The report of the Commission on a Way Forward and the legislative proposals for the three plans they developed are now posted publicly on the Judicial Council website. 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. You can read about the One Church Plan here.
Although this article is shorter than the 232-page full report and petitions, 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 Traditional Plan is founded on retaining what evangelicals and traditionalists believe is the Scriptural teaching that sexual relationships are to be reserved for the covenant of marriage between one man and one woman. Based on the votes of previous General Conferences, a Traditional Plan appears to have the best chance of the three main proposals of being adopted. It is the approach favored by most evangelicals and traditionalists, including the Renewal and Reform Coalition (Good News, The Confessing Movement, UM Action, and the Wesleyan Covenant Association).
The Traditional Plan retains the current stance in the Book of Discipline that values all persons as equally “of sacred worth, created in the image of God” and believes that the practice of homosexuality is contrary to God’s will. Because of widespread disobedience to the church’s prohibition of same-sex weddings and the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals, the Traditional Plan dramatically enhances accountability to the church’s requirements and closes many of the loopholes currently being used to avoid accountability. At the same time, the Plan offers a gracious exit for annual conferences, congregations, bishops, and clergy who cannot in good conscience abide by the church’s historic standards.
Key features of the Traditional Plan include:
- The requirement that every annual conference vote on whether or not it is prepared to fully uphold and enforce the standards of the church around same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. Those annual conferences unwilling or unable to enforce the Discipline are encouraged to withdraw from The United Methodist Church and form a self-governing Methodist church that would allow same-sex marriage and LGBT ordination.
- Annual conferences that did not agree to enforce the Discipline or who failed to do so would, as of January 1, 2021, no longer be able to use the United Methodist name or logo, and would be unable to give or receive funds through the general church.
- Any annual conference could, by a simple majority, vote to withdraw from The United Methodist Church and keep its assets and liabilities. The annual conference would still be responsible for its pension liabilities and could continue to sponsor a pension program through Wespath.
- Any local church in a departing annual conference could vote by a simple majority to remain in The United Methodist Church and abide by the current provisions of the Discipline.
- Every bishop would be required to submit a statement as to whether or not he or she is prepared to fully uphold and enforce the standards of the church around same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals, and to hold those under their supervision accountable to those standards. Any bishop unwilling or unable to do so would be subject to a disciplinary process administered by the Council of Bishops.
- The Council of Bishops would establish a committee to respond to bishops who are unwilling to enforce the Discipline or who are charged with the offenses of immorality or practices incompatible with Christian teaching. Upon the committee’s recommendation, the Council of Bishops could vote to place a bishop on involuntary leave or involuntary retirement.
- Any group of 50 or more local congregations could vote to withdraw from The United Methodist Church to form a self-governing Methodist church, upon payment of each local church’s share of their annual conference’s unfunded pension liability.
- Any local church that wants to allow same-sex marriage, but is in an annual conference that will continue to prohibit such under the current Discipline, could vote by a 55 percent majority to withdraw from The United Methodist Church to join a self-governing Methodist church that allows same-sex marriage. The local church would have to pay its share of their annual conference’s unfunded pension liabilities.
- Bishops and clergy who are unable to live within the boundaries of conduct established by the Discipline would be encouraged to transfer to a self-governing Methodist church that affirms their beliefs.
- Annual conferences and congregations that depart from The United Methodist Church could continue to participate in Wespath and could negotiate fee-based services from other general boards and agencies of the UM Church. They could also continue to participate in joint mission through the General Board of Global Ministries, as well as partnerships for mission and other joint projects, with the agreement of the UM entity involved. Changes would be made to the pension program to ensure that pension liabilities are fairly cared for.
- Institutions related to The United Methodist Church would remain affiliated with the annual conference it is affiliated with, whether that annual conference withdraws or remains in the church. But such institutions could form cooperative relationships with other bodies and could, under the provisions of their own bylaws, change their relationship from one body to another.
- Any self-governing Methodist church would create its own Book of Discipline and be self-supporting financially, including funding its own bishops.
- The definition of “self-avowed practicing homosexual” would be expanded to include persons living in a same-sex partnership, union, or marriage, in keeping with Judicial Council decision 1341.
