The Church’s Foundation

After Notre Dame fire, a GoFundMe ensured black churches burned in Louisiana also got funds

Watching the fire consuming the roof of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris on the evening news aroused a feeling of horror and helplessness. Would the whole building be consumed? Would priceless treasures from 850 years of history be lost? Would beautiful works of art and sculpture be destroyed? News in the aftermath provided hope that at least some elements could be preserved or restored.

More personal for many was the awareness that this cathedral was a working church, a place where children were baptized, marriages celebrated, departed loved ones remembered. And it was a cathedral not just of a particular parish, but of the nation of France, holding the place of sacred space for the crowning of monarchs, the celebrating of deliverance in war, and the mourning of national leaders. The loss of this place as it was threatens the precious memories of what was celebrated and remembered there.

These thoughts and feelings captured on a grander scale what other congregations have gone through, even recently, as three African-American churches were burned down in southern Louisiana, allegedly set afire by a young white man. The sanctuaries were St. Mary Baptist in Port Barre, as well as Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist in Opelousas.

These three churches each carried over 100 years of memories. One parishioner, Monica Harris, said, “Seeing the church in the condition it is now, it’s almost like losing a family member.”

The fact that the Notre Dame fire occurred on Monday of Holy Week added to the tragedy. This is the high point of the church year, when Christians remember the last week of Jesus’ life on earth, stretching from Palm Sunday through the Last Supper, praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, enduring the trials and torture, his crucifixion, burial, and finally, triumphantly, his resurrection from the dead. There would have been services of worship scheduled for every day, with hours-long remembrances on Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Now, where will the people worship?

In the midst of the tragedy, in the providence of God, perhaps we are to focus on the oft-repeated cliché that the church is not the building, but the people. As the Rev. Harry J. Richard, pastor of Greater Union Baptist Church, put it, “They burned down a building. They didn’t burn down our spirit.” The building is destructible, but the people of God is eternal. In fact, Jesus said the very gates of hell could not prevail against the Church.

On Good Friday, we remember how Jesus gave his body to be put to death for all of humanity, to reconcile us to God. We cannot fathom the immensity of the gift. Yet his spirit remained, and was endowed with a new, resurrection body for a new, eternal existence as the ever-embodied Son of God and Savior of the World. Church buildings can suffer destruction, but the Spirit of Christ can remain in the community of God’s people in that place, ready to be embodied in a new structure that can serve as the ongoing launching place for worship and ministry.

The most essential point of focus for Holy Week, however, is Jesus Christ himself. This week is all about him – what he did, what he said, what he allowed to be done to him. If it were not for the events of this week, there would be no Church, there would be no people of God. In instituting the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (Holy Communion), with the washing of the disciples’ feet, and even with his last words on the cross, Jesus was creating a new family – the family of God. We are joined together by him and because of him. (See the sermon by Fleming Rutledge posted on the Good News website.)

That is why my favorite hymn about the Church is The Church’s One Foundation written by a Church of England clergyman in 1866. It realistically describes the Church in all her glory and in all her fallenness. Through it all, Christ is the single foundation of the Church, for

She is his new creation by water and the Word.

From heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride;

With his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died.

Far from being narrow or parochial, the Church is

Elect from every nation, yet one o’er all the earth.

This universal reach was seen in the outpouring of faith and sorrow by the internationally diverse crowds in Paris and condolences from around the world. The Church is a global community of faith encompassing every nation, race, gender, and language.

At the same time, the hymn is realistic in seeing the struggles of the Church.

Though with a scornful wonder we see her sore oppressed,

By schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed,

Yet saints their watch are keeping; their cry goes up, “How long?”

And soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.

We long for things to be set right according to God’s perspective, and we grow weary of the struggle and impatient for God to act. But S. J. Stone, the hymn writer, encourages us that after the night of weeping comes the morn of song. On Good Friday, we remember that Easter Sunday is coming. God will make all things right once again.

She waits the consummation of peace forevermore;

Till, with the vision glorious, her longing eyes are blest,

And the great church victorious shall be the church at rest.

We press on to one hope, “with every grace endued.” In the midst of the struggle, in the midst of the uncertainty, in the midst of the disappointment, in the midst of what seems like death, the Father pours his abundant grace out upon his children. We are sure, not of what we have, but of what we hope for. We are certain, not of what we see, but of what we do not see (Hebrews 11:1).

We walk by faith, not by sight (II Corinthians 5:7), trusting that after death comes resurrection, believing God’s promise that he will never leave us or forsake us, whether the denomination divides, the church building burns down, or whatever in life we might experience. It is this hope, this faith, this certainty, that gives us confidence to face each day, not standing on our own powers and abilities, but built together by faith on the one foundation that can withstand all – Jesus Christ, our loving Lord.

 

 

 

An Open Letter Response to James Howell

Dear Dr. Howell,

A friend called my attention to the video you posted on YouTube for your congregation. I believe you to be an informed and thoughtful person, which makes your gross misrepresentation of the Traditional Plan and those who support it appear to be not just a mistake but a purposeful mischaracterization of the motives and character of your brothers and sisters in Christ.

We may well see the issues of marriage and sexuality in different ways, but there is no reason to call into question the character and motives of those we disagree with.

At one point in the video, you describe Traditional Plan supporters as “not your kind of conservative” to the conservative members of your congregation. Frankly, the persons described in your video are not my kind of conservative either. In fact, I have never met anyone in The United Methodist Church who conforms to the ugly caricature you have labored so hard to create.

As one of the primary authors and the submitter of the Traditional Plan, allow me to address a few of the misstatements you make in your video, with the hope of correcting the record and enabling your listeners to get a more accurate picture of the Traditional Plan.

You say, “The goal of the Traditional Plan is to stamp out homosexuality from the church and to stamp out even those who are sympathetic.” There is no truth in that statement. The Traditional Plan affirms the long-standing position of The United Methodist Church that all persons are created in God’s image, of sacred worth, in need of God’s grace, and in need of the ministry of the church. At the same time, the church affirms that the practice of homosexuality is contrary to God’s will for human flourishing.

As the Wesleyan Covenant Association recently stated, all persons, gay or straight, celibate or sexually active, are welcome in our churches and ministries. We are all broken and fall short of God’s glorious standard. We can, and do, welcome people into the church and into our lives whether or not we can condone all of their behaviors. Our hope is that all persons will have a personal, life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ, own him as their Savior and Lord, and experience the transformation of life we all seek by the power of the Holy Spirit.

You say that Traditional Plan supporters “wish to be rid of centrists, moderates, progressives, and even thoughtful conservatives.” Once again, there is no basis in the language of the Traditional Plan for this claim. The Traditional Plan sought to regain conformity across the church with what the church has decided in conference, the actions of the General Conference, which is the only body that can speak for United Methodism as a whole.

What organization establishes rules and standards and then allows its leaders to routinely violate those standards with impunity? The Traditional Plan allows those who cannot abide by the policies of the church to withdraw under gracious terms, keeping local church property. It expels no one. The Plan’s concern is not over people who disagree with the church’s policies, but with those who willfully break them. Would you not do something similar with clergy who were unwilling to provide infant baptism or ordain women to ministry in our church?

You say, “Severe penalties are imposed on anybody who thinks at all sympathetically and doesn’t act at all severely toward the LGBTQ community.” Once again, this is false. The Traditional Plan says nothing about what anyone thinks about gay persons or hopes for the church. It establishes penalties for clergy who perform same-sex weddings. It also requires annual conferences to abide by the church’s policy restricting self-avowed practicing homosexuals from being candidates, commissioned, or ordained into ministry in our church.

