by Chris Ritter
It is counterintuitive that a more conservative proposal would have a greater likelihood of being enacted at General Conference than a more moderate one. However, I think that may well be the case with the two plans that I have authored. The binary Jurisdictional Solution calls for two co-equal jurisdictions based on ideology. The “Restore & Release Plan” is a new, less extensive but more conservative jurisdictional solution that may better navigate the politics of the United Methodist Church. It all has to do with African delegates, the big Southeastern Jurisdiction, and the needs of Centrists. These factors comprise the ABC’s of any successful reform proposal.
I wrote the R&R Plan in response to continued queries about the possibility of a sixth Progressive jurisdiction to go alongside our five existing ones. I refused to take this idea seriously for three reasons:
- There is really not much motivation for Progressives to join a separate Progressive Jurisdiction under the current paradigm.
- A successful Progressive Jurisdiction would likely decimate at least two of our geographic jurisdictions, necessitating change to our five standard jurisdictions.
- A single, non-geographic jurisdiction calls to mind the shameful Central Jurisdiction that existed from 1939 to 1968 as a means of racial segregation.
However, when the concept of a Progressive jurisdiction is paired with new ideas for episcopal accountability, we suddenly see a path forward where one previously did not exist. It is just a matter of timing and attending to the ABC’s.The “restore” in “The Restore and Release Plan” is a trio of accountability measures aimed at reinstating order in the UMC. While these items enable Traditionalists to stay in the UMC, they are likely repugnant to most Progressives:
- Create a General Commission of Episcopal Oversight (GCEO) that is empowered to reduce the salary of any bishop who allows unchecked disobedience to our BOD in their episcopal area. The GCEO would also be tasked with presenting names of bishops to General Conference who should be considered “unacceptable” (see ¶16.5) and removed.
- By 2016 General Conference resolution, remove any bishop who has flagrantly defied the standards of our church. Ousted bishops may be allowed to stay if they opt into the new Affiliate Progressive Jurisdiction.
- Establish minimum sentences for clergy performing same-sex weddings. When paired with the above measures, this would mean that more clergy would be subject to trial and receive a punishment sufficient to cause clergy not abiding by our connectional covenant to either change their behavior or exit. A few trials with substantial sentences will translate into a significant reduction in the number of trials in the future.
We can expect nearly zero Progressive votes for these “Restore” measures, but they could all be enacted by a simple majority readily assembled from Evangelicals, Cultural Conservatives, and Law & Order Moderates. (Progressives might consent to these measures if they were presented in a larger legislative package that included the creation of a Progressive jurisdiction.) Once the measures are in place, however, we can expect Progressives to join in the needed supermajorities necessary for the amendments creating the Affiliate Progressive Jurisdiction (APJ). This semi-autonomous body would have the power to adapt many of our rules and, in exchange, would be somewhat limited in their participation in the general church. They would share in pensions and missions, but would not have voice in matters that are not binding upon them, thus neutralizing the most heated debates at General Conference.
THE AFRICAN DELEGATES
Africans will comprise 30% of our GC 2016 votes while only 58.3% of delegates will be from the U.S. Given the fact that our African conferences are seeing some of their bishops held accountable to church finance laws through the reduction of their episcopal salaries, how many African delegates would vote for greater accountability to church teachings on human sexuality? My guess: Nearly all of them. You only need to add in the votes of a few American Traditionalists, elect the right people to the GCEO, and you have successfully eliminated geographic jurisdictions as a consequence-free zone for ecclesial disobedience. Africans would likely support the Affiliate Progressive Jurisdiction if it meant the preservation of the U.S. church and their key partner relationships. The Book of Discipline would be more likely to remain culturally conservative once APJ is in place and this is important to the success of the church in the African context.
THE BIG SOUTHEASTERN JURISDICTION
How does the Southeastern Jurisdiction come into play? A challenge that has always faced my binary jurisdictional plan is that it required the existing geographic jurisdictions to vote themselves out of existence. This is not an insurmountable problem for jurisdictions like the NCJ and the SCJ, who don’t have a high level of jurisdictional identity. The SEJ, our largest, has a lot invested in their jurisdiction. It very much functions as a sub-denomination. (As does the Western Jurisdiction, but it only comprises a small fraction of the UMC) SEJ conferences enjoy the regional protections provided by their jurisdiction and they are very comfortable with regionally-elected bishops. While the R&R plan would almost certainly necessitate a remapping of our jurisdictions in 2020, the SEJ could be assured of a big voice in that discussion as the remapping would require constitutional amendments impossible without their support. All constitutional measures need to be ratified by a “two-thirds affirmative vote of the aggregate members of the several annual conferences.” The larger conferences, therefore, are given greater voice on amendments. As six of our ten largest conferences are in the Southeast, it is important to this proposal that the SEJ would experience little disruption under the R&R Plan.
