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.