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by Chris Ritter (@ritterchris)

This week Dr. Ben Witherington of Asbury Seminary and Mark Tooley, President of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, both came out with posts critical of my amicable unity plan for the UMC: The Jurisdictional Solution.  The timing of their criticism was linked to an article published in Christianity Today Magazine reporting that Maxie Dunnam, former President of Asbury Seminary, and Rob Renfroe, President of Good News, were amenable to the plan.

I respect both of my detractors.  Tooley is committed to a long-term ideological battle for the heart and soul of Mainline denominationalism as part of American culture at large.  Although he is a United Methodist, his interests are not necessarily linked to achieving church unity or ending our disputes.  He is a respected and devoted culture warrior.  Dr. Witherington is somewhat fresher to the What-Is-the-UMC-Going-To-Do-in-2016 Debate.  He writes as a steadfast orthodox academic surveying the available options.  He does not appear to have read the specifics of my plan.

I have noticed that the immediate reaction to The Jurisdictional Solution from my fellow Traditionalists is almost always negative.  This is totally understandable and I take no offense.  The Jurisdictional Solution is no one’s ideal.  It is only after a careful mapping of the ecclesial landscape that this path begins to make sense.  It is interesting to watch the stages of acceptance.   I went through these myself:

Stage One:  Ideological Purity and Naiveté 

“Let’s just follow the Scriptures!” is a comment I often here.  While I agree with the sentiment, there are huge segments of our denomination that read the scriptures as being heavily conditioned by the culture from which they arose, to the point that the specific commandments about human sexuality are no longer relevant.  (My Progressive friends might state this more artfully than I just did.)  This reading of scripture, while divergent from the reading applied over 2,000 years of Christian history, is nevertheless pervasive and entrenched in our church through the theological education received by a majority of clergy.  We have long reached the point in our denomination where an appeal to scripture alone is no longer meaningful as a way to set policy.  It is a sad but undeniable truth:  We read scripture in fundamentally different ways which leads to different conclusions about the shape of ministry.  (A move of the Holy Spirit that realigns our church around Traditional Christian values is my most earnest prayer.)

“Let’s just adhere to The Book of Discipline!” is another facet of this first stage.  After all, we debate together every four years and reach the same conclusion.  “These conclusions are ensconced in our BOD, so let’s just live by that.”  Again, this is an ideal to which I would gladly subscribe.  The reality is that significant numbers of United Methodists, including bishops, have now vowed to defy the teachings of the church regarding human sexuality.  The argument has been successfully framed as a social justice issue akin to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s.  There are entire jurisdictions of our church that have officially declared their rejection of church teaching and have vowed disobedience.  Because of the jurisdictional makeup of our denomination, there is really no way to hold these sectors of our church accountable to their vows of upholding our teachings, absent from the will of the bishop.  Bishops, while agents of the general church, are elected and held accountable, per our constitution, by their jurisdictions.  The Council of Bishops cannot even discipline one of their own.  Our rules, for all their verbiage, are practically unenforceable.

Stage Two:  The Other Side Should Leave

Once the realizations above sink in, the next step is usually a call for the other side to leave the church.  “If you are not going to abide by the rules, you should leave!”  Again, this makes perfect sense.   Individual churches and pastors leave all the time for their own reasons.  Churches run the risk of losing their property, which is held in trust for their conference.  Clergy run the risk of losing their pensions, salaries, and benefits.  Some leave with the blessing of their conference and others simply leave.

There is really no incentive for Progressives in like-minded jurisdictions to leave.  Complaints against pastors performing same-sex weddings are handled by like-minded bishops who appoint like-minded counsels for the church.  These counsels are empowered by our BOD to declare a matter closed whether the complainant feels they are adequately resolved or not.

Progressives feel they are engaged in a Social Justice battle and that time is on their side.  We have reached a tipping point in our larger culture and Progressives feel they are riding a wave of the inevitable.  For Traditionalists, the continued presence of a committed and defiant minority with representation in every conference and jurisdiction means that our standards are under constant attack in small, incremental ways.  (This is the most dangerous way for any standard to be attacked.)  The frog of orthodoxy is slowly boiling to death in our ecclesial kettle.  Once this realization is reached, we are off to Stage Three.

