Encouraging Developments in Northeastern Jurisdiction

The Northeastern Jurisdiction is often thought of as a bastion of progressive thought in United Methodism. It is usually rated as the second most progressive jurisdiction, after the Western Jurisdiction.

That is why several developments in the last week are encouraging for evangelical United Methodists there and across the church.

Bishop LaTrelle Easterling of the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference enforced the Book of Discipline and recent Judicial Council decisions related to the examination of candidates for ministry. That conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry had announced in April that it would not “consider or evaluate sexual orientation or gender identity, nor see them to be sufficient reasons to deny a candidate’s ability to live up to our United Methodist standards.” That policy flew in the face of Judicial Council Decision 1341, which required that boards of ordained ministry carry out a full examination into all candidates for ministry to ensure that they are properly qualified, including in the area of sexual ethics. The Book of Discipline requires all ministry candidates to observe “celibacy in singleness or fidelity in a heterosexual marriage.”

Questions were raised about two candidates at the Baltimore-Washington Conference meeting who are self-avowed practicing homosexuals. After it became apparent that the Board of Ordained Ministry had not done a full examination, Bishop Easterling halted consideration of all candidates at the session. During a recess, the board questioned each of the candidates about their adherence to the required standards of sexual ethics, confirming that two are indeed practicing homosexuals. Easterling then ruled that those two candidates could not be considered by the clergy session, and that their recommendation was out of order.

Easterling’s rulings came in response to a question of law raised by the Rev. Mark Gorman. Easterling herself disagrees with the position of the church on these questions. “I pray that in 2019, we move away from the restrictive language in our Book of Discipline, and allow for all to really find a full and complete home within the United Methodist Church,” she is quoted as saying. Still, despite her personal views, Easterling did the right thing in upholding the Discipline’s requirements and processes.

It is also noteworthy that the Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conference passed a resolution “strongly encourag[ing] the General Conference of The United Methodist Church to maintain the current language in the United Methodist Discipline concerning matters of human sexuality as we prepare for the special session in 2019.” The resolution passed 176-152. It was a substitute for a proposed resolution that called for the General Conference “to resist schism and express openness to diverse perspectives in matters of human sexuality.” The moving and passing of the more traditional substitute is an illustration of how it is possible to change the direction of an annual conference action via an amendment moved by a member of the conference from the floor. This bodes well for the General Conference, where similar motions to amend from the floor may be necessary to help the conference move in a more traditional direction.

In the Upper New York Conference, a resolution calling upon that conference’s delegation to General Conference to unify around the “One Church Plan” was defeated by a vote of 455-392. The “One Church Plan” – previously known as the “local option” – would change the definition of marriage to “two adults” and permit United Methodist clergy to perform same-sex weddings and be ordained as practicing homosexuals. The “One Church Plan” is supported by the majority of North American bishops and the “Uniting Methodists” caucus. Good News and the Renewal and Reform Coalition strongly oppose the plan.

All of these actions are significant in indicating that there is more grass roots strength for an evangelical or traditional perspective than some might think. If annual conferences in one of the more liberal jurisdictions can act in support of our current Book of Discipline, that might portend the church continuing to take a more conservative direction regarding marriage and sexual ethics.

I would like to hear news about actions from your annual conference. Please email your reports to me at tlambrecht@goodnewsmag.org.

 

Your Tithes and Gifts are Not Enough

Every Sunday, all around the world, faithful United Methodists give their tithes and gifts to the church. But apparently it’s not enough to secure them a seat to observe the proceedings of one of the most important General Conferences in the church’s history.

Just a few months ago the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) was boasting that giving to the general church was setting new records, but now they’re pleading poverty. Apparently, funds are so tight the church must take the unprecedented step of charging United Methodists who want to observe their church at work $200 to $300 for the privilege. Previous General Conferences have charged less than one-tenth that amount for a conference three times longer.

A twenty minute review of the financial statements from the UM Church’s general boards and agencies (including GCFA’s) makes it amply clear there are plenty of reserves on hand to cover the $700,000 GCFA says it needs to help defray the expenses for the special General Conference scheduled for February 23-26, 2019, in St. Louis, Missouri.

