishop Webb, the Upper New York Board of Ordained Ministry, and other members of the conference leadership team to, as an act of grace, impose an immediate moratorium on any punitive action related to human sexuality.
Finally, we remain committed to working with anyone who in good faith and Christian love longs to find an expression of Wesleyan Methodism that leaves space for differing views to co-exist. In the spirit of John Wesley, “‘If your heart is as my heart,’ if you love God and all [humankind], I ask no more: ‘give me your hand.’”
The Rev. Dr. Stephen Cady
Asbury First United Methodist Church, Rochester, New York
On March 17, Upper New York Conference Bishop Mark Webb hosted a livestream gathering billed as a time of worship, sharing, questions and prayer as a response to the 2019 special session of the United Methodist General Conference. This event came after scheduled in-person regional gatherings with the bishop were cancelled in favor of a simultaneous remote event, broadcast to one location in each of the conference’s 12 districts. Questions were invited to be e-mailed ahead of time.
The first hour was spent in worship, with a focus on Romans 12 and a message interpreted by many to be: choose politeness over conflict.
“It felt like such an abusive reading of the text,” said Teressa Sivers, pastor at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Ithaca. “It was abusive to ask those who were just horribly wounded and shoved from the table of grace only two weeks ago at General Conference to ‘bless those who persecute them.’ It felt like the Scripture was being used to punish those protesting the decision and send them to their corner.”
Others felt they were being pushed to silence as a sacrifice at the altar of “unity.”
“I do not believe in backing down and shutting up when I am standing on the side of what is right and just, especially when someone in a position of power misuses their power to tell me to do so,” said Home Missioner Kevin Nelson, member of First United Methodist Church in Schenectady.
Webb opened the gathering by noting the pain in Upper New York and in the entire United Methodist Church because of the decisions of General Conference, which were not only to maintain the denomination’s discriminatory language against openly gay clergy and same-sex wedding ceremonies but to increase the penalties for violating this particular part of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church.
“Those whose convictions are that the church’s stance on homosexuality must change are deeply disappointed, hurt, frustrated and angry,” Webb acknowledged, but not without comparing their pain to the hurt feelings of those who support the current discriminatory stance.
“Those who support the decision of the General Conference, because of their convictions, are struggling with being labeled as judgmental, hateful,” he said, “even though they believe that all are sacred in the eyes of God.”
Carmen Perry, pastor at Hurlbut Memorial United Methodist Church in Chautauqua, warns of the danger of presenting this pain as equally damaging.
“While I empathize with the hurt that those who support the Traditional Plan are feeling, their pain will never be like the pain experienced by our LGBTQIA+ siblings,” she said. “One cannot say all are sacred in the eyes of God and then not only refuse all people the same opportunities but add punitive measures to the harmful language of that already exists in The Book of Discipline.”
The logs in our own eyes
Webb also accused Upper New York United Methodists of not trusting one another and decried political maneuvering and hurtful rhetoric.
He did not mention the illegal voting that occurred in St. Louis in support of the Traditional Plan nor the political maneuvering that brought the Traditional Plan in front of General Conference delegates in the first place, as it was not part of the Commission on a Way Forward’s report until the Council of Bishops requested its inclusion only two weeks before the final report was due (as noted in the final report given to delegates). The plan was written by a set of bishops and given to the commission, Webb explained at a fall 2018 district gathering.
Webb has acknowledged his alignment with traditionalist theology. He now supports pursuing a structure similar to the Connectional Conference plan, which received the least support from both the bishops and delegates.
Many in attendance at the district events became frustrated with the length of worship, which felt disconnected and impersonal.
“It felt like worship was being used to waste time,” said Morgan Reed, who attends Little Meadows United Methodist Church in Little Meadows, Pennsylvania, on the New York border. “And communion being blessed remotely made me mad.”
Reed attended her district gathering to hear the bishop answer questions.
“He didn’t answer any of the questions personally but instead used The Book of Discipline to protect himself,” she said.
