By Thomas Lambrecht
In the sport of track, races are often set off by the firing of a starter’s gun. Racers who cross the starting line and begin the race before the gun fires are said to have “jumped the gun.”
That is exactly what the Iowa Appointive Cabinet has done by issuing its statement, “Leading Now and Into the Future.” A Frequently Asked Questions document fleshes out some of the details. The statement purports to begin implementing the post-separation United Methodist Church in Iowa before the General Conference has acted to pass the Protocol.
One Church Plan Again
“Leading Now” essentially tries to implement the One Church Plan (which was defeated by the 2019 General Conference) by episcopal fiat. It states, effective January 1, 2022, “pastors will be able to choose which weddings they officiate, as long as it is two consenting adults who have been counseled. Likewise, church leadership, in consultation with their pastors, will be able to determine their own policy regarding weddings.” Thus, despite 50 years of holy conferencing and decision-making by the denomination’s top policy-making body, General Conference, the Iowa cabinet will now explicitly override the definition of marriage in our Book of Discipline and permit what the Discipline bars.
Think about that for a moment. It is one thing to temporarily suspend enforcement of a disciplinary provision in anticipation of a forthcoming General Conference action (as the Protocol invites with its proposal of a moratorium on complaints). It is an entirely different thing to say that the disciplinary provision no longer applies, period.
In a swift rejoinder to an Iowa WCA response statement (linked below), the cabinet justifies the need to actualize this plan now. “The urgency of our response is directly related to organized groups that have made the decision to leave The United Methodist Church and have sought to define the post-separation United Methodist Church. … We strongly object to organizations that are both determined to leave The United Methodist Church and are telling others how we will behave post-separation. We have chosen to articulate a vision of The United Methodist Church that we believe we can live into in Iowa now.”
Those leading into the post-separation reality of The United Methodist Church should feel free to lay out publicly their vision for how that church will operate. Many have chosen to do so. But there is a difference between laying out a vision and actualizing it (or in the cabinet’s words, “living into it now”). Traditionalists are not allowed to live into our vision of the Global Methodist Church until the Protocol passes and that new church is formed. What gives the Iowa leaders the right to “jump the gun” and start living into their vision before receiving the authorization from General Conference to do so?
The answer may be found in a further statement of their rejoinder. “This statement is a matter of conscience for each of us, akin to non-violent resistance to unfair civil laws. We realize that taking this stand may have consequences and we accept those consequences, whatever they may be, openly and freely.” In other words, the Iowa leaders are engaging in ecclesiastical disobedience. They are prioritizing their own understanding of our Methodist faith over the communal discernment of General Conference. Since they hold the power in the Iowa Conference, they are unlikely to experience many adverse consequences personally for their decision. What consequences occur will mostly hurt the ministries and mission of the Iowa Conference. Yet, you can be sure that these same leaders will ensure that any clergy or congregations in Iowa that engage in ecclesiastical disobedience will experience strict consequences.
An Unrepresentative and Unfair Action
This action was taken by the appointive cabinet (the bishop and district superintendents), not by vote of the annual conference. It reflects the view of a small group of leaders, not the view of grassroots Methodism in Iowa. This was done because the leaders became impatient to live out their particular vision of the church, in light of the continued postponement of General Conference. It was also done to “jump the gun” on implementing a post-separation UM Church on January 1, rather than waiting for the annual conference to make that decision next June. The leaders may also have wanted to hurry up and implement their vision before it could be challenged legally before the denomination’s Judicial Council. That challenge cannot happen until annual conference meets in June. The Judicial Council would undoubtedly nullify the decision to negate the Discipline, but could not do so before its November 2022 meetings. That gives the Iowa cabinet 11 months to live into their vision and establish “facts on the ground” to set the course they want Iowa Methodism to take.
“Leading Now” states, “This decision by the Appointive Cabinet grants contextual permissions not for the sake of taking a side, but as a way for us to move through the impasse and invite us all into a way forward together.” Except the statement does not give a way for all Methodists to move forward. It allows those wanting to perform same-sex weddings to move forward with their agenda. But it does not allow traditionalists to move forward with establishing a new expression of Methodism. That can only happen when General Conference meets and passes the Protocol.
“Leading Now” goes on, “This vision provides a home for everyone – whether they consider themselves liberal, evangelical, progressive, traditionalist, middle of the road, conservative, centrist or something else – who wants a home in the remaining Iowa Annual conference of The United Methodist Church.” But there is no “remaining Iowa Annual Conference.” There is only the Iowa Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, to be governed by the Book of Discipline of the UM Church. The statement betrays their haste to move into a new reality before being given official sanction from the denomination to do so.