The Plan requires no one to “act severely” toward the LGBTQ community. The Plan merely continues the long-standing policy of not allowing same-sex weddings to be performed by our pastors or on church property and of not allowing self-avowed practicing homosexuals to serve as clergy.

You claim, “None of our pastors who serve our [local] church could be ordained under this plan.” This could be very confusing for the members of your local congregation. The only persons who could not be ordained under the Traditional Plan are self-avowed practicing homosexuals. Those who are merely supportive of same-sex marriage or LGBTQ ordination are not addressed in the Traditional Plan and certainly are not penalized. I would encourage your listeners to read the Traditional Plan for themselves to determine what it says.

You go on to say, “If you answer yes to the question ‘will you accept gays in your church’ you cannot be ordained.” Again, this is false. All the Traditional Plan supporters would, to use your phrase, “accept gays in our church.” Accepting LGBTQ persons in the church does not prevent a person from being ordained under the Traditional Plan, only an unwillingness to abide by the policies set by the church, which every candidate for commissioning and ordination promises to uphold.

You cite the first rule of John Wesley’s Methodism is to do no harm, and you state that the 2019 General Conference “did a lot of harm.” I agree. When Traditional Plan supporters are called hateful and bigoted, when they are accused of bringing a “virus” into the church, when every parliamentary trick in the book is used to thwart the will of the majority and to mock our longstanding practice of holy conferencing, a lot of harm is done. When Traditional Plan supporters’ motives are falsely represented, when provisions of the Traditional Plan are distorted and misrepresented, when deception becomes an acceptable advocacy practice, a lot of harm is done. Even in deep disagreement, we can and should treat one another with Christ-like love and respect. Can we not treat one another the way we would want to be treated?

It is possible you are saying that the church’s position that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching is inherently harmful. If so, that indicates to me that some form of separation is most likely the only way to resolve our differences, as you yourself have acknowledged.

Neither of us wants to be part of a church that does harm. For you, calling same-sex relationships sinful does harm. For me, affirming same-sex relationships does harm by contradicting the Scriptures and by foreclosing the opportunity for repentance, personal transformation, and holiness. When the church calls out sin — whether it be heterosexual, homosexual, or non-sexual — it might be “harmful” in the sense that it hurts the feelings of those caught in that sin, but the ultimate goal is our healing, forgiveness, and redemption. Just as many medical treatments cause short-term pain in the interest of healing, God’s call to holiness may cause pain but lead us to reconsider our life choices and pursue God’s will for our flourishing. That is the goal of the Traditional Plan.

Finally, you say that you “stand with people whom other people may not want to be around.” That kind of derogatory innuendo is a tremendous disservice to your congregation when you attempt to portray in this way your fellow United Methodists who supported the Traditional Plan in St. Louis. It is reckless for you to presume to say we do not want to be around LGBTQ persons. Many of us have gay persons in our families, in our neighborhoods, and in our local churches. We want to be around them — and we are — simply because we love them.

Furthermore, we want to be a living example of Jesus’ love in drawing them to himself. How can people be drawn to Christ (our primary goal as Christians) if we are unwilling to “be around” them? That is a self-defeating proposition and one that would not characterize most evangelical United Methodists.

Dr. Howell, I am disappointed that you would so cavalierly dismiss Traditional Plan supporters with your false portrayal of the Plan and our thoughts and motivations. Such an approach might influence your congregants, but it does a disservice to the church, and it will not help us to resolve our church’s crisis in a God-honoring way. It would go a long way in advancing the dialogue in our church upon a higher plane if you retracted or corrected your video.

Thank you for your consideration.

In Christ’s service,

Tom Lambrecht

 

 

 

The Rise of the Moderate Incompatibilists

When the Committee on a Way Forward was first established, I floated a way of categorizing various perspectives regarding United Methodism’s view of marriage and sexuality. In these categories, “traditional incompatibilists” and “progressive incompatibilists” could not live in a denomination that allowed practices they disagree with. On the other hand, “traditional compatibilists” and “progressive compatibilists,” while still holding their perspectives, could see themselves living in a denomination with the practices of both perspectives allowed.

There were those who later would emerge as “moderate compatibilists” who could live with either perspective as long as there was institutional unity.

Recent statements from the “moderate compatibilists” demonstrate that they may well have jumped categories – proving to be neither moderates nor compatibilists.

Good News president Rob Renfroe has described UM moderates as progressives who simply want to move more slowly to change the church. The Rev. Adam Hamilton, for example, has stated that he believes the controversy over same-sex marriage and gay clergy will be a non-issue in twenty years because the church will have become fully affirming of same-sex relationships. In the meantime, he has been willing to tolerate the presence of a theologically conservative voice within the UM Church, believing that it will eventually fade away.

Prior to General Conference 2019, many moderates declined to take a position on whether or not they themselves would perform same-sex marriages. However, the decision of GC 2019 to reaffirm the church’s long-standing teaching that all persons are of sacred worth and that, simultaneously, the practice of homosexuality is contrary to Christian teaching appears to have radicalized many moderate leaders.

With uncharacteristic hyperbole in the aftermath of St. Louis, Hamilton wrote, “The policy … passed at General Conference treats gay and lesbian Christians as second class. ‘You are people of sacred worth, but so long as you wish to share your life and love with another, you are living in sin.’ … How long will our people continue to feel it is okay to treat their LGBTQ friends this way?” In an open meeting with members of his church and livestreamed on the internet, he said, “I cannot pastor a church in a denomination that treats LGBTQ persons as second class citizens.”

The Rev. Tom Berlin, a Virginia pastor who submitted the One Church Plan to General Conference, told his congregation, “Those of us who support marriage and job equity find the more stringent conditions of the Traditional Plan to be a movement away from the way of Christ.” He instituted a special committee in his church to come up with a six-month plan to be more intentionally inclusive of LGBTQ persons in the congregation.

Neither of these prominent moderate leaders have publicly said so, but their statements seem to imply their willingness to perform same-sex weddings if allowed by the denomination to do so. Of course, many other more progressive clergy have already signed statements indicating they are willing to perform same-sex weddings now in defiance of our church’s teaching.

The point is that many moderates no longer seem to be on the fence. They are no longer trying to hold a middle ground between theological conservatives and progressives. They appear to have joined the progressive advocacy for same-sex marriage and gay clergy.

At the same time that these moderates seem to have become radicalized, they have also become incompatibilists. Prior to St. Louis, they all waxed eloquently about how maintaining the unity of the church was the most important value. They asserted repeatedly that there is room in The United Methodist Church for people with all different views and practices regarding LGBTQ ministry.

Now, however, some of these same leaders have decided it may be time to leave the church or to work toward some form of separation. Hamilton wrote in his blog, “I’ve never seriously thought about leaving the UMC, until now.” He is quoted in a Washington Post article as saying, “To be in a church that will be in the future led by the most conservative caucus in our denomination feels untenable for [centrist churches].”

According to the Post article, the Rev. James Howell, a nationally known moderate leader and pastor of a 5,000-member church in Charlotte, North Carolina, has come to the same conclusion. “Right after the conference, people were saying, ‘Are we going to leave? Is there going to be a new denomination?’ Not today. There’s millions of people involved. You can’t form a new denomination by Thursday,” said. Howell. “I don’t know anybody who thinks we can continue to stay together with what we have now. I was someone who dreamed of that for a long time…. It’s sad, but it’s just not viable.”

“We’ve either got to figure out how we go together [with same-sex marriage], or how we separate,” declared North Georgia’s Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson in the Post article.

