Archives for May 2018

Judicial Council Allows Alternative Proposals

In a decision released today, the Judicial Council ruled by an 8-1 margin that “Petitions to the special session of the General Conference 2019 may be filed by any organization, clergy member and lay member of the United Methodist Church as long as the business proposed to be transacted in such petition is in harmony with the purpose stated in the call.”

This means that any member or organization in the church may file a petition with a proposal for resolving the church’s impasse over the definition of marriage and the practice of homosexuality. Such petitions will need to be received by the petitions secretary in the proper format by July 8, 2018. They will then be translated and published in the Advance edition of the Daily Christian Advocate for the delegates to use at General Conference.

The Judicial Council further ruled that “It is the obligation of the General Conference to determine, in the first instance, through its committees, officers and presiders, acting in accordance with The Discipline and the rules and procedures of the General Conference, whether any such petition is ‘in harmony.’” The Council did not tell the General Conference how to make that decision, leaving it up to the General Conference and its committee structure to determine the process for deciding which petitions are in harmony with the purpose of the called special General Conference.

The significance of this ruling is that the petition process is open to all, and alternative proposals for resolving our impasse over the definition of marriage and the practice of homosexuality will be allowed. If a Traditionalist Plan with legislation is not included in the bishops’ report, it can still be submitted separately through this process. This ensures that a plan that evangelicals can support will be considered by the delegates at General Conference.

We applaud the Judicial Council for a well-reasoned decision that will allow the full participation of all the church through its legislative process to arrive at a faithful way forward. Please continue in prayer for the delegates, bishops, and all those involved in submitting petitions.

Leadership or Manipulation?

Bishop Bruce R. Ough (left) speaks during a May 22, 2018, oral hearing before the United Methodist Judicial Council, meeting in Evanston, Ill. At right is Bishop Scott Jones. Photo by Kathleen Barry, UMNS

The bishops have been asked to lead. Apparently, to some bishops that means strong-arming a progressive agenda that has already been rejected by a previous General Conference.

In its recent gathering, the Council of Bishops – behind closed doors – affirmed by a clear majority that it will recommend the One Church Plan to the 2019 General Conference. This plan changes the definition of marriage to “two adults” and removes all prohibitions against same-sex weddings and the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” It also contains allowances and conscience protections for those who want to continue to live by the current biblical standards of the Book of Discipline.

We are grateful that there is a contingent of bishops who do respect the traditional view of marriage and sexuality and who recognize the truly global nature of the United Methodist Church. We regret that they – even including those bishops from outside the United States – are in the minority.

The North American contingent of the Council of Bishops has put forward a proposal that is riddled with problems, and we will be examining it in more detail in the months to come. But I want to point out the direction that many bishops have taken to promote the One Church Plan as the only viable option for the church.

First, the majority of North American bishops have approved a plan that they knew evangelicals and traditionalists could not support. Good News, the Confessing Movement, and the Wesleyan Covenant Association have all made public statements that any type of “local option” plan is unacceptable to us. Over 1,800 attendees at the Chicago inaugural event of the WCA affirmed that “A plan that requires traditionalists to compromise their principles and understanding of Scripture, including any form of the ‘local option’ around ordination and marriage, will not be acceptable to the members of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, stands little chance of passing General Conference, would not definitively resolve our conflict, and would, in fact, lead to the fracturing of the church.”

Yet the majority of these bishops adopted the plan anyway.

Second, from the beginning of its work, the Commission on a Way Forward stated that a “gracious exit” for churches with their property would be part of any plan they put forward. The Commission recognized that the denomination is so polarized that no proposal is likely to be acceptable to all. Rather than spend millions of church offering dollars fighting over the buildings and property (like other mainline churches have done), the Commission believed that it should provide churches and clergy that could not continue in The United Methodist Church after the decision of the 2019 General Conference with a gracious way to exit with their property and pension.

Yet the majority of the Council of Bishops has inexcusably removed the gracious exit from its One Church Plan. Apparently, some progressive bishops believe that they can coerce United Methodist members to stay in the church by holding their church buildings hostage to the denomination. Some annual conferences are starting to use hardball tactics to punish congregations that want to leave. (More about that in a future blog.)

