by Chris Ritter
This month marks the six-month anniversary of the release of “A Way Forward for a United Methodist Church”. While nearly 3,000 clergy and laity have officially endorsed the plan, nothing much has been heard since. Authored by Adam Hamilton, the proposal states our divisions are all but irresolvable at General Conference and calls for local churches to be empowered to choose whether or not to conduct same-sex weddings. Annual conferences would be authorized to decide whether or not to ordain self-avowed, practicing homosexuals, but no church would be forced to accept these pastors.
Allowing that the plan was conceptual only, there was to be a study team working on this “Local Option” that would produce legislation for us to review. This has yet to surface. Mike Slaughter, lead pastor of Ginghamsburg UMC and co-sponsor of the plan, has since endorsed another proposal offered by “The Centrist Movement”. The silence about “A Way Forward” by its sponsors is perhaps to be interpreted as a passive admission that the plan has intrinsic and fatal flaws. Not the least of these is the fact that the proposed limit upon appointing homosexual pastors to only those churches willing to receive them violates our Constitution. Multiple Judicial Council rulings have nullified attempts at infringing on the appointive powers of bishops.
Nevertheless, in my discussions with others on the future of our denomination, I sometimes hear from prominent United Methodists who are dogged in their insistence that local churches and annual conferences exert local control of matters of human sexuality. Perhaps the basic premise behind The Local Option lives on in the minds of some. As one strongly opposed to this approach, I offer the following cautionary tales:.
First UMC in Anyburg is a mid-sized congregation for which the practice of homosexuality had not been a hot-button issue. When the Local Option was authorized, the church council decided not to take a stance apart from the default denominational position. One day, two men entered the church office and asked to speak with the pastor, Anne. They explained that they had decided to get married and, since one of the grooms, Tim, grew up at First Methodist, they wondered if the ceremony could be held there. The pastor explained that the issue of same sex marriage had never really come up before at First UMC. She added that United Methodist congregations are empowered to allow this, but it would require a time of study, prayer, and a congregational vote. Couple: “Could you please take that vote? Our wedding is not until next year and we would be honored to be the first gay couple married at this church.”
Pastor Anne was somewhat conflicted about same-sex marriage but did not want to stop the wedding based on her own misgivings. She called church leaders about initiating a prayer/study process and church conference vote. Because Tim was the nephew of Gladys, a prominent member of the church, Anne was repeatedly frustrated that the study process returned often to the topic of whether the church dare offend a key member.
The congregation found relatively low participation in the study process on the nature of Christian marriage but extremely high levels of participation in the actual church conference vote. Tim and his fiancé were present at the meeting, as were other members who had not been seen in years. A conservative faction came armed with Bible verses and quotes from traditionalist scholars. Someone brought a placard sign about God loving everyone. Though a statement from the study group was read and personal testimonies shared, it was clear that the church was not in consensus. The district superintendent, Janet, led the group in prayer and called for calm and unity.
As the basket was circulated to collect the ballots, church members realized that families would be lost no matter what decision was made. Pastor Anne braced herself for the worst possible outcome: A vote that fell just short of the needed supermajority. This would mean the likely exit of Gladys and her family and the possible departure of conservatives who would realize that the majority of the church members do not support a traditional interpretation of scripture.
The Wesley Circuit is a pastoral charge of three small UM congregations in a fairly conservative county. When the Local Option was enacted, the congregations were generally opposed but were accustomed to turning a blind eye to goings on at the denominational level. On July 1, Pastor Greg was appointed to the charge. The honeymoon for the new pastor abruptly ended four months later when a wedding announcement appeared in the local paper that indicated that Pastor Greg had officiated at a same-sex ceremony at a local winery. The District Superintendent was called and meetings were held. The D.S. asked Greg to keep his head down and try to ride out the storm.
Three months later, one church on the charge found out that Greg had agreed to conduct a same-sex wedding in their sanctuary. The SPRC met with him to ask if this was true. He said it was and that the Book of Discipline in ¶2533 stated the Board of Trustees “shall not prevent or interfere with the pastor in the use of any of the said property for religious services.” He would bring his parishioners into the 21st Century even if he had to do it with “kicking and screaming”. The laity realized at that moment that the Local Option rendered them powerless to stop same sex wedding in their sanctuary.
Once the Local Option was enacted, The Mid-State Annual Conference took a vote on whether or not to allow self-avowed practicing homosexuals as candidates for ministry. By the narrowest of margins, the measure passed to the applause of some and the dismay of others. The bishop brought calm by promising that, as a practical matter, no church would receive a gay pastor that did not want one. When the results of the vote were announced, Connie, a lesbian who worked on a church staff, announced her candidacy for ordained ministry and enrolled in a local seminary for that fall. Two pastors of that conference, Jane and Mike, each “came out of the closet” in letters to the editor of the conference newspaper and to their respective congregations.
