-Christopher M. Ritter
The Jurisdictional Solution for amicable unity in The United Methodist Church has been public for a few months now and it has sparked a great deal of dialog. Endorsers of the plan come in roughly equal numbers from the left and right and center camps of our church. There are signs the plan is making its way toward the top of a very short list of realistic solutions to our deep divisions. But, of course, acceptance has not been universal.
There are concerns from some that the plan equates to some sort of “soft schism”. I believe these folks might have an idealized version of how “united” our 1968 constitution actually made us. There are also those who seem resistant to any sort of comprehensive solution. I assume these feel that their interests are best served by gradually-escalated covenant breaking, frustrated attempts at accountability, and continued chaos. I find it difficult to relate to this “do nothing” crowd. Is this really the best outcome for the mission of the church? Has integrity ceased to matter? I feel strongly that we need to begin moving toward a lasting settlement. Divergent views on the sources of authority in the Christian life must naturally lead to divergent practices of ministry and covenants that can authentically sustain them.
Most of the concerns about the plan thus far, however, have come from the ranks of evangelicals and conservatives. Myself an evangelical and proponent of accountability to our Book of Discipline, I understand the immediate negative reaction to anything other than calls for universal faithfulness to our ministry covenant. Like most other UM’s, I also believe in the preservation of The United Methodist Church and that the issues now before us are not going away on their own.
My personal advocacy for the Jurisdictional Solution is based partly on three “Nevers”:
First, The 2016 General Conference of The United Methodist Church will never, ever, ever vote the division of The United Methodist Church. I often hear talk of “Amicable Separation” where General Conference will recognize that the divisions are too deep for us to live together under one roof and approve a plan leading to the creation of two new denominations (or some officially sanctioned alternative autonomous body for dissenting churches and clergy to legitimately join.) One might point to 1844 as proof that a division could be approved at General Conference (I have blogged about the details of this division elsewhere). What was possible in our movement’s fiery teenage years should not be confused with what is possible now. The progressives don’t want division; they want to transform the whole. The international church doesn’t want division; they want to retain their key partnerships. The moderates don’t want division; it runs contrary to our deeply held convictions about church unity. Most United Methodist conservatives don’t want division; we have long proved our tolerance for diversity. The UMC might someday cease to exist through merger with another Christian body, but Amicable Separation is a complete pipedream.
Second, the Progressives favoring full inclusion of homosexual practice in the life of the church will never, ever, ever voluntarily leave the church. The homosexuality debate has successfully been framed as the great social justice issue of our time. Progressives see themselves on a holy crusade to make sure that everyone is full included. Under this paradigm, you don’t walk away from a fight. In some parts of the church those defying church law enjoy shelter from consequences. One might conjecture that if these protections are removed by General Conference action, progressives might be more inclined to board some sort of ecclesiastical “life boat” created to protect their property/pensions as they exit. Will this happen? I can see the possibility of GC2016 closing certain loopholes that allow for covenant breaking and I hope our rules are vigorously enforced. Accountability in conferences and jurisdictions that don’t wish it would be next to impossible without constitutional overhauls with slim hope of ratification. I do not see a mass exodus of clergy and congregations no matter how strident the enforcement or how generously equipped the life raft. The liberals are never, ever, ever going to leave voluntarily in significant numbers.
Third, Traditionalists will never, ever, ever leave The United Methodist Church en masse. A third fantasy I hear repeated by some traditionalist is that conservative churches and clergy will act together to leave and form a new denomination. Let’s first admit that evangelicals are not going to leave in large numbers while our official denominational stances are in keeping with the classic reading of Scripture. Further, if our stance were somehow changed, it would likely be changed incrementally starting with some sort of “we disagree” statement. There are many evangelical/conservative UM congregations who, like the one I serve, are somewhat shielded from the goings on in the larger denomination by their pastors who prefer to confront them with our denominational dysfunctions. The number of conservatives/evangelicals that are sufficiently enlivened over this issue to consider possible exit is a mere fraction of the whole. Despite the existence of some national caucus groups like Good News, there is no unified voice of our movement. Far from a monolith, we are independent thinkers and are slow to align with any sort of centralized identity. How we feel about the denomination is often tied more closely to how we feel about our annual conference than the general church. And most conservative churches/clergy are located in a somewhat more conservative conference. The vision of United Methodist evangelicals and conservatives acting together to exit the denomination en masse is a mirage.
