Archives for January 2019

Reference Committee Decides on Petitions

The Commission on a Way Forward members were from The United Methodist Church around the world, both clergy and laity. Photo by Maidstone Mulenga, United Methodist Council of Bishops.

Of the 99 petitions submitted to the special called General Conference in St. Louis on February 23-26, 78 have been cleared to be considered by that body. This includes all the main plans and proposals that have been under consideration.

A special called session of General Conference can deal with only those matters that are part of the call. In this case, the call was for the purpose of “receiving and acting upon a report from the Commission on a Way Forward based upon recommendations of the Council of Bishops.” A May 2018 Judicial Council decision clarified 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.’ However, business not in harmony with the purpose as stated in the call is not permitted unless the General Conference by a two-thirds vote shall determine that other business may be transacted” (Decision 1360).

The Commission on General Conference assigned the Committee on Reference the responsibility of determining which of the 99 petitions are “in harmony” with the call and thus able to be considered. That committee met January 11-12 and made its determination.

All of the 48 petitions related to the three plans submitted by the Commission on a Way Forward are “in harmony.” This includes the One Church Plan, the Connectional Conference Plan, and the Traditional Plan.

Of the remaining 51 petitions, one was ruled invalid because of technical errors.

In order to be “in harmony,” the committee said the petition needed to meet at least one of three criteria:

1)     submitted by the Commission on a Way Forward (COWF)

2)     the content of the petition directly addresses inclusion or exclusion of LGBTQ persons, or

3)     the content of the petition seeks to correct or perfect COWF plans for the continuing existence of The United Methodist Church.

Of the remaining 50 valid petitions, 30 were found to be “in harmony” and thus able to be considered by the General Conference. These include the following general areas:

  • Two petitions that would modify and strengthen the Traditional Plan, called the Modified Traditional Plan, submitted by Maxie Dunnam
  • One petition for an alternative type of traditional plan submitted by Lonnie Brooks
  • Four petitions that make the language in the Book of Discipline stronger in a more traditional direction
  • Eight petitions that make up the Simple Plan, which would allow same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals, redefinemarriage as between “two adults,” and would seem to permit other types of sexual relationships outside of monogamous marriage, while providing no conscience protections for a traditionalist viewpoint
  • Three petitions that make up the Fully Inclusive Way Forward, which removes all prohibitions against same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals
  • Seven petitions that make the language in the Book of Discipline more progressive, with such suggestions as permitting Deacons to perform same-sex weddings, adding “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the requirement for inclusiveness, redefining marriage, and removing the chargeable offenses against performing same-sex weddings or being a self-avowed practicing homosexual clergyperson

In addition to the above petitions, five petitions providing for different pathways for congregations to exit from the denomination with their property were also declared “in harmony” and will be considered. A future article will review the various exit plans.

Based on criterion #3 above, two petitions that provide a mechanism for an amicable separation that would dissolve The United Methodist Church and create two or more new churches was declared “not in harmony” and will not be considered. It would require a 2/3 majority vote to consider these petitions. Such a 2/3 vote would also be required in order to pass the proposal for amicable separation, so if it comes to that point, it would still be a viable alternative with the backing of a supermajority of the delegates.

The good news is that all the petitions that the Renewal and Reform Coalition believes need to be considered are able to be considered. The General Conference will be able to fairly evaluate many different options for resolving the church’s conflict and creating a way for the church to move forward with vitality and faithfulness.

The Renewal and Reform Coalition is supporting the Modified Traditional Plan, which maintains the current biblically-based teaching of the church regarding human sexuality, marriage, and ordination. It contains enhanced accountability provisions that would help move the church in the direction of greater unity of belief and practice in these matters. It also provides for a gracious exit for annual conferences, local churches, bishops, and clergy who cannot in good conscience agree to abide by the church’s teachings and requirements.

The Modified Traditional Plan will require a number of amendments to bring the plan into compliance with Judicial Council Decision 1366, which ruled certain parts of the plan unconstitutional. These amendments are in development and will be released publicly soon, in order to give delegates a chance to digest them prior to arrival in St. Louis.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. He is a member of the Commission on a Way Forward.


Is History an Argument for the One Church Plan?

A recent newsletter published by Mainstream UMC argues that, just as the church changed its understanding and teaching about slavery, the role of women in the church, and divorced clergy, the church can change its understanding and teaching about marriage and homosexuality. The church got it “wrong” in the past, and now the church can get it “right.” Leaving aside the validity of comparing the past historical issues of slavery, the role of women, and divorce with the contemporary controversies surrounding marriage and homosexuality, I do not think this argument supports the One Church Plan.