The conservative backlash against the vote was significant. With the help of renewal groups, a grass-roots effort was enacted to get conservative laity elected by local churches and to get conservative pastors off the golf course and into the voting sessions of next year’s annual conference. The matter was successfully brought to a vote reversing the previous decision. Connie then realized she was $20K in debt for a degree that would not be of use in her home conference. Jane and Mike wished they had not been so bold as to reveal their sexuality to their colleagues.
Doug served the largest congregation in his somewhat left-leaning annual conference. He had built, over fifteen years, a powerful contemporary congregation on dynamic, evangelical preaching. The church tended to downplay denominational affiliation. When the local option was enacted, the fact that his conference voted to allow self-avowed homosexuals as candidates for ministry did not trouble Doug much. His church paid nearly a million dollars in apportionments into the conference annually and he felt like the bishop, whom he considered a friend, would do what was necessary to protect both him and the congregation. He was able to keep at bay those in his congregation who wanted to break away.
When a new bishop was appointed to the conference, Doug had reason for concern. He learned that a roster was being circulated listing churches, in order of size, which had not yet affirmed gay marriage. His church was at the top of that list. Gay couples and their allies were being recruited to challenge the position of these churches. Doug also heard from a friend on the cabinet that the new bishop’s goal was to “live fully into the new vision” and had floated the idea of offering large appointments to moderate and progressive pastors who were willing to do the hard work of changing the culture of the hold-out churches. Doug realized that there was a target on his back and that conservative churches in his conference were well positioned to be picked off one by one.
Certainly someone will say: “We can’t plan the future of the denomination based on a few worst-case scenarios, can we? Isn’t it unfair to tell horror stories?”
In response, I would ask a question to supporters of the local option: Are these scenarios far-fetched? Would requiring local churches to establish policies on theology and ministry previously established by General Conference not subject congregations to undue divisive pressures? Is it not true that pastors can conduct weddings for whomever they choose regardless of the consent of the congregation? Is it not true that our BOD gives pastors the power to determine what religious ceremonies are held in the church as long as they are permitted by the denomination? Is it not true that allowing annual conferences to determine ministry standards could subject pastors and candidates to the whiplash of conference voting? Is it not likely that hold-out churches could be successfully targeted by activist groups and bishops?
For these reasons and others it is important to lay The Local Option aside and work toward a solution that provides protections for pastors and congregations. While the Jurisdictional Solution includes a provision for a local church vote in those congregations that wish to dissent from the direction of their annual conference, this vote is one-time and not directly about affirming the practice of homosexuality. The rules governing the local church regarding human sexuality would be made at General Conference and adapted by the jurisdictions.
All serious proposals must produce legislation for review. If a plan cannot ultimately stand up to judicial council review it is an expensive waste of our time and energy. I believe the only plan currently to be translated into legislation is the Jurisdictional Solution. It also has the distinction of being the only plan affirmed by members of the left, center, and right segments of our denomination.
Adam Hamilton was very well-intended in his proposal and deserves kudos for moving a tough conversation forward. However, I would expect that he knows it is time to abandon the entire concept as unworkable. If not, we are overdue for a draft of legislation needed to enact the plan. In the meantime, you can read the full legislation associated with the Jurisdictional Solution here. This blog also has many articles about my proposal for the future of the UMC.
Your critique strikes me as having merit. I’m not sure how much because my field of vision is fairly limited, but I certainly could see something like some of these playing out. I’ve not been a big fan of the Local Option from the beginning, so I’m inclined to be persuaded.
The JS strikes me as ripping up our current polity below the level of General Conference in order to create two parallel denominations in the United States. If I understand it properly, it would spawn a number of new annual conferences and create two new jurisdictional judicial boards. I’m sure that there would be many, many other ramifications of such a massive restructuring.
Why not start with a more limited plan that strikes the line in ¶101 and gives the current geographic jurisdictions the flexibility you propose?
Why do you need to swallow the whole pig at the first bite?
Super question, John. The problem with extending the flexibility to adapt our BOD to the current jurisdictions is that they are geographic. A Progressive urban church in Georgia or South Florida would not be able to do ministry as they wish because of their geography. Making jurisdictions non-geographic would allow for more conservative churches to plan new UM congregations out West, where our presence is fairly weak. There has also been discussion of a single “Progressive Jurisdiction” that would overlap our current five jurisdictions. This would be lampooned as a “Central Conference for Gays”, I think, like the Central Conference we had for African Americans from 1939-1968. The JS does mean a significant reworking of our denomination framework, but I would argue we are overdue for such a move. Thanks for taking time to read and comment. I would love to hear your further thoughts.
