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.

Gracious Exit Supported

According to an article by Heather Hahn of UM New Service, “A theologically diverse group of United Methodists wants General Conference delegates to prioritize passing a ‘gracious and equitable’ plan for churches exiting the denomination.

“‘While we pray for a unified way forward, the reality of our circumstance convinces us that any decision made at the 2019 special session will likely lead to congregations and pastors deciding they are no longer able to remain in The United Methodist Church,’ said an open letter put together by 16 clergy and lay members of the West Ohio Conference.

“‘We write to urge the 2019 Special Session to approve a gracious and equitable process for exit.'”

Good News sees the provision of an exit path for congregations to leave the denomination and keep their property to be of paramount importance in moving forward. No matter what plan is passed (or even if no plan is passed) at General Conference in February, some congregations will find it impossible to continue living in The United Methodist Church in whatever the new reality turns out to be. Rather than tie up bishops, annual conferences, and local congregations in expensive lawsuits that drain away the church’s time, money, and energy, an exit path would provide a way to amicably allow churches to depart (which in itself would be a positive witness to the watching world). In addition, a uniform exit path would prevent unfair treatment of congregations, where an annual conference might let one church go, but not another, or where different annual conferences would have different ways of handling departing congregations that resulted in some congregations being able to leave with their property and others not.

While the Renewal and Reform Coalition does not support every one of the proposed financial provisions in the letter, we strongly endorse the concept of an exit path and support it being the first action of the special General Conference. Such a move could remove the temptation for supporters of whichever plan passes General Conference to be less than generous with those not supporting the plan. And it could greatly decrease the anxiety across the church.

As of this writing, over 1,700 lay and clergy United Methodists have signed the letter calling on General Conference to provide such an exit path. If you would like to read the letter and sign your support, you may do so by clicking HERE.

 

 

 

 

 

Upgrading the Traditional Plan

Since the Traditional Plan was presented by the Commission on a Way Forward, other ideas have surfaced in order to enhance it. Those ideas have been submitted to General Conference in two petitions entitled “Modified Traditional Plan” by Maxie Dunnam. What are those upgrades?

Gracious Exit Upgrade. The goal of the Traditional Plan is to provide a gracious exit for those (presumably mostly progressives) who are unable to live within the boundaries of our church’s teachings on marriage and human sexuality. The Traditional Plan seeks to be as equitable as possible to those who are departing, not imposing hefty financial penalties or long, drawn-out withdrawal processes. The only requirement is a simple majority vote by an annual conference or a 55 percent majority vote by a local congregation’s church conference in order to leave. The only payment required is an amount to cover unfunded pension liabilities, as determined by the Board of Pensions.

The reason for allowing annual conferences to leave The United Methodist Church is to provide a ready-made infrastructure to support continued ministry by those departing. Rather than having to start from scratch to put together an organizational structure, the new self-governing Methodist church can conceivably be built around existing annual conference structures. In order to facilitate this scenario, the proposed upgrade is to grant each departing annual conference $200,000 to help cover transitional expenses. This grant would enable the annual conference to rebrand itself and help cover legal expenses connected with the transition to a self-governing church.

Enhanced Accountability Upgrades. The other goal of the Traditional Plan is for everyone in the denomination to live by the church’s requirements. It has been the refusal of some clergy and annual conferences to do so that has precipitated the crisis in which the church finds itself. Since a number of progressives have indicated that they will both refuse to leave the church and also refuse to live by the church’s requirements, there needs to be a way to ensure accountability. No organization can long exist when its members refuse to live by the organization’s standards and requirements.

The enhanced accountability is not designed to be punitive, but rather to encourage church members to either comply with the church’s teachings or make the decision to leave the denomination for a different church that is in accord with their views. Up until now, however, the church’s accountability processes have not been able to deal with the intentional and principled defiance of clergy and annual conferences. Hence, the need for enhanced accountability.

For Bishops. The key player in the church’s accountability process is the bishop. Where the bishop fails or refuses to implement the church’s accountability process, the result is chaos. Regarding concerns around same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBT persons, the majority of U.S. bishops have decided not to implement the church’s accountability process. And until now, there has not been a good way to hold these bishops themselves accountable. Bishops have demonstrated that they are unwilling to hold each other accountable in their jurisdictional colleges, which is where that accountability lies.

The original Traditional Plan proposed allowing the Council of Bishops (COB – a global body, rather than jurisdictional) to intervene in holding bishops accountable. It would give the COB the ability to place a bishop on involuntary leave or involuntary retirement as a matter of discipline. Such an intervention would require a majority vote by the COB.

However, there is significant question whether the COB as currently constituted could muster a majority vote to hold one of its bishops accountable on the issues currently in dispute. That is why supporters of the Traditional Plan believe that upgrades are needed, for if the bishops are not held to the Discipline, the enhanced accountability will fail and the Traditional Plan will not work to bring about unity in the church.

