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.

The Plans’ Impact on Missions

Recently, the Connectional Table convened a panel discussion to consider “how the efforts to end the church’s decades-long dispute over homosexuality might affect the denomination’s mission.” According to the article by Heather Hahn, “‘It is untrue that this decision will not affect the agencies and their mission – it will directly,’ said the Rev. Kim Cape, top executive of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry. She noted that about 2 cents of every dollar placed in U.S. church offering plates supports general church ministries. ‘Any church that leaves The United Methodist Church stops giving to that larger mission fund,’ she said.”

No matter what happens at the February special General Conference, our general agencies will not be able to function as they have in the past. The General Council on Finance and Administration recently voted to propose an 18 percent cut to the general church budget starting in 2021, which will result in a 23 percent reduction for the general agencies of the church.

Change is coming, and the decisions made in February will undoubtedly hasten the changes. Here is a look at how each of the three plans proposed by the Commission on a Way Forward would likely affect the general agencies and the overall mission work of the church.

Connectional Conference Plan

In the short term, the Connectional Conference Plan (CCP) maintains the current level of financial support for the general church structure through 2025. This plan, which forms three theological connectional conferences in the U.S. (Progressive, Unity, and Traditional), would continue sharing certain general agencies among all connectional conferences. These would include Wespath (pensions and health benefits), Publishing House, UMCOR, Archives and History, and parts of Global Ministries. These would continue to be supported by general church apportionments long-term.

The rest of the church’s general agencies would serve at the pleasure of each connectional conference. Each conference would decide which agencies or which services it would like to receive from the general church. A task force would then put together a new general church structure to implement those decisions, beginning in 2026. This approach gives the church a rare opportunity to radically reconfigure the general church structure in a way that is more responsive to the grass roots of the church. Most of the church’s work would be contingent upon the support of the various connectional conferences.

Under the CCP, partnerships between annual conferences and support of mission work could continue, even linking together partners from different connectional conferences based on mutual agreement. The only impact on mission work would come from the number of congregations that would find it necessary to leave the church under this plan. At this point it is very difficult to estimate how many churches would find it necessary to leave.

One Church Plan

The One Church Plan (OCP) tries to keep everyone together, despite our differences. However, it must be acknowledged that this outcome is not likely. For many evangelicals, the change in the church’s position on the practice of homosexuality would be an unacceptable violation of Scripture and of our consciences. We have heard from hundreds of individual lay members and dozens of congregations that they would seek to leave The United Methodist Church if the OCP passes. And those are just the ones we have heard about. In a poll this year in North Georgia, fully one-fourth of the annual conference members said that they would leave the church if the OCP is adopted. I estimate that the U.S. part of our church could lose anywhere from ten to twenty-five percent of its membership in this scenario, and it is possible that up to a half-dozen annual conferences might seek to withdraw.

Such a significant loss of membership would greatly impact the work of the general church. Losing an additional ten to twenty-five percent of its apportionment income would cause the need for significant personnel and program cuts to general agencies. Most other mainline churches have seen significant reductions in their general church programs after they changed their position on marriage and sexuality. Ours would undoubtedly follow the same path.

There is no provision in the OCP for churches to exit with their property, nor is there any provision for exiting churches to continue any kind of missional cooperation with The United Methodist Church. If General Conference provides no exit path, it is likely that much money will be spent on court battles over local church property. Money that could have gone to mission and ministry will instead go to pay lawyers. Such an adversarial outcome will also act to discourage future cooperation between exiting churches and those who remain in the UM Church. The long-term cost to mission and ministry could be quite severe.

Traditional Plan

The Traditional Plan (TP) envisions a gracious exit for those unwilling to abide by the current requirements of the Book of Discipline regarding same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. It provides an exit path for annual conferences, local churches, bishops, and clergy that is not punitive.

If all of the annual conferences that have voted not to conform with the Discipline were to withdraw from the UM Church, they represent about ten percent of the U.S. membership. Of course, not every local church in those twelve annual conferences would want to leave the denomination. But there would be local churches in other annual conferences that would want to leave the denomination to join a new, more progressive church. The numbers would probably equal out.

Thus, the TP might see an additional ten percent reduction in apportionment income to the general church. However, the TP also provides that exiting churches can negotiate with UM general agencies to receive services for a fee, meaning that agencies could receive additional financial support by serving those exiting churches (based on mutual agreement). In addition, exiting churches could continue missional partnerships and participation with the mutual agreement of the receiving annual conference or mission. So the funding reduction might not be as severe under the TP as the ten percent estimate.