Compatibilists in the past have given the impression that they can get along with a variety of perspectives and practices. It appears that this only holds true if progressive practices are allowed. In other words, they are happy to stay in one church with different viewpoints as long as they get to do what they want to do. If the church says no, as it did in St. Louis, they become an incompatibilist and cannot remain in the church.

This is actually an encouraging development, as it means that at least some progressives and moderates are coming to the conclusion that we have irreconcilable differences in the church that make it impossible for both groups to live together in one structural body.

It was striking to read both Hamilton and Berlin say that many of their people felt that the way the church or traditional delegates characterized LGBTQ persons was hurtful or offensive. I do not recall any comments made by traditional delegates at General Conference that maligned the character of LGBTQ persons. What this means is that the traditional message that sexual relationships outside of heterosexual marriage are contrary to God’s will and therefore sinful is a message that a significant group in the church finds hurtful and offensive. At the same time, it certainly is hurtful and offensive for traditionalists to be called hateful, bigoted, and backward.

If the basic message of each perspective is that harmful to those of a different perspective, how is it the best decision to stay together in one church? It appears that more moderates and progressives may be coming to the same realization. Our only hope of not repeating the battle of St. Louis in Minneapolis is to come to a negotiated agreement on separate ways forward. Hopefully, enough leaders across the theological spectrum will come to that realization to work together toward a positive future for Methodism in America and around the world.

Doing General Conference Math

Supporters of the One Church Plan are considering a number of options in the wake of the decision by the 2019 General Conference to adopt the Traditional Plan. One of those options is to come back in 2020 to the General Conference in Minneapolis and attempt to reverse the result, adopting the One Church Plan (OCP) in place of the Traditional Plan (TP).

One commonly hears the statement that there were “only” 54 votes separating the two sides in 2019, which means that 28 delegates would need to change their minds and vote for the One Church Plan in order for it to pass. Those 28 delegates would most likely come from the U.S., since it is unlikely that OCP supporters will gain more adherents among the central conferences than what they already received in 2019.

But the task in 2020 for OCP supporters gets more daunting. For starters, there were 31 delegates from Africa who did not obtain a visa to attend the General Conference. If all of them are able to gain visas in 2020 (or there are replacement delegates who can), that will likely add at least 28 votes for the Traditional Plan. OCP supporters would then need to gain 42 new votes in the U.S. (half of 54 plus half of 28).

But the delegate totals will not remain the same in 2020 as they were in 2019. Due to changes in membership, Africa will gain an additional 18 delegates in 2020. That will most likely add at least 16 votes for the Traditional Plan. OCP supporters would then be up to 50 new votes required (half of 54 plus half of 28 plus half of 16).

That is not all. The U.S. delegation will lose 22 delegates. If two-thirds of U.S. delegates generally support the OCP, then the OCP would lose a net total of 8 votes. (7 votes lost would be offset by the 7 votes that the Traditional Plan would also lose in the U.S.) That means OCP supporters would then be up to 54 new votes required (half of 54 plus half of 28 plus half of 16 plus half of 8). This would be offset by potentially 5 new votes from African delegates, bringing the total new votes needed for the OCP from U.S. delegates to 49.

This means that OCP supporters would need to either convince nearly one-third of U.S. Traditional Plan supporters to change their mind, or elect OCP supporting delegates in place of TP supporting delegates. That would be a tremendous swing in votes and highly unlikely to happen.

Another way of doing the math is to look at the various constituencies and estimate what percentage of them would vote for the Traditional Plan. The totals could look something like this:

  • 33 percent of U.S. delegates (482) equals 159.
  • 80 percent of Filipino delegates (52) equals 42.
  • 90 percent of African delegates (278) equals 250.
  • 50 percent of European and Eurasian delegates (40) equals 20.

The Total for the Traditional Plan would then be 471, which would leave 391 delegates supporting the OCP, a difference of 80 votes.

Based on this second method, OCP supporters would need to “flip” 41 delegates in order to gain a bare majority. This represents one-fourth of U.S. Traditional Plan supporters who would have to change their vote. Again, this would be a very significant shift.

There are of course some variables in all these math “problems.” But the bottom line is that a lot of circumstances would have to break one way in order for the OCP to gain the votes needed to reverse the results of the 2019 General Conference.

Of course, the OCP supporters could still try to delay and obstruct the will of the General Conference, as they did in St. Louis. But why? As Africa continues to grow in membership and the U.S. continues to decline, the numbers will only get more daunting for OCP supporters.

And the prospect of another public legislative battle, with all the vitriolic rhetoric that came from the progressive side, would only continue to damage the church. I have read numerous remarks by people on social media saying their relationships with persons on the “other side of the aisle” had been damaged by the process at St. Louis. At least one newspaper described what is happening in The United Methodist Church as a “civil war.” Is that what we want to perpetuate?

Based on the public responses from many on the moderate to progressive side, they cannot continue to serve in a church that does not allow them to perform same-sex weddings and ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals as clergy. They desired unity in the church, as long as it meant that they could engage in ministry the way they wanted to do so. But faced with a choice between unity and denying their principles, they are choosing to adhere to their principles, even if it means disunity.

So would it not be more productive for persons across the theological spectrum to agree on a way to separate from each other, freeing everyone to engage in ministry the way they believe God is leading them? An equitable way could be found to divide assets and provide for the continuation of vital ministries such as UMCOR, Wespath, GBGM, Communications, and Archives and History.

Freed from the need to continue fighting one another, the resulting new denominations could devote their whole energies to evangelism, church planting, discipleship, missions, and social action – all according to each group’s theological perspective. In areas where there is agreement, the new groups could continue to cooperate on joint projects and mission endeavors.

In the end, The United Methodist Church does not face a math problem, but a spiritual problem. Is it now possible to choose a different path, one that leads to a constructive future, rather than a destructive one for the church? Can we not work toward a different form of unity that allows for both the separation needed and the possibility of cooperation where warranted? The former United Methodist Church is already dead. We are in the birth process of something new. Can we work together to create that new reality in as painless and Christ-like a way as possible?

 

 

 

 

 

Two Questions from St. Louis

Delegates pray together during the February 23, 2019, opening session of the Special Session of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church. Photo by Paul Jeffrey for United Methodist News Service.

In the aftermath of the special called General Conference in St. Louis, there are two questions that could point to possible misunderstandings of its outcome.

1)     Was the decision to affirm the church’s current position on LGBTQ ministry an answer to prayer?

The 2019 General Conference was the object of more prayer than any other church event in my lifetime. Church members undergirded The Commission on a Way Forward with concentrated, widespread prayer for 18 months. We felt and appreciated those prayers and notes of encouragement! The Council of Bishops instituted a “Praying Our Way Forward” effort that assigned each annual conference an opportunity to pray for the 2019 General Conference in an intentional, concentrated way leading up to February. Individual United Methodists engaged in weekly fasting and daily prayer on behalf of the General Conference for the nine months leading up to the conference. The General Conference itself began with a whole day of prayer for all the delegates and observers.

Yet many progressive and moderate United Methodists are treating the outcome of the special General Conference as if God ignored all the prayers. Could it be that the decision of the General Conference is in fact God’s will, an answer to the many prayers that were prayed?

It is wise not to speak dogmatically when speaking about how God answers prayer because there is a lot of mystery in how prayer works. God is perfectly capable of answering a prayer with yes, no, or wait. It is often difficult to draw a straight line from a particular prayer prayed to a specific outcome.

But it seems equally unwise to simply discount all the prayers on behalf of the conference and say that those prayers were not answered. It sounds like some people are saying that if God does not orchestrate a specific outcome they agree with, God did not answer the prayer.