Stage Three:  The Other Side Should be Forced Out

“If they won’t leave on their own, we will force them out!”  The problem at this stage is “How?”  The answer would of necessity be a legislative “hammer” enacted at General Conference 2016, paired with a legislative “life raft” for Progressives to board along with their pension and property.  The thought is that if the hammer is heavy enough and the life raft is comfortably equipped, the Progressives just might abandon ship.

As I have written about elsewhere, this is not going to happen.  For one, there is not much of a hammer for Traditionalists to wield.  While there is a Traditionalist majority at General Conference comprised of Africans, American Conservatives, and some Moderates, this group does not seem to yet have the votes to change our Constitution.  Moving the locus of episcopal accountability out of the jurisdictions would require amendments that must by passed by a 2/3 majority and ratified by the same majority in our annual conferences.  Mark Tooley has latched onto a concept I authored that would involve putting a general conference commission in place empowered to reduce the salary of dissident bishops.  (This plan was an intellectual exercise on my part and not a formal proposal for the general church.)  Denying funding to a bishop is like denying a gallon of milk to a dairy farmer.  Bishops are practically professional fundraisers for the church.  A Mandatory minimum sentence for pastors conducting same sex weddings has also been discussed.  If these measures were enacted, it would likely be just enough of a hammer to create martyrs to the Progressive cause.  I am skeptical of Tooley’s conviction that a long and cleverly played game of chess can result in the eventual turnaround of American United Methodism apart from a comprehensive solution.

If there is no “stick” to sufficiently motivate Progressives, it is also unlikely that they would respond to any “carrot” offered by Traditionalists.  Do we give them their pension and property?  They already have that.  Do we give them their own conferences?  They already have that in many places.  What they don’t have is a majority in all U.S. conferences and this means they have distant colleagues trapped into remaining accountable to the rules of our general church.  But every cause needs a few heroes.  As they did with Frank Schaeffer, ousted clergy can be welcomed to the coasts.   Our Progressive colleagues see this as a social justice battle.  They are not going to walk away from the fight.

Stage Four:  We Should Part Amicably

“If the Progressives won’t leave, then we will.”  Traditionalists see the rising tide of acceptance of homosexual practice in the church and larger culture and realize there is urgency to the debate.  The house is on fire.  “Amicable Separation” is the cry in some sectors.  Again, the question is “How?”  There are only two possible answers:  We would either have to part with General Conference action or apart from it.

The United Methodist Church as a whole is an extremely moderate group.  Our Progressives are more conservative than most UCC’ers and our Conservatives are more liberal than most Southern Baptists.  (Please pardon the gross generalizations and labelling).  Those elected to General Conference are dyed in the wool, card-carrying, annual conference attending, UMCOR supporting, hymn-singing, United Methodists!  Ask for a show of hands at any session of General Conference for dividing the church and I defy you to find anything approaching a tithe.  Any official split would require a supermajority that simply does not exist.  The African delegates, who comprise a large segment of General Conference, want schism in the U.S. church least of all.

This leaves us with non-legislative “amicable separation”.  A segment of the church simply “ups and leaves” to form a separate body.  Remember, the official stance of our denomination is in keeping with the Traditionalist view.  Remember, that leaving the denomination puts pensions and property at risk.  Remember, that retaining pensions and property would likely require protracted litigation.  Remember, that United Methodist Traditionalists are not a monolith but a coalition of independent-minded Metho-catholics, Evangelicals, Social Conservatives, and others with no central leadership or identity.  Traditionalists will not exit en masse as long as our official positions are sound.  If they did, they would not necessarily gravitate to the same new body.  Those remaining in the UMC would be significantly less empowered to alter the course of the American church.  The United Methodist Church would fall into heterodoxy and break away from Africa.  Remember this ruinous prophecy when you hear anyone using the language of “amicable separation”.   I join Dr. Witherington in concern of a diminished church that is incapable of being a positive witness to a watching world.  The greatest threat of this, in my thinking, comes from continued talk of unsanctioned separation.