One must consider also whether more traditional annual conferences outside the U.S. would want to continue relationships with exiting churches that have openly gay clergy and bishops. For some annual conferences, that might pose a challenge.

On the other hand, the churches remaining in the UM denomination might want to enhance their outward focus on mission and ministry, and therefore be willing to devote more dollars to these causes. Such a reorientation of priorities might make up for the loss of some funding from exiting congregations. It also might enable that funding to be more focused and more effective, rather than continuing to support a bloated bureaucracy that continues to exist due to institutional inertia.

There are many factors in play, some of which are difficult to predict. If the above analysis is correct, it appears that the smallest short-term reduction of general church structure and mission funding would likely be from the Connectional Conference Plan. The smallest long-term reduction would likely come from the Traditional Plan. And the largest reduction overall would likely be by adopting the One Church Plan.

Delegates will need to consider the likely impact of each of the plans as one factor in their decision about which plan would best assure a faithful future for The United Methodist Church. We continue to pray for the delegates as they make their decision in the weeks ahead.

 

 

 

 

Why I Appealed the Judicial Council Decision on Exit

I have submitted a request to the Judicial Council that it reconsider part of its Decision 1366 that declared the local church exit provisions of the Traditional Plan (TP) unconstitutional. The TP provided that individual congregations or groups of 50 or more congregations could vote to withdraw from The United Methodist Church in order to form or join a “self-governing Methodist church” that would be separate from the UM Church. Part of the TP’s “gracious exit” provisions for those who cannot live within the teachings and requirements established by General Conference, withdrawal would require a 55 percent vote of the church conference (a congregational meeting) and payment of unfunded pension liabilities, with no other requirements.

The Judicial Council in Decision 1366 ruled this provision conflicted with ¶ 41 of the church’s Constitution, which requires that congregations transferring from one annual conference to another need a 2/3 majority vote by the local church and by both the sending and receiving annual conferences. Based on this ruling, an exit path for congregations would apparently require a 2/3 majority vote of the local congregation and also 2/3 majority approval by their annual conference before the church could withdraw.

However, the language of ¶ 41 explicitly governs “a local church … transfer[ring] from one annual conference to another in which it is geographically located.” In other words, a transfer within The United Methodist Church, not a withdrawal from The United Methodist Church. The only situations currently governed by this provision are in Kentucky and Oklahoma, where missionary annual conferences are geographically coinciding with regular annual conferences.

With all due respect, the Judicial Council erroneously applied ¶ 41 to the TP exit provisions, when in reality they address two different situations. The church Constitution gives the General Conference authority to “define and fix the powers and duties of … charge conferences and congregational meetings” (¶ 16.3). So the General Conference can determine the provisions that would govern a church exiting the denomination. The request for reconsideration gives the Judicial Council an opportunity to correct its error. Should it choose to reconsider, the Judicial Council would render a revised decision at its special meeting scheduled to take place February 19-22, just prior to the special General Conference, and its revised decision could be taken into account by the delegates.

This request for reconsideration was submitted for two reasons. First, it is my job as the person assigned by the Commission on a Way Forward to defend the Traditional Plan. I need to ensure that the church’s legal decisions regarding the TP are justly arrived at after full consideration. The Judicial Council did not have the opportunity to fully consider arguments around this particular aspect of its decision, as this issue did not come up in the written briefs submitted to the Judicial Council in advance of its decision. Interestingly, a person with much more progressive views than mine regarding LGBTQ persons has supported my request for reconsideration.

Second, the gracious exit provisions are an integral part of the Traditional Plan. The TP envisions that there will be some progressive United Methodists who will be unable to live with a continuing prohibition on same-sex marriage and the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals in the UM Church. In order to secure the unity of the church, the TP gives annual conferences, groups of 50 or more congregations, and individual congregations the ability to withdraw from the UM Church in order to form a (progressive) church allowing same-sex marriage and the ordination of homosexuals.

The work of the Commission and the special General Conference is to resolve the conflict over these issues. The TP advocates resolution through graciously allowing those who cannot abide by the 46-year explicit position of the global UM Church to depart and engage in ministry in the way they believe is right. The church can no longer live as a “house divided” – it is causing too much harm to the church, its members, and its mission. Providing an exit path with few barriers to exit is the loving and respectful way to handle this dispute.

