by Chris Ritter

I recently released legislation for the “Restore & Release Plan” (R&R), a six-jurisdiction version of my earlier proposal for the future of The United Methodist Church.  Both jurisdictional solutions create a compartment for those who cannot abide by the current language in our Book of Discipline.  This is all accomplished under the umbrella of United Methodism without effectively forcing Africans, Traditionalists, Law-and-Order Moderates, and Evangelicals out of the church.

The system of dividing up Methodists by jurisdiction was an invention of the 1939 North/South re-merger that formed “The Methodist Church”.   Regional jurisdictions where bishops were elected and appointed gave assurance, especially to the South, that our episcopal leaders would be “one of us.”  An additional “Central Jurisdiction” covering the entire nation was created for African Americans.  This racially segregated body persisted until the 1968 merger with the EUB’s.  The five geographic jurisdictions were carried into the new denomination as regional protections continued to be insisted upon in the South.

Jurisdictions were forged in the Jim Crow Era and retained in the Civil Rights Era.  Today, they serve much less a racial role and have become, in places, ideological enclaves within the denomination.  The Western and Northeastern Jurisdictions have voted to ignore United Methodist teachings on human sexuality.  Although performing same sex weddings is a chargeable offense for a UM clergy, some bishops are effectively halting the enforcement of church law in spite of their vows.   Because bishops are held accountable in the jurisdiction that elected them, the General Church is left with rules it cannot enforce.  The injustice of our current situation is that some clergy are held accountable to the standards of our denomination while others are not.  Some churches that would like greater freedom find themselves geographically “trapped”.  The shift in the larger U.S. culture has only served to heighten the urgency of Progressives.  Tectonic pressures in our denomination have escalated from tremors to earthquakes and are opening fissures that are hard to miss.

Open defiance on matters of human sexuality and marriage is only the latest development in a longer struggle in the UMC.  Persistent debates over sex have served to underscore the fact that we don’t agree on how to read scripture and apply it to ministry.   The space between our quadrennial general conferences regularly witnesses some attempt to exploit loopholes in our rules and allow same sex weddings or the ordination of practicing homosexuals .  Time and again, General Conference has found a way to tighten the rules and maintain our standards.  Conservative margins have only been growing as international growth (in places like Africa) have given traditionalist delegates greater representation.

Absent the good will of bishops to enforce the rules of our church, however, the mechanisms needed to enforce faithfulness become more extreme.  Shifting the means for episcopal accountability to the general church level requires systemic change that impinges upon our constitutional framework.  While traditionalists seem to have a solid majority, the supermajority needed for constitutional change (along with ratification by the annual conferences) becomes more difficult to achieve.  The constant battle has caused some traditionalists to weary of the game and seek an exit, even though they agree with our official standards.  Those of us seeking solutions likewise face the challenge of amending our constitution.  Any comprehensive solution that would end our increasingly bitter denominational gamesmanship would require constitutional change and, therefore, wide consensus that is difficult to find.

My proposal seeks to be fair to both sides by reinventing our system of jurisdictions to address the issues that divide us in this generation.  The assumption is that the debate we are having today will not be the debate we are having a generation from now.  I am among those who want to preserve The United Methodist Church and keep us all under the same tent, even if that tent has compartments.  It is time to end the fighting and work to achieve amicable unity.  The UMC features a large contingent of “Moderates” who likewise don’t want to see United Methodism torn asunder. “Progressives” demand, as a matter of social justice, the ordination and same-sex weddings of openly practicing homosexuals.   “Traditionalists” feel that faithfulness to scripture is the issue at stake and want to see an end to the constant debate and nibbling away at our standards.  They want a “fire wall” that will insure that practices they view as incompatible with Christian teaching will not be foisted upon them.

I drafted a framework for a two-jurisdiction approach in Summer 2014.  Under this plan, General Conference 2016 would adopt legislation replacing our five jurisdictions with two, each with the power to adapt many of our rules in way similar to the freedoms enjoyed by our seven central conferences outside the U.S.  Each domestic annual conference would vote to affiliate with one of the two jurisdictions.  Those individual churches and clergy who could not live with the decision of their annual conference would have a few months to opt out their conference and into the other jurisdiction.  Each of the new jurisdictions would convene and create a map of annual conferences that would cover the entire USA.  Like Major League Baseball, there would two nation-wide leagues, each with slightly different rules.

The strengths of the Two-Jurisdiction Plan:

  • It is egalitarian and fair.
  • As the language in the Book of Discipline on matters of human sexuality would not change, protection is provided for the growing African church which could not prosper in a denomination where homosexual practice is accepted carte blanche.
  • It ends much of our debate as our most divisive rules would be subject to adaptation by the jurisdictions.
  • Unlike the “Local Option”, only those churches that could not live with the direction of their annual conference would be subject to a congregational vote. (The vote would be about which jurisdiction best fits them, not about human sexuality directly.)
  • Annual conference and jurisdictional property is accounted for in the plan.
  • Bishops would choose a jurisdiction that best fits them.
  • Clergy and churches trapped in an ideologically mismatched conference/jurisdiction would find themselves in a better fit.
  • Major figures from the left and right of our denomination have tipped their hand that something like the two-jurisdiction solution might be acceptable to them.

