-by Chris Ritter
You might have missed a small news story earlier this month that the council of bishops, meeting in Oklahoma, certified that four constitutional changes passed at General Conference 2012 were duly ratified by the necessary 2/3 margin in the annual conferences. These amendments take effect immediately and will be printed in our 2016 Book of Discipline.
Why did it take two and a half years for a constitutional change to be ratified and what does that forebode for plans, like the Jurisdictional Solution, that require constitutional amendments?
Whatever happens in the UMC, it is going to require a little patience from all involved. Some plans suggest that far-reaching changes could be made with the sweep of a hand, but the reality is that nothing substantive is going to happen apart from our quadrennial General Conference in May 2016. Whatever change is enacted there will either have to pass constitutional muster with our Judicial Council (as we learned in 2012), or will include constitutional changes which must be ratified by our annual conferences. Plans to change our BOD in ways that don’t require constitutional amendments face the challenges I have written about elsewhere. (Progressives don’t have the votes to change our stance and the Traditionalists don’t have the votes to close loopholes and enforce them.)
Because the Jurisdictional Solution is a plan for amicable unity that provides a fair and comprehensive settlement of our difference without requiring ideological compromise, it is very possible that it could be passed and ratified by the required 2/3 margin. (Like all other matters, this will rise or fall on the leadership provided). The question then is whether the plan could be implemented in time to stave off further schism.
The lengthy ratification process is simply a product of the staggered nature of our conference calendars. Amendments passed in May 2012 at General Conference were not put to annual conference vote until summer of the following year. Many African conferences hold their sessions in February and did not vote on the amendments until 2014.
Thankfully, there are mechanisms that could speed the process along. Our constitution allows General Conference to adopt “enabling legislation” which is contingent upon ratification. Enabling legislation can include details and timelines for implementation. We can and should seek to “fast track” the Jurisdictional Solution for the good of the Church while allowing ample time for discernment.
Below is an accelerated timeline for ratification and enactment of the plan. It is offered as an example of what might be possible if we got together on a fair and comprehensive settlement:
General Conference meets in Portland and passes the constitutional and non-constitutional changes necessary for The Jurisdictional Solution. As enabling legislation, and for the good of the church, General Conference calls upon our bishops to lead an expedited calendar for ratification and implementation. Seven-person teams consisting of three lay persons, three clergy, and one bishop are elected to write a vision and mission description for each jurisdiction. These documents would be released at the same time the ratification of the necessary constitutional changes is announced by the Council of Bishops.
EARLY TO MID 2017
African conferences vote on amendments at their regular session as do U.S. conferences in April-June.
Our Council of Bishops meets to certify the ratification of the amendments and, within 60 days of this announcement, American bishops declare a jurisdiction in which they will serve. The vision and mission descriptions of each jurisdiction prepared by the seven-member teams are released at the time of the ratification announcement. The college of bishops for each jurisdiction may meet to begin the necessary organizational work.
At the regular session of our U.S. annual conferences, a vote would be taken as to which jurisdiction each annual conference would help constitute: The “Traditional Jurisdiction” which will “be formed for those annual conferences whose majority supports a relatively strict interpretation of the doctrinal standards and a traditional understanding of marriage and human sexuality” , or the “Progressive Jurisdiction” which is “formed for those annual conferences whose majority supports a flexible interpretation of the doctrinal standards and a more progressive understanding of marriage and human sexuality.” The new jurisdictions are empowered to later select their own names as they wish.
Delegates would also be elected to the organizational conference of the selected jurisdiction. (Reserves would be needed as clergy who opt into the other jurisdiction would not be eligible to serve.) Conferences could also propose legislations to be considered by their jurisdictional conference.
DECEMBER 31, 2018
Clergy and churches have until the end of the year to dissent from the jurisdictional direction of their annual conference. Local churches that were sufficiently dissatisfied with the direction of their conference would request a church conference from their district superintendent for mid to late 2018. Clergy, likewise, would declare in writing to their bishop their desire to be placed in an annual conference of the other jurisdiction. These choices would be canvassed by the bishop in each U.S. Conference. The Colleges of Bishops for the new jurisdictions should have a complete listing of clergy, churches, and conferences in their jurisdiction by January 2019. Conference membership will continue until transfers to new conferences are complete. There will be significant numbers of clergy serving across conference lines in the early years of this plan.
An organizational session of each jurisdiction would convene to:
- Re-draw the lines of their annual conferences to create a network of conferences that cover the entire U.S. The initial re-mapping may build each new conference on the foundation of an existing conference and simply expand the geographic boundaries where needed. This would provide the advantage of having structures already in place (like a board of ordained ministry and cabinet) to help with transitional issues. Missionary and provisional conferences could also be utilized as needed.
- Appoint bishops to their area of service through the Committee on Episcopacy. Inequities in the number of bishops can be addressed through an existing mechanism in our constitution which allows for bishops to serve outside their jurisdiction with permission of the College of Bishops of the receiving jurisdiction. New bishops would be elected as needed. Each jurisdiction is required to provide a plan for funding their bishops.
- Adopt adaptations to the Book of Discipline which would be in effect for conferences in their jurisdiction. These might be published as a jurisdictional discipline which would serve as a companion to the general BOD. (Jurisdictions cannot make changes to The Constitution, The General Rules, the Articles of Faith, Our Theological Task, The Ministry of All Christians, the Preface/Preamble to the Social Principles, or to those parts of the BOD that effect the working of the general church.) The adaptations would be in effect for churches of that jurisdiction.
- Create a jurisdictional structure to assist clergy and churches in transition.
Clergy displaced from their former conference would be provisionally placed in a new conference for the purpose of conference membership status. As now, clergy may serve in a conference other than the one of their membership. A copy of their files would be sent to the cabinet and board of ordained ministry of the receiving conference. Clergy consultations would be held in the receiving conference in fall of 2019.
Bishops begin their new assignments. Because each annual conference is likely established on the foundation of an existing one, there should be an episcopal residence for the new bishop and her/his family to inhabit. The bishop and cabinet will meet and organize a plan of oversight for the new churches and clergy their conference will be receiving.
APRIL – JUNE 2019
The re-constituted annual conferences convene for the first time and conduct their business at specially-called or regular sessions. District lines will have been redrawn to cover the new geography of the conference. Clergy and churches will need to be educated on the ramifications of the adaptations to the BOD made at their jurisdictional conference. Delegates would be elected to the 2020 jurisdictional and general conferences.
General Conference is held in Minneapolis. Continued work could be done to restructure the general church in light of the new reality. Debate should be less heated on matters of human sexuality because each U.S. jurisdiction has the power to adapt much of the BOD to their missional needs. The workload of General Conference should become more manageable.
Jurisdictional Conferences are held. Additional adaptations to the Book of Discipline may be passed as deemed appropriate. Jurisdictional conferences may become lengthier as more substantive work will be done there.
It is possible to compress the timeline even further, but this would require special sessions of annual conferences to vote on ratification of the constitutional amendments. The added expense for the American church might be workable, but perhaps not for our African conferences.
If you feel daunted by this timeline, consider arriving at General Conference 2020 with our church still locked in the power struggle we are currently experiencing. 2020 will arrive for us whether we reach a settlement or not. The only question is whether we will be working to perfect an amicable plan for unity or still locked in the same paralyzing debates. As Bishop Scott Jones has argued, there is a financial and ministry cost to the ongoing divisions in our denomination. Time spent constructing something new is not nearly as frustrating as continuing to spin our wheels.