When I look at the many roadblocks put in the way of the Traditional Plan before and during General Conference, I cannot deny the miraculous aspect to the passing of it in any form, even with its shortcomings. I detailed in another blog the many ways the deck was stacked against the Traditional Plan. Is it not possible, then, that the passage of the Traditional Plan was indeed an answer to prayer?

The implications of this line of thinking lead us toward a heart of peace and away from a heart of war. In my own prayer life leading up to General Conference, I had stopped praying for a specific outcome and instead asked for God’s will to be done. That prayer posture led me to have peace in my soul, regardless of the outcome at General Conference. I believe the passage of the Traditional Plan was the right decision, but passage of the One Church Plan would not have been a devastating outcome for me. I had confidence that a faithful form of ministry would exist, no matter which way the General Conference decided.

People on all sides of the questions involved can view the outcome of General Conference as an answer to prayer and still make their own personal decisions about how to respond. For some opponents, the passing of the Traditional Plan might have been God’s way of freeing them from a system they believe shackles them from fully living out their faith commitments. That is the way I would have viewed it had the One Church Plan passed.

If the decision of General Conference was an answer to prayer, then those who disagree might be better served to simply accept the decision as the decision of the church. They can then determine for themselves whether God is calling them to live within that decision or remove themselves from it. Such an approach holds promise for a healthier outcome for General Conference 2020 than simply returning to the same battlefield and fighting the same battle over again.

2)     Was General Conference 2019 called to finally “decide” how the church’s ministry with LGBTQ persons would be shaped?

The rhetoric used by some progressives and moderates for many years has been that General Conference needs to decide this question. The implication is that we had not yet decided, even though General Conference voted the same way every four years for 45 years.

Does that mean that something is not “decided” until the decision is one that I can support? Short of a favorable decision, must I regard every earlier conclusion as provisional or temporary? At what point is a question finally decided?

This line of thinking is very frustrating to traditionalists and evangelicals. We believe that the General Conference decided the question in 1972. Every General Conference since then has affirmed that decision. Is it right for those who disagree to never accept the church’s decision until or unless they can convince the church to change its mind?

What we now have is many leaders – bishops, superintendents, clergy, annual conferences, and now one central conference – that have simply decided that, since the result of General Conference was not to their liking, they refuse to accept it or live by it. Never mind that our church’s structure is built around decision making by conference (in this case, a global decision by the General Conference, the only body empowered to speak for the church as a whole). Never mind that the General Conference is the primary instrument of unity in The United Methodist Church. Never mind that clergy have vowed before God to abide by the teachings of the church and the enactments of General Conference, whether they agree or not.

For those clamoring for “unity,” the refusal to abide by the church’s primary instrument of unity comes across as the height of hypocrisy. That refusal leads to the interpretation that unity is only desirable when it fits my preconceived ideas of how the church should be. That makes the individual, not the body in conference, the final arbiter of what is the true teaching of the church. This is precisely the atomization of the church that opponents of the One Church Plan warned about. Make the individual (pastor, congregation, annual conference) the final arbiter of truth and one has a shattering of both truth and unity.

Since so many leaders and annual conferences have publicly vowed not to live by the teachings and requirements of the church, we can no longer pretend there is any interest in unity. Rather, we must acknowledge that the primary interest is in doing ministry as each individual sees fit (what is right in one’s own eyes). Only if each individual is allowed to do ministry in the way he or she sees fit could there be any hope of holding the organizational church together (the One Church Plan). However, that is not unity, but surrender to individualism and congregationalism.

Since the 1740s, Methodism has been built around the unity of the conference. Those who could not abide by the will of the conference either departed or were removed. This is how unity was preserved in the church, with organized separations happening in our church’s history about once every ten years for the first 150 years of its existence. The attempt to “stay together” despite an unwillingness to live by the decisions of General Conference is simply “un-Methodist.” It sacrifices the unity of the church on the altar of individual conscience.

We must let this current reality sink in deeply, if we are to hope for an alternative way to move forward. The widespread disavowal of the General Conference actions means there is no way to move forward together in one body. The original conclusion of some at General Conference 2016 that separation was inevitable now dramatically shows itself to have been correct. Since separation of some form is inevitable because we cannot live with others who practice their faith in ways that are deeply offensive to us (on both sides), how can we move into a new relationship with one another in the least painful and most Christ-like way? Or are we doomed to repeat history and continue to fight over power and control of an institution?

 

 

What REALLY Happened in St. Louis (Part 2)

In the last Perspective, there was a report on what actually passed the special called General Conference in St. Louis, including what the Judicial Council will probably rule as constitutional and therefore able to be implemented. This Perspective offers a behind the scenes look at how some of the proponents of the One Church Plan attempted to obstruct and prevent the Traditional Plan from being adopted. This includes ways they tried to prevent corrective revisions to the Traditional Plan so that the Judicial Council would declare it unconstitutional. You will find here a more detailed account of the General Conference legislative process.

In order to prevail in St. Louis, traditionalists and evangelicals had to fight against some very significant headwinds. From the very beginning, the deck was stacked against any plan for amicable separation or a traditionalist plan. Separation was taken off the table by the Council of Bishops at the 2016 General Conference, when they declined to accept a request to form a commission on separation. Instead, they formed a commission to formulate other alternative plans for the denomination to move forward.

The Traditional Plan was taken off the table in November 2017 when the Council of Bishops asked the Commission on a Way Forward to work on only the One Church Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan. The only reason there was a Traditional Plan at all is that a small group of bishops insisted that one be included at their May 2018 meeting. Since the decision to include a Traditional Plan came only two weeks before the Commission’s final meeting, the Commission was unable to develop the plan. It was left to a few individual members of the Commission and several bishops to flesh out the Traditional Plan.

At that same May 2018 meeting, the Council of Bishops endorsed the One Church Plan by a vote of nearly 60 percent. The Council argued before the Judicial Council that only the One Church Plan should be considered by the General Conference, with the Connectional Conference Plan and Traditional Plan included only for historical context. The Judicial Council rebuffed the bishops’ request, determining that all three plans should be considered by General Conference, along with any other petitions that were in harmony with the call for the special session.

Undeterred, the Council of Bishops asked the Judicial Council to rule on the constitutionality and legality of all three plans in advance of General Conference, some of them perhaps hoping that their preferred plan would gain the endorsement of the Judicial Council. In what appears in retrospect to be an ideological ruling, the Judicial Council ruled that the Constitution did not require uniform standards for clergy, thus validating the One Church Plan. It also ruled about a dozen provisions of the Traditional Plan unconstitutional, meaning that they would need significant amendments in order to become legal. Since the time for submitting legislation to General Conference had passed, those amendments would have to be proposed and passed on the floor of General Conference — a daunting task.

Proposed revisions to the Traditional Plan were written to make it constitutional. The revisions were sent to many delegates via email. However, the conference secretary refused to allow the revisions to be distributed to the delegates in written form. That meant that the delegates would not have a printed copy of the proposed revisions to examine ahead of time or to consult during the debate. The daunting task got harder.

In the days before General Conference, the Committee on Reference referred petitions that affected central conferences outside the U.S. to the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters (SCCCM). The referrals included the main petitions for the Traditional Plan and the Modified Traditional Plan, but not some other petitions from the One Church Plan and Connectional Conference Plan that arguably also affected central conferences. This last minute referral took delegates by surprise. Normally, the SCCCM meets a day or two before General Conference to consider legislation that affects the central conferences. If the referral had been made weeks earlier, the SCCCM could have had adequate time to consider the referred petitions and possible revisions. As it was, the committee had only an hour after the day’s plenary session to discuss, amend, and vote on petitions — not nearly enough time. As a result, the petitions implementing accountability for annual conferences, providing the Traditional Plan’s exit path, and the Modified Traditional Plan’s enhancements were all voted down in committee, essentially killing them.