Third, the majority of the Council of Bishops is attempting to prevent other proposals from being submitted in advance to the 2019 General Conference. The Council president, Bishop Bruce Ough, argued this week before the Judicial Council that it should rule out the possibility of any other petitions being submitted to General Conference besides the bishops’ proposal. In his oral argument, Ough maintained that the only piece of legislation that the General Conference could act on is the One Church Plan. He admitted that the General Conference could amend or substitute for that plan, but he believes that none of those amendments or substitutes can be submitted in advance for the General Conference delegates to prayerfully consider. A press release purportedly on behalf of the whole Council of Bishops reflects this position.

Bishop Scott Jones, who submitted his own opposing brief and also participated in oral arguments before the Judicial Council, charged that Bishop Ough was misrepresenting himself. “The Council of Bishops has at no time discussed a recommended answer to the question posed to the Judicial Council nor taken a position authorizing any one or all of its officers to represent it in any particular way,” Jones wrote in his reply brief. “He is misrepresenting the Council which has never taken that position and never discussed how the question should be answered.”

Yet the powers that be on the Council of Bishops felt free to try to restrict the access of grassroots United Methodists in the pews to be able to contribute to a solution to the way forward for our church. I am hopeful that the Judicial Council will rule that other petitions are allowed as part of the official process.

It is the role of leaders to identify a vision or direction and advocate for it. But closing off other options and restricting the choices that followers can make is not leadership, but dictatorship. When bishops advocate for the One Church Plan as the only possible solution to our church’s conflict (despite the fact that a significant number of bishops opposes that plan) they are going beyond what healthy leadership involves. Controlling and manipulating the outcome is not healthy leadership.

Those bishops taking this approach are exhibiting contempt for their evangelical members and clergy – as well as disrespecting their non-North American colleagues who do not share their progressive vision. They are promoting a plan that we have said we cannot accept. They are advocating for the exclusion of other options or choices for the 2019 General Conference. And they are attempting to coerce churches to stay in the denomination in violation of our consciences (should the One Church Plan pass) or else be prepared to lose our property.

The Commission on a Way Forward and the Council of Bishops are advocating that we adopt a “heart of peace” in working together to resolve the impasse that divides and stifles the vitality of our church. But the bishops must lead with a heart of peace in their actions, not just in their words. Disrespect and contempt are attitudes that destroy relationship and increase mistrust. The recent string of decisions by a majority of the Council of Bishops betrays not a respectful attempt to work together to resolve our differences, but an attempt to dictate a solution and force everyone to accept it. Such an approach is more likely to provoke a “heart of war” and set up the 2019 General Conference as a contentious conflict zone. So far, the “heart of peace” seem to be just empty words.

What the Bishops Really Did

(l-r) Outgoing COB President Bishop Bruce Ough, incoming COB President Bishop Ken Carter and COB President-designate Bishop Cynthia Harvey address a press conference at the end of the Council of Bishops meeting on May 4,2018. Photo by Mike DuBose.

Since the Council of Bishops finished their decision-making process on May 4 outlining their proposal for a Way Forward for the church, there has been much confusion. Part of the confusion stems from the careful language used by the bishops in their press release explaining their action. Part of the confusion results from the varying statements and interpretations that individual bishops have released to their annual conferences.

Based on conversations with a number of bishops, I believe that I can answer the most prominent questions that have been asked about what to expect from the bishops’ report and proposal. (Note that this is my interpretation of what I heard and is not in any sense “official” from the bishops.)

What exactly will be in the Council of Bishops’ report and proposal?

As the motion reported in the press release stated, the COB report will contain a recommendation that the General Conference adopt a One Church Plan as proposed by the Commission on a Way Forward. That recommendation will include petitions to change the Book Discipline to remove all language prohibiting same-sex weddings and the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals. It will also add language protecting those who want to maintain the current understanding of human sexuality and want to continue acting within that understanding.

In addition to the recommendation and proposal for the One Church Plan, the report going to General Conference will also contain a “historical narrative” that will explain the Council’s reasons for their proposal. That material will also contain the two other plans proposed by the Commission on a Way Forward, a Connectional Conference Plan and a Traditionalist Plan. The Connectional Conference Plan would create three theological jurisdictions (one traditionalist, one progressive, and one uniting) that would each operate under different understandings about marriage and sexuality while sharing a common core of doctrine and mission. The Traditionalist Plan would retain the current stance of the church prohibiting same-sex weddings and self-avowed practicing homosexual clergy, enhance accountability to these standards to create uniform enforcement across the church, and provide a gracious exit for those who are unable or unwilling to live within the current boundaries of the Discipline.