But of course more than money is at play here. Since the 2000 General Conference demonstrators have either disrupted or attempted to disrupt the quadrennial gatherings. Our bishops, who preside at the conferences and so are charged with maintaining order, have frequently failed to do so. So some people think the bishops, or those planning the General Conference, may have hit on a strategy for stemming the disruptions: charge people to attend. That approach would absolve them of doing what they are supposed to do, and would have the added benefit of protecting the millions of dollars in reserves held by the general church’s boards and agencies.

This might be clever, but it sets a bad precedent and is harmful to reputations of church leaders who are already running a significant trust deficit. People all across the UM connection have critiqued the discernment process the Council of Bishops (COB) has been presiding over during the past two years as lacking transparency. Our episcopal leaders are not even willing to share the results of the critical balloting they took at their last meeting. Their poorly worded press release and follow-up “clarification” created confusion and competing reports of what actually transpired. Closing General Conference to everyone except those United Methodists who can afford to attend will only erode their credibility.

Ironically, the exorbitant registration fee for observers will not keep protesters away, since their commitment to their cause will easily enable them to raise the necessary funds. But it will deny United Methodists of modest means, who give sacrificially to the church, the opportunity to observe in person this historic conference precisely because they give sacrificially to the church.

An interesting side question involves the potential scenario where demonstrators are so disruptive that, in order to continue, the General Conference has to be closed to all observers. (Such a strategy was considered in Tampa in 2012.) In that case, even those innocent of causing problems could be excluded. Will their registration fee be refunded? I doubt it.

Even worse, the fee structure demonstrates a measure of unfairness. Spouses of delegates, for example, have to pay a fee, but bishops’ spouses do not. Persons who serve the church at General Conference, including members of the Judicial Council (who are required to attend) and the Commission on a Way Forward, are being charged a fee. Most egregious of all is that those covering General Conference for the press are being charged a fee. Will the New York Times, Washington Post, or Christianity Today be willing to pay to cover this historic meeting? What about United Methodist News Service? If not, how will our church ensure that the story of what happens be told accurately and with context and balance? And how does limiting press coverage increase transparency and trust?

When the proposal for a special called General Conference was put forward at the 2016 General Conference, delegates raised questions about whether adequate funding was available for the proposed Commission on a Way Forward and the special General Conference. Delegates were assured that adequate funds could be found to cover the anticipated costs. Now, it appears that is not the case. This is just another example of unkept promises generating further mistrust and even cynicism. Why should delegates (or the church at large) believe anything they are told when assurances prove to be unfounded?

The bishops should develop the political will to solve this problem and strongly encourage the GCFA to find the funds necessary to keep General Conference open to all United Methodists. If you agree, contact Bishop Ken Carter, president of the COB (bishop@flumc.org), and Mr. Moses Kumar, general secretary of the GCFA (gcfa@gcfa.org), politely appealing to them to make sure all United Methodists have the opportunity to observe all the General Conference proceedings in person and be part of this momentous event in the life of our church.

 

 

 

 

Judicial Council Allows Alternative Proposals

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

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

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

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

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

Leadership or Manipulation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet the majority of these bishops adopted the plan anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the Bishops Really Did

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Understanding Incompatibilists

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

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

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

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

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

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

Progressive Incompatibilists

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

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

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

Traditional Incompatibilists

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

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

Implications

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Social Principles: A First Look

The 2012 General Conference commissioned the Board of Church and Society to do a total rewrite of the United Methodist Social Principles. The project is moving toward completion with the publication of the first draft of the proposed new principles.

The aims in drafting the new principles were to make them:

  • More succinct
  • More theologically grounded
  • More globally relevant

Since their introduction in 1972, the Social Principles have been added to and elaborated on. It has grown from 42 paragraphs in 1980 to 76 paragraphs in 2016. In 1980, the Social Principles took up 18 pages in the Discipline, and in 2016 they took up 40 pages using smaller type! And there is no disputing that the perspective on social issues is extremely U.S. centric and often not applicable to countries in other parts of the world where 40 percent of United Methodists live.