In an email sent to General Conference delegates, Mainstream UMC (an organization formed to promote the One Church Plan) alleges that seeking to provide a gracious exit path is schismatic, and that the ultimate aim of the TP is to provide an exit path for traditionalist churches to leave the denomination. While there may be a few traditionalist churches who would seek to leave the denomination under the exit path provided, the TP is the only plan that would keep most traditionalist churches in the denomination. Adoption of the One Church Plan would lead to many more traditionalist congregations and members leaving the church.

Mainstream UMC thinks it is suspicious that the only part of Decision 1366 that I am appealing is the one related to exit for congregations, not any of the other aspects of the TP that were ruled unconstitutional. That is because nearly all the other defects in the TP identified by the Judicial Council can be easily corrected by simple language changes in the plan’s provisions. There is no need to appeal those other provisions, nor is there any legal basis to do so. The exit path portion of the decision was erroneously decided, and this gives the Judicial Council the opportunity to reverse itself upon further reflection. It has done so before regarding other important and controversial decisions.

It is disappointing that the folks at Mainstream UMC appear to be resorting to secular political tactics in an effort to strong-arm acceptance of the One Church Plan. Distortions and misinformation seen in this email and in other publications by Mainstream UMC have no place in the church’s decision-making process. General Conference delegates need the best and clearest information about all three plans (and other proposals), so that they can make informed and well-reasoned decisions about our church’s future.

Mainstream UMC says “unity in Christ means embracing difference.” However, the only difference that they are asking us to embrace is over our understanding of marriage and human sexuality. They are not advocating for different practices on infant baptism or women’s ordination or the payment of apportionments. (I intentionally chose to mention other hot-button issues here.) Different practices in these areas would result in an incoherent denomination. In the same way, different standards regarding marriage and sexual morality would also result in an incoherent denomination.

Traditionalists are not schismatics. The church is already in schism due to the refusal of some annual conferences, bishops, and clergy to abide by the policies and requirements established by the church. Votes and actions of “non-conformity” are in fact schism.

The question is, will we resolve the schism by institutionalizing it in differing moral standards across the church? Or will we restore unity through requiring conformity to the decisions of General Conference and graciously allowing those who cannot conform to depart with our blessing?

Laity and the One Church Plan

One of the less noticed aspects of the One Church Plan (OCP) is how it minimizes the voices of laity in the various decisions around marriage and sexuality.

The OCP allows any pastor to perform a same-sex wedding, whether the local church approves or not. Laity would have a voice in whether same-sex weddings could take place on local church property, but such a decision would require a congregational vote in a church conference.

The OCP would delegate to every annual conference the decision about whether or not to ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals as clergy. In the first instance, this decision would be made by the annual conference board of ordained ministry, which does include some laypersons making up 20 to 33 percent of the board’s membership. Ultimately, however, the clergy session of the annual conference would vote whether or not to approve individual candidates who are self-avowed practicing homosexuals. This group consists of all the annual conference’s ordained clergy, plus the lay members of the board of ordained ministry. The lay voice would be overwhelmed in this setting.

It is ironic that two of the three provisions of the OCP declared unconstitutional by the Judicial Council would have broadened the voice of laity.

One provision provided that the bishop could “seek the non-binding advice of an annual conference session on standards relating to human sexuality for ordination to inform the Board of Ordained Ministry in its work.” This provision was ruled unconstitutional because the bishop cannot advise the Board of Ordained Ministry about anything. (The provision could be made constitutional by rewording it to eliminate any reference to the bishop.)

The other provision said, “Clergy who cannot in good conscience continue to serve a particular church based on unresolved disagreements over same-sex marriage as communicated by the pastor and Staff-Parish Relations Committee to the district superintendent, shall be reassigned.” This provision provided a voice to a congregation’s laity in requesting a new pastor via the Staff-Parish Relations Committee. It was ruled unconstitutional, however, because the General Conference cannot infringe upon the bishop’s right to decide appointments. So the congregation can request a new pastor because of “unresolved disagreements over same-sex marriage,” but there is no guarantee that the bishop will appoint a new pastor. (A change of wording cannot salvage this provision.)

As of this writing, there has been no public indication that I am aware of that the authors of the One Church Plan intend to rectify the areas found unconstitutional by the Judicial Council.