There are also some weaknesses and open questions:

  • The plan requires the existing jurisdictions to vote themselves out of existence. The Southeastern Jurisdiction, our largest, has a lot of identity and institutions wrapped into it.  They tend to appreciate regionally-elected bishops.  Substantial buy-in from the SEJ would be needed in order for the two-jurisdiction plan to be ratified.
  • The future status of the general boards and agencies is uncertain. They would continue to operate under the Book of Discipline as printed, but they would likely need to be reinvented to accommodate the new reality and there is no attempt in my work to anticipate what this might ultimately become.  This translates into uncertainty.
  • Some conferences are more divided than others and would experience greater disruption as new conferences are organized by the new jurisdictions.
  • The large ideologically moderate segment of the UMC is averse to choosing between two sides. We are people of the middle and will take a middle choice every time, even to our detriment.
  • Some would see the two-jurisdiction plan as a prelude to a full split. (I disagree, but it is a possibility to consider).

The shape of the political landscape prompted me to write an additional jurisdictional solution called “The Restore and Release Plan”.  This plan calls for the existing five jurisdictions to stay in place and creates a sixth national Affiliate Progressive Jurisdiction (APJ) for those annual conferences who cannot live under our existing covenant.  The creation of this six-jurisdiction plan coincided with some new ideas I developed on ways to restore order to the UMC without constitutional amendments.  The problem with creating a progressive structure had been that many of our Progressives already have liberty, albeit through illegitimate means, to accomplish what they want under our existing structure.  Traditionalists, likewise, would likely be averse to voting greater liberties to those who are already flaunting our covenant.

The APJ would be created through constitutional amendment and would be free to adapt the rules of the UMC while remaining in it.  Delegates elected to General Conference by the APJ would be checked from voting on measures not binding upon them.  They would, however, have representation on some general agencies and the ability to negotiate for shared services with the others.  Conferences of the APJ would be responsible for funding their own bishops and ministries, protecting those in the other jurisdictions from funding causes unacceptable to them.

The R&R Plan will face the charge of being partisan because it creates incentive for Progressives to leave their geographic jurisdiction and enter an Affiliate Progressive Jurisdiction (APJ). It anticipates that a simple majority comprised of Africans, Conservatives, Cultural Conservatives, and Law-and-Order Moderates would pass three non-constitutional measures aimed at restoring order and enforcing our covenant:

  1. Conditionally discontinue through General Conference resolution (under the authority of ¶16.5) a defiant retired bishop who performed a same sex wedding in Alabama.
  2. Create a General Commission on Episcopal Accountability that would be empowered to reduce the salary of bishops who do not enforce the rules of our church. (While bishops are elected and held accountable at the jurisdictional level, their salaries are a function of the general church.  There are current instances of African bishops who have had their salaries withheld by GCF&A for not adhering to the financial guidelines of our denomination.)
  3. Create minimum sentences for clergy who perform same-sex weddings.

Once the measures to restore order in the UMC are passed by simple majority, the plan anticipates that Progressives would join in the supermajority needed to create the APJ.  The strengths of the six-jurisdiction solution:

  • It successfully creates an avenue for Progressives in the UMC to live out their vision of ministry without forcing traditionalists into endorsing positions unacceptable to them.
  • It preserves the UMC as a body that conferences together globally. We would be the only Mainline denomination to have not divided over the issue of homosexuality
  • The R&R Plan elegantly avoids entrenched jurisdictional politics. While it would likely cause the numerical collapse of at least two of our jurisdictions, the SEJ would be assured of a large voice in the remapping that would be done in 2020 through constitutional amendment.
  • Like the two-jurisdiction solution, the number of local church votes would be limited to those congregations who are seriously out of step with their annual conference.
  • Moderates would have a choice between staying put or moving to the APJ. This would be more acceptable than choosing to shift either left or right.
  • The possibility of a future conservative break with the UMC is less likely under this plan. While it is possible that the new APJ might vote to break away, the connectional instinct is strong enough among Progressives to make this unlikely.

The biggest negative associated with the Restore & Release Plan is that Progressives will perhaps not embrace it because of the accountability measures included.  It is fruitless, however, to construct an elaborate ship (like the APJ) that no one feels any urgency about boarding.  Traditionalists will need assurances that the rules of our church are enforced before they will agree to create a new structure where a Progressive interpretation of scripture can be lived out.  If Progressives come to realize how crucial these seemingly partisan measures really are, they may come to embrace them as part of the larger legislative package aimed at preserving the UMC.

Homosexuality is not the most important issue facing our church.  It is, however, the issue that is poisoning our church with suspicion and distrust.   Given the issues that lay behind our debates, we can never expect consensus.  What we can do in 2016 is stop the fighting and work on putting everyone under an enforceable covenant that does no harm to other sectors of the church who see things differently.  Once a resolution is reached, we can do the harder work of equipping our churches to be effective in the coming decades.

If you have reached this point in this post, you likely care deeply about the future of the UMC.  Any proposed solution will rise and fall on leadership.  If our bishops and others cast a vision for the future of the UMC, I believe that either of the solutions I have authored is a possible mechanism through which amicable unity might be achieved.  As delegates to General Conference are elected this year, let’s all insist they do the hard work of seeking a comprehensive solution to our differences so that we can refocus on the weighty matters that await us in our fields of mission and ministry.

What do you think:  Two jurisdictions or six?  Is there another way to save the UMC that we have not explored?