Will the two plans not recommended by the bishops include possible legislative changes related to those plans?

The Connectional Conference Plan has been fully developed and contains all the legislation (including constitutional amendments) that would be required to implement that plan. That legislation will be part of the historical narrative and background material in the report. That legislation could be put forward by General Conference delegates as a substitute for the One Church Plan on the conference floor in St. Louis.

The Traditionalist Plan has not been fully developed. The COB asked the Commission to focus its attention on developing the One Church and Connectional Conference Plans coming out of the bishops’ November 2017 meeting. That essentially took the Traditionalist Plan off the table, and it was not developed beyond the initial sketch of the proposal. At its meeting ending May 4, the COB changed its mind and asked the Commission to develop a Traditionalist Plan for inclusion in the report along with the other two plans.

Because the request to develop the Traditionalist Plan came to the Commission just one week before its final meeting, the Commission was unable and perhaps unwilling to further develop the plan. The other two plans received intensive and comprehensive participation from the Commission and the COB over an extended period of time, including consultation with outside legal and financial experts. That same process was unavailable for the Traditionalist Plan because it was reintroduced so late. There are legislative proposals that have been written to implement the Traditionalist Plan, but they have not been extensively vetted by the Commission. It will be up to the executive committee of the Council of Bishops whether to include legislation for the Traditionalist Plan in their report to General Conference.

If Traditionalist legislation is not included in the bishops’ report, does that mean a Traditionalist Plan cannot be passed by General Conference?

No. If legislation for a Traditionalist Plan is not included in the bishops’ report, a legislative proposal that implements the Traditionalist Plan can still be introduced at General Conference. Such legislation could be submitted as part of the regular petition process for the 2019 General Conference (deadline of July 8). It is possible (but not very likely) that the Judicial Council could prohibit other petitions besides the bishops’ report and proposal from being submitted through the regular petition process. In that case, the legislation could still be separately translated and mailed to the delegates prior to General Conference. Either way, delegates could then propose that legislation as a substitute for the One Church Plan. So yes, a Traditionalist Plan could still be passed by General Conference.

Will there be a “gracious exit” path available for churches and clergy who cannot live with whatever plan is passed by General Conference?

The bishops decided that their mandate was to provide for the unity of the church, not to encourage the departure of congregations and clergy. Therefore, an exit path will not be part of their One Church proposal. However, at least one form of exit path legislation will be included in the supplemental material, and it could be added by the General Conference delegates to any of the plans. Other exit path proposals could be submitted as part of the regular petition process, if permitted by the Judicial Council, or else submitted independently. The delegates could add any of these exit path proposals to any of the plans.

Why will the COB report and proposal not be released until early July?

There are several reasons why it will take until July to release the final report and proposal.

  • The report has yet to be finished. Some minor but legally important changes were made to the One Church and Connectional Conference Plans at this week’s Commission meeting. As noted above, the Traditionalist Plan was not finished by the Commission. If the executive committee of the Council of Bishops wants to include legislation for a Traditionalist Plan (and other supporting material), that has yet to be written and decided upon. The COB executive committee will also need to reformat the report for General Conference, including putting the legislation in petition form. So the report is nowhere near finished.
  • Translation of the report will have to begin from scratch, once the report is finished. The translation work that was done for the COB meeting was done by their regular interpreters, not the official legal translators that work with General Conference legal material. So that preliminary translation work would not carry over to the finished product.
  • It was important to all the bishops, and particularly to the central conference bishops (those outside the U.S.), that all the delegates receive the report at the same time in their native language. If the report were issued in English right away, it would give U.S. delegates an unfair advantage in digesting and responding to the proposal. This way, all the delegates will have the same amount of time to deal with the report.
  • The bishops felt that releasing a summary of the three plans without the accompanying context could create misunderstanding of the plans. Releasing all three plans in summary form would also indicate that the bishops gave equal weight to three, whereas they clearly recommended only the One Church Plan. They believe enough descriptive information has been given about the One Church Plan for people to understand what the bishops are recommending.

In an earlier statement, I called the delay of the release of the bishops’ proposal “unacceptable.” I understand and support most of the reasons the bishops have given for the report’s delay. However, the management of this whole process left a bit to be desired. If more developed plans had been given to the bishops earlier, perhaps they would have given their feedback earlier. At the same time, if the bishops had shared their feedback earlier about the need to develop a Traditionalist Plan instead of waiting until a week before the Commission’s last meeting, the Commission could have done more work to develop such a plan.

