By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht
My colleague Walter Fenton recently reported on the “just resolution” that was reached in September over a complaint filed against the Rev. Michael Tupper of the West Michigan Annual Conference. Tupper had performed a second same-sex marriage after having agreed to a just resolution for performing a prior same-sex marriage. (In other words, this was his second offense.) A just resolution is an agreement on how a complaint over a violation of the Discipline is to be resolved, which then means that no church trial is necessary. It is essentially a plea bargain that is accepted by both sides.
A quote in Walter’s article caught my attention. “This just resolution is a rejection of the authority of General Conference,” said the Rev. John Grenfell, Jr., a former Detroit Annual Conference district superintendent and a long time advocate for clergy and laity in church disputes. “It grants permission to two elders to redefine the life and mission of the church, when only General Conference can do that.”
Does this just resolution overstep the bounds of what an annual conference can do? Does it usurp the role of General Conference, and if so, what might this portend for the future of Methodism?
First, it is important to be aware that this “just resolution” is another in a long line of unsatisfactory responses to violations of our covenant life together. There are no meaningful consequences for violating the Discipline. Instead, the violator is put in charge of a process of “educating” clergy and laity about how to live together in a new way. This approach was first used in the Amy DeLong case in Wisconsin, where a trial court (jury) sentenced the Rev. DeLong to write a paper on how to preserve the unity of the church and set up a process that allowed DeLong to guide the annual conference into a new way of doing ministry with LGBTQ people. Since then, this approach has been implemented in “just resolutions” from New York to Oregon and places in between. It is an abuse of the just resolution process that essentially uses a violation of the Discipline as a means of trying to change the church’s teaching and practice. It turns the idea of covenant accountability on its head.
Often, these “just resolutions” are entered into by representatives of the church who themselves do not support the teachings of the church. That was true in the Tupper case as well, as the Counsel for the Church (who agreed to the resolution) and new Michigan Bishop David Bard both favor changing the church’s stance on same-sex marriage.
But the recent Tupper case in Michigan goes far beyond the approach of earlier “just resolutions.” It seeks to “initiate a plan for the Michigan Area to become a model for our denomination of what the ‘Big Tent’ option would be like if it was [sic] implemented by the General Conference.” In other words, the Michigan area is going to implement a solution to the impasse over marriage and sexuality that only the General Conference has the power to implement.
Lest there be any confusion about what a “Big Tent model” might mean, the “just resolution” states “the ‘Big Tent’ option includes proposals for revisions to The Book of Discipline … that would allow local churches the freedom to discern whether to receive an openly gay clergyperson and allow pastors the freedom to discern whether to officiate at same sex weddings.” The “Big Tent model” would ignore or nullify the standards for ordained ministry (¶ 304.3), stating that self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be ordained or appointed as clergy. It would ignore or nullify the prohibition of performing same-sex marriages by United Methodist clergy or in United Methodist churches (¶ 341.6). And it would ignore or nullify the fact that all of these actions are listed as chargeable offenses in ¶ 2702.1b.
The “just resolution” goes on to set up “Training Sessions for all Michigan SPRC chairpersons … in helping them to set up a process of discernment in every local church … regarding their readiness to accept the appointment of a gay clergyperson.” In addition, it sets up a “Training Session for all Michigan clergy … to offer pastoral care for LGBTQI individuals who are considering marriage or ordained ministry.”
In other words, these are not just proposals for changing the Discipline at the next General Conference. These are plans to live as if the Discipline has already been changed. It usurps the power of General Conference, which is the only body that can speak for the church and the only body that can change the Discipline. This “just resolution” is patently illegal under church law and should be challenged before the Judicial Council.
But what does this “resolution” portend for the future of Methodism?
The Michigan plan is just another step down the road of annual conferences acting autonomously and independently of each other and of the General Conference. It is a sign that the church is already in schism.
More and more, the church is becoming a federation of annual conferences, each with different standards for ministry, different understandings of the church’s mission, and different applications (or ignoring) of church law. The United Methodist Church is no longer one body with unified beliefs and practices. If the Discipline becomes a set of optional guidelines instead of a unifying covenant, I can imagine annual conferences changing the standards for approving persons for ordination. Some conferences may accept candidates for ministry who earned their education at seminaries not on the approved seminary list. Safeguards in the appointment process for clergy to churches could be ignored. This is where the “Big Tent” or “local option” approaches will take us.
The problem with this setup is that our annual conferences are geographical, while our differences are theological and not easily demarcated along geographical lines. There are strong evangelical congregations and clergy in predominantly liberal annual conferences, and there are strong progressive congregations and clergy in predominantly conservative annual conferences. These theologically minority congregations have fundamental disagreements with the direction of their respective annual conferences. Those disagreements make it difficult, if not impossible, for the minority congregations to carry out ministry with integrity within a setting with which they profoundly disagree. And being in such a setting severely hampers those congregations’ ability to thrive and grow.
A second problem with this setup is that a “Big Tent” or “local option” approach is only a way station on the way toward the mandatory acceptance of same-sex marriage and ordained practicing gay clergy. Pro-LGBT activists will not rest until every church is required to perform same-sex marriages and accept practicing gay clergy as their pastors. The societal momentum within the U.S. supports this kind of shift. And the “local option” allows annual conferences in Africa and elsewhere in the world to maintain their current practices, while enabling the U.S. to shift over completely to a gay-affirming posture.
From my conversations with African leaders, I do not believe African delegates to General Conference will accept the “local option.” Even if they were allowed to maintain their faithfulness to Scripture on these issues, they would not be willing to allow the rest of the church to turn away from the church’s traditional teachings. Without African and U.S. evangelical support, the “local option” or “Big Tent” would probably be defeated at General Conference, as it was in Portland this year.
But because our system of church government relies upon voluntary compliance, annual conferences that refuse to comply with the Discipline will be able to continue to do so. At least ten of the 55 U.S. annual conferences have gone on record as saying they will ignore the Discipline on the issues that divide us. It would require draconian accountability measures to bring those annual conferences back into conformity with the Discipline. Such measures would probably precipitate separation on the part of progressive annual conferences.
As long as church leaders and annual conferences are willing to ignore or disobey the Discipline, the unity of The United Methodist Church will be threatened. It is such a willingness to act independently of, and contrary to, the will of the body that is tearing the body apart. That is the situation facing the Bishops’ Commission on the Way Forward, as it begins its meetings in the coming months.