In general, the new Social Principles accomplish the goals set for them. They are more succinct, scaling back to 60 paragraphs instead of 76 and substantially shortening some of the paragraphs. However, they were only able to pare back from 2016’s 15,000 words to now 14,000 words, with two paragraphs left to add. At first read, it still seems like there are some areas of overlap and duplication that could be consolidated, and there could be further shortening to reduce the overall length.

There has been an effort to incorporate more Scripture references into the principles and to set a theological context for many of the topics, which is helpful. Unfortunately, the effort to provide Scriptural background sometimes results in the twisting or misapplication of a given passage. For example, the section on military service uses Jesus’ exclamation from Luke 19:42, “If you had recognized on this day the things that make for peace!” as an argument for peacemaking. In fact, Jesus is talking here mainly about peace with God through accepting Jesus as the Messiah, rather than human efforts at resolving conflict in non-military ways.

The attempt to make the Social Principles more globally relevant has resulted in far less specificity in the principles. Rather than addressing specific concrete dilemmas, they speak in broad generalities. This does enable the principles to translate better into a variety of global contexts. On the other hand, they tend to be much blander and not as helpful in addressing the real ethical and moral issues underlying the statement.

Many of the principles tend to address the topic in a more superficial way without wrestling with the competing values that often are the source of controversy. For example, the principles on migration, immigration, and refugees extol the value of welcoming the stranger and providing radical hospitality, but fail to mention the need to preserve national boundaries and protect a nation’s citizens. All these values are important and supported in Scripture, and the difficult moral reasoning is seeking how to balance them.

Distressingly, some of the more controversial areas saw a decided swing toward a more progressive approach. This is especially true in the principle on abortion, where all the nuanced language added in the last 20 years has been jettisoned in favor of the eerily unqualified statement, “We support legal access to abortion.” There is no examination of any parameters to legal abortion or any hint that abortion should be restricted in any way or that abortion is the tragic loss of a life. It is treated as a neutral decision, and the focus of the principle is on preventing unintended pregnancy.

Similarly, the principle on marriage and divorce fails to set forth any kind of theological understanding of marriage, other than to say it is one form of human relationship in which we ought to treat one another with humility, gentleness, patience, and love. Marriage is not defined, skirting the challenges of polygamy or same-sex marriage. Much more space is given to situations when marriage has gone wrong (abuse, exploitation, divorce, child marriage) than in setting forth what can be done to strengthen marriages or why marriage is important.

On the other hand, the principle on “Military Service” is well balanced, affirming both the pacifist perspective and the “just war” perspective (although it is not named such in the principle). The parallel principles on “War and Peace” and “Peacebuilding” emphasize peacemaking without acknowledging situations where armed conflict may be unavoidable. This is one instance where combining the three principles could yield a more balanced and comprehensive understanding of the issues involved.

The hot-button paragraphs on “Human Sexuality” and “Rights of Persons of All Sexual Orientations and Gender Identities” were not included, pending the 2019 General Conference’s decisions on these issues. However, the principle on “Gender Equality” implies the acceptance of multiple genders beyond male and female and plainly states, “Discrimination based on gender identity is a sin.” This is obviously beyond where many United Methodists are prepared to go.

The Board of Church and Society is looking for feedback on this initial draft of the Social Principles. Comments can be entered on this web link. I would encourage you to read the proposed principles and give your feedback to help influence the second draft. The final product will come to the 2020 General Conference for approval. As they stand now, there is a lot of room for improvement.

 

Bishops Request Judicial Council Decision

The Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church is asking the JudicialCouncil for a declaratory decision on what petitions can be submitted to the denomination’s Special Session of General Conference called for February 2019. The Council of Bishops announced their request in a statement issued this week.

“The intent is to resolve the question of whether additional petitions, beyond the report of the Commission on a Way Forward and the Council of Bishops, can be submitted to the Special 2019 General Conference prior to the convening of the Special General Conference,” said Bishop Bruce R. Ough, president of the Council of Bishops.

A faction of the Council of Bishops is arguing that the special called General Conference ought to only consider whatever the bishops propose as a way forward for the church in resolving disagreements over our understanding of marriage and same-sex practices. There is a powerful push to adopt the “Uniting Model” that would allow annual conferences to decide whether or not to ordain practicing homosexuals and clergy to decide whether or not to marry same-sex couples. A heavy-handed attempt by some bishops to prevent consideration of other options does not speak well of their leadership, but may indicate a level of panic, striving at any cost to keep the church “united.”