Stage Five:  The Jurisdictional Solution

If we can’t come to agreement, can’t enforce our rules, can’t make the disobedient leave, and can’t realistically leave ourselves, what is left?  I wrote The Jurisdictional Solution after surveying the landscape of our church and studying our constitution.  I found we are not a united UMC, but a jurisdictional UMC.  Division was built into our DNA in 1968.  We put an extra judicatory layer in our church to protect ourselves from one other.  Our current jurisdictions are designed to address the issues dividing us in 1968.  I decided to write a plan that reinvented our jurisdictional system to help us weather our current storm, put everyone under a covenant they could live with apart from compromise, all while staying together as a denomination and preserving the general church.  If successful, the UMC would be the only American Mainline that has not split over the issue of homosexuality.  The Jurisdictional Solution was mischaracterized as a plan for separation in a recent issue of Christianity Today.  I am against separation for all the reasons cited above.

We currently allow our Central Conferences (international structures very similar to jurisdictions) the liberty to adapt some parts of our Book of Discipline to their own missional setting.  My plan extends these liberties to two new American jurisdictions that would replace the five old geographic ones.  Each annual conference would hold a single vote to affiliate with one of these two new jurisdictions.   Those clergy and churches that cannot live with the direction of their conference have a few months to decide to opt into the other jurisdiction and be placed in a new conference.

The Book of Discipline remains as printed as the official voice of our denomination and the guiding document of our general church with its boards and agencies.  I expect that efforts to reform our general agencies would continue and be informed by the new reality.  The jurisdictions would be empowered to adapt all but the Doctrinal Standards, General Rules, Constitution, Ministry of All Christians, Our Theological Task, the Preface/Preamble to the Social Principles, and those parts of the BOD that affect the general church.  Ordination standards would be effectively relegated to the jurisdictions, as would approaches to Christian marriage.  Constitutional language is added that would allow other Methodist denominations to possibly join the UMC as their own jurisdiction.

The names “Progressive” and “Traditional” would only be in effect for the purpose of the vote.  (Jurisdictions will select their own names at their organizing conference)  Bishops would choose a jurisdiction after the ratification of the legislation is certified.  Seven-person teams elected at General Conference 2016 would craft guiding documents for the two jurisdictions as an aid to annual conference voters.  Mechanisms will be in place to assist displaced clergy and address inequities in the number of bishops and clergy.  Everyone has the option of staying in their own conference and conference-held property would be held intact.  Centrists are empowered as the two jurisdictions would compete to attract those in the middle.  I predict the final result to be two relatively moderate jurisdictions with foundationally different approaches to the application of scripture to ministry.

While it is highly likely one jurisdiction will adapt our denominational stance to allow for same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals, the official stance of our denomination would remain a product of the general church.  No one will be forced to vote for something against their conscience or to live in a covenant that violates their core commitments.  Each jurisdiction will have a map of conferences that provide nation-wide coverage.   The Traditional Jurisdiction will find new territory open to it in the West, even if the conferences there are geographically large.  Those conferences with relative harmony will experience very little disruption. Aren’t we sort of already taking a jurisdictional approach currently?  The only difference is that my plan gets us there with integrity intact and does not trap churches and clergy in mismatched conferences.

Perhaps the biggest argument in favor of the Jurisdictional Solution is that it is fair.  As many Progressives and Centrists have signed onto the plan as Traditionalists.  Will this end all debates on human sexuality at General Conference?  No.  Debates and arguments have always been a part of General Conference and will be until Jesus returns.  What will be repaired is the creeping fragmentation, sub-Christian gamesmanship, and defiance currently found in the UMC.

Like Major League Baseball, we will have two leagues, each with slightly different rules, and we will continue to play together at the World Series known as General Conference, along with our international brothers and sisters.  Instead of winners and losers, we will have a big tent with compartments, a duplex with walls thick enough to keep each side from troubling the neighbors.

You can visit the official Jurisdictional Solution Website here.

You can read the full Jurisdictional Solution legislation here.

You can explore a timeline for enacting the plan here.

You can read elsewhere on this blog about the Solution, its evolution, and other thoughts on implementation.