The Modified Traditional Plan proposes the following upgrades to enhance accountability for bishops:

* It creates a new Global Episcopacy Committee, with one clergy or lay member from every annual conference in the global church. This body (through its executive committee) would be tasked with administering the complaint process against any bishop who is charged with not enforcing the Discipline, or with immorality (including not being celibate in singleness or not faithful in a heterosexual marriage), or with practices declared incompatible with Christian teachings (including being a self-avowed practicing homosexual or performing a same-sex wedding). This Global Episcopacy Committee would engage in a supervisory response with the bishop in question and would decide whether to forward a complaint for a trial. This means that no bishop would be involved in the accountability process for another bishop regarding these matters.

This provision would not be in conflict with the ability of the COB to hold a bishop accountable or place a bishop on involuntary leave or retirement. Rather, it would be an added layer to ensure accountability happens and would dovetail with the COB accountability process.

* Bishops who do not promise to uphold and enforce the Discipline on matters of same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBT persons would no longer receive funding for expenses (housing, office, travel), as of September 1, 2020. According to a recent Judicial Council decision, salary and benefits for a bishop cannot be withheld because it is inherently part of the position, but the General Conference does have the power to withhold expenses.

For Annual Conferences. The annual conference is also a key player in maintaining accountability to the teachings of the church. It is possible that an annual conference could promise to uphold and enforce the Discipline but then fail to do so. The proposed upgrade is to give the new Global Episcopacy Committee the power and responsibility to investigate any allegations that an annual conference, although formally committed to upholding the Discipline, has failed to do so. The Committee could require the annual conference to take remedial action or, for serious infractions, place the annual conference on the list of conferences that cannot use the United Methodist name or insignia or receive United Methodist funds from the general church. (Such decisions could be appealed to Judicial Council.)

Technical Fix. Finally, the Modified Traditional Plan includes an upgradethat would ensure that the provisions of the plan would take precedence over any conflicting provisions in the Discipline that are not in the Constitution. Wherever there is a conflict in language or requirements of the Discipline, the provisions of the Traditional Plan would supersede, avoiding any confusion.

The upgrades proposed by the Modified Traditional Plan strengthen both the gracious exit and the accountability features of the plan, making it more likely to succeed. Good News encourages delegates to support these refinements in the interest of enhancing the unity of the church around a shared understanding of marriage and human sexuality, as well as compliance with shared practices.

 

 

Responding to Talking Points

An organization formed to promote the One Church Plan (OCP) at the special called 2019 General Conference has recently issued a dozen talking points in support of the OCP. Some of those talking points are true and worthy of consideration. Upon closer examination, however, other talking points are either misleading or do not tell the full story. Here are responses to the talking points, quoted from Mainstream UMC.

  • The OCP is faithful to Scripture and the example of the Apostles in Acts 15 of allowing different practices in different mission fields.

The OCP changes the definition of marriage to “two adults” and affirms same-gender relationships. That can hardly be called “faithful to Scripture” (see Genesis 1:26-28; 2:23-25; Matthew 19:1-12; I Corinthians 6:9-11; Romans 1:21-27). The more applicable example from Acts 15 is the decision by Paul and Barnabas to honor each other as brothers in Christ, but separate to do ministry in different ways (vs. 36-41).

  • The OCP has been vetted by one of the most rigorous processes in our denomination’s history, a faithful, two-year study by the Commission on the Way Forward.

While the Commission did work on the One Church Plan, along with other plans, it never took a vote to endorse any of the plans. A lot of thinking and learning went into drawing up the details of all three plans, and they all benefited from that process. The Commission, however, did not endorse the OCP (nor either of the other plans).

  • The OCP has been recommended by nearly two-thirds of all active UM Bishops.

The bishops who endorsed the OCP were primarily from the U.S. According to the information we received, bishops from the central conferences outside the U.S. generally voted against the OCP. This appears simply to be a North American “solution” recommended to a global church.

  • The OCP allows different regions in the U.S. to adapt to their mission field.

One of the major shortcomings of the OCP is that it treats the disagreement over marriage and sexuality as a geographical problem, when it is really a theological problem. There are churches that would favor same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals in every annual conference. And there are churches in every annual conference that would find such an accommodation unacceptable. The OCP treats the minority position in any annual conference unfairly.

  • The OCP has no impact on the Central Conferences outside of the U.S.

The OCP changes the definition of marriage to “two adults” or qualified as “traditionally understood as a union of one man and one woman.” According to the Judicial Council ( decision 1185), these definitions bind the church in its universal understanding of marriage and are not adaptable by central conferences outside the U.S. Our brothers and sisters outside the U.S. would be forced to live by and defend marriage as a union of two undefined adults. It is also unclear whether it is constitutional to allow different annual conferences to have different standards for ordained ministry – so can the central conferences really adapt the requirements of the Discipline to their own context?

  • The OCP retains the global structure of the church and shared critical ministries.

Both the OCP and the Traditional Plan maintain the church’s current global structure and ministries (different from the Connectional Conference Plan). Both plans, however, would need to recognize that significant structural changes would undoubtedly follow upon the loss of members, no matter which plan is passed. The Traditional Plan explicitly maintains a way for those departing the denomination to continue participating in the UM pension and benefit plans, as well as mission partnerships, support, and cooperation. The OCP contains no such provisions for any departing churches.

  • The OCP removes most of the controversial and hurtful language about LGBTQ persons.

