-By Rev. Dr. Christopher M. Ritter
Since my proposal for finding amicable unity in The United Methodist Church went public, the question I receive most often has to do with the concept of overlapping jurisdictions and annual conferences. In the Jurisdictional Solution, both a progressive and traditionalist jurisdiction would stretch from coast to coast in the U.S. with their own network of annual conferences and episcopal areas. This is evidently difficult for many to visualize. Let me try to help.
Visit with me the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference. Despite its name, it actually covers not only Oklahoma but also parts of Missouri, Kansas, and North Texas. It is a conference of over 80 churches that are organized to address the spiritual needs Native Americans. The Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference overlaps with several other annual conferences. So, not every United Methodist Church in Oklahoma is accountable to the Oklahoma Annual Conference. The Native American congregations and pastors have their own thing going. Can you picture it?
Now, let’s apply this concept to the U.S. Southeast. The United Methodist conferences there are, by reputation, a bit more conservative. Imagine with me, for the sake of argument, that these conferences opt to go with the more traditionalist jurisdiction. Their conference boundaries would remain relatively unchanged. Superimpose over those conferences a separate conference of progressive churches and pastors who, for conscience sake, could not go the direction of their annual conference. These churches would have a separate bishop and their own rules about same sex weddings and practicing homosexuals being ordained. They would be a United Methodist progressive conference operating in the U.S. Southeast.
Now let’s go West. The annual conferences there are, by reputation, a bit more liberal. Under the Jurisdictional Plan, their conference boundaries would be relatively unaffected. Picture a map of these Western Annual Conferences. Now, superimpose over that map a more conservative annual conference consisting of those churches and pastors who could not accept the vote of their respective conferences to be aligned with the more progressive jurisdiction. This geographically larger annual conference would overlap the others, have its own bishop, and do ministry out of their convictions regarding scripture and ministry. They would be a United Methodist traditionalist conference operating in the U.S. West.
Now let’s go to the middle of the nation. United Methodist Conferences are somewhat mixed here. In my home state of Illinois, the Northern Illinois Conference is, by reputation, a bit liberal. The other conference in the state, Illinois Great Rivers, is moderate and trends to the conservative side as you go south. Let’s say, for the sake of example, that the Northern Illinois Conference votes to go with the progressive jurisdiction and the IGRC votes to go with the more traditionalist jurisdiction. You would end up, perhaps, with a map where both conferences cover the entire state. The IGRC would create a district map that would include Chicago and Northern Illinois. The NIC would stretch their district map to include those IGRC congregations that dissented from their conference vote. (Their southern-most district might end up covering a lot of acreage). There would be two conferences covering the entire state with two separate bishops.
If the Jurisdictional Solution was implemented, I would not expect to see is a large overall increase in the number of annual conferences. Most, I would expect, would be built on the chassis of another conference. I would also not expect the conferences to become ideologically extreme. Each conference would have churches and pastors that chose to stay in spite of the fact that they voted with the minority. There will be many churches and pastors that elect to “decide not to decide” and go the direction of their conference for the sake of convenience or continuity. These will be moderating voices in conferences of both jurisdictions.
This whole process of voting, redrawing maps, and adjusting districts would not be painless or simple. The advantage of this plan is that it provides for a one-time vote of each annual conference instead of open-ended battle in each congregation and annual conference over weddings and ordinations. Those with strong feelings have a way to remain United Methodists. Once reorganized, each annual conference can get on with the business of ministry in keeping with their vision of scripture. It also retains The United Methodist Church as a body that has avoided full schism through strategic compromise. If there is a better idea out there, I am listening. Let me know your thoughts.