At the same time, the Council of Bishops asked the Judicial Council to rule on the remaining petition of the Modified Traditional Plan, which instituted a global process for administering complaints against bishops. The Judicial Council ruled that petition unconstitutional. The ruling stated that it is only the jurisdictional conference that can hold bishops accountable. Thus, by the end of the first day, the Modified Traditional Plan petitions were both dead.

In order to succeed, any plan to be passed at General Conference had to receive three votes in its favor. The first vote was a prioritization vote taken on the first day. In that vote, over 55 percent of the delegates gave the Traditional Plan a high priority. By contrast, the One Church Plan received only a 48 percent high priority vote. This set the stage for the Traditional Plan to be the first plan that the conference would work on.

The second vote any plan needed was to be approved by the legislative committee portion of the General Conference on the second day. In a moment of confusion, the conference passed a motion to end debate after only a few of the corrective amendments had been made, so that no further amendments could be made that day. However, the Traditional Plan received its second vote in favor, with over 56 percent voting yes.

In another attempt to head off the Traditional Plan, supporters of the OCP proposed asking the Judicial Council for yet another ruling on the provisions of the plan. Although little had changed in the plan, some OCP delegates were hoping to further discredit it by having it ruled unconstitutional again. That proposal easily received the required 20 percent of the vote to call for a Judicial Council decision. However, rather than announce during the public session that they would be acting on the request for a decision, the Judicial Council did not respond until after the session was adjourned. Advocates had less than two hours to prepare legal briefs for the Judicial Council to consider. And the decision itself was rendered after less than an hour of deliberations. Such a hasty process did not engender trust in the outcome of the decision, which was to reaffirm the unconstitutionality of eight of the sixteen Traditional Plan petitions and both of the exit path petitions.

Delaying tactics

This brought us to the third day and the third crucial vote on the plans. Delegates again attempted to make amendments to the Traditional Plan to correct the issues identified by the Judicial Council. Opponents of the Traditional Plan went into full stall mode, trying to run out the clock to prevent any amendments from being made. Presiding bishops appeared to cooperate with this strategy by failing to call on evangelicals who were trying to get the floor to make an amendment. Instead, it appeared that preference was given to people wanting to make speeches ahead of those wanting to make amendments.

The parliamentary process was used (and abused) to try to thwart the Traditional Plan. Some OCP supporters asked irrelevant questions and put forward multiple points of order. Most egregiously, some OCP supporters gained the floor claiming to make a speech in favor of the Traditional Plan, but then spoke against it. Such manipulative lying has no place in the church, but it demonstrates the desperation felt by some OCP supporters. In addition, some used the parliamentary trick of employing a point of order to “correct a misrepresentation.” But instead of correcting a factual error, they proceeded to launch into a speech against the Traditional Plan. The presiding bishops unfortunately allowed these kind of underhanded tactics without challenging them.

Equally disheartening were the troubling statements made by OCP supporters that betrayed their antipathy toward traditionalists. One prominent moderate leader accused traditionalists of bringing a virus into the church, the virus of conflict, which would make the church sick. (As if the conflict had not already been provoked by those intentionally disobeying the church’s standards.) Another speaker decried “the spirit of hatred, judgment, and discrimination which creates division instead of unity.” Another delegate alleged that the Traditional Plan was born out of “a story of control or power or dominance.” A prominent moderate leader accused traditionalists of being Pharisees and elevating the Book of Discipline above the Bible, calling the Traditional Plan “hateful” and promising to “amend until the monster trucks roll in at 6:30.” (This alluded to the conference’s need to adjourn by 6:30 in order to make way for a monster truck rally scheduled to start the next day.)

In the middle of the debate, an unsubstantiated allegation surfaced that delegates were being bribed for their votes. While this allegation was referred to the ethics committee, it was never substantiated. The political strategy appeared to be to float the baseless allegation with the knowledge that it could never be addressed or refuted during the time left in the session. The ethics committee released a two paragraph statement after the General Conference stating that its investigation found no substance to the allegations.

Amidst all this turmoil and delay, only a few of the needed amendments could be made to correct the Traditional Plan. More time was taken debating points of order, suspension of the rules, and other parliamentary matters than working on the content of the plan. As the deadline for adjournment approached, the presiding bishop called for a vote on the Traditional Plan, which passed for the third time. For the remaining hour of the plenary session, people in the gallery continued to shout, sing, and try to (unsuccessfully) disrupt the proceedings.

It truly was a miracle that any plan passed General Conference, much less that it was the Traditional Plan. It was a miracle that as much of the Traditional Plan passed as did, and that parts of the plan can actually be implemented.

In a final act of desperation, the OCP supporters again passed a motion to ask the Judicial Council to review the Traditional Plan that was passed for its constitutionality. Again trying to sow doubt about the outcome of the conference, some are claiming that the Judicial Council could throw out the entire plan. As noted in last week’s Perspective, at least eight parts of the Traditional Plan were already found to be constitutional, and they will be implemented.

This level of conflict, the hateful language toward those holding a traditional position, and the determination to prevent the General Conference from accomplishing what the majority wanted to accomplish, tell us that our church is hopelessly divided and unable to continue living together. Why, then, are some progressives and moderates continuing to insist on forcing some type of unity — only on their terms? The 2020 General Conference is unlikely to change the direction of the church or reverse the accountability put in place by the Traditional Plan. Can the church’s leaders not work toward a different way to resolve our conflict that honors and respects the deep differences of conscience and theology?

 

 

What REALLY Happened in St. Louis (Part I)

The United Methodist Church has just finished four days of wrenching deliberation at the special called General Conference February 23-26. The conference demonstrated a deeply divided church — something that was readily apparent before we ever arrived in St. Louis. The vitriolic conflict that characterized the proceedings inflicted pain on persons of all perspectives, both participants and spectators.

Already, the “spin machine” is working overtime to attempt to paint the outcome to the advantage of institutionalists whose main interest is preserving the structure and finances of the church. Several statements have come out from bishops and other church leaders claiming that the direction of The United Methodist Church is somehow unclear.

Let us be clear about what happened at the St. Louis General Conference. By a vote of 449 to 374 (55 percent against), the delegates rejected the One Church Plan (OCP). The OCP was endorsed by a majority of the Council of Bishops. The OCP had its own website built to promote it. The OCP had all the general church agencies working overtime (on our apportionment dime) to lobby delegates in its favor. Despite this full-court press, the plan favored by the “establishment” was roundly rejected.

By a vote of 438 to 384 (53 percent in favor) the delegates instead passed the Traditional Plan. This plan maintains The United Methodist Church’s traditional biblical position on marriage and human sexuality. It also enhances accountability to ensure that bishops, clergy, and annual conferences live by the expectations set in our Book of Discipline.

Some parts of the Traditional Plan were found to be unconstitutional after a second Judicial Council ruling during General Conference. Furthermore, the plan was referred to the Judicial Council for a third look following final passage of the plan. Institutionalists tried every possible maneuver to delay the plan and to sow doubt about the plan’s final outcome.

Nevertheless, it is possible to know with some certainty the provisions of the Traditional Plan that have already been found constitutional and will be implemented.