In an October 22 article by UM News Service, the Rev. Stan Copeland (a presenter at a Uniting Methodists event last summer favoring the OCP) reflected the attitude of some toward lay participation. According to the article, “one part of the plan doesn’t thrill Copeland: A congregation must have a majority vote in favor of hosting same-sex weddings before holding one on church property. Copeland would rather the pastor and other local church leaders make that call. ‘Any time we have a (congregational) vote it’s potentially divisive,’ said Copeland, longtime pastor of Dallas’ Lovers Lane United Methodist Church.”

The OCP comes across as somewhat paternalistic toward laity. Many advocates of the plan seem to imply that they alone know the best course for the church’s future, and that laity in general do not need to be involved in making those decisions.

This is a mistake. If laity do not feel empowered to be part of the decision-making process regarding their church’s beliefs and practices, they will have less ownership of the outcome. Less ownership means reduced loyalty and a diminished inclination to stay in the church.

Closely aligned with that concern is the question whether the final decision of General Conference represents the thoughts and beliefs of the majority of grass-roots laity. While no surveys have been done of United Methodist members, there is reason to believe a large proportion (if not the majority) of laity in the U.S. hold to a traditional definition of marriage and hope the church continues to uphold what they believe is the clear teaching of Scripture on this matter. Not all would leave the church if it changes its definition of marriage, but many would.

Of course, the views of laity in Africa, the Philippines, and Eastern Europe (over 40 percent of the global church’s membership) are strongly traditional. Will the outcome of General Conference adequately reflect their views?

By contrast, both the Connectional Conference Plan (CCP) and the Traditional Plan (TP) involve laity in the crucial decisions regarding the church’s future. Under the CCP, jurisdictional and annual conferences, consisting of one-half lay delegates representing their local churches, would vote on which of the three theological branches to affiliate with. Local churches that disagree with the decision of their annual conference could vote in a congregational meeting to affiliate with a different branch.

The TP would require every annual conference (again, one-half laity representing their local churches) to vote whether or not that annual conference would “support, uphold, and maintain accountability to” the Discipline. If not, laity would have the same large say in whether that annual conference voted to leave The United Methodist Church to form or join a new self-governing Methodist church. Local churches that disagreed with the decision of their annual conference could vote by a congregational meeting to take a different decision, including the possibility of withdrawing from the UM Church to join a new self-governing Methodist church.

 

Laity’s voice is an integral part of the Traditional Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan, whereas the One Church Plan tends to minimize the voices of lay members. That is a factor that General Conference delegates should consider when they evaluate the various options before them in St. Louis.

 

 

Is the Traditional Plan Unconstitutional?

Minnesota Conference clergy and laity gathered at Normandale Hylands United Methodist Church hold table talk discussions about the three plans set to be considered by the special General Conference. Photo by Sam Hodges, UMNS.

Anxious church commentators are wondering if the latest development in the lead-up to the special called General Conference in February 2019 means the Traditional Plan is fatally flawed.

In a comprehensive 58-page ruling released October 26, the Judicial Council has rendered its opinion on whether the One Church Plan, the Connectional Conference Plan, and the Traditional Plan are constitutional and in conformity with other parts of the United Methodist Book of Discipline.

The short answer is that the Traditional Plan is alive and, while a bit broken, can be fixed. (The Traditional Plan would retain the current position of the church on marriage and human sexuality, enhance accountability, and provide a gracious exit for those who cannot live within the church’s expectations.) The One Church Plan, also described as the “local option,” survived scrutiny with a few minor provisions ruled unconstitutional. The Judicial Council declined to evaluate the Connectional Conference Plan, since the  Book of Discipline does not allow the Council to evaluate proposed constitutional amendments, which are an integral part of the plan.

It is important to note that the Judicial Council was ruling on the legality of various parts of the plans, not on the wisdom of enacting any of them. The decision states, “The task of the Judicial Council is to pass upon the constitutionality of the legislative petitions without expressing an opinion as to their merits or expediency. It is up to the General Conference to determine the wisdom of each plan” (p. 1).

The big picture is that the situation is unchanged following the Judicial Council decision. The General Conference will still be able to consider all three plans. Aspects of the two plans evaluated will need to be modified or dropped from the plans in order to address the concerns raised by the Judicial Council. Delegates can put forward such modifications as amendments during the February General Conference.

Evaluating the Traditional Plan

It is not surprising that the Judicial Council found a greater number of problems with the Traditional Plan (TP) petitions. Because the Council of Bishops instructed the Commission on a Way Forward not to develop the details of the TP, it did not receive the same amount of attention and vetting that the One Church Plan and Connectional Conference Plan received. The Judicial Council’s work, therefore, is a blessing to help refine and perfect the TP.