While the language is controversial and perceived as hurtful by some LGBTQ persons, the church has been forced by progressive advocacy to clarify its understanding of the biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality. It is unfortunate that much of the prohibitive language in the Discipline was needed because of the refusal of some annual conferences, clergy, and bishops to abide by the teachings and requirements of the church. What is often interpreted as hurtful is not the language itself (which can be tweaked), but the basic position of the church that same-sex relationships are not congruent with God’s will for human flourishing. This is not a matter of removing language but of changing the church’s understanding of same-sex relationships.

  • The OCP protects the conscience of individual bishops, conferences, pastors, and churches.

These protections, however, are found in the regular part of the Book of Discipline that can be revoked by any future General Conference. In other denominations, when the affirmation of same-sex relationships has become the majority position, such conscience protections have been revoked. Some of those promoting same-sex marriage and ordination in our church have said they will not rest until such is affirmed by all parts of the church (including the central conferences outside the U.S.).

  • The OCP requires no votes by conferences or churches.

While not requiring votes, the OCP sets up a situation where inevitably many annual conferences and local churches would have to vote. Every time an openly gay or lesbian candidate for ministry comes up in an annual conference, the clergy session (or in some cases the whole annual conference) would have to take a vote on whether or not to ordain a practicing homosexual. Every time a gay or lesbian member or relative of a member wants to get married in a local church (using the church’s sanctuary), that local church would have to vote whether or not to allow the use of the church’s property in a same-sex wedding. Any annual conference that does not initially ordain practicing homosexuals will be targeted by progressive advocates to change their position, with resulting controversies and votes year after year until the position in that conference is changed.

  • The OCP is financially faithful to pension commitments for active and retired pastors.

The Traditional Plan is also financially faithful to pension commitments. Changes in the pension plan will be needed regardless of which plan passes General Conference. While the OCP envisions some local churches leaving the denomination, it provides no mechanism for churches to do so while keeping their property. This creates the conditions for unfair treatment of local churches by different annual conferences and the potential for widespread expensive litigation over property and trust clause issues.

  • The OCP puts an end to church trials.

 

  • The OCP holds the denomination together to Make Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.

The idea that the OCP will prevent a separation in the denomination is a fond wish, but not grounded in reality. In fact, the North Georgia Annual Conference, which is generally more conservative in its rural areas and more progressive in its urban areas, took a survey this year as to how people might respond to the passing of either plan. It found that 5 percent of its conference members would seek to leave the denomination if the Traditional Plan passed, while 26 percent would seek to leave if the One Church Plan passed.

It would be wise of the General Conference delegates to acknowledge that no matter which plan passes, a significant portion of our denomination’s membership is likely to depart. The delegates essentially face two decisions at the upcoming General Conference:

1)     Does The United Methodist Church want to take a traditional or progressive approach to the issues of marriage and sexuality in the years ahead (which will determine the identity of the denomination)?

2)     Will The United Methodist Church provide a gracious way for churches to depart with their property, while maintaining the financial integrity of the pension program?

Given that some amount of separation is likely to occur, will that separation be amicable or adversarial? Will local churches be treated fairly across all annual conferences, or depend upon the whim of their annual conference leaders and the individual circumstances of the church, creating the potential for widespread expensive litigation over property and trust clause issues?

Resurrection: “Metaphorical” or “Literal”

In the midst of our denomination’s controversy over marriage and sexuality, it is easy to forget there are issues of even greater weight that divide The United Methodist Church. One of those is our understanding of the resurrection – both the resurrection of Jesus and our own.

Last spring, a United Methodist elder in Colorado, the Rev. Roger Wolsey, wrote a blog post denying many of the cardinal tenets of orthodox Christianity. Among his statements were these: “Going to heaven after we die isn’t what the faith or salvation is about. … Jesus’ resurrection didn’t have to be understood as a physical one for it to be a real and meaningful one (Paul and many of the early disciples encountered a spiritually risen Christ).”

In a recent Twitter exchange, the Rev. Dr. Mark Holland, the new executive director of Mainstream UMC (an organization formed to promote the One Church Plan), was asked, “Do you believe in the bodily resurrection?” His response was, “Yes. Metaphorically. 1 Cor. 15:44 ‘…it is raised a spiritual body.'” He went on to say, “The truth of the Gospel does not hinge on whether you and I read this literally or spiritually. Let’s just live into the mystery.”

Let me hasten to say I am not trying to cast aspersions on these two individuals, nor am I trying to malign the centrist movement of our church. Personally, I know a number of clergy who identify with Mainstream UMC who do believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ in what I would call a literal way. I acknowledge that Twitter is not a good place to engage in theological discussion, and I concede the shortcomings of words like “literal,” “metaphorical,” and “physical.”

The fact remains, however, our competing visions of divine resurrection – often found in differences between those in the pews and those in the pulpits – are among the most cataclysmic fissures within our denomination. “It’s Friday,” the great African American preacher S.M. Lockridge (1913-2000) used to say, “but Sunday’s coming.” That is the crux of our faith – our blessed hope. It cuts right to the core issues of the faith.

Is Jesus Christ God? Is there such a thing as the Trinity? Did Jesus’ death bring about salvation for all who believe? It might shock grassroots church members to find out that there are many United Methodist clergy who would not give an orthodox response to the above questions and others.