THE NEEDS OF CENTRISTS
Moderates are the heart and soul of American United Methodism and many are comfortable living in a denomination where some are granted liberty to perform same sex weddings and ordain practicing homosexuals in committed relationships. This should not be confused, however, with an automatic willingness to cross that bridge themselves. A substantial number of UM Moderates would be very uncomfortable belonging to anything that resembles our Western Jurisdiction. While my binary jurisdictional solution is generally more centrist than the R&R Plan, it would require Moderates to choose sides, something distasteful to them. The R&R Plan would allow Centrists to release UM’s who want to perform same sex marriages without throwing their lot in with them. Another reason the R&R Plan might be more attractive to Moderates than the binary jurisdictional plan is that the new plan assuages concerns that Conservatives could use the jurisdictional approach as an interim step to full schism. The plan keeps plenty of Moderates in the main body of the UMC and insures that the institution holds together.
My colleague Randy Robinson has led my conference’s General Conference delegation and has followed my jurisdictional solutions closely. While he is on record as being favorable to a jurisdictional solution, he astutely points out that the R&R Plan, as initially written, has potential conflict with the Third Restrictive Rule. The Judicial Council might interpret the plan as “destroying the plan of our itinerant general superintendency” in that it restricts Affiliate Progressive Jurisdiction bishops from presiding at General Conference and on certain general boards/agencies. The purpose of this suggested restriction was to protect General Conference, which will soon be majority African, from the spectacle of being presided over by a self-avowed practicing homosexual bishop elected by the APJ.I see three possible solutions. First, we could remove the restriction entirely and trust the Council of Bishops to provide a plan of general superintendency that would not further fracture our church. The second option would be to require that the APJ bishops meet the ordination standards of the Book of Discipline (clergy could be self-avowed, practicing homosexuals but bishops could not). The third possibility is more elaborate. We could restrict the APJ from electing its own bishops and task general conference or other jurisdictions with selecting episcopal leaders for the APJ. Given the legislative complexity and possible onus of the latter possibility, I would guess that the first or second option would prevail.
THE OLD CENTRAL JURISDICTION
Comparisons will undoubtedly be made between the R&R Plan and the Central Jurisdiction that existed from 1939-1968 as a means of racial segregation. It is only a matter of time before someone portrays this plan as a “Central Jurisdiction for Homosexuals”. This characterization is unfair for three reasons.
- The APJ is not a jurisdiction for homosexuals. It is a jurisdiction for Progressives who cannot, in good conscience, live under the connectional covenant in our Book of Discipline. Just as now, there will be plenty of homosexuals, practicing and otherwise, in churches of the standard jurisdictions.
- The Affiliate Progressive Jurisdiction is a voluntary structure. The Central Conference was a structure invented by the merger of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Protestant Church, and the Methodist Episcopal Church (South) as a means of forced segregation. No clergy, church, or conference will go into the APJ that does not want to go there. (I could foresee circumstances where a pastor is disciplined in a conference of the standard jurisdiction and given the option of transferring to the APJ or lose their credentials in the UMC.)
- The APJ is not a single-issue jurisdiction. There are other conclusions about ministry that are reached through a Progressive reading of scripture that the APJ would be free to explore.
THE DREADED LOCAL CHURCH VOTE
I hope that any plan before General Conference will aim at sparing local churches from divisive votes on the issue of homosexuality. The Local Option is probably the major proposal that is least successful at this. My binary jurisdictional plan would require only those local churches who strongly dissent from the direction of their annual conference to vote. It is important to note that the local vote under either of my proposals is not about homosexuality directly but about conference membership. The Restore and Release Plan would subject even fewer churches to a vote, assuming less conferences would go into the APJ than a new, binary jurisdiction. Only those congregations who are strongly out of line with their conference would find it necessary to hold a charge conference to consider membership in another conference.
It will be difficult for the church to reach total consensus on the R&R Plan prior to General Conference without strong leadership. This is true of any proposal, including the Binary Jurisdictional Solution which I believe has great merit. Progressives will note that some measures in the R&R plan are happening to them before we get to the facets that would happen with them. It is possible, however, for a group of Traditionalist, Centrist and Progressive leaders to get together and present something akin to the R&R Plan as a legislative package that sustains the institutional unity of the UMC for the next generation. Denominational politics aside, United Methodists need to be prayer for the church and carefully choose those who are sent to perhaps the most crucial General Conference in our generation.
Chris, this is awesome—and excellent! Do you have a mechanism for disseminating the Restore and Release Plan to other leaders and groups who are working on plans/solutions for the future of The UMC?
Thanks, Randy! I shared it with a couple bishops and others who are working on finding a way forward. I haven’t put it on Facebook yet. Feel free if you want to. Thanks again for helping me see the problem with the Third Restrictive Rule.
You are already aware of this scenario from the 2012 General Conference, but its significance for both the Jurisdictional Plan and the Restore and Release Plan cannot be overstated.
On the closing day of General Conference 2012, Plan UMC, an attempt at comprehensive overhaul of the denomination’s structure, was approved by delegates but overturned by the Judicial Council as unconstitutional on many counts. One of the features of the new structure would have been an oversight body meeting between sessions of the General Conference with broad authority to oversee the general church’s mission and finances, “the spiritual and temporal affairs of the church.” Because denominational oversight is reserved to the Council of Bishops alone, Plan UMC was accused of “destroying the plan of our itinerant general superintendency” (violation of the Third Restrictive Rule). Many were surprised by such a broad interpretation of the Third Restrictive Rule, which is why I continue to raise the caution with you regarding the Jurisdictional Plan and the Restore and Release Plan.