To me, this is an argument for the Simple Plan, which removes all prohibitions against same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. If the church’s interpretation of Scripture is wrong on marriage and sexuality, then we ought to mandate a change in our interpretation.

The One Church Plan, however, envisions staying united in “one church” but having two different understandings and two different teachings about marriage and homosexuality that will supposedly be equally valid and affirmed by the church. That is not what the church did with regard to slavery, the role of women, or with divorce.

Essentially, the Methodist Episcopal Church in the early 1800s operated under a “One Church Plan” approach to the issue of slavery. Southern annual conferences condoned (and some even defended) slavery, while many northern annual conferences became increasingly opposed to slavery. The church stayed “united” in this way until the crisis of 1844, when the northern delegates outnumbered the southern delegates and voted to suspend a slave-holding bishop. That action precipitated a month-long General Conference that culminated in the North-South split in the Methodist Episcopal Church that foreshadowed the Civil War 17 years later.

In the example of slavery, the moral imperative to end the practice overwhelmed the desire to preserve church unity, and the church split. A “One Church Plan” approach proved untenable in the long term (it lasted less than 50 years).

When the Methodist Church removed the prohibition against ordaining women in 1956, it did not make provision for some annual conferences to ordain women while allowing other annual conferences not to ordain women. Instead, it removed the prohibition and expected that every annual conference would ordain women. There were central conferences outside the United States that would have preferred not to ordain women because of their cultural situation. The Judicial Council ruled that they did not have that option (see Decision 155).

When the church changed its understanding and teaching regarding women’s ordination, it mandated that all annual conferences follow the new interpretation. It did not adopt a “One Church Plan” approach to women’s ordination.

It is more difficult to pinpoint the timeline of how divorced clergy became accepted in The United Methodist Church. The bishop who ordained me, Bishop Marjorie Matthews, was the first divorced person elected bishop (she was also the first woman elected bishop). Nevertheless, divorce per se is not a barrier to ordained ministry today, whereas a generation ago, there was such a thing as a “divorce review committee” whose purpose was to determine if a clergy person’s divorce was biblically justified. (See Judicial Council Decision 497).

Here again, the idea of having two different standards regarding divorced clergy in the church at the same time has not proven to be tenable. A 2016 attempt by the Liberia Annual Conference to bar divorced clergy from being nominated for election as bishop of Liberia was not approved by the West Africa Central Conference.

All these historical examples demonstrate a change in the church’s position on an issue. However, none of them shows the viability of a “One Church Plan” or “local option” approach to the issue. Rather, the church came to a united understanding of a new position that was then enforced throughout the church.

But that may be what supporters of the One Church Plan intend. Many of them have said that they favor complete affirmation of same-sex relationships but regard the OCP as an interim step on the way to such full affirmation. History would tend to support the idea that the move toward a One Church Plan would ultimately result in a change of teaching and practice for the whole church, without exception.

Update on San Francisco’s Glide Memorial UMC

Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco. Photo courtesy of Google street view.

New action has taken place by the California-Nevada Annual Conference filing suit against Glide Memorial United Methodist Church over Trust Clause issues. Such action shows what might happen in the event other congregations try to leave the denomination.

In a previous post, I described the conflict going on between California-Nevada Annual Conference Bishop Minerva Carcaño and the 89-year-old Glide Memorial Church, on paper one of the largest congregations in our denomination. The conflict revolved around the fact that Glide no longer conducts Christian worship and is not faithful to United Methodist doctrine and practice. Instead, they have embraced a form of interfaith “worship” that encompasses atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, Hindus, and many others in addition to Christians (and one assumes, some United Methodists).

The crisis erupted when the pastor at Glide resigned because he was not able to exercise full leadership of the church, unhindered by the Glide Foundation’s board of directors. Longtime Pastor Cecil Williams, while long retired, still appears to be making the leadership decisions for the church. Bishop Carcaño attempted to appoint a new pastor, but the Foundation board rejected the person. She then appointed all the pastoral staff to different churches, leaving Glide without a regular pastor.

Six months of negotiations between the conference and Glide have not yielded a fruitful resolution to the disagreement. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the conference recently filed suit against Glide in order to protect the Trust Clause and the conference’s ownership of Glide’s property.

The Glide Foundation board maintains that the conflict is about the conference trying to gain control of the millions of dollars held by the Foundation, 95 percent of which goes to support social service ministries in the community. Carcaño assures that the conflict is about making Glide accountable to United Methodist doctrine and processes and honoring the original intent of donor Lizzie Glide, who established the foundation in order to provide for a Methodist Church in San Francisco.

There have been conflicting decisions about church trusts in California, but the most recent decisions have favored the denomination. The controversy will potentially now play out in a courtroom that will determine the obligations of the Glide Foundation in relation to The United Methodist Church.