Did Jesus rise from the grave on Easter Sunday with a body that was just as real and physical as the body that was laid in that grave on Good Friday (albeit transformed into what the biblical writers would call a “resurrection body”)? The resurrection is the lynchpin on which the whole Gospel depends.

Paul writes in I Corinthians 15, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead… And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (vs. 14-15, 17). Peter made the resurrection the heart of his Pentecost Day sermon. “God raised [Jesus] from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him… God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it” (Acts 2:24, 32).

The resurrection is God’s assurance that Christ’s death really did atone for the sins of the world. Without the resurrection, we have no way of knowing whether God’s plan really worked! And the resurrection was the fulfillment of the Scriptures (I Corinthians 15:3-4) – a matter of “first importance.” To take away the physical resurrection is to gut the Gospel of its power. “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know … his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand…” (Ephesians 1:18-9). If there was no power in Christ’s resurrection, there is no power available to us today as believers in Christ. And Christ’s resurrection served as the “firstfruits” guaranteeing our future resurrection (I Corinthians 15:20-23). If he did not physically rise, neither will we.

Was Jesus’ resurrection “metaphorical” or “literal?” Was his resurrection body “spiritual” or “physical?”

When Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus (and in other appearances to Paul), Jesus probably did not have a physical body, since that body had already ascended into heaven. But Paul makes the claim that Jesus appeared to 500 of the disciples, including the Twelve, Peter, and James, before his ascension (I Corinthians 15:5-7). And Luke portrays Jesus’ resurrection body as a physical one. Jesus invited his disciples to “touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” In addition, “they gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence” (Luke 24:39, 42-43).

Our doctrinal standards guide us in how we are to understand these scriptures. “Christ did truly rise again from the dead, and took again his body, with all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s nature, wherewith he ascended into heaven, and there sitteth until he return to judge all men at the last day” (Articles of Religion, Article III). There is no question that the teaching of the church is that Jesus “literally” or “physically” rose from the dead with a real body that had flesh and bones. Yes, that body could appear and disappear at the drop of a hat and enter through locked doors, but it was a real body, just the same.

Friends, as we consider the future of our denomination, we must acknowledge that there are issues of even greater significance than marriage and sexuality that divide us. While not everything in the Bible is meant to be taken literally, surely Christ’s resurrection (and ours) is one of those that is. I am concerned about our church ratifying a theological framework that justifies turning physical reality into metaphor. We must not gut United Methodism’s historical understanding of the gospel of its power to transform our lives and our world.

 

Allocation of Bishops Unfair to Africa

Times are changing quickly and global United Methodism needs to start reflecting those changes. Over the last twenty years, the number one shift within our denomination has been the steady decline of membership in the United States and the ever-increasing growth of membership on the continent of Africa. United Methodism is found in at least 16 African nations.

Consider the fact that more United Methodists reside in the Democratic Republic of Congo (3 million) than in the combined North Central and Northeastern Jurisdictions in the United States (2.3 million).

The leadership of our denomination should reflect our current reality. That is why we need to reconfigure our outdated representation model to a more just and equitable configuration. And it needs to start at the Council of Bishops.

Currently, while the U.S. has 56 percent of the total number of church members, the U.S. has 70 percent of the number of bishops. This gives the U.S. bishops a dominant role on the Council of Bishops. The African central conferences have 43 percent of the church members, but only 20 percent of the bishops. This yields a dramatic underrepresentation of African perspectives on the Council of Bishops.

When the Council acts, as it did recently in endorsing the One Church Plan, we need to see that action as primarily an American decision not reflective of the true makeup of our denomination’s membership.

How we got where we are

In the U.S., the number of bishops allocated to each jurisdiction is based on a formula. The first 300,000 members yields five bishops for a jurisdiction. In fact, no matter how few members a jurisdiction has, anything less than 300,000 members still entitles a jurisdiction to five bishops. This part of the formula favors smaller jurisdictions, such as the Western Jurisdiction. For every 300,000 members over the original 300,000, an additional bishop is allocated. (This part of the formula is rounded up, so that 1.6 additional bishops equal 2.)

The result of this formula is that the larger the jurisdiction, the relatively fewer bishops it has. For example, the (smallest) Western Jurisdiction has roughly 61,000 members per bishop. By contrast, the (largest) Southeastern Jurisdiction has roughly 210,000 members per bishop. Part of the justification for this is the need to cover large geographic areas, particularly in the West. But it results in a fundamental unfairness.

In the central conferences outside the U.S., the number of bishops is determined by a number of factors: missional potential, number of local churches and clergy, geographic size of episcopal areas, number of annual conferences, and number of church members. There is no set formula.

This approach for the central conferences worked well when these areas were small mission areas still heavily dependent upon the mother church. As the mission field has matured and the churches outside the U.S. have become more self-governing, and particularly as the church in Africa has grown in numbers, the allocation of bishops has not kept up with the need.

The number of members per bishop vividly illustrates the discrepancy. In the U.S., the average number of members per bishop is 151,000. In Africa, the average number of members per bishop is 407,000. The most egregious underrepresentation is in the Congo, which has only four bishops for 3 million members. The number of members per bishop in the Congo is 750,000, five times the U.S. average! There is no way that a bishop can effectively supervise that many members.