- Bishops are required to nominate as members of the conference board of ordained ministry only persons who are committed to upholding and enforcing the provisions of the Discipline related to the candidacy and ordination of LGBT persons. Bishops are also prohibited from ordaining a self-avowed practicing homosexual as a clergy person. In addition, bishops are prohibited from consecrating as bishop anyone who is a self-avowed practicing homosexual.
- Clergy found guilty by a trial court of performing a same-sex wedding would have a mandatory minimum penalty of one year’s suspension without pay for a first offense, and removal of clergy credentials for a second offense.
- Bishops would not be allowed to dismiss a complaint unless it has “no basis in law or fact.”
- “Just resolution” process and agreements would be reformed to ensure that complainants are included in the process and, where possible, agree to the “just resolution” before it is finalized.
- The counsel for the church in a church trial process would be given the same right of appeal for egregious errors of church law that the defendant now enjoys.
The Traditional Plan would retain the current stance of the Discipline regarding same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. It would enhance accountability by:
- Encouraging annual conferences, bishops, clergy, and congregations unwilling to live within the requirements of the Discipline to withdraw from The United Methodist Church and form their own self-governing Methodist church.
- Providing that annual conferences not enforcing the Discipline could no longer use the United Methodist name or logo and could not give or receive funds through the general church.
- Providing a new accountability process for bishops, whereby the Council of Bishops could place a bishop on involuntary leave or involuntary retirement.
- Expanding the definition of “self-avowed practicing homosexual” to include persons living in a same-sex marriage, union, or partnership.
- Requiring that bishops nominate as members of the conference board of ordained ministry only persons willing to uphold and enforce the Discipline.
- Providing a mandatory minimum penalty for clergy found guilty of performing a same-sex wedding.
- Prohibiting bishops from dismissing a complaint unless it has no basis in law or fact.
- Reforming the “just resolution” process to include the required participation of the complainant.
- Allowing the church to appeal any egregious errors of church law from a trial process.
At the same time, the Traditional Plan acknowledges the reality that there are segments of the church that cannot live with the current prohibitions on same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. The Plan provides a gracious way for annual conferences, bishops, clergy, and congregations to leave The United Methodist Church by a simple majority (or in some cases a 55 percent majority) vote and keep all their property, buildings, assets, and liabilities, in exchange only for covering unfunded pension liabilities.
- The Traditional Plan maintains the majority position of the church, reaffirmed by every General Conference since 1972. It maintains the unity of the church with its members outside the United States, who overwhelmingly hold the traditional view. It follows the premise that those who want to change the church should be the ones to leave, not those who are in continuity with the church’s historic teachings.
- It recognizes that there are parts of the church that can no longer live with the current strictures of the Book of Discipline and provides them with an easy and gracious way to leave the denomination and form a church that agrees with their theological understanding. Those who simply disagree with the church’s position are welcome to stay in the church, as long as they are willing to conform their behavior to the church’s requirements.
- The Traditional Plan seeks to enhance accountability for bishops, clergy, and annual conferences, to ensure that those remaining in The United Methodist Church do indeed live by its standards.
- Some progressive leaders have said they are not willing to leave the church under any circumstances. This may require that disciplinary measures are taken in order to align with the Discipline. There is some risk that such disciplinary measures may not work or may not be taken, which could lessen the effectiveness of the plan.
- The Traditional Plan offers a hopeful way to end the conflict in our church by allowing those disagreeing with the church’s teaching to go their separate way with a blessing. Church property and the trust clause ought not be used to coerce people to remain in a covenant against their conscience. The Traditional Plan is the only one of the three that includes a gracious exit provision for those unable to live with the church’s teachings and requirements.
- The Traditional Plan offers those who disagree with the effectiveness of this approach to also seek an exit from the denomination under the same terms.
- As annual conferences and congregations depart from the denomination, it will be necessary to redraw jurisdictional and annual conference lines.
- The Traditional Plan seeks a gracious end to the conflict of our church, so that valuable resources, time, and energy can be directed to making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
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 Traditional Plan seems the most faithful to Scripture and the most gracious in acknowledging that all members of the church may not be able to live with that solution. It provides a way for those who cannot live together to go their separate ways with blessing, allowing both to pursue ministry in faithfulness to their consciences without coercion.