What, then, are we likely to see? We can expect the continued rise of two opposing tides. The growing culturally conservative vote at General Conference (of which American UM Evangelicals are only a part) is being met by the cultural tipping point in American society around changing views of homosexual practice. Which tide will crest higher remains to be seen. It is likely that conservatives will enter General Conference 2016 with a much higher bar for success than liberals. Conservatives are faced with the challenge of passing legislation that shifts the venues for accountability so that jurisdictions cannot become safe havens for ecclesial disobedience. The needed legislation will necessarily have constitutional ramifications, making it all the more difficult to adopt, ratify, and stand to judicial council scrutiny. Even if successful at this, we are then faced with a quadrennium of trials for bishops and pastors to restore order. We can expect multiples of all the publicity, appeals, and technicalities witnessed in the Frank Schaefer trial. All the while, this issue will stubbornly refuse to go away. At GC2016, progressives merely need to forestall any rigorous accountability efforts for bishops and clergy who are defying or not upholding The Discipline. The cost, however, will be to their progressive colleagues in more conservative conferences where the rules are upheld. Can we expect to see more defrocked clergy being accepted into conferences of progressive jurisdictions (implementing a sort of jurisdictional solution the hard way)? The larger question is how the mission of the church will fare in the environment just described.
It seems to me that the progressives don’t have the votes to change our stance on human sexuality and the traditionalist coalition does not have the votes to enforce our rules. This creates a fractured and messy outlook for the future of the UMC.
The plan I have proposed calls for both progressives and conservatives to treat GC2016 as a sort of constitutional convention to reach a comprehensive settlement on the issues now before us. I propose that our five geographically-based U.S. jurisdictions be replaced by two new jurisdictions based on ideology of ministry. U.S. annual conferences and bishops would vote to align with one of these jurisdictions, each of which would have the authority to adapt some parts of the Book of Discipline (much like our central conferences presently). Churches and clergy would follow the direction of their annual conference by default but would have the opportunity to dissent and be placed in a new conference by the other jurisdiction. The net result would be two completely overlapping jurisdictions (somewhat like the American and National Leagues of baseball), that each cover the nation with networks of annual conferences. This plan can be accomplished with only four initial changes to the Book of Discipline.
The advantage of the Jurisdictional Solution to evangelicals and conservatives are:
- The Book of Discipline would stand, as printed, as the official voice of our denomination and continue as the basis for the work of our general boards and agencies. While the jurisdictions are allowed to adapt some parts of our BOD, the official stance of our church remains unchanged except by General Conference action.
- Cherished institutions of our denomination would continue uninterrupted, as would those agencies which fuel our partnerships with the central conferences.
- A firewall would effectively be created between evangelical churches and the goings on of the left. Conservatives and evangelicals would not be put in a position to endorse a lifestyle they feel is contrary to scripture.
- New mission fields in the U.S. would be opened up to evangelical and conservative church planting efforts.
- While there would be United Methodists that are ordaining practicing homosexuals and conducting same-sex weddings, we can say, “That is the other jurisdiction and the official stance of our denomination is biblical.” This is sort of like what we say now when one of our traditionalist members asks about reports of same-sex weddings in a United Methodist Church.
- Unlike the so-called “local option”, pastors and congregations are protected from vocal forces at the local level who might want to force a same-sex wedding upon a church. We can say, as now, “That is against the covenants that bind us and is not allowed here.”
- Conservative and moderate churches in liberal conferences would have the opportunity to align with a more like-minded judicatory.
- Conservative churches and clergy in conservative conferences would experience very little disruption through this plan.
- The likelihood of serving under a like-minded bishop is greatly enhanced.
- The debates at General Conference might become a bit less heated as each jurisdiction would have the ability to modify most of it to suit their needs.
- The perceived negatives of this plan for evangelicals/conservatives (i.e. There would be a UM jurisdiction that openly celebrates homosexual practice) are merely things that are already going on anyway.
Of course, there are advantages to progressive churches and clergy, also. Nearly half of the endorsers of the Jurisdictional Solution are liberals seeking an amicable way forward for our church. The advantage to moderates is that the majority of each annual conference will be held in tact and United Methodism preserved as a diverse denomination.
Colleagues, it is time to wake up to a challenging reality in our church. We can draw the battle lines for 2016, but we might find victory elusive even if we achieve everything we want legislatively. Is it time to work constructively toward a comprehensive solution with our brothers and sisters on the left? You can read the details of the plan at http://www.JurisdictionalSolution.org