I write this letter to all who have seen or heard or have questions about what happened last week at the General Conference of the United Methodist Church.
I serve as lead pastor at the First United Methodist Church of Ashland, and last week I was in St. Louis with several thousand Methodists. We had come together with the hope of passing inclusive legislation that would finally move us forward into a time of full inclusion of LGBTQIA people in our churches.
Methodism is a huge denomination, comprising 12 million members worldwide and many more constituents, staff and partners. We influence policy from the grass roots of the local church and community to Washington, D.C. and the United Nations. There is a phrase in United Methodism, “as goes United Methodism, so goes the country.” This is a phrase I take seriously in my work; I recognize the power of United Methodists to reach and teach in ways that can lead to real change.
Real change did not come to us at General Conference last week.
The headlines have shown the heartbreaking truth of people weeping and praying at General Conference as those assembled under the promise of working to find unity and room for all instead promoted division. I was among them. I watched in sorrow as the “One Church Plan,” encouraged by the bishops and crafted over two and a half years, was jettisoned for an unconstitutional swipe at those of us who long for, work for, and seek to serve an all-inclusive church.
Methodists have a constitution. Methodism in the United States formed alongside the United States itself. We have a constitution and a legislative body that draws its representatives from local districts and local churches. We began as an American church, but have grown globally. While in the U.S. many of us have worked for gender inclusivity, across the globe this has not been the case. In our churches in Africa, Russia, Korea, the Philippines and elsewhere, the conversation about inclusivity is in the early stages. Last week in St. Louis, many of our overseas siblings joined with a group of conservative Methodists in the U.S. who seek to quash the inclusive movement. Together, they comprised more than 55 percent of the delegates who cast votes.
The outcome was that the plan of unity put forward for the bishops was rejected and instead the mis-named “Traditional Plan” was approved. The Traditional Plan creates harsher penalties and stricter lines of exclusion. It is anything but “traditional” Methodism. It was heartbreak for us in St. Louis.
The Traditional Plan is so skewed away from the heart of Methodism it was declared in large part unconstitutional, yet still it passed.
The chance of full ratification of the Traditional Plan is almost nil. But its passage is a painful reminder that our church and our country is deeply divided over how we love and care for each other and what kind of country we want to be.
Ashland Methodist here in this good city is a Reconciling Church. That means that our church is part of a network of churches around the country who embrace and love our LGBTQIA siblings. We in Ashland are supported by our bishops in the Western Jurisdiction and our leaders include many faithful and people of all gender identities and orientations including local pastors, ordained elders, district superintendents and our beloved Bishop Karen Oliveto. We belong to each other and we will not let go of each other. We will not be subjugated or divided. We will stand firm in our belief that all means all and love is love.
The hope of those who pushed the Traditional Plan was not to reform our church, but to dispirit, divide us and drive those seeking inclusivity away from our churches. They cannot be allowed to achieve their goal. Our church is open to you. Our church welcomes you as a sibling alongside us. I believe with all my heart that we must stand firm and be the people we have been called to be, recognizing the divine in each other, serving in ministry together, and seeking that better world together.
Thank you all for reading this long letter. There is so much on my heart and so much I want to say to my community. Do not be led by the hatefulness you might read in the paper. Stand with us as we hold fast to love. For God is love. And we are siblings together always in that love.
Many blessings to you all.
The Rev. Richenda Fairhurst is lead pastor of First United Methodist Church of Ashland.