I have never met Joel Watts, but I like him.  His online presence exhibits the rare combination of a love for the catholic faith and entrepreneurial independence of thought.  Today Joel issued a substantial proposal for the future of the UMC that aims at avoiding schism and contentious General Conference votes while neutralizing the acidic environment in our denomination over issues of biblical authority (as evidenced in our debates over human sexuality).

The plan lifts up mechanisms in our BOD for churches to become federated with a local church of another denomination and, upon approval by congregation, bishop, and cabinet, develop their own hybrid of the rules of the two denominations.  Joel seems to envision the development of a new denomination with which United Methodist congregations could hybridize, creating a legitimate environment for things currently illegitimate under our Discipline.

I will happily stand corrected by Joel if I am mischaracterizing his plan, but here are my initial thoughts:

  • Because the disciplinary paragraphs cited all have to do with local churches federating with other local churches, this seems to be simply a mechanism to achieve “The Local Option”.  It is ground-breaking in that no else has offered any instrument for achieving Adam Hamilton’s vision of each church creating their own policies on human sexuality.  Joel might have cracked the code on how to do that.  That having been said, The Local Option is a disaster.  Joel himself is very public in his opposition to it.  I have written my own critique, as well.
  • Watts seems to envision United Methodists getting together to form a new denomination without actually entering into that new denomination, except through the federation of individual congregations.  As I read the relevant paragraphs, there also has to be another local church of that denomination for which the UM congregation to federate.  The process would look like this?:
    1. A bunch of United Methodists get together and form a new Methodist denomination without abandoning their ties to the UMC.
    2. A local church that wanted to federate with that denomination would have to send some of its members out to form a new local church of the new denomination.
    3. The remaining members would vote to federate with that new congregation and draft a covenant that would allow them to achieve what they want through the articles of federation (same sex marriage, etc).
    4. The bishop would approve this.
    5. The majority of the cabinet would vote to approve the plan of federation.
  • Churches do not need to do all these gymnastics in those areas of the UMC where same sex marriage is accepted as a matter of jurisdictional policy.  In those areas where it is not accepted, bishops are not going to approve these federation agreements that basically re-direct apportionment dollars to another denomination.  Why would they?
  • This plan seems to multiply votes in the very place I hope to avoid them:  The local level.  Congregations and clergy would have to vote to be part of the formation of the new denomination, vote to send out part of their members to form a new congregation, vote to affiliate with the new congregation, and vote on the plan of union.  All of these votes would be somewhat connected to issues of human sexuality and marriage.
  • Forming a new denomination is no small task.  Forming new congregations of that denomination is even more arduous.
  • I have realized in my own work that it is foolish to build elaborate ships that no one wants to board.  It seems like it would take some strident conservative votes at General Conference to cause Progressives to want to jump through the hoops that are suggested by the plan.  If the script was flipped at GC 2016, I doubt Traditionalists, being very practical in nature, would choose this as their path forward.  Either way, we are back to waiting to see what GC2016 will do next, something Watts wants to avoid.

Joel Watts’ proposal reminds us that there are avenues left to be explored.  Someone needs to flush out the possibilities to be found under the BOD paragraphs related to missionary conferences, which have authority to adapt our rules in way similar to the central conferences.  Could each jurisdiction create their own Progressive missionary conference?  There is also some work to be done around the concept of an autonomous affiliate Methodist body for progressives.

The proposal also signals that we are in for some fascinating possible developments in post-denominational Protestantism.  In the church I serve, our hired youth director was non-ordain-able in the UMC because he went to a seminary not approved by the University Senate.  He affiliated with the Foursquare Church who appointed him to our United Methodist Church, which is allowed under their rules (no one asked us, but we were fine with that).   I attended his ordination in the Foursquare Church even as he was becoming licensed in the UMC.  He is now starting a new United Methodist congregation funded by our conference.  He sought to associate the church start with the Acts 29 network, but they rejected it because we don’t subscribe to at least four of the five points of Calvinism.  He is still using part of their playbook, however, and is coached by them.  As the ice cube melts, things become more fluid.

Thanks, Joel, for keeping us thinking about our future and ways to unlock our partisan horns.  I continue to believe that the jurisdictional level of our church is where we best place our hopes for preserving United Methodism.