I think the COB was hoping that the report they received at their meeting ending May 4 would be complete and need only minor cosmetic changes. It could have been sent for translation quickly and would have been finished well before the July 8 deadline. The dramatic (and helpful) decision of the COB to include a Traditionalist Plan at the last minute threw off those plans and leaves us in the situation we now find ourselves.

Did the bishops really “overwhelmingly” recommend the One Church Plan?

No. The “overwhelming majority” vote in support of the bishops’ report was based on the inclusion of all three plans. Note that even then, the vote of support was not unanimous. A clear majority supported the One Church Plan, but according to one bishop it was less than a two-thirds majority. There was significant support among the bishops for both of the other two plans.

It is important to note that the bishops do not decide what the church will adopt as its way forward. (Many of them probably wish they were able to decide that.) Instead, it is the delegates to General Conference, representing all of our global church, who will decide our way forward. They will not be limited to voting only on a One Church Plan, but can consider all three options sketched out by the Commission and perhaps other plans as well, submitted by others. The gestation period is beginning, and nine months from now, we will see what the General Conference brings forth to help our church resolve its conflict and refocus on our primary mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Please pray for the delegates, as they bear this significant responsibility.

Understanding Incompatibilists

The Council of Bishops is currently meeting to decide what proposal(s) to submit to the 2019 General Conference to resolve the conflict in our church. Will they understand and accommodate the interests and convictions of incompatibilists in their proposal(s)? The following is excerpted and adapted from my chapter in the book, Holy Contradictions, edited by Brian K. Milford and recently released by Abingdon.

For more than 2,000 years there has been a unified global vision for Christian marriage and human sexuality. In every culture, on every continent, and in every language around the globe, Christianity’s teaching has always promoted the exclusive belief that one man and one woman in lifelong marriage optimizes human flourishing within society. It is a foundational belief shared in common within Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. United Methodism has always taught that the anchor for intimate relationships for clergy and laity should be fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness.

After two millennia, a contrary teaching has been introduced within segments of North American and European mainline denominations. It proposes that contemporary same-sex marriage and intimacy is not the same thing as that prohibited by certain biblical passages. It proposes that mutual, loving same-sex relationships can and should exist today – and should be blessed by the worldwide United Methodist Church. From the viewpoint of progressives, contemporary scientific understandings about the origins of sexual orientation make it likely that same-sex attraction is an inborn characteristic. Therefore, they believe same-sex relations can be holy and good if engaged in within the parameters of faithfulness and mutuality. Accordingly, they believe, the church ought to condone same-sex relationships, perform same-sex marriages, and ordain non-celibate lesbians and gays into ministry.

These two positions tend to be mutually exclusive. The differences between them are stark and irreconcilable. Underlying the two positions are often different views about biblical authority and inspiration, different definitions of holiness, and different understandings of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Thus, it is nearly impossible for many people holding the two different positions to share a common mission of making disciples for the transformation of the world. For one, transforming the world means working for the full equality, acceptance, and affirmation of LGBTQ persons and their relationships and their full inclusion in the church. For the other, transforming the world means promoting traditional views of marriage and sexuality, as well as offering support and transformative healing to LGBTQ persons. The two are working at cross purposes and in opposition to each other!

The document “In Search of Unity,” published in 1998 as the report of a theological dialog about the tensions in The United Methodist Church, presents an analysis first articulated by now retired Bishop Judith Craig. The church is not only divided between those who have a traditional understanding of marriage as between one man and one woman, versus those who have a more progressive understanding of marriage as able to be between any two persons, regardless ofgender. The church is also divided between those who can live with a variety of opinions and practices of ministry around LGBTQ persons (“compatibilists”), versus those who believe that the church’s position is of essential importance and cannot live in a church where the other viewpoint is promoted and practiced (“incompatibilists”).

Progressive Incompatibilists

Progressive incompatibilists “believe that the exclusion of anyone from the full life of the church is completely unacceptable because it is contradictory to the gospel. For them, homosexual persons, practicing or not, are persons of sacred worth living according to the gifts and evidences of God’s grace given to them. To deny such persons a full place in the church is a violation of the holiness and catholicity of the church. For these incompatibilists, to continue to participate in such an exclusive and oppressive organization only serves to legitimate the incomplete worshipping community and perpetuate the sin of exclusion. Commitment to the Church of Jesus Christ requires active resistance and the commitment to stand prophetically against the injustices perpetuated by the institution” (In Search of Unity, p. 8).