If the Iowa Appointive Cabinet truly wanted to move all Methodists into a new future in Iowa, they could have found a way under the Discipline to implement the terms of the Protocol, allowing churches to leave with their property and without payment of apportionments or pension liability. Such a way is available under ¶ 2548.2. Instead, the cabinet felt perfectly fine setting aside explicit provisions of the Discipline to allow same-sex weddings, but is holding churches that want to withdraw and align with a new traditionalist denomination strictly to the provisions of ¶ 2553. That provision requires payment of two years’ apportionments and pension liabilities up front in order for a church to withdraw, a fiscal impossibility for many congregations.
The rejoinder statement linked above declares, “While it was, and continues to be, our desire to facilitate the grace-filled exit of any congregation that is uncomfortable with this vision, matters of property move into the sphere of state laws. While we remain willing to violate this single matter in the Book of Discipline to lead our church, violation of state law regarding property would jeopardize the local congregation and the Iowa Annual Conference.”
With all due respect, this is a bogus claim. State law does not regulate how churches and non-profits can dispose of their property (other than prohibiting conflicts of interest or self-dealing). For many years, annual conferences have negotiated an exit for congregations even before ¶ 2553 was enacted in 2019. There are at least three ways under the Book of Discipline that an annual conference can release a congregation with its property (closure and resale, deeding to another evangelical denomination, and disaffiliation). Only one of those requires the payment of a fixed amount of money to the conference. If the conference wanted to let churches go under the terms of the Protocol, it could do so.
Theologically troubling is the premise that the statement is based on. Bishop Laurie Haller’s earlier “Vision 2032” statement about the future declares as one of its founding principles that “relationships are more important than theological convictions.” In other words, traditionalists are expected to renounce or hold in abeyance the theological convictions of 2,000 years of church teaching for the sake of staying “in relationship” with progressives who want to move in a different direction.
That approach certainly does not fit with the apostle Paul’s condemnation of any who would preach “a gospel other than the one we preached to you” (Galatians 1:8). Paul valued the approval of God more than the approval of human beings (vs. 10). Jesus said, “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). If even these most intimate family relationships are not as important as maintaining a relationship of love and obedience to Jesus Christ, how can we say that relationships are more important than theological convictions?
Beware Unintended Consequences
This precedent-setting move by the Iowa cabinet creates a general disregard for the church’s teachings, policies, and procedures established by General Conference. If an annual conference is allowed to disregard some disciplinary provisions, why should churches and pastors be held to account for disregarding other provisions? This devolves to a question of power: who has the power to enforce its decisions and who does not? Obviously, the bishop and cabinet hold the power in an annual conference to enforce their decisions through the power of appointment of pastors and of setting the conference’s agenda. The power differential with clergy and congregations means that, in this instance, “might makes right.”
However, the cabinet needs to be careful about opening this can of worms. There are other forms of power, and other ways of exercising power. Unleashing a game of power only leads to conflict, strife, and harm inflicted on all sides.
The Iowa WCA Regional Chapter has issued an excellent response to their cabinet’s action. The Iowa WCA statement declares, “We respectfully call on Bishop Haller and the Cabinet to rescind ‘Leading Now.’ We also urge episcopal colleagues in the North Central Jurisdiction and among the Council of Bishops to strongly encourage Bishop Haller and the Cabinet to withdraw ‘Leading Now.’
“If the document is not rescinded, we are confident faithful local UM churches (traditionalist, centrist, and progressive) in the Iowa Annual Conference will decide they can no longer submit to the authority of leaders who legitimize acts in defiance of our church’s teachings and its time-honored way of discerning God’s will for the whole.”
Local churches and laity have power, too. They have the power of purse strings. They can refuse to fund a bishop and cabinet that has gone off the rails and repudiated United Methodist connectionalism by their unilateral renunciation of the Discipline. And secular courts might be inclined to say that, by this action, the Iowa conference has repudiated its status as a United Methodist conference, breaking the trust clause that holds churches hostage to the whims of a wayward church leadership. Who knows where this road of rule by power could lead?
Peace-loving United Methodists of all stripes should hope that the Iowa Appointive Cabinet rethinks its position. We need to draw back from the brink of confrontation and outright warfare for the sake of the body of Christ. Conflict serves no one and destroys the church.
In the words of the Iowa WCA statement, “We are all disappointed the UM Church has not been able to convene a General Conference and so adopt the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation, an amicable and orderly plan of separation widely endorsed by leading Bishops, theologically diverse advocacy groups, and annual conferences. However, disappointment does not entitle Bishop Haller and the Cabinet to make up their own rules in the interim. Again, we call on the Bishop and the Cabinet to rescind ‘Leading Now.’”