Webb answered questions after a lengthy description of what did pass at the 2019 General Conference, including pieces of the Traditional Plan already ruled unconstitutional by the United Methodist Judicial Council in October 2018 and during the February special session. All legislation passed at General Conference will be reviewed by the Judicial Council in April 2019, and only what is ruled constitutional will be eligible for inclusion in TheBook of Discipline.
For full inclusion
Upper New York for Full Inclusion, a movement of United Methodists in the Upper New York Conference who want to end the church’s institutional oppression, sent questions asking the bishop if he believes all parts of The Book of Discipline—not just those regarding “self-avowed practicing homosexuals”—should now also be subject to increased enforcement and penalties and whether he’ll prioritize charges against Reconciling churches, who already do not comply with TheBook of Discipline’s discrimination against openly gay clergy and wedding ceremonies.
The bishop stated he will consider all complaints equally.
When asked how he’ll minister to LGBTQIA United Methodists in the Upper New York Conference and how he’ll work to heal the harm done, Webb stated that he’ll continue to reach out to those in the LGBTQIA community with whom he has a relationship, saying, “They are loved by God and they are loved by me.
“I’ll continue to honor the gifts of LGBTQIA members of Upper New York and work alongside them on various leadership teams and committees of the annual conference, just as I have done for almost 7 years,” he continued.
He vowed to build community and engage in conversation in partnership with any congregation but specifically with Reconciling congregations to learn how he can be helpful.
For many Upper New York United Methodists who want full inclusion, it’s a matter of whether the bishop will use his time enforcing the penalties of the Traditional Plan or if he’ll allow his churches to fully live out their interpretations of the Bible and God’s call, which includes defying discrimination.
In response to a question regarding whether the Upper New York Conference must support the Traditional Plan, Webb’s answer was yes, in that he said, “No amendments came from the General Conference that require or allow a vote of an annual conference or local church to operate apart or differently from The Book of Discipline.”
The decisions of the General Conference, which the bishop would later call a broken system, will be prioritized over the conference and its local churches.
“The pain being felt by our LBGTQIA+ siblings throughout The United Methodist Church in response to the called General Conference is palpable,” said Ian C. Urriola, General Conference delegate for Upper New York and member at First Asbury United Methodist in Rochester. “This isn’t a question of scriptural authority—it’s a question of saving lives. Now, more than ever, we need all of our episcopal leaders to follow the way of Jesus and put life before doctrine and sacrificial love before discipline.”
For Pat Dupont, local pastor in Rochester serving St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality homeless shelter and outreach organization, the Traditional Plan is just like the religious practices Jesus and the prophets challenged in their time.
“Ever since General Conference I have found myself reflecting on the words of the prophet Amos,” Dupont said. “Amos tells us that if we are not living lives of solidarity, compassion and justice with and for the marginalized, then God doesn’t even hear our worship. Actually, that God hates our worship. Our prayers for unity, our songs of praise, our reading of Scriptures about love and tolerance, our celebrations of what we all hold in common—they are all hollow and meaningless if we simultaneously continue to harm vulnerable people. I don’t think God was listening to our worship on Sunday. And if God was, I bet God was pretty angry.”
Come, Holy Spirit, move among all who love God and know The United Methodist Church can be a connected, faith-driven agent for God’s work and a place for personal and societal transformation.
We can’t accomplish this by being a church that sets apart groups of people for special mistreatment. We can’t accomplish this by being a church that manipulates its own systems in the name of power and greed.
A great way to serve your Upper New York Conference is to be a part of its conference committees. The conference nomination committee is meeting soon to discern leaders needed for such a time as this. Is God placing a call on your heart to serve as a leader in this way? Check out the places available and fill out the survey in this letter. Applications are due Tuesday March 19.
Our beloved United Methodist Church continues to harm God’s children. If you are experiencing emotional stress or suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK or The Trevor Project Lifeline: 1-866-488-7386 or text START to 678678.