We applaud the Council of Bishops for requesting this decision in order to bring certainty to the process. Based on previous Judicial Council decisions, the Judicial Council should allow other relevant proposals to be submitted to General Conference. (Even if Judicial Council rules they cannot be submitted as part of the regular process, there is nothing preventing other proposals from being introduced on the floor of General Conference as a substitute for the bishops’ proposal.) Allowing proposals to be submitted as part of the regular process is critical to enable those alternative proposals to be properly evaluated prior to being considered by General Conference.

The General Conference delegates ought to be allowed to consider any and all proposals for a faithful way forward for our church. It is their decision that will determine the future course we take, after all. The work of the Commission on a Way Forward and the proposal(s) submitted by the bishops are important, but they do not define the final outcome. Only the General Conference can speak for the whole church in determining how we will proceed.

Baltimore-Washington Defies Judicial Council

In response to six different annual conference boards of ordained ministry voting in 2016 not to comply with the Book of Discipline’s qualifications for ministry in evaluating candidates, the Judicial Council ruled that “The Board’s examination must include all paragraphs relevant to election of pastoral ministry, including those provisions set forth in paragraphs that deal with issues of race, gender, sexuality, integrity, indebtedness, etc. ¶¶ 304.2, 305, 306, 310.” In other words, the board of ordained ministry cannot ignore requirements it disagrees with.

The Judicial Council further ruled, “The Board can only legally recommend to the Clergy Session a candidate for whom they have conducted a thorough examination and who has met the disciplinary standards for fitness.”

Now, one of those six original non-compliant annual conference boards has voted to adopt a policy that intentionally disobeys not only the Book of Discipline, but the Judicial Council ruling. Rather than await the outcome of the 2019 special called General Conference, Baltimore-Washington is conducting itself as a break-off annual conference from the rest of the global United Methodist Church.

In a statement issued last week, the board announced that it had adopted the policy recommendation last October and used it to evaluate its current crop of candidates for ministry.

The policy states, “We will not consider or evaluate sexual orientation or gender identity nor see them to be sufficient reasons to deny a candidate’s ability to live up to our United Methodist standards. We will utilize our denomination’s expectation of faithfulness in marriage and celibacy in singleness within our examination and expect not only high moral standards but also a strong sense of self-awareness about one’s relational life.” (One wonders what exactly those “high moral standards” are, if Baltimore-Washington no longer operates by the moral standards set by General Conference in obedience to Scripture.)

Despite the fact that Baltimore-Washington has jettisoned the denomination’s ordination standards, it is noteworthy that the board still wants to maintain the standard of “faithfulness in marriage and celibacy in singleness.” However, since same-sex marriage is now legal in the United States, the refusal to consider sexual orientation or gender identity means that persons in a same-sex marriage would be eligible for ordained ministry in the board’s eyes. Transgender candidates would also be welcome under these standards. Given the Judicial Council rulings, this policy calls into question whether any of the candidates recommended by the board at the upcoming annual conference can legally be considered or voted on.

The board acknowledges that it is knowingly violating the provisions of the Discipline and the Judicial Council rulings. Their statement reads, “We write in response to these rulings’ specific mandate to not ignore in the inquiry a candidate’s self-disclosure of sexual orientation. We respectfully disagree with these rulings, acknowledging that the following policy is not compliant with the Book of Discipline.”

This action points once again to the primary problem that is causing the crisis within United Methodism today. That problem is the unwillingness of members, clergy, and bishops to live within the boundaries set by General Conference for the whole church. This intentional defiance has torn the covenant that binds United Methodists together and generates mistrust and cynicism toward the institutional church.

The Rev. Amy McCullough, who co-chaired the board task force that developed the policy, is quoted as saying, “My hope is that this feels respectful. We all want the best for this Church that we love.” However, this policy does feel disrespectful. It disrespects the collegial work of the General Conference, the only body that has the authority to speak for the whole United Methodist Church. And it disrespects the clear and reasonable decisions of the Judicial Council in upholding what the Discipline requires. It also disrespects all of us who took vows to live by our Discipline and have been faithful to those vows, even when we disagree with some of its requirements.

