by Rev. Dr. Christopher M. Ritter
Add “The United Methodist Centrist Movement” to the list of reform proposals for the UMC. Launched from Ohio, this ambitious agenda calls for the re-formulation of apportionments, the alteration of guaranteed appointments for clergy/churches, and the overhaul our system of conferencing. Perhaps the most far sweeping of their proposals is the elimination of General Conference altogether by 2020, citing their growing uneasiness with this body’s tendency to provide full representation to those United Methodists unreflective of “the distribution of our financial resources”. (Telling our African brothers and sisters that they will not have a full seat at the table until they pay more of the bills is somehow necessary to correct paternalistic attitudes in our church. I hope our African conferences never do the math and compare how much it costs the American church to make one disciple of Jesus Christ compared to what the same costs in Africa.)
These issues aside, I am most intrigued by how the Centrist Movement hopes to attain these large-scale reforms. We are not to expect any change in church positions in 2016, but instead place a “moratorium” on clergy trials of all kinds until 2020. The authors of the plan predict a “third way” will make itself evident to General Conference 2020. If not, the UMC will regrettably disband. The spirit of the proposal seems to be a call to “table” our most divisive issue and work on other matters, trusting the homosexuality issue will work itself out over time.
Before I get to the heart of my critique, let me first say a word about trials. We don’t like clergy trials because they are adversarial in nature and produce bad publicity for the church. What we sometimes fail to realize is that trials are a basic right of any clergy. Just as the U.S. Constitution places the right to trial in the Bill of Rights as one of the basic units of our freedom, our United Methodist constitution lists the right of trial as one of six items ensconced in our “Restrictive Rules” (alongside our General Rules, episcopacy, and Articles of Faith). Altering or eliminating a Restrictive Rule requires a 3/4 vote of General Conference, much higher than the 2/3 vote required for a normal constitutional change. Ratification, likewise, requires a 3/4 vote of the annual conferences. It would be less cumbersome to place a moratorium on district superintendents than church trials.
I appreciate any group or individual that seeks to chart a constructive way forward for our denomination. I fear The Centrist Movement, however, is doomed to frustration. The heart of this frustration will be the attempt to table our most divisive issues in hope that we can work together collaboratively on larger matters of organizational change.
“Ministry moves at the speed of trust.” This comment was made at a recent continuing education event I attended. The speaker was adapting a thought by Steven M.R. Covey, author of The Speed of Trust. Written for the business environment, the book asserts that the speed of business in any organization or industry is determined by the level of trust people have for each other’s competence and character. In a low-trust environment, everything tends to grind to a snail’s pace.
The United Methodist denomination is currently a low-trust environment. Every call for reform is viewed through the lens of our deepest divisions. The “Worldwide Nature of the Church” legislation in 2008 was passed by General Conference but rejected for ratification because it was viewed as a way to segregate out the African vote around issues of homosexuality. Whatever positive aims might have been accomplished were frustrated by the core distrust we have of each other’s motives. The theme of our 2012 General Conference might as well have been “In All Things Frustration.” The Centrists have some very good ideas. We won’t be able to work on those ideas constructively until we resolve our central conflict. Like any family system, the UMC needs resolution if we are going to have forward movement.
Because ministry moves at the speed of trust, our central item of business at General Conference 2016 must be finding final resolution on the marriage and ordination of homosexuals. Is this the most important issue? No. Is this the issue we must face before we can productively talk about the more important issues? Absolutely. The sexuality issue points directly toward mutually exclusive approaches to applying scripture to ministry. Until we provide a framework that allows for two visions of ministry to safely move forward to their logical end, we are going to question each other’s motives and the very air we breathe will be poisoned by distrust.
We need a comprehensive solution. I have suggested my own prescription and the details are to be found at www.jurisdictionalsolution.org. While there are other comprehensive solutions being proposed, I believe the jurisdictional plan has the distinction of being the only one equally endorsed by people from the left, right, and center segments of our denomination. It also seems to be gaining support from those working most diligently on shaping a way forward of our denomination.
All comprehensive solutions require general conference action and constitutional changes. This is not in itself an overwhelming obstacle (we ratified four constitutional changes from last general conference). What is required is deliberate action. I have suggested that our 2016 general conference have the tone of a constitutional convention rather than that of an arm wrestling match. The United Methodist church has a future if we create compartments where two visions of ministry can find liberty without impinging on the other. We can be a big tent with two compartments. We can live under one roof as a duplex.
Until we raise the trust level in our denomination, we are all doomed to continued frustration. It seems obvious to me that laying a foundation for greater trust involves reaching an honest and comprehensive settlement of the issue most symptomatic of our central divide. Once this settlement is reached, we can reform our general boards, address the guarantees we make our churches and clergy, and entertain some of the excellent ideas proposed by the Centrist Movement.
I would love to hear your thoughts.