Chris, your “4 Tales” strike me as prophetic. After 8 years on the cabinet, I’m convinced any–and all–of them could actually happen. We owe Adam Hamilton a debt of gratitude for “getting the ball rolling” on serious conversation about the need for restructure, even if his proposal is “flawed” as you say. I do wonder, however, if your response to John is too overstated. One new jurisdiction based upon progressive convictions and practices could be see as more than simply a “one-issue” jurisdiction, which the old Central Jurisdiction was. With one new jurisdiction spanning the entire U.S., moderate and traditionalist conferences would not need to experience the agony and upheaval of deciding, since it could be assumed everyone remains where they are unless they intentionally choose to leave for the progressive jurisdiction. The more I ponder and wonder about the JS, the more I’m inclined to believe there would be an unwieldly large jurisdiction, possibly up to 75% per cent or more of current conferences/churches and a very small progressive jurisdiction, which raises all kinds of questions financially and administratively. One question raised above which had not yet entered my thinking is the finality of any decision. It’s conceivable that an annual conference or local church may wish to re-open the question of affliation periodically. Does legislation “lock” conferences and churches into a one-time, final jurisdictional affiliation? (P.S. I was happy to discover your response to Hacking Christianity’s essay about criteria to be applied to all proposals. I thought Jeremy raised valid points, and I appreciated your thoughtful feedback.)
I value your opinion greatly and am interested that you agree my scenarios are not far-fetched. I hope we can eliminate the “local option” from the list of possible solutions and more the conversation further along. I repeat my appreciation for Adam trying to propose something constructive. He really did shift the conversation from schism to possible solutions.
I am not too concerned about a jurisdiction being too large. We elected bishops at General Conference until 1939. I feel jurisdictions could organize to meet the demands of their constituent conferences.
I have not totally abandoned the concept of a sixth Progressive jurisdiction. Would it be a “missionary jurisdiction” with the power to adapt our rules? I assume the others would not have this same power. I also assume this new jurisdiction would make the Western and Northeastern Jurisdictions numerically unsustainable. This creates the need to rework our whole system of jurisdictions anyway.
One supporter hoped that the conservative jurisdiction, under my plan, would end up being smaller (perhaps 1/3 of the U.S. Churches) so that it would be aligned tightly with regards to ideologically. Like you, I would hope that it would be the larger of the two.
One bishop I communicate with wonders if the Southeast and Western Jurisdictions would ever go for the plan since they have a lot of jurisdictional identity. I think they might if the protections offered by the current jurisdictional arrangement were offered another way.
What do you think about that?
Chris, would you allow a little reflection on the value of jurisdictions?
I believe there is value for regions of the church in the U.S. to maintain ministry ties found in our current jurisdictions. While the SE and W jurisdictions have the strongest regional identities reflecting not only their theological “flavor” but also their regional culture, I have experienced a similarity of “ethos” in our own NC jurisdiction. There’s something unique and helpful as each annual conference from the rural Midwest experiences others with overlapping demographics and ministry challenges, along with the culture of sprawling metro areas surrounding the Great Lakes (Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee) providing us a closer sense of identity than with churches in the “Bible belt” who express their theology and ministry very differently.
Several years ago, a team from the Division of Ordained Ministry led 5 identical jurisdictional training workshops for Boards of Ordained Ministry following General Conference. This leadership team described (privately over dinner one evening) the glaring contrasts between jurisdictions they encountered. It was eye-opening! Each had its own unique set of characteristics. General Conference is an experience of the church’s global nature, but the jurisdictions have an opposite value. Mission and ministry in the Midwest has its own culture and ethos. We are a mixture of rust belt and farm belt. We are clearly not the Bible belt nor the West nor the Northeast. Our jurisdictional Urban Network along with the Town and Country Fellowship historically have met at the same time and place to facilitate ministry borne of our midwestern cultural ethos.
It is conceivable that the progressive jurisdiction could encompass the entire present Western and Northeastern Jurisdictions, allowing for exceptions, and picking up annual conferences (like Northern Illinois) and various churches scattered in the other 3 jurisdictions. And perhaps the new “traditional/moderate” jurisdiction could be split into two jurisdictions: one centered in “Bible Belt,” and one in the “Farm/Rust Belt” (poor terms, I know). Could Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana move from present SC into present SE, with Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska moving into the NC? Their rural flavor resembles the current NC more than conferences in the deep south. Two “traditional jurisdictions” rather than a single monolithic jurisdiction could open doors for mission and ministry, I believe.
This is to say that the Jurisdictional Solution could be enhanced by taking into consideration more criteria than simply the issue of homosexuality. Issues of mission and ministry ought to drive a massive restructure at least as much as the issue of homosexuality. Who wants their entire ministry to be determined by one issue? I know I don’t. And it’s hard for me to believe the vast majority of pastors and local churches want their future church associations determined by this issue alone. Expanding the jurisdictional solution’s appeal to something wider than our current “presenting issue” may enable it to attract even greater support.
Interesting points, Randy. I am going to e-mail you my draft of a plan that creates an “Affiliate Progressive Jurisdiction” that stands alongside the five existing ones. I would love your feedback.