I believe this may be a vulnerability, since you have signaled that funding for bishops (APJ bishops especially) would not be lodged with the General Church, but in the new jurisdiction(s). Please allow me to raise this caution: general superintendents, and their offices which are considered general church agencies, are funded by the general church. To divorce funding of general superintendents from the general church could be construed as another attempt to “destroy the plan of our itinerant general superintendency.” In other words, the whole church pays for those who oversee the whole church. It’s difficult to sidestep this principle.
This appears to be “straining at gnats while swallowing a camel” but because of the experience of the closing day of GC ’12, the lesson to be learned is that this Judicial Council has adopted a broad understanding of the Third Restrictive Rule and may very well apply it to other attempts at denominational overhaul.
I understand the principle of separating funding from practices one does not support, but in the attempt to appease, you would not want to lose the overriding benefits of church unity preserved by either of your plans.
Thank you for the perseverance you’re showing as you constantly refine and revise your plans.
This is helpful. Great care will need to be exercised in crafting any legislation headed to GC2016. The concerns you raise are more intricate than I had previously understood. It really would be beneficial to separate out episcopal funding for the long term good of the church. Let’s think of ways forward on this.
Perhaps the right approach would be to require the APJ pay into the Episcopal Fund at least as much as it draws out. This might satisfy Traditionalist that they are not financially underwriting the APJ.
Keep going…may God be with you and bless you and give you wisdom as you proceed.
I thought we already had an “APJ”. It is called the Western Jurisdiction.
Your comments concerning the SEJ and Africa seem patronizing, even for one who probably sees himself as part of the “heart and soul” of the UMC. The truth is that the UMC is so confused and convoluted now over the real issues that no “plan” will be sufficient. I believe that the UMC is destined for dissolution; I hope that it will last long enough for my quiet exit.
pa·tron·ize /ˈpātrəˌnīz,ˈpatrəˌnīz/ verb gerund or present participle: patronizing 1. treat with an apparent kindness that betrays a feeling of superiority.
I am sorry you feel like you do, Jim. I have chosen to hope and work toward finding a solution. The danger of any post as political as this one is that you speak of people as groups rather than individuals. I served in the North Georgia Conference during seminary and learned to respect the grand machine that is the UMC in the Southeast. There are some amazingly gifted leaders there. I would have stayed if the Lord had not called me back to Illinois. As for our African brothers and sisters, I have many friendships in Liberia and Guinea and have had the opportunity to visit twice and host many of them here. The church I serve views our work there as vital and we pay the salaries of all seventeen United Methodist pastors that serve in Guinea. I have received much more than I have given there.
I don’t view myself as the heart and soul of the UMC. I am pretty sure I am to the right of most who would call themselves Moderates. You and I agree that we serve a church that in confused. Each generation takes the church that is handed to it and tries to make it more faithful, fruitful, and focused. My prayer is that the church I was born into will long outlive my brief days on the planet. I don’t judge you for being in despair. I have been there myself. The continuation of the Church is the greatest proof of the existence of God. Without the work of the Holy Spirit, we would have destroyed ourselves generations ago.
I’m a layperson. I didn’t join the Methodist Church back in 1956 so that I could improve it; I joined the church so that I could be guided in my spiritual journey. Through the years, my reason(s) have changed to something more like love, but I still believe that the church is failing miserably at this point to be a faithful guide. Personal inspiration of individuals seems to take precedence over the health of the Body, which is considered as fair and easy game for just about any philosophical infection. Serious and gleeful attacks on the church seem to be obligatory for anyone with a “better idea” of how Jesus “would have” wanted us to be. You’ll have to pardon me if I look at all “new ideas” with great skepticism.
C.S. Lewis said that if we are on the wrong track, we should go back to the point where we left the right track. Adjusting the current path won’t ever get us back to the right path. I believe that one issue of sexual preference should not have ever been allowed to deflect our church’s mission. Let’s go back to the point at which it was not an issue. All others should leave the field since they are cluttering the real battle to win souls. The church needs to clear its throat and speak clearly on this point.
A view from the pew: I agree with Mr. Colley’s assessment; I have been part of the Methodist Church since 1953. The UMC is failing miserably when it comes to the reason it is in existence: connecting people to the triune God of holy love and then enabling them to live a holy life centered in God 24/7. Whenever I read plans to save the institution, my gut reaction is stop trying to save the institution and start saving people.
As far as I am concerned, the church has its stance on the homosexuality issue. The fact that General Conference, the only thing designated to speak for the church has come up with the exact same answer TEN times over FORTY years has to have some meaning. Trying to accommodate those that don’t like the answer is ludicrous. When it came time to pick a replacement for Judas, the apostles narrowed it down to two choices, then rolled the dice one time, viewed it as God had spoken and moved on. Why can’t the church assume God has spoken through its processes and move on?