Another way of viewing the unjust disparity in representation is to know that the Congo covers an area as large as the United States east of the Mississippi River. In the U.S., there are 29 bishops covering that amount of territory. In the Congo, there are four bishops covering the same amount of territory. And the last statistic I saw was that there are only 500 miles of paved roads in the Congo. (I believe this means intercity roads, excluding streets in a city.) So the ability to get around and travel to the churches is much more difficult in the Congo compared with the U.S.

Where we can go from here

One step forward would be to apply the same formula for allocating bishops in the central conferences as we use in the U.S. That would yield a much fairer distribution of bishops. It would not reduce the number of bishops in the U.S. beyond what the formula already calls for. But it would increase the number of bishops where they are desperately needed.

Applying the formula to the central conferences would add one bishop for the southern and eastern Africa area, which already has five bishops (Kenya, Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Angola, and South Africa). It would add six bishops to the West Africa Central Conference (Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Cote d’Ivoire), bringing their total to ten. And it would add ten bishops for the Congo, bringing their total to 14.

This approach would yield a much fairer distribution of bishops. The U.S. would have 54 percent of the bishops and 56 percent of the members. Africa would have 38 percent of the bishops and 43 percent of the members. Europe and the Philippines are overrepresented in the Council of Bishops (5 percent and 4 percent respectively) due to language, cultural, and geographic needs of the different areas. Their allocation of bishops would not change under the formula.

The 2016 General Conference voted to add five bishops for Africa in 2020. Where they will be assigned is still being determined by the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters. This is a start, but it does not come close to adding the seventeen bishops that are needed to bring equity. Perhaps we could add five more in 2024 and five more in 2028.

Generally speaking, the cost of a bishop in the central conferences (particularly Africa and the Philippines) is about half the cost of a U.S. bishop. Both the North Central and Northeastern Jurisdictions stand to lose a bishop in 2020 under the formula. That would pay for four African bishops right there. And the South Central Jurisdiction also stands to lose a bishop, if not in 2020, then in 2024. That would pay for two more in Africa.

Of course, all of this will need to be reconsidered in light of the actions of the 2019 General Conference, which may result in a loss of members (and maybe even annual conferences) in the U.S. Under any of the three plans, there will need to be a reconfiguration of annual conference boundaries and perhaps jurisdictional boundaries, as well.

In the meantime, it would be well to consider that the actions of the Council of Bishops are primarily a reflection of the U.S. bishops, not a globally representative body. And as we configure the United Methodist Church of the future, we should give attention to treating the central conferences more fairly as equal partners in a global church, rather than as “junior” partners or mission stepchildren.

 

What is a “Good” Witness

As we approach the 2019 specially-called General Conference of The United Methodist Church, one of the arguments being made for the One Church Plan is that staying structurally united as one church will be a good witness to the world, and that any sort of structural separation would be a bad one. The argument is made from Jesus’ prayer in John 17:20-23:

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Jesus’ desire is unquestionably that we be “brought to complete unity” by being “in us” (in the Father and in Christ). This unity that is brought about by our being united with God would indeed be a witness to the world that God loves the world and has sent Jesus into the world to bring salvation.

This unity, however, cannot be manufactured by us. Rather, it comes from our being perfectly united with Jesus Christ. As it was once explained to me, the closer we are to Jesus, the closer we are to each other.

What if we don’t have that unity? What if, due to the fact that we imperfectly perceive the things of God in our human condition, our disagreement is of a level that we are not at the same place in our understanding of discipleship and therefore not able to be in unity with one another? The apostles dealt with differences in doctrine and teaching. In some cases, they counseled separation (for example, 2 John 9-10, 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1).

We have in the church two groups that believe the other group is bringing erroneous or false teaching into the church. Traditionalists believe that to change the definition of marriage from one man and one woman would be to violate the clear teaching of Scripture, including the specific teachings of Jesus on marriage. Such teaching would be false and not true to the Gospel and therefore unacceptable in the church.

Progressives believe that the Bible does not speak about loving, monogamous same-sex relationships, and that the Holy Spirit is showing the church a new way that affirms such relationships as equivalent to marriage in every way. They believe that to discriminate (as they see it) against same-sex attracted persons is a violation of Jesus’ commandment to love one another and is therefore a false teaching that must be changed and repudiated by the church.

We should all be able to admit that these two views are mutually exclusive and cannot survive long-term in the same church. When two groups hold each other as purveyors of false teaching, even in biblical terms, separation is justified.

A Better Way

So what is a “good witness” in a situation like this?

Earlier in the same “Farewell Discourse,” Jesus says, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).

If we cannot be united in structure, we can at least witness to the world by treating one another with love and respect. This would be a dramatic departure from the way the world is doing things right now, particularly in the civil and political realm. Love doesn’t mean approval or agreement with another, but reflects the way that we treat one another in our disagreement.

So far, the tone is not encouraging. One United Methodist blogger levelled the cheap slur of “Metho-fascists” against those who believe differently than he does. The slur is not defined or explained, and no examples are given. Reconciling Ministries Network has featured an article by a progressive African pastor serving in ministry in the U.S. charging Good News with taking a “colonial” attitude toward partnership with African leaders and delegates. The article contains factual errors and spends most of its space recounting grievous instances of “cultural imperialism” committed by others decades ago, smearing Good News with guilt by association.

