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by Chris Ritter

We are just over a year away from the most crucial United Methodist General Conference in our generation.  The delegates being elected will shoulder the weight of Christian conferencing in the midst of polarizing debates and global diversity.  At the center of the discussion will be the very definition of what it means to be United Methodist Christians.    For all the private talk, public statements, and shared outrage over the past few years, it will all come down to what General Conference does or fails to do in May 2016.  There is no other group that can address the issues now before us.

A  safe prediction:   Formal schism will not receive serious consideration.  General Conference is peopled with hymn-singing, card-carrying, cross-and-flame-emblazoned United Methodists.  I doubt there is even double-digit percentage delegate support for separation, amicable or otherwise.  If there is a split, it will be messy and occur in the fallout to the decisions of General Conference.  When it comes down to it, there are really only four realistic legislative outcomes.  Each of these options has its supporters and detractors.  What follows is a brief description of the landscape as I understand it.  While I run the risk of misrepresenting someone’s proposal or position,  I think it most helpful to name the players involved for the sake of clarity.  The four options are:  (1) Do Nothing, (2) Relax Standards, (3) Close Loopholes, and (4) Structural Change:

Do Nothing

While some view as unconscionable the idea that GC2016 should “fiddle while Rome burns”, some see inaction in 2016 as preferable.  The heart of this approach is the hope that future cultural and ecclesial change will be so sweeping on the issue of homosexuality that it will become a non-issue at a later date.  I have heard the call to “make no change” from several quarters.  The group that has made the most forthright argument for this is the United Methodist Centrist Movement.  To be fair, they are technically advocating continued study, not complete inaction.  Reading between the lines, however, they seem to believe that another four years of same sex marriage becoming the norm in America and increasingly occurring in the church (where allowed by dissenting bishops) will make a 2020 acceptance of homosexual practice a non-event.  (There is recent indication that the Centrist Movement’s timeline is unpopular and that they are working on updating their proposal.)

It is not universally agreed upon that time is on the progressive side.  Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy looks to the demographics of the UMC for hope. He notes that the most liberal areas of the church are declining fastest and explosive growth is happening in Africa and other culturally conservative parts of the globe.  African conferences gain 200,000 members per year while the American church loses 50,000-100,000 per year.  Should present trends continue, the UMC will one day be a majority African denomination and Tooley predicts this will bring in eventual sweeping change.  Although UMAction, a wing of the IRD, will be presenting legislation to tighten our rules on homosexuality, they seem to place the greatest hope for lasting reform with this demographic tsunami.   It seems to me that if our culture is more and more accepting of homosexual practice and our church is more and more against it (as a percentage of the whole and in isolated quarters), this can only be a recipe for more intense conflict in the future if a settlement is not reached.

Relax/Remove Standards

There are big names advocating a loosening of standards related to human sexuality.  Not the least of these is the Connectional Table of the UMC and Adam Hamilton, the pastor of the UMC’s largest congregation.  Some progressive groups, like Love Prevails, want to see a complete reversal on our language regarding homosexuality.  To be fair, they don’t say it that way.  They advocate “going back to our pre-1972 language.”  1972, however, happens to be the year when our then four-year-old denomination first adopted the Social Principles commissioned at our 1968 Uniting Conference.  It seems a bit disingenuous to imply that there was an earlier time when the UMC was more open to homosexual practice.

As I have argued elsewhere, complete reversal would be a certain recipe for making two (or more) denominations out of one.  If we go from stating that homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching on May 10, 2016  to allowing openly itinerating gay clergy and bishops on May 20, 2016, the whiplash effect will break away parts of the American church and perhaps all of Africa.  I cannot imagine a more anti-pastoral move on the part of our elected delegates.  Thankfully, few are advocating this approach.

The Hamilton and Connectional Table approach is more moderate but nevertheless clear in its intent.  They want to keep (for now) the language that “homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching”  but remove all punishments for performing same sex weddings and being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” clergy.  This creates a denomination-wide experiment into gay marriage and ordination.  We need to be clear about the implications of this move.  A pastor may officiate at a same wedding whether the folks that pay her/his salary want that or not.  In all likelihood, laity would be unable to prevent a pastor from conducting that wedding at their sanctuary’s altar as trustees are forbidden from interfering with pastors in religious ceremonies they deem appropriate.   This move dis-empowers the laity by making our denominational policies unenforceable across the connection.  Substantial and established case law prevents any attempt to limit the power of bishops to appoint any clergy in good standing to any church.  A “practicing” gay elder in good standing is entitled to an appointment somewhere in the conference and the bishop may place him/her wherever the bishop wishes.

The Connectional Table approach would also send mixed signals to practicing homosexual candidates for ministry:  “We view your lifestyle as incompatible with Christian teaching but have no mechanism to prevent you from serving.”  Boards of ordained ministry and clergy sessions will become the battle ground in which the anxiety created by these dual messages will be evidenced.  When years of theological education and tens of thousands of dollars are on the line for each candidate, ambiguity is not helpful.

There is a myth circulating that, even with loosened standards, individual conferences could exclude a pastor