A church that fails to live by its covenants is no longer an authentic church. It has become factions that live by their own lights and disregard the health of the whole body for the sake of advancing their views.

It has become painfully obvious since 2016 that those promoting the affirmation of LGBT practices are not willing to live together in a church that disallows those practices. Rather than take the route of integrity and withdraw from a church they cannot adhere to, they tear apart the unity of the church by their continuing and escalating disobedience.

The only faithful way forward is some form of separation that acknowledges that reality and allows the different factions to go their own way. We gain nothing by continuing to try to hold together members and congregations that cannot live in the same church by the same understandings of faith and moral teachings. In their zeal to force the church to change, many progressives have instead sealed the fate of The United Methodist Church to no longer be a “united” body, but destined for separation.

Northwest United Methodist Defiance

Rev. Kathleen Weber, PNW Conference

United Methodists in the Greater Northwest Area, under the leadership of Bishop Elaine J.W. Stanovsky, have again decided to disregard the letter and spirit of United Methodist Church teachings. Indeed, it seems Stanovsky has gone out of her way to poke the eye of any vestige of church unity during this time of prayer and discernment about a faithful way forward for our denomination.

On February 19, Stanovsky announced the appointment of the Rev. Kathleen Weber to serve as the District Superintendent for the Crest to Coast Missional District in the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference. Weber is a second generation United Methodist pastor, a graduate of Candler School of Theology, and has been under appointment since 2005. Oh, and by the way, she is married to Dr. Danae Dotolo.

The fact that an openly married lesbian is serving as a pastor in The United Methodist Church in the state of Washington is not surprising, but it is disheartening. The Pacific Northwest Annual Conference is one of those conferences that stated it would ignore the issue of sexual orientation or practice in considering candidates for ministry, and that it would not conform to the requirements of the Book of Discipline regarding marriage and sexuality. It appears that, despite the Judicial Council declaring such actions by annual conferences to be illegal under the Discipline, Bishop Stanovsky and conference leaders continue to ignore the parts of the Discipline that they disagree with.

Even more disheartening during this time of discernment, however, is that the bishop would appoint a married lesbian as a district superintendent. This raising of the profile of Weber is an overt defiance of United Methodist standards and a callous disregard for the attempt by the Commission on a Way Forward to find a fair and faithful way for our church to resolve its impasse over these matters. It certainly makes it more difficult to come to a positive and unifying resolution of our disagreements.

Bishop Elaine Stanovsky

But Stanovsky was not finished. On February 22, she announced that the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference (which she also serves) is hiring a half-time LGBTQ+ Advocacy Coordinator for the conference. The Rev. Dr. Brett Webb-Mitchell is a Presbyterian Church (USA) pastor and was an Assistant Professor of Christian Nurture at Duke Divinity School. He and his partner, Dean, have been together for 22 years and have two adult children.

In deference to the fact that the Book of Discipline forbids the spending of church funds “to promote the acceptance of homosexuality” (¶ 613.19), funding for this position is being received from The Collins Foundation, a family foundation located in Portland, Oregon, dedicated to “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” Many of the activities to be supported by Webb-Mitchell are conducted in partnership with the Love Your Neighbor Coalition, the group that has been promoting at General Conference a change in the United Methodist teachings in order to allow same-sex weddings and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. (This is in addition to the extravagant funding that pro-gay General Conference efforts have received from wealthy non-United Methodist foundations such as the Arcus Foundation, the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, and the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation.)

These two announcements, within days of each other, constitute a double-barreled assault on the church’s standards and further diminish prospects of an amicable resolution of the current impasse in our church. Along with the continued service of married lesbian Bishop Karen Oliveto in the Mountain Sky Area (despite the Judicial Council ruling her consecration illegal), this escalation in the form of the appointment of two openly gay clergy to annual conference leadership positions is an “in your face” repudiation of United Methodist polity and discipline.

As the Commission on a Way Forward conducts its eighth meeting next week and prepares to send its final report to the Council of Bishops, it has become more apparent than ever that we are two churches pretending to be one.