It is a clever and slick political ploy to attempt to drive a wedge between traditionalists in America and traditionalists in Africa. It will not work because we share the same view of the Lordship of Christ, high regard for the authority of Scripture, and a biblical vision for marriage and sexuality. One can ask the three African bishops who attended the meeting being criticized whether they felt dominated or demeaned by any American participation.

Moving Forward

For a number of years, Good News has advocated that progressives and evangelicals come together to agree on a way forward for the church that would allow each group to go its separate way, each doing ministry as it believes God is calling, with the respect and blessing of the church. Could we not be like Paul and Barnabas, who, despite a “sharp disagreement,” parted company in a way that allowed for future reconciliation (Acts 15:36-41)? Could we not adopt the attitude of Abraham in his conflict with his nephew Lot? “Abram said to Lot, ‘Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herdsmen and mine, for we are close relatives. Is not the whole land before you? Let’s part company. If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left’” (Genesis 13:8-9).

There were glimmers of that possibility in private discussions at the 2016 General Conference. However, hopes of working toward an amicable separation were dashed in the Commission on a Way Forward process.

We are left now with adversarial choices that will bring about “winners and losers,” with the resultant pain and turmoil in the church. (Of course, no matter what decision the General Conference makes, there will be pain and turmoil in the church.)

The Traditional Plan, while firm in its accountability process, aims to be gracious toward those who cannot live with the decision of the General Conference regarding same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. Maintaining structural unity is not the only way the church can give a good witness to the world. After all, how loving is it to force people to go against their consciences and violate their deeply held beliefs, as the One Church Plan envisions?

If we must take the road of adversarial choices, can we not do it with love and grace toward one another, giving the world a witness of how we believe Christ followers should treat one another? Can we not find a way to allow those with deeply held beliefs that differ from the church’s teaching to depart with our blessing? And cannot those who deeply disagree with the church’s teaching find a more fruitful approach to ministry than to continue badgering the church to force it to change its teaching against its will? That would be a witness to celebrate.

Is the One Church Plan Unconstitutional?

The process of formulating and releasing the report of the Commission on a Way Forward has been a long and winding road with unpredictable turns and unexpected surprises. Now that the report has been released in four translations, one foreseeable wild card in the process remains. This October, the Judicial Council has been asked to determine the constitutionality and legality of the three plans submitted by the Commission.

The Constitution is the document that sets forth the governing principles of our church. No legislation may be passed or implemented that goes contrary to our Constitution. Proposals (like the Connectional Conference Plan) that want to enact structures or processes that go against the Constitution must pass amendments to the Constitution in order to be legal. That is why the Connectional Conference Plan has nine constitutional amendments. That is the only way that plan could be enacted, since it makes some rather dramatic changes to the church’s structure and governing processes.

Both the One Church Plan and the Traditional Plan claim to not need any constitutional amendments in order to pass. In other words, both claim to be congruent with the requirements of our Constitution. That is a selling point because, rather than needing a two-thirds vote to pass, these plans would only need a simple majority. And neither would need to be ratified by the annual conferences in order to be implemented.

Over the past two weeks, as many as twenty different people – plus two larger groups – have weighed in with legal arguments over the constitutionality and legality of the three plans. As the designated defender of the Traditional Plan before the Judicial Council at its upcoming meeting in October, I submitted a regular brief and a reply brief to the Council.

There were a number of persons who argued that the One Church Plan is unconstitutional, despite the claims of the plan’s authors that no constitutional amendments would be required. What are the important issues they have raised?

  1. The One Church Plan unlawfully delegates authority to set standards for ministry to the annual conferences.The authority to set standards for ordained ministry is reserved by the Constitution to the General Conference. But the One Church Plan removes the restriction that self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not qualified to serve as ordained clergy. At the same time, it allows any annual conference (including those outside the United States) to continue disqualifying self-avowed practicing homosexuals from serving as ordained clergy.

The One Church Plan therefore sets up the probability of conflicting standards for ministry in different annual conferences. Some will ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals, while others will not. This would be unlawfully allowing annual conferences to set standards for ministry, something that the Judicial Council has previously ruled is “distinctively connectional” and not something that can be delegated to the annual conferences.

In the words of the Judicial Council, “It is inconceivable that the General Conference should have full legislative powers so that it can enact uniform legislation for the whole Church, and that at the same time each Annual Conference could also have the right to enact diverse and conflicting regulations, on the same subject” (JC Decision 7). “The requirements for admission into the ministry are distinctively connectional because, as observed in Decision 544, ‘[o]rdination in The United Methodist Church is not local, nor provincial, but worldwide'” (Brief by Keith Boyette).

When full clergy rights were extended to women in the (former) Methodist Church, the question was asked whether central conferences outside the United States could decline to ordain women. The Judicial Council ruled that this was a “distinctively connectional” matter that governed all annual conferences equally, so central conferences had to also ordain women. In the same way, the General Conference needs to set one standard regarding the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals and cannot allow different annual conferences to set conflicting standards.