The Judicial Council found constitutional problems with 7 of the 17 Traditional Plan (TP) petitions, as well as with parts of two others. Most of these problems can be fixed with relatively straightforward changes in the wording, without changing the content of the petitions or what they are trying to accomplish.

The idea that the Council of Bishops could hold its members accountable to the Discipline (Petitions 2-4) is no longer viable after the Judicial Council ruled it unconstitutional. The Council ruled that the same bishops who filed a complaint against another bishop for disobedience could not then sit in judgment on that bishop. The decision states, “The COB was not designed to function like an inquisitional court tasked with enforcing doctrinal purity within its ranks. This arrangement poses significant dangers to a person’s right to a fair and unbiased determination of her or his case. There are no safeguards put in place to guarantee an impartial process carried out by an independent body” (p. 32).

Renewal and Reform Coalition leaders have long been skeptical that the Council of Bishops would be able to hold its members accountable in any meaningful way. That is why we proposed an alternative disciplinary process for bishops administered by a new Global Episcopacy Committee. Maxie Dunnam submitted this idea in a petition to the special General Conference. Because it was not part of the original TP, this idea was not part of the Judicial Council evaluation. Based on their ruling, however, I believe it is a viable process that could provide meaningful accountability for bishops.

Several petitions require members of the Board of Ordained Ministry to certify that they will “uphold, enforce and maintain The Book of Discipline related to commissioning, ordination and marriage of self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” They would require the bishop to certify that all the members he or she appoints to the board have agreed to do so. And they would require that the annual conference certify that all members appointed to the board have agreed to do so.

The Judicial Council’s problem with these petitions was that the requirement focused on certain provisions of the Discipline to the exclusion of others. “The certification is incomplete and selective because it relates to some but not all applicable standards of The Discipline and targets one particular group of candidates for disqualification” (p. 35). This problem can be corrected with a simple language change clarifying that upholding of the whole Discipline is required, not just certain parts to the exclusion of others.

The same problem of “selective certification” was cited as the Judicial Council nullified the provisions requiring annual conferences and bishops to declare their willingness to “support, uphold, and maintain accountability to” the standards of the church regarding ordination and marriage. Again, this can be corrected by a simple language change.

Importantly, the Judicial Council declared that the Constitution does permit an annual conference to withdraw from The United Methodist Church under conditions established by the General Conference. However, the Council ruled that local churches cannot withdraw under the process set forth in the TP. It ruled that the process must comply with ¶ 41, which requires a 2/3 vote by the congregation and also by the annual conference to approve withdrawal. However, this is a misreading of ¶ 41, which deals with congregations transferring from one UM annual conference to another. It has no bearing on the conditions for a congregation withdrawing from the church. I am requesting that the Judicial Council reconsider its ruling on this aspect of the plan.

The other aspects of the Traditional Plan were upheld.

Evaluating the One Church Plan

The One Church Plan (OCP) was largely held to be constitutional. Several provisions meant to give greater protection to a traditionalist viewpoint were struck down for various reasons. Some could probably be salvaged by changes in wording.

More significantly, the Judicial Council ruled that the idea of “connectionalism” under which our church operates “permits contextualization and differentiation on account of geographical, social, and cultural variations and makes room for diversity of beliefs and theological perspectives but does not require uniformity of moral-ethical standards regarding ordination, marriage, and human sexuality” (p. 1). The idea that the church could establish moral or ethical standards that are different from one place to another strikes me as unbiblical. Standards for right and wrong should not vary from one country or culture to another.

Think about that. Do not moral and ethical standards by their very nature apply across “geographical, social, and cultural variations?” Should lying be permitted for some social classes, but not others? Should bribery be acceptable in some cultures, but not others? Should same-sex marriage be permissible for Christians in some countries, but not in others? That makes no sense. If something is a moral or ethical matter, by definition it should apply in all similar situations.

It seems to me the Judicial Council is discounting the uniform basis for the “vital web of interactive relationships” that form our connection (see ¶ 132 in the Book of Discipline). Our connection with each other is based on “a common tradition of faith, including Our Doctrinal Standards and General Rules (¶ 104); by sharing together a constitutional polity, including a leadership of general superintendency; by sharing a common mission, which we seek to carry out by working together in and through conferences that reflect the inclusive and missional character of our fellowship; by sharing a common ethos that characterizes our distinctive way of doing things” (¶ 132). Where the common foundation is missing, the “web of interactive relationships” cannot develop or sustain itself. And that is what we see happening in our denomination, as the common foundation of beliefs and practices is eroded by the many issues that divide us.