It is the progressive incompatibilist approach that has caused clergy (including one retired bishop) to perform same-sex weddings, contrary to our Book of Discipline, sometimes as a public protest event. This approach has prompted seven annual conferences and two jurisdictions to pass resolutions of non-conformity with the Book of Discipline. It has resulted in annual conference boards of ordained ministry recommending for ordination persons whom they knew to be practicing homosexuals. And it has led to the Western Jurisdiction electing and consecrating the Rev. Karen Oliveto, a married lesbian, as a United Methodist bishop.

The actions of progressive incompatibilists are an expression of their quest for justice and the rights of LGBTQ persons within the context of our church. They see this quest as informed and commanded by Scripture and the teachings of Jesus. They have come to the place where they cannot live in a denomination that does not marry or ordain gays and lesbians. So they have taken matters into their own hands and created a de facto reality in many annual conferences that is contrary to the position of The United Methodist Church.

Traditional Incompatibilists

Traditional incompatibilists, on the other hand, believe “for the United Methodist Church to accept homosexual practices either officially in its courts or unofficially by condoning widespread practice would be to forfeit its designation as ‘a body of faithful people where the pure Word of God is preached and the sacraments duly administered according to Christ’s ordinance.’ For these incompatibilists their stance is a matter of conscience as formed by Scripture and the doctrinal standards of The United Methodist Church. Furthermore, most incompatibilists on the more conservative side believe that the classical teaching of the Christian tradition is a much-needed word of healing. It is a precious medicine that the Holy Spirit can use to transform and redeem all our sexual sins and wounds. Hence they cannot but proclaim and implement the full liberty from all sin promised in the gospel and warranted by the Lordship of Jesus Christ” (In Search of Unity, p. 8).

Traditional incompatibilists believe the church has unofficially changed its position by its inability to hold accountable those who have violated the teachings and requirements of the church. This has prompted a number of large congregations to leave The United Methodist Church and is causing thousands of individuals to leave their local congregations or withhold financial support for the church.

Implications

Currently, many if not most progressive incompatibilists seem willing to live in a denomination that allows, but does not require, same-sex weddings and ordination of practicing LGBTQ persons. The shared support of progressive incompatibilists and compatibilists of every stripe has given rise to compatibilist approaches, from the Hamilton-Slaughter “agree to disagree” to the “local option” to the “Third Way” from the Connectional Table and now to the “One Church Model” from the Commission on a Way Forward. All have in common the creation of a compatibilist denomination that allows different forms of beliefs and ministries to function within one organization.

This compatibilist approach, however, ignores the interests of traditional incompatibilists, who cannot live in a denomination where what they see as disobedience to the clear teaching of Scripture is allowed. U.S. traditional incompatibilists and those from the central conferences outside the U.S.-notably in Africa and much of the Philippines and Eastern Europe-constitute a majority of the church as reflected in the delegation at General Conference.

Any attempt to engage in mutually respectful ways of living in the Wesleyan tradition amid the current crisis must reckon with the conflicting interests reflected in the incompatibilist groups. Progressive incompatibilists need to have a Wesleyan denomination that allows same-sex marriage and ordination of practicing homosexuals. They will keep fighting until they get one. The only way to stop the conflict is to give them their own denomination, whether it is by evicting them from the current United Methodist Church or by some form of negotiated separation.

Traditional incompatibilists need to have a Wesleyan denomination that disallows same-sex marriage and ordination of practicing homosexuals in order to remain true to their understanding of Scripture. Traditionalists hold the majority at General Conference. So the only way for progressives to change the position of the church is to evict traditionalists or have some form of negotiated separation.

Can traditional and progressive incompatibilists live together in the same church body? Ultimately, I believe the answer is “no.” As the bishops meet this week and issue their proposal, will they take seriously the needs and convictions of incompatibilists?

This article is taken from  Holy Contradictions   (Abingdon Press, 2018), a collection of essays representing diverse responses on how United Methodists can live in the Wesleyan tradition in times of disagreement. The seventeen contributors include among others Tracy S. Malone, Scott T. Kisker, Rob Fuquay, Audrey Warren, and Philip Wogaman. It can be purchased HERE