In light of the delay in releasing the report of the Commission on a Way Forward, and in the interest of helping facilitate discussion and consideration of the three main proposals that will be voted upon at the special General Conference next February, I will be sharing the elements involved in each plan over the next three weeks that can be made public. I will not be sharing the actual legislation or the details of the report, in deference to the desire for that information to come at the same time to everyone in their primary language.
In the interest of thoroughness, many details will be included. For those looking for a shorter report, you can skip to the summary at the bottom of this article.
The One Church Plan is the proposal with the most amount of information that has been publicly released. It is based on the idea that the church’s teaching regarding the practice of homosexuality and gender identity is a non-essential issue. Proponents of the One Church Plan believe that Christians can disagree about these issues and even have different practices and still work together within one church.
Key elements of the One Church Plan:
- The plan states that we are not of one mind regarding human sexuality and affirms “those who continue to maintain that the Scriptural witness does not condone the practice of homosexuality,” as well as “those who believe the witness of Scripture calls us to reconsider the teaching of the church with respect to monogamous homosexual relationships.”
- The definition of marriage is changed from “one man and one woman” to “two adults.”
- The plan deletes the language, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”
- NOTE: the above three changes apply to the whole church and are not adaptable by the central conferences outside the United States.
- The plan deletes the requirement that ordained clergy not be self-avowed practicing homosexuals, allowing each annual conference board of ordained ministry and clergy session to determine how standards relating to human sexuality would apply to candidates for ordination. Those who are ordained clergy must be appointed by the bishop to serve.
- The plan states that ordained deacons and elders, as well as licensed local pastors, are not required or compelled to perform any marriage, union, or blessing of same-sex couples, nor are they prohibited from doing so. The decision about whether to participate in performing a same-sex wedding or blessing would strictly be up to the individual clergyperson.
- The plan provides that clergy who cannot continue to serve in their annual conference due to disagreement with the conference’s standards for ordination around human sexuality may transfer to a different annual conference. It also provides that clergy who cannot continue to serve a given local church due to disagreements over same-sex marriage should be reassigned to a different church.
- The plan forbids clergy from performing a same-sex wedding on church property unless the church has approved the use of church property for that purpose by a majority vote of the church conference.
- The plan allows that no bishop is required to license, commission, or ordain any person who is a self-avowed practicing homosexual, but that another bishop should be brought in to provide these services. The bishop is, however, required to appoint any person who is a self-avowed practicing homosexual and is ordained.
- The plan forbids bishops and district superintendents from either requiring or prohibiting pastors from performing same-sex weddings or unions. It also forbids them from either requiring or prohibiting local churches from holding same-sex weddings on church property. It forbids superintendents (but not bishops) from coercing, threatening, or retaliating against any pastor for either performing or refusing to perform a same-sex wedding.
- The plan allows an annual conference clergy session to adopt a policy regarding what standards to apply to candidates for ministry regarding human sexuality.
- The plan deletes from the chargeable offenses against clergy being a self-avowed practicing homosexual or performing a same-sex wedding.
- The plan gives central conferences outside the United States 18 months to decide whether or not to accept the above proposals or continue with the current Book of Discipline.
- The plan requires any local church leaving the denomination to pay its share of the annual conference’s unfunded pension liabilities, but it does not include any additional provisions for local churches to leave the denomination and keep their property. Whether or not the local church can keep its property is still left up to each bishop and each annual conference.
- The plan provides that any clergy who leave the denomination would have their pension benefits converted from a defined benefit to a defined contribution plan. This means that the amount of future benefits is not guaranteed, but that the amount of benefits would depend upon how much money is in the person’s pension account at the time of retirement.
What does this plan actually do?
- It changes the church’s official teaching on marriage and sexuality to affirm monogamous same-sex relationships. This is a change that affects all United Methodists everywhere, even if we disagree.
- It delegates to each annual conference the decision about what standards to impose on clergy regarding same-sex practices. Importantly, laity will have no voice in this decision; it will be strictly a decision of the annual conference clergy.
- It allows pastors to perform same-sex weddings if they want to without any repercussions.
- It delegates to each local church the decision of whether or not to allow same-sex weddings to be performed on church property.
- It includes protections of conscience and forbids bishops and district superintendents from coercing or punishing clergy who disagree with them about same-sex weddings.
- It protects bishops from having to license, commission, or ordain someone whom they believe does not meet the qualifications for ministry, but it gets around that by bringing in another bishop who is willing to do so. And it does not protect bishops from having to appoint someone as clergy whom they believe does not meet the qualifications for ministry.
- It allows central conferences outside the United States to continue operating under the current provisions of the Discipline, but the whole church would affirm monogamous same-sex marriage.
- It changes the church’s pension plan to accommodate clergy and congregations that might leave the denomination, but it provides no mechanism for congregations to leave with their property.
There are many issues that this plan raises for evangelicals and traditionalists. A few of them are:
- It changes the church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality to endorse conduct that Scripture prohibits. Such a change not only violates our consciences, it very well could remove the religious liberty legal protection that pastors and congregations have relied upon in not performing same sex weddings. While United Methodist clergy currently may point to the church’s official teaching as a basis for not marrying same-sex couples or hiring practicing homosexuals in our churches, that would no longer be the case under the One Church Plan.
- It officially allows practices in parts of the church that the Bible calls sin.
- It takes the conflict over the practice of homosexuality from the general church level down to every annual conference and every local church, as each makes its own decision about whether to allow same-sex marriage and the practice of homosexuality. This will multiply the level of conflict in our denomination, rather than resolve it.
- It sets up a situation where one annual conference will have different teachings and practices than another, and where two local United Methodist churches in the same community could have diametrically opposite teachings and practices on marriage and sexuality. This will cause confusion and lead to the further weakening of the United Methodist “brand.” What it means to be “United Methodist” will depend upon what local church one attends. There will be a much weaker connectional identity for the denomination.
- Many evangelicals will seek to leave the denomination if the One Church Plan passes because for most of us, adhering to Scriptural teaching on sexuality is an essential issue, but there is no orderly mechanism for congregations to do so and keep their property. This is a recipe for widespread lawsuits over property that consume the church’s resources meant to be spent on mission.
- Many progressives will not be satisfied with this compromise and will continue to push for the full affirmation of same-sex relationships to be required in every annual conference and local church. The conflict will continue.
There is no easy or painless way out of the impasse that besets our church, and there is no perfect solution. Of the three plans, however, the One Church Plan seems to be the least faithful to Scripture and the least able to practically resolve the impasse. It will not accomplish what the General Conference intended in providing a way forward that resolves the conflict in our church.