The One Church Plan creates a “a diversity of beliefs” and non-uniform standards of ordination. A person who could be ordained as clergy in one annual conference would not be acceptable for ordination in a different annual conference. This undermines the understanding of ordained ministry as a connectional matter. As Judicial Council Decision 544 puts it, “Ordination in The United Methodist Church is not local, nor provincial, but worldwide.” It understands each annual conference as a “door through which one may enter the ministry of the entire church.” But someone entering that door in one annual conference would no longer be acceptable to other annual conferences, which means that we would no longer have one connected “ministry of the entire church.”

I believe the Judicial Council is mistaken in their understanding of connectionalism.

The Judicial Council also made a clear ruling that narrowed the scope of what is legally considered our doctrinal standards. They ruled that only changes to the wording of the Articles of Religion or Confession of Faith can be legally reviewed by the Judicial Council. This ignores the fact that the 2016 Book of Disciplineconsiders Wesley’s Notes upon the New Testament as doctrinal standards. “[The Plan of Union 1968] stated that although the language of the first Restrictive Rule never has been formally defined, Wesley’s Sermons and Notes were understood specifically to be included in our present existing and established standards of doctrine” (Discipline, ¶ 104).

Judicial Council ruled, “Only the General Conference is competent to determine whether its enactment establishes a new standard or rule of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine” (p. 13, citing Decisions 1027 and 243). However, that means there is no independent review of a General Conference action. By a majority vote, the General Conference can declare that its action does not “establish any new standards or rules of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine” (Discipline, ¶ 17) and therefore does not require a constitutional amendment process.

So even though Wesley’s Notes define marriage as between “one man and one woman only” (Notes on Genesis 16 and 30, also see notes on Matthew 19 and Mark 10), the General Conference can change the definition of marriage to “two adults” and there is no independent body to review such a decision. This greatly narrows the enforceability of our doctrinal standards, particularly in the face of principled determination to maneuver around them.

Fortunately, the Judicial Council was only ruling on what is legal, not on what the church ought to do. The General Conference can and should still defeat the One Church Plan, adopt a revised Traditional Plan, and preserve a more robust sense of connectionalism founded on our common relationship with Jesus Christ, our adherence to biblical teaching, and our shared understanding of doctrine. Anything less will lead to a splintering of the church.

Is the Traditional Plan Punitive?

While no one has explicitly told me that he or she thought the Traditional Plan is punitive, that appears to be an undercurrent of thinking among those who oppose the plan. One aspect of the plan is that it contains strict accountability measures for annual conferences, bishops, clergy, and members of boards of ordained ministry, with the expectation that they will “support, uphold, and maintain accountability to the United Methodist standards” barring the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals, the celebration of same-sex marriages, and funding that promotes the acceptance of homosexuality. Those unwilling to live within our church’s standards are encouraged to withdraw from the UM Church and form or join a self-governing Methodist church that reflects their beliefs and practices.

The purpose of the Traditional Plan is to restore the unity of the church, which is currently in schism due to nine annual conferences and two jurisdictions voting to reject our church’s standards. The current crisis in the church is prompted not by differences of belief, but differences of practice. There is room in The United Methodist Church for a variety of opinions on many subjects. But once the church has set a standard for how we live our life together in the Body of Christ, it is expected that everyone will live according to that standard, to the best of their ability.

There are two ways to rectify a situation where there are divergent practices that violate the standards or rules of an organization. One way is to change the rules to allow the divergent practices. This is what the One Church Plan proposes. The other way is to expect the organization’s members to live by its standards or find another like-minded organization. This is what the Traditional Plan proposes.

Secular organizations such as Rotary or Kiwanis expect their members to live by the rules of the organization. Those who refuse to do so are often asked to leave the organization. Without such accountability, the organization has no integrity.

United Methodist clergy promise to live by the standards set by the church. One of the qualifications for ordination is that candidates are willing to “be accountable to The United Methodist Church, accept its Doctrinal Standards and Discipline and authority, accept the supervision of those appointed to this ministry, and be prepared to live in the covenant of its ordained ministers.” When candidates come forward for ordination, they must answer, “Have you studied our form of Church discipline and polity? Do you approve our Church government and polity? Will you support and maintain them?” They must also affirm, “Will you observe the following directions: … Do not mend our rules, but keep them; not for wrath, but for conscience’ sake?”