If the One Church Plan simply declared that self-avowed practicing homosexuals are eligible for ordination in all annual conferences, the plan would be constitutional. (This is what the so-called Simple Plan does.) But by allowing annual conferences to set conflicting standards, the plan unconstitutionally delegates legislative authority to annual conferences on an area that is distinctively connectional and reserved to the General Conference.

 

  1. The One Church Plan’s changing of the definition of marriage to “two adults” clearly contradicts United Methodist doctrinal standards.There is no question that every reference to the practice of homosexuality in Scripture is negative and that Jesus and Paul both define marriage as between one man and one woman. Article IV of our Confession of Faithstates, “Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation.” Since the One Church Plan changes the definition of marriage contrary to Scripture, it violates our doctrinal standards.

In addition, John Wesley’s Notes upon the New Testament is another one of our doctrinal standards. It helps us interpret Scripture. Wesley’s Notes are uniformly negative toward the practice of homosexuality and affirm the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman. So the One Church Plan’s changing the definition of marriage also violates Wesley’s Notes as a contradiction of our doctrinal standards.

Any change in our doctrinal standards (such as to accommodate a new definition of marriage) would require a two-thirds vote of the General Conference and a three-fourths vote of all the annual conference members around the world. Such a change would be nearly impossible.

In addition, the One Church Plan, while defining marriage as between “two adults” at the theological level, allows for different definitions of marriage across the church, depending upon where churches are located. In countries that do not permit same-sex marriage, the church would have to abide by the traditional definition of one man – one woman marriage.

Yet this geographic variety has been ruled out by Judicial Council Decision 1185, which says, “The Church’s definition of marriage must take precedence over definitions that may be in operation in various states, localities and nations or that may be accepted or recognized by other civil authorities. To do otherwise would allow the Church’s polity to be determined by accident of location rather than by uniform application.” The church needs a clear and consistent definition of something so foundational to human existence as marriage. For the One Church Plan to offer a smorgasbord approach to defining marriage (depending upon one’s geographic location) is to unconstitutionally contradict our foundational principle of connectionalism.

  1. The One Church Plan allows clergy to perform same-sex weddings, but has not provided an endorsed rite or ritual for such a service.According to the Constitution, the General Conference has authority “to provide and revise the hymnal and ritual of the Church and to regulate all matters relating to the form and mode of worship . . . .” Right now, the approved services of Christian marriage are specifically written for the marriage of one man to one woman. There is no authorization in the service of marriage for a same-sex couple to be married. The church has no authorized ritual for such a marriage. It would be unconstitutional for the General Conference to allow a type of marriage for which there is no approved ritual.

Furthermore, our doctrinal standards require that rites or orders of worship must be “consistent with the Holy Scriptures to the edification of all” (Confession of Faith, XIII), “so that nothing be ordained against God’s Word” (Articles of Religion, XXII). Since same-sex marriage is plainly not consistent with Scripture, such a worship rite would be contrary to our doctrinal standards and therefore unconstitutional. (The same holds true of ordination rituals.)

  1. The One Church Plan is unconstitutional when it says, “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, shallbe reassigned” (Petition 8, emphasis added).The Constitution gives sole right to set the appointment of clergy to the bishop. So the General Conference cannot mandate that the bishop change a clergy person’s appointment.

 

  1. The One Church Plan’s provision that same-sex weddings cannot be performed in a local church unless such is approved by a vote of the local church conference conflicts with another provision in the Disciplinethat says, “the board of trustees shall not prevent or interfere with the pastor in the use of any of the said property for religious services or other proper meetings” (¶ 2533.1).

 

  1. One of the provisions of the One Church Plan says that the General Council on Finance and Administration will develop an apportionment formula that ensures that each episcopal area pays for its own bishop.However, there is no legislation to that effect, and it is questionable whether GCFA can enact such a policy without General Conference direction. Additionally, the Judicial Council has already ruled in Decision 1208 that jurisdictions may not be required to fully fund their own bishops. They ruled that such a plan “creates a funding mechanism that is dependent upon raising funds from jurisdictions and that invades and undermines the ‘unified’ nature of the episcopacy.” So if this provision were to be followed by GCFA, it runs the risk of being found doubly illegal. (This means that delegates should not count on this provision going into effect when they consider voting for the One Church Plan.)

The Judicial Council has yet to rule whether any of the above arguments are valid. I believe they are strong arguments. Some of the above issues can be fixed by amending the legislation. However, it appears that items #1 and #2 are so essential to the One Church Plan that to rule them out would pretty much rule out the whole plan. Such a ruling by the Judicial Council would substantially change the options that the General Conference will consider in February.

Of course, the Traditional Plan must also survive an analysis by the Judicial Council that may find aspects of that plan unconstitutional. We will keep you informed about what the Judicial Council decides in October.

 

Marriage and the One Church Plan

What is the definition of marriage? One of the salient issues the upcoming special General Conference in 2019 needs to decide is precisely this. How does The United Methodist Church define marriage?

Up until now, the church has defined marriage as a “covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman” (Book of Discipline, ¶ 161.C). The One Church Plan (OCP) wants to change this description of marriage to a “monogamous marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity, traditionally understood as a union of one man and one woman.” In another paragraph in the Discipline, the OCP goes even farther, stating “sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous marriage between two adults” (proposed ¶ 161.G). This changed definition of course opens the door to same-gender “marriage.”

