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.
The Council of Bishops supported the One Church Plan.
Waiting for answers
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 The Book 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 The Book 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.”
The March 17 livestream video is available for viewing, and you can read a recap on the conference website. The conference has also provided a transcript of the bishop’s remarks, a PDF of the legislation and the PowerPoint used as well as frequently asked questions regarding the 2019 General Conference.
You can continue to send your questions into firstname.lastname@example.org.