The Traditional Plan is based upon the premise that clergy and bishops have promised to live by our church’s standards and should be expected to do so. In light of the fact that the church has been unwilling for over 40 years to change its expectations regarding same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBT persons, clergy are expected to either live by them or seek another denomination that is more in line with their theology. After all, most active clergy today came into their status knowing what the expectations of the church are, saying that they agreed with those expectations, and promising to live by them. To refuse to do so now is a breaking of their promise.

While integrity would seem to demand those unwilling to live by the standards of the church should withdraw from ministry in our denomination and seek another in which to exercise their ministry, most have not done so. In fact, many progressives have defiantly stated that they will not leave the church, nor will they live by the church’s standards.

This puts us in a situation where, for the sake of the church’s unity and integrity, discipline must be exercised. That is why enhanced accountability measures are an integral part of the Traditional Plan. Without them, the church simply continues as it is now, with some parts of the church refusing to live by the church’s expectations. This is a state of schism, not unity, and it is leading to the disintegration and decline of the denomination.

By changing the rules to accommodate disobedience, the One Church Plan creates an expectation that individual conscience trumps the standards of the church. It sows the seeds of congregationalism and further disintegrates the unity of the church. One can only anticipate that the church will likewise accommodate other conscientious objections to church standards and practices in the future, perhaps in areas such as the payment of apportionments or belief in the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation.

The Traditional Plan believes we must share common practices as a denomination on matters that are distinctively connectional. These help to form our identity as United Methodist Christians. Matters of ordination, the sacraments, doctrinal standards, and essential moral teachings are practices that hold our denomination together. Without them, we become just a crowd of people without a shared identity.

Regrettably, because of the principled refusal by some in our denomination to abide by the shared practices established by General Conference as the only legitimate authority to do so, the only way to recover unity is to enhance accountability and request those unwilling to abide by those shared practices to withdraw from the denomination. The plan balances these stricter accountability measures with an open door for annual conferences, congregations, and clergy to leave the denomination without penalty.

The process for departure is simple and straightforward, without a lot of hoops to jump through. The financial obligations are minimal, seeking only to keep our promises to our retired clergy regarding pensions. And a suggested modification of the Traditional Plan provides for a one-time grant of $200,000 to any annual conference that withdraws in order to assist with transitional expenses. Those departing could even continue some forms of partnership and cooperation with The United Methodist Church, including joint mission work and continued participation in benefit plans through Wespath.

The Traditional Plan is not punitive toward those having the integrity to depart from a denomination that they can no longer support. The stricter accountability measures are only made necessary for those who refuse to keep the promises they made to abide by our polity when they were ordained as clergy and consecrated as bishops. This approach is the only way forward that will restore unity in our denomination in the years ahead.

 

 

 

North Central Jurisdiction Hispanic Caucus Endorses Traditional Plan

The North Central Jurisdiction Hispanic Caucus met in Monroe, Wisconsin, on September 21-22. They met under the theme Transformed to Transform the World. The group discussed the three plans recommended to the special General Conference next February. They approved to support the Traditional Plan prepared by the Way Forward Commission. Pastors and lay leaders from Hispanic congregations from Iowa, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Ohio came together for their 34th annual gathering.

This is a significant action because the national Hispanic caucus (MARCHA – Metodistas Asociados Representados la Causa Hispano Americano) is a member of the Love Your Neighbor Coalition promoting the full acceptance of LGBT persons, same-sex marriage, and ordination in the UM Church. Hispanic United Methodists across the country are not agreed in their discernment of the way forward.

 

 

 

 

2019 General Conference Process Set

The Rules Committee of the Commission on General Conference discusses plans for one legislative committee at the 2019 special session. From left are Stephanie Henry, chair of the Rules Committee, commission members Audun Westad and Stanislas Kassongo, and translator Isabelle Berger. Photo by Heather Hahn, UMNS.

As we get closer to the special called General Conference scheduled for February 23-26, 2019, in St. Louis, more aspects of the process are coming into clearer focus.

The Commission on the General Conference just met and decided on how the special General Conference will run, according to an article by Heather Hahn of United Methodist News Service.

This special conference, unlike other “regular” General Conferences, will be devoted to one issue only: receiving and acting upon the Commission on a Way Forward (COWF) report and proposals. The report and proposals deal with whether or not the church will allow same-sex marriage and the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals as clergy. Additional proposals not from the COWF that relate to the same topic will also be considered.

Since the subject matter of the conference is different from what happens in a “regular” General Conference, the process that takes place at the conference needs to be different, as well. It appears that the Commission on the General Conference has come up with a process that is fair, open, and transparent, and that will allow the conference to make its best attempt at arriving at a definitive decision.

Normally, the conference is divided into as many as 12 or 13 legislative committees, with each committee assigned a portion of the several hundred petitions coming to a conference. But in the 2019 conference, there are only 99 petitions, and many of them are linked together as part of one or another overall plan. To consider them separately in different legislative committees would hamper the ability of the conference to deal with the plans as a whole.

Therefore, the Commission decided to have only one legislative committee to consider all the petitions that have been submitted. And that one committee will consist of all 864 delegates. The conference will meet as a “committee of the whole” on one day of the conference, so that all delegates may be part of fashioning the legislation that will be finally adopted. This legislative committee day will be presided over by an elected member of the conference, rather than one of the bishops. It will perfect the petitions that will eventually be acted upon again by the plenary session of the conference. The person to be elected chair will be one of those who served as a legislative committee chair at the 2016 Portland General Conference. That election will take place on the first day of the conference.

This approach will be helpful because it will allow the plans to be considered and perfected as a whole package, rather than piecemeal. It will allow all the delegates to be part of the perfecting process and to hear the arguments pro and con for each of the petitions dealt with. It will also create a more transparent process that can help build trust within the body, and it will enable all United Methodists (as well as others) to witness the whole process through live-streaming (something that could not happen when the conference is broken up into many legislative committees).

The special conference will run as follows:

  • Saturday, February 23, will be a day of prayer and preparation, culminating the bishops’ “Praying Our Way Forward” campaign to seek God’s help for our church’s way forward.
  • Sunday, February 24, will be the first day of business. The conference will hear a report from the Commission on a Way Forward on the three plans it brought forward. The conference will spend the rest of the day debating the three different directions suggested by the plans. At the end of the day, there will be a straw poll to determine which plan will be the one that the body works on. (This is not a final vote, but rather determines which set of petitions will be considered in the committee process. There will need to be more votes before the action becomes final.)
  • Monday, February 25, will see the conference meet as a legislative committee of the whole, presided over by a delegate. The body will consider, amend, and pass the petitions related to the plan they voted to consider on Sunday. Other petitions can be added to or substituted for the ones directly related to a plan. All the other petitions that are not approved will presumably receive a vote of non-concurrence, since all petitions must be voted on by the legislative committee. If the petitions related to the chosen plan do not pass, the body could presumably try to perfect other petitions related to another plan instead.
  • Tuesday, February 26, will be the final day of the conference and it will meet in plenary session, again with a bishop presiding. The petitions perfected on Monday will receive a final vote. The conference will also consider the implications of its actions for the future, particularly for the upcoming regular 2020 General Conference. This day also provides a bit of margin, in case the perfecting work is not completed on Monday or the conference votes to go in a different direction. Whatever is enacted by the plenary session on Tuesday will be the final decision of the conference.

Worship and prayer will be integral to the process of the special General Conference. It will begin each day’s session and be interspersed throughout the day, as well. The process will attempt to create a worshipful atmosphere in which delegates are better able to discern God’s will for the church moving forward.

This proposed process was approved unanimously by the Commission on the General Conference, gaining support from persons across the theological spectrum. It also has the benefit that it will not require changing the rules of General Conference. Changes in the rules were highly controversial in 2016 and took three days to adopt. The proposed process will still need to be approved by the General Conference on the first day of its meeting, but absent any concerted opposition, it seems sure to be enacted.

Of the 99 petitions submitted, 48 are in the report of the COWF. The General Conference Committee on Reference will meet prior to General Conference to determine which of the other 51 petitions are “in harmony” with the topic of the special conference. That report will be considered on the opening day of General Conference, and petitions found “not in harmony” will be able to be voted back in for consideration by the plenary session.

The Commission on the General Conference also tried out new voting machines for use in St. Louis. They have additional security features to prevent one person from voting on both his/her own machine and another delegate’s. They also create an easier mechanism for requesting to speak that will hopefully enable a smoother flow of the conference.

We believe the process proposed by the Commission on the General Conference is a good and positive one. We commend the Commission for placing a priority on fairness and transparency in developing the process. We encourage everyone to continue praying for the special General Conference, for the delegates, and for the many organizational details that have yet to be worked out.