by Chris Ritter
“Therefore, Go.” Could there be a more ominous theme for the General Conference with the greatest risk of schism since 1844? I am on record as strongly opposing schism and agree that separation can never be amicable. I have worked as hard as anyone on solutions that might keep the UMC together. I fear a “third way” suggested recently by The Connectional Table would mean taking “the highway” for many United Methodists.
The Connectional Table recommends removing from the list of chargeable offenses both being a non-celibate homosexual clergy and officiating at same sex weddings. In arriving at this decision, they chose from the following menu of options: (a) Make no changes, (b) allow the full acceptance of homosexual practice into the life of the church, or (c) relax our standards so that same sex weddings and non-celibate gay clergy are not punishable. Given the options presented it is no surprise that they chose the “third option”. If you carefully craft the alternatives in a multiple choice test, you can always get the respondent to answer “C”.
Bob is cheating on his wife. What should Bob do?
a) Continue to cheat on his wife.
b) Cheat on his wife more.
c) Cheat on his wife only on odd-numbered days.
If I have to pick one of those, I would choose the third option. However, the right answer is the one not considered: “None of the above.” It is discouraging that an official body of the church would float a piecemeal, Trojan horse approach rather than a meaningful comprehensive solution.
The real loser under this Connectional Table (CT) plan is any local church that holds to the teachings of our church as presently expressed. If enacted, a United Methodist congregation could be forced, under the principles of open itinerancy, to accept a non-celibate homosexual pastor. Added disciplinary language instructing bishops not to appoint gay pastors to those churches not willing to accept them would run afoul of the constitution by infringing upon the appointive powers of bishops. (The discerning General Conference delegate should be on the watch for legislative protections being offered that those on the inside know will not stand to Judicial Council scrutiny.) The CT plan has the same fatal constitutional problems as the “Local Option”.
A congregation that does not want same sex weddings conducted at their altar would likewise find themselves powerless to interfere with their pastor’s right to conduct whatever services of worship he/she deems acceptable (¶2533). Our denomination would be in the position of saying it believes one thing while allowing the opposite in practice. Once the nose of the camel is under the tent, the tail and everything in between are soon to follow. Clergy could find their appointments dictated by how affirming they are on issues of homosexuality. Hold-out churches could be targeted for “re-education through appointment” by activist bishops. This is not justice and it is not sustainable. It is the violation of the biblical conscience of many of our faithful United Methodists. Progressives should likewise be insulted by the CT proposal.
The jurisdictional solution allows progressive churches and clergy (and entire conferences) a safe space to live out their vision of the Christian life with regards to marriage and human sexuality. In exchange, traditionalists are protected by an enforceable covenant that insures that standards conflicting with the established reading of scripture will not be forced upon them. This is a stable and comprehensive plan for amicable unity.
If we don’t create a secure plan for moving forward amicably, we open the door for chaos. The outcome most to be feared might not be the angry exit of churches and clergy. Consider the detrimental results in the Episcopal Church when no safe space was allowed for those of traditional values. When African bishops were recruited to provide historic episcopacy for North American dissident churches, Archbishop Michael Peers famously exclaimed, “Bishops are not intercontinental ballistic missiles, manufactured on one continent and fired into another as an act of aggression!” Many churches, however, welcomed these “missile bishops”. Imagine a group of traditionalist clergy and churches approaching sympathetic African UM bishops after this disastrous CT plan was approved. Could U.S. conferences be formed under the auspices of a central conference? Not legally. But how many “illegal” moves have we seen over the past few years? These pastors would have a compelling case to make about their pensions and the congregations about their property rights. The general church might choose to defund the central conference in protest, but the new revenue stream from apportionments would more than compensate. A new and numerically powerful coalition would arm itself for General Conference 2020. All the while, we are distracted from dealing with the weightier matters of making disciples for the transformation of the world. This is just one of many possible chaotic scenarios that we must avoid.
I suggest we end the gamesmanship and work instead on a comprehensive solution that keeps everyone amicably under the umbrella of United Methodism. There are some legislative hurdles with both my two-jurisdiction and six-jurisdiction solutions. The appropriate response to these challenges is determined leadership from our bishops and other key stakeholders. Let’s solve this thing. We can march into General Conference 2016 as into an arena for battle or as a hurting family in search of a solution workable for all. The CT’s “third way” is nothing but an invitation for many faithful United Methodists to “therefore, go.”