What does the Bible say about the definition of marriage?

In Matthew 19 (parallel to Mark 10), Jesus is asked about what constitutes legitimate grounds for divorce. The Pharisees came to Jesus and asked whether it was lawful to divorce “for any and every reason.” Jesus did not answer them directly, but turned instead to the foundational understanding of the Bible regarding the nature of marriage, quoting from Genesis 1 and 2.

“Haven’t you read that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’?” (Matthew 19:4-5). As other commentators have pointed out, Jesus here joins together the two creation accounts (1:27 and 2:24) to emphasize that marriage is part of the created order, (applying to all humanity, not just Jews or Christians) and that marriage was created for one man and one woman. Jesus later explains that divorce arises from hardness of heart and limits the acceptable reasons for divorce only to adultery or marital unfaithfulness.

When the early church was establishing the qualifications for Gentiles to enter into the Church, one of the four things from which believers were commanded to abstain was “sexual immorality” (same Greek word as Matthew 19, “marital unfaithfulness”). When Paul outlined the qualifications for church leaders, one of those qualifications was “the husband of but one wife” (literally, a one-woman man) (Titus 1:6, I Timothy 3:2).

Yes, there are many instances of polygamy in the Bible. Most instances where we have details about the relationship, a polygamous marriage was not a harmonious one (think Sarah and Hagar with Abraham in Genesis 16-21, Rachel and Leah with Jacob in Genesis 29-31, Hannah and Peninnah with Elkanah, parents of Samuel in I Samuel 1). Having many wives, particularly those who worshipped foreign gods, caused the apostasy and downfall of Solomon. The evidence in Scripture at least discourages the practice of polygamy.

But Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 19 and the leadership requirements of Paul are decisive in understanding that polygamy is not in line with God’s original intention for marriage. Part of the New Covenant in Jesus Christ is the restoration of God’s original intention for many areas in life (see Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7). So the New Testament teaching on marriage and its definition is a recovery of the original definition from Genesis 1 and 2.

The interesting point is that there is no evidence in Scripture that would indicate support for expanding the definition of marriage to persons of the same gender. There is far more biblical justification for polygamy than for same-gender marriage. And if polygamy is off-limits for Christians, how much more so should same-gender marriage be off-limits.

To the clear biblical teaching on marriage’s definition can be added the theological significance of marriage in picturing the relationship between God and God’s people. In numerous places in the Old Testament, the relationship between God and Israel is pictured as a relationship between husband and wife (for example, Hosea 2). In the New Testament, marriage becomes a picture of Christ’s relationship with the Church (Ephesians 5:25-32, Revelation 21).

The theological picture of marriage demonstrates why marriage is between one man and one woman. Jesus Christ does not have many “wives,” only one Church as his bride. And the inherent difference between God/Christ and humanity mimics the gender difference between male and female in marriage.

The proponents of the One Church Plan should be more forthright that they are fundamentally changing the definition of marriage in a way that is not found in Scripture. This new definition goes against all the evidence in the Bible, both the clear definition of marriage and the theological implications of marriage.

The new definition is a human innovation that is inconsistent with what we call “the rule of faith” — the accumulated wisdom of biblical and theological understanding from our forefathers and foremothers of the faith down through the centuries. (John Wesley limited his understanding of the “rule of faith” to what he called “the primitive church,” or the church of the first three centuries prior to the Emperor Constantine.)

In Wesley’s understanding, we are to interpret Scripture in line with how the early generations of the church interpreted it. To introduce a new interpretation, there would have to be quite a strong case from Scripture that the earlier interpretations were wrong or incomplete. Such a strong case for same-gender marriage from the Bible does not exist. At most, apologists for same-gender marriage reinterpret Scripture in ways that make it silent or not applicable to same-gender marriage. That kind of textual manipulation is not enough to overthrow a 2,000-year-old understanding of the biblical teaching on marriage.

One could argue that this new definition of marriage is a violation of our United Methodist doctrinal standards. Article IV of the Confession of Faith states, “Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation.” Nowhere does Scripture reveal or establish that marriage in God’s eyes includes persons of the same gender. Therefore, this new definition of marriage cannot be made an article of faith (something that United Methodists believe and teach officially).

The final point to note is that the new (proposed) definition of marriage is found in the section of the Book of Discipline that applies to the whole global church. Much is made in the One Church Plan about the ability of central conferences outside the United States to continue operating under the current provisions prohibiting same-gender marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. But the definition of marriage is found in the Social Principles and in the theology section of the Discipline, a part that is not subject to the adaptation by central conferences. It is very hard to imagine that the United Methodists in the central conferences, particularly in Africa, the Philippines, and Eastern Europe, would be willing to approve a change in the definition of marriage that would apply in their countries, as well. For some of them, to do so would mean the suicide of their churches, either through mass desertion by members or governmental action against them.

Despite all the rhetoric of the One Church Plan affirming those with a traditional view of marriage, one must not underestimate the sweeping change that the plan proposes simply by changing the church’s official definition of marriage. Such a change would negatively impact the church for generations.