One hopes that this high-profile lawsuit is not a precursor to what might happen in the future if congregations try to leave The United Methodist Church. General Conference can alleviate this concern by passing a fair, equitable, and standardized exit path for congregations as a part of its actions at the February special session.

What’s at Stake

The celebration of Christmas reminds us what is at stake in the debates over the future of The United Methodist Church. Christmas marks the beginning of God’s “on the ground” mission to save humanity and restore the world to what he created it to be.

As we look at the world around us, as well as within our own hearts and lives, there should be no question whether humanity in general-and each of us in particular-needs a savior. This world, while often beautiful and awe-inspiring, is not functioning the way God designed it to function. And people are not living their lives the way God planned for us to live. The result is brokenness and pain everywhere we look, mingled with beauty, faith, and joy.

God came into this messed-up world in human form, as one of us. He came not only to share our lot, but to provide a better way. Jesus’ teaching and example demonstrate how God created people to live. But we are powerless to do so consistently. So in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God provided the power for us. We experience that power today through the presence of the Holy Spirit poured into our lives. Just as God was birthed into human form on Christmas, God came into human lives through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Just as Christmas reverberates in our lives today 2,000 years later, Pentecost influences us individually as we open ourselves to the personal presence of the Holy Spirit (our own particular Pentecost).

What is at stake in our church’s debates and decisions is whether The United Methodist Church will continue to be a vehicle God uses to bring salvation, redemption, and transformation into the lives of broken people like us. Or will our church slowly blend into the society to the point that there is no difference?

The decision we need to make in St. Louis next February is really quite a simple one. Will our church remain faithful to the clear biblical teaching that God designed marriage for one man and one woman, and that sexual relations are to be reserved for marriage? Or will our church find a way to accommodate its teaching to the growing cultural perspective that marriage is merely a human-created institution that can be changed according to evolving human ideas?

The Traditional Plan upholds biblical teaching as historically understood and as understood by the vast majority of Christians around the world. Both the One Church Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan provide officially endorsed places in our denomination for those who would reinterpret Scripture to allow for same-sex relationships and redefine marriage as between any two adults. The Simple Plan goes even farther by removing the church’s teaching advocating that sexual relations be reserved for marriage.

If our church chooses to accommodate its teaching to the growing cultural understandings around marriage and sexuality, we will lose our ability to be an agent of God’s transformation. Instead, the church would begin to fulfill a chaplain’s role to comfort a society bent on departing from God’s creation intention. The situation would begin to resemble the critique of Jeremiah:

They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious.

‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.

Are they ashamed of their loathsome conduct?

No, they have no shame at all;

They do not even know how to blush.

(Jeremiah 6:14-15)

Jesus didn’t come into the world to affirm our brokenness, but to expose it to grace. He didn’t give his life on the cross to excuse our sin, but to forgive it. He didn’t rise from the dead to preserve the status quo, but to break open the way to a new heaven and a new earth. He didn’t send us the Holy Spirit to assuage our guilt, but to transform our very way of life.

God’s mission to redeem and transform the world is at stake. To cater to a worldly view is to deny God’s ability to transform our lives and enable us to live in holiness and righteousness. “Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear” (Isaiah 59:1).

Jesus reminds us, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot” (Matthew 5:13). Compromising with the world’s moral standards will cause us to lose our saltiness. It will cause our church to lose its effectiveness in ministry. (Effectiveness measured not only in the number of people attending a church, but in the number of lives transformed by God.) We see that lost effectiveness in the dramatic membership losses of other mainline Protestant churches that have adopted a “One Church Plan” approach to resolving their conflicts over marriage and sexuality.

The whole point of Christmas is God becoming human, so that we can be transformed to become like God. Adopting a worldly moral perspective defeats that purpose by choosing to remain in our brokenness, rather than embracing the possibility of healing, redemption, and transformation.

Before we can become agents of transformation in our world, we need to be at least somewhat transformed ourselves, acknowledging that we will never be completely transformed into Christ’s likeness until we get to heaven. Choosing not to be transformed in this one area (sexuality) jeopardizes our mission to incarnate Jesus Christ in our lives, inviting others to experience Christ’s transforming love. If we live no differently than the world, why would they want what we have?

The Good News of Christmas is that Christ was born into the world as God’s missionary of love and transformation. Christ comes into our lives by faith and surrender to bring God’s love and transformation to us on a personal level. We can and will respond to God’s mission to our lives as individuals responsible directly to God. We pray and work for our beloved United Methodist Church to likewise respond in faithfulness, that we might together continue to carry out the mission of Christmas in our neighborhood, community, and across the globe.