  • The definition of “self-avowed practicing homosexual” now reasonably includes persons living in a same-sex marriage or union, and persons who publicly state they are practicing homosexuals. This change will aid in holding accountable clergy who violate the standards for ordained ministry.
  • Clergy who perform same-sex weddings, contravening the denomination’s prohibition, would receive a minimum penalty of one year’s suspension without pay after conviction by a trial court. A second offense would result in termination of credentials. This insures that defiant clergy who flaunt their disregard for denominational standards no longer get by with a slap on the wrist or no meaningful consequence.
  • Bishops are now prohibited from dismissing a complaint unless it has no basis in church law or in fact. No longer can bishops simply dismiss a complaint against a clergyperson that they do not want to deal with.
  • When a complaint is filed and a negotiated settlement is attempted, the complainant must be included in the process, and every effort must be made to secure the complainant’s agreement to any negotiated resolution of the complaint. The bishop may not negotiate a settlement with the accused that disregards the input of the complainant, securing the rights of those wronged by the accused’s actions.
  • The church now has the right to appeal a trial court verdict if it is tainted by egregious errors of church law or administration. Since our judicial system is administered by non-professionals, serious errors can be more common. This provision ensures that a wrongful verdict is not left unaddressed.
  • All persons nominated by the bishop to serve on the board of ordained ministry must certify their willingness to uphold and enforce the Book of Discipline’s standards for ordained ministry, and they may not recommend a person for commissioning or ordination who does not meet those standards, including for being a self-avowed practicing homosexual. This provision counters the nearly dozen annual conferences that are willing to ignore the denominational standards and recommend openly gay candidates for ordained ministry.
  • District committees on ordained ministry are specifically prohibited from recommending persons for candidacy or commissioning who do not meet the denomination’s qualifications, including for being a self-avowed practicing homosexual.
  • Bishops are prohibited from consecrating a person as bishop who is a self-avowed practicing homosexual, despite the fact they might be duly elected by a jurisdictional conference. They are also prohibited from ordaining or commissioning persons who are self-avowed practicing homosexuals, regardless of whether they are approved by the clergy session. This enables holding accountable individual bishops who ignore the denominational standards by going through with such consecrations or ordinations.

Unfinished business includes a Council of Bishops accountability process that enables placing bishops on involuntary retirement or involuntary leave of absence. An accountability process for annual conferences that do not abide by the requirements of the Discipline also needs to be completed. The exit path that was passed is unconstitutional. These can all be enacted by a majority vote at the 2020 General Conference, just 15 months from now.

Most importantly, The United Methodist Church sent a clear message that we will maintain traditional biblical moral standards on marriage and human sexuality. We will not forsake Scripture as our primary authority. We will remain united with our global United Methodist brothers and sisters with shared common ethics. Attempts to force The United Methodist Church to mimic progressive sexual ethics were not successful. Moves toward a disconnected congregational-style “contextualization” of our church were not supported by the only entity — the General Conference — that can speak for The United Methodist Church. The heavy-handed lobbying tactics of our bishops and general agencies proved to be futile.

There will be much more to say about this General Conference in the weeks ahead. But for now, we need to be aware that United Methodism reached an important turning point on Tuesday.

 

Are Traditionalists Only a Small Group Within the Denomination?

Recent communications from proponents of the One Church Plan have attempted to portray traditionalists and evangelicals as a small group within The United Methodist Church seeking to divide the denomination. In 2016, moderate leaders suggested that maybe 10-20 percent of the church is progressive and 10-20 percent is conservative, but the “broad middle” is 60-80 percent and constitutes the bulk of the denomination. (We are speaking here only of the American part of the church – roughly 60 percent of the global denomination.) In my own thinking, I have often surmised that American Methodism is one-third progressive, one-third moderate, and one-third evangelical.

It turns out we are all wrong. A recent survey by United Methodist Communications has found that rank and file laity in the American church self-identify as 44 percent conservative-traditional, 28 percent moderate-centrist, and 20 percent progressive-liberal. (It found 8 percent were unsure.)

One can quibble with the methodology of the survey, how the questions were worded, and the validity of accepting someone’s self-identification. But the fact remains that the largest segment of the church considers itself to be conservative or traditional in their beliefs. And this is at a time when reactions against harsh partisan secular politics are causing some American conservatives to be reluctant to use that term about themselves.

Furthermore, although moderates tended to fall between traditionalists and progressives in their answers, they were often closer to the conservative position. “I don’t think you can add the moderates and progressives and say that’s where the church is,” said Chuck Niedringhaus, who oversees research for UMCom. “Theologically, many (moderates) are more traditional.”

The survey indicates that the center of gravity of American Methodists is on the conservative-traditional end of the spectrum. Delegates to the special General Conference this month will need to take into consideration how rank and file members of our churches think and believe. A way forward that adopts a non-traditional understanding of human sexuality risks alienating a substantial portion of the church.

Niedringhaus suggested that the survey results have implications also for how our general boards and agencies function. “There’s a big theological gap,” he said. “At the very least, boards and agencies should be looking at this data.”

For decades, Good News has challenged our boards and agencies to give greater respect and weight to the thoughts and beliefs of conservatives within the church. Too often, agency leaders are themselves progressive in theology and out of touch with what rank and file members believe. As a result, agencies end up promoting many positions and programs that are at best irrelevant to many members and at worst offensive to them.

According to the survey, conservative-traditional members are more active in the church. Fifty-seven percent of conservatives claim to attend church at least 2-3 times per month, compared with 44 percent for moderates and 39 percent for progressives.

The survey points out how wide the theological gap is between traditionalists and progressives. For conservatives, the top two sources for their personal theology are Scripture (41 percent) and Christian Tradition (30 percent). For progressives, the top two sources are Reason (39 percent) and Personal Experience (33 percent). (Only six percent of progressives view Scripture as their most authoritative source.)

In the secular world, there is a perception that conservatives get their news and information from Fox News, while liberals get theirs from CNN. Having different sources leads to divergent opinions and even worldviews. Similarly, traditionalists and progressives in our denomination derive their personal theology from mutually exclusive sources. This is bound to create highly divergent theological perspectives, and it is probably one reason why the two groups often seem to talk past each other. They are using some of the same words, but with totally different meanings and contextual understandings.

The survey also seems to bear out the contention of evangelicals that the disagreements in our church are over the authority of Scripture. When progressives name Scripture as the least authoritative source for their personal theology, named by only six percent, that is a stance that evangelicals are not able to understand or support.

This theological gap has practical consequences in the life of the church.

What should be the primary focus of The United Methodist Church? Eighty-eight percent of conservatives said “saving souls for Jesus Christ.” Only 32 percent of progressives agreed. Progressives favored “advocating for social justice to transform this world” by 68 percent.

For contemporary evangelicals, this is an old and unfortunate dichotomy. Obviously, we believe in preaching the gospel but we are equally compelled to care for the physical needs of our neighbors and work to right injustice. “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in” (Matthew 25:35).

From an evangelical perspective, both focuses are essential. Our mission statement is “Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Evangelicals, however, tend to emphasize the priority of evangelism and discipleship because it is something only the church can uniquely do. If we do not do this, no one else will.

Furthermore, evangelicals believe that the way to transform the world is through personal transformation. Yes, structures need to be transformed and laws changed. But unless the human heart is transformed, sin and injustice will continue and grow, regardless of one’s commitment to social justice. We all need Jesus, first and foremost.

Given the disconnect in terms of priorities, one can see how the heavy emphasis on advocating for politically liberal agendas for social justice on the part of our general boards and agencies without a corresponding emphasis on evangelism and discipleship can seem irrelevant and at times even offensive to conservatives and traditionalists. They often feel like their tithes and offerings are going toward an agenda that they do not support. This is part of the reason for a reluctance to pay apportionments.

It is important to note that these deep theological differences (we will highlight more of them in a future blog) were not somehow “ginned up” by Good News or other renewal groups. They reflect the deep-seated differences between groups in our church that are playing out now in the conflict over human sexuality and marriage.

Many evangelicals think they can no longer support an agenda at odds with their beliefs. If The United Methodist Church goes forward with a change in the definition of marriage, allowing same-sex weddings and the ordination of practicing homosexuals, most conservatives and traditionalists will feel alienated from their church. If even half of them were to leave, the church would lose one-fifth of its members in the United States. The consequences for the denomination could be devastating.

 

 

 

A Matter of Belief or Action?

Ask the wrong question, and you will get a wrong or misleading answer. Asking the right question will help move toward understanding. A recent newsletter from the One Church Plan advocacy group “Mainstream UMC” makes the claim that, “The central question for every delegate is: ‘Are you willing to share a denomination with Christians who think differently than you?'”

With all due respect, that is the wrong question. Neither the Traditional Plan nor the Modified Traditional Plan nor the revisions being made to those plans ask for uniformity of belief in The United Methodist Church on the question of the church’s ministry with LGBTQ persons. For fifty years, evangelicals and traditionalists have shared a denomination with Christians who think differently than we do.

The right question is, “Are you willing to share in a denomination that has mutually contradictory official teachings and mutually contradictory practices?” Under the One Church Plan, the denomination would officially say that marriage is “between two adults,” but elsewhere “traditionally understood as a union of one man and one woman.” Which is it? We would have two mutually contradictory teachings. Some would say marriage is one man and one woman, while others would say marriage is two adults. Essentially, the church would have two official definitions of marriage.

Furthermore, under the One Church Plan some annual conferences would ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals as clergy, while other annual conferences would not. Some local churches would accept an openly gay or lesbian pastor, while others would not. Some clergy would perform same-sex weddings or unions, while others would not. There would be mutually contradictory practices within the church.

While most United Methodists can accept the idea that there will be differences of opinion and belief within the church, many could not accept that the church would have mutually contradictory teachings or practices. The contradictions would undermine our connectional system, moving us toward a congregational arrangement and fundamentally altering our Methodist identity.

The Modified Traditional Plan requires annual conferences to vote on this statement: “The annual conference and its subsidiary units will support, uphold, and maintain accountability to the United Methodist standards found in The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 2016, in their entirety, including but not limited to ¶ 304 ‘Qualifications for Ordination,’ ¶ 341 ‘Unauthorized Conduct,’ ¶ 613 ‘Responsibilities of the Council on Finance and Administration,’ and ¶ 2702.1 ‘Chargeable Offenses.'” The focus of this statement is not beliefs, but actions. Will the annual conference abide by the provisions of the Book of Discipline or not?

The Modified Traditional Plan requires bishops to certify this statement: “I, (Name), certify that I will uphold, enforce, and hold all those under my supervision accountable to the standards and requirements of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, in their entirety, including but not limited to standards on marriage and sexuality and the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals (¶¶ 304.3, 341.6, 414.2, 5, 9, 613.19, and 2702.1a-b).” Here again, the focus is not on belief, but upon action. Will the bishop abide by, and hold his or her clergy and congregations accountable to, the Book of Discipline or not?

Clergy are not required to certify anything. They are merely required to “maintain their conduct within the boundaries established by the Book of Discipline.” That is what they have always been required to do.

It is false to say that the MTP seeks to drive out those who think or believe differently. It only requires those who desire to be United Methodist to maintain their conduct within the boundaries set by General Conference.

Any organization or business has standards and requirements, and consequences for failing to keep those rules. The church is no different. Those employed by the church, just like those who are members of organizations or employed by a business, are expected to keep the rules of the enterprise. This is not unreasonable, but essential. Inability to live by a common set of guidelines creates anarchy within an organization.

The question is what happens when a person disagrees with the rules that have been established. One may try to get the standards changed, while continuing to live by them. Progressives have worked for over 40 years to change the covenant standards of The United Methodist Church, but have been unable to convince a majority to make that change. Change in the near future seems unlikely. But this response has integrity and allows for the expression of dissenting opinions.

If the disagreement with the rules is a matter of deep conscience or fundamental belief, one may make the decision that integrity demands they resign their position in order to find another church that has standards they can live by. This response also has integrity, maintaining the identity of the organization while recognizing that one may no longer fit within it.

What does not have integrity, and a course too many have adopted, is when our church’s leaders, from some bishops on down, determine they do not have to live by the denomination’s rules. Whether it is failing to live by, or enforce, the Discipline or electing an openly lesbian bishop, their disobedience has fostered the crisis we are in. It distorts our church’s identity and forces the church to devote too many of its resources to gaining compliance with our standards in order to maintain our identity.

We agree with the statement, “In essentials, unity.” Standards of sexual morality are an essential for faith and discipleship. They are founded on the clear teaching of Scripture. They are essential elements in forming our United Methodist identity. Allowing various standards of sexual morality in the denomination would balkanize the church.

The Mainstream UMC caucus newsletter says, “Schism is NOT inevitable. It is a choice by a few.” That is right. The few who have chosen to flaunt the church’s standards and processes in disobedience have created schism. It is not only inevitable, it is already here. Proponents of the Modified Traditional Plan simply recognize a reality that proponents of the One Church Plan want to waive away.

The accountability provisions of the Modified Traditional Plan are not designed for the purpose of punishing people. They are designed to motivate United Methodist leaders to adjust their behavior to stay within the boundaries established by the church. Those who cannot abide by our requirements ought to have the integrity to withdraw from a denomination they can no longer support. Their insistence on disobeying and disrupting the church in order to impose their own judgments is an inappropriate response to 40 years of consistent decisions by our global church and is destructive of the very church they love.

Only by restoring uniformity of practice can our church begin to reestablish its identity. We insist our pastors baptize infants, encourage women to participate in ordained ministry, and offer ourselves in service through the appointment system. That is part of our DNA as United Methodists. Whether they agree with those requirements or not, pastors are expected to abide by them. A common standard of sexual morality is also part of our DNA. To dismantle it would be to deny or fundamentally change our identity.

Is it any wonder that many who hold traditional understandings of biblical sexual morality would find themselves unable to continue in a church that so dramatically changed its identity? Yet the Mainstream UMC and Uniting Methodists caucuses would deny such traditionalists an opportunity to act with integrity on their consciences by withdrawing as a congregation, keeping the mission and ministry of that local church intact. Instead, they want to force people to leave as individuals without church property, destroying a congregation’s ministry in the process.

Mainstream UMC says, “The Commission on the Way Forward did NOT introduce the idea of ‘exit.’ The ‘exit’ provisions were introduced by the few rogue anonymous bishops who wrote the Traditional Plan.”

As a member of the Commission on a Way Forward, I can tell you this statement is simply false. At every meeting of the Commission during the first year of its existence, members spoke of the need for an exit path for congregations that felt the need to depart, no matter what plan or proposal the General Conference passed. An exit path for all plans was included in the Commission’s preliminary report to the Council of Bishops in November 2017. Such an exit path was mentioned in nearly every news story reporting on the work of the Commission during 2017.

Why was there not an exit path in the Commission’s final report? It was because the Council of Bishops initially said they would discuss and recommend an exit path. Then the Council of Bishops decided that it was not necessary to have an exit path at all. Despite their initial support for an exit path, many centrist and progressive leaders have now adopted the Council of Bishops’ position that an exit path is not necessary.

The General Conference faces several important decisions.

  1. Will the church’s leaders vote to fundamentally change our church’s identity by adopting mutually contradictory teachings on marriage and mutually contradictory practices regarding same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals?
  2. Will the church’s leaders ignore the reality of schism currently present in the church and expect its members and clergy to put aside their conscientious objections (on either side) and all “just get along?”
  3. Will the church’s leaders attempt to keep a lid on the pressure cooker by failing to provide a consistent and fair exit path for congregations to depart with their property?

The answers to these questions will determine whether The United Methodist Church has a faithful future ahead, or will simply follow all the other mainline U.S. Protestant denominations into legal conflicts, decline, and irrelevance.

 

 

 

Some Progressive and Centrist Groups Reject Exit Path

The Rev. Mike Slaughter, front, speaks at the 2012 General Conference in Tampa, Florida. “I support the One Church Plan, but if we can’t agree to disagree, I would support a gracious exit plan that is just,” Slaughter said recently. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

Recent statements from two different groups portend an agenda of institutional survival taking precedence over resolving the conflict in The United Methodist Church at the upcoming General Conference. Many across the theological spectrum (including many members of the Commission on a Way Forward) have previously said that a gracious exit path for congregations to leave the denomination with their property would be necessary regardless of which plan General Conference adopted. Now, some leaders are pulling back from that position in an attempt to coerce churches into maintaining the current institutional structure.

Reconciling Ministries Network, a pro-LGBTQ organization in the UM Church, recently posted a statement on their Facebook page that demonstrates the level of hypocrisy or denial it takes to try to preserve a broken institution.

They state, “Already built into The UMC are ways to leave the Church agreed upon by the Church.” That is only partly true. The Discipline contains a provision allowing an annual conference to deed a local church property over to “another evangelical denomination.” The conditions for such an action would depend upon whatever the annual conference chooses to impose upon the local church. Some congregations have not been allowed to leave with their building at all, despite the fact that over 90 percent of the members voted to withdraw. Other congregations have been asked to pay large sums to keep their property. The local church is at the mercy of the annual conference, which can choose to be gracious or play hardball in what they require. What congregations are asking for is a fair, gracious, and standardized exit path that assures them there is an equitable way to keep their property.

It is helpful for United Methodists to keep in mind the congregations of brothers and sisters who have attempted to depart from other mainline denominations over issues of marriage and sexuality. The legal fees spent by the national Episcopal Church exceeded $45 million, not including what local churches spent. Presbyterian churches spent millions, and found that the disparity between different presbyteries (equivalent of our annual conferences) in how they treated departing congregations created unfair and often punitive and adversarial conditions. We can learn from their experiences and do better.

The Reconciling Ministries statement goes on, “What we need at General Conference 2019 is the resolve to come together to further the well-being of the Church, not to dissolve it.” The statement thus equates some local congregations leaving the denomination with “dissolving” the church. Such hyperbole does not serve us well and distorts the truth. Even if hundreds of congregations were to depart, there would still be a United Methodist Church. We have nearly 30,000 congregations, and no one is suggesting that all or even most are going to depart. And how is continuing the current conflict (by not allowing those opposed to our standards to leave with their property) “furthering the well-being of the Church?”

Finally, the statement says, “Plans for so-called ‘gracious’ exit are plans for schism, dissolution, and disobedience to the mission of the Church.” It is highly ironic that those causing the schism in United Methodism are now blaming those who want a fair and gracious exit path for fomenting schism. It goes beyond irony to arrogance for those who are currently disobeying the United Methodist Discipline and covenant to be charging those who want an exit path with disobedience.

On the contrary, those desiring an exit path want the church to provide that so the congregation desiring to depart is NOT being disobedient in choosing to do so. Evangelicals and traditionalists have consistently operated within the boundaries of the Discipline.

Those who have fomented this crisis through their own disobedience have no standing to call others schismatic or disobedient, nor to prevent congregations from living out their Christian faith and mission in a way that is faithful to their conscience.

Only slightly less objectionable is a statement from Uniting Methodists, a newly formed caucus group advocating for the One Church Plan, calling for all exit paths to be referred to the 2020 General Conference.

“It’s clear that the first priority for the Body of Christ is always to search for unity rather than division,” said the Rev. Dr. James A. Harnish, spokesperson for the group. While unity is indeed a value for followers of Jesus Christ, there are other even higher values. Values like remaining in Christ (John 15:5), allowing the Word of God to remain in us and bear fruit in our lives (John 15:7), and keeping Christ’s commandments (John 15:10). Faithfulness and obedience to God’s will take precedence over unity. Fostering a “pretend” unity through structural coercion is an unhealthy approach to resolving our crisis.

Traditionalists are not “searching” for division, but recognizing the division that already exists and the practical impossibility of continuing structurally united with those who deny the teachings of Scripture and disrespect our United Methodist identity and covenant.

Harnish further maintains, “Action on exit plans are [sic] not consistent with the primary purpose for establishing the Commission on a Way Forward.” However, if one reads the motions adopted at the 2016 General Conference, they do not anywhere mention preserving the unity of the church. Instead, they reference ending or resolving our conflict and providing a way for the church to move forward. We all wish that we could find a way forward that would preserve the unity of the church. But the deep theological divide and unwillingness of some to submit to our agreed-upon covenant makes unity impossible without repentance and a change of behavior.

Harnish’s final reason for postponing action on exit paths is “Delegates will not have adequate time to gather all of the facts, understand the consequences, and participate in thoughtful debate.” These proposals have been publicly before the church for seven months. Much ink has been spilled with writings on all sides of a complex issue. Delegates have had ample time to study the proposals and understand the possible consequences. If the delegates are not ready to act now, they never will be.

Proposals for exit are found in seven of the 78 petitions to be considered. Only two of them need to be enacted (one from the Modified Traditional Plan allowing transfers out by annual conferences and congregations and one exit path for individual congregations). One of those proposals already passed a legislative committee in 2016. In 2020, General Conference will be considering hundreds of petitions spanning dozens of topics. Despite having more days of sessions, the delegates would not have any more time to focus on the exit paths than they do in 2019.

Even some Uniting leaders have publicly supported an exit path. According to a UMNS article, “the Rev. Mike Slaughter, pastor emeritus of Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church, agrees that exiting the denomination should be done with grace.

“‘I support the One Church Plan, but if we can’t agree to disagree, I would support a gracious exit plan that is just. In other words, one that would come up with a just ‘buyout’ that would cover the liabilities that we are all accountable for. Not unlike divorce, where two parties have to determine fair support for what they have created together,’ he said.”

Since making that statement, Slaughter has reiterated his personal support for an exit path, saying “he doesn’t think discerning a just exit plan should top the agenda but should definitely be part of what’s under consideration. ‘I want to do whatever to keep the majority of us together, and we need to look at that first,’ he said. ‘And then we need to look at, if that doesn’t work for some, how there can be a gracious, just exit.’”

Uniting Methodists’ call to refer the exit path petitions to 2020 is a way to kill those proposals or, at best, once again “kick the can down the road.” If the One Church Plan is adopted, many proponents undoubtedly want to coerce traditionalists into staying in the church so that proponents can continue to try to change our minds while benefiting from our continued financial support of the institutional structure. Our church has reached a decision point on ministry with LGBT persons. Our lay members will not withstand another delay in resolving a crisis that is severely damaging our church’s ability to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Delaying any exit path would only exacerbate the conflict in our church, not resolve it.

The question is, do our leaders care more about enabling our church to move forward in effectively carrying out our mission, or about trying to preserve an institutional structure? If the latter, our denomination will continue to decline and the kingdom of God will lose.

Here, another saying of Jesus is instructive. “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24). We need to be willing to surrender our instinct for institutional self-preservation for the sake of allowing the church to move into a healthier place. We cannot continue to operate in the current way and expect to see fruitful ministry in the years ahead. A healthy institution would allow those who can no longer conscientiously participate in the institution’s mission to amicably withdraw and pursue their own mission as they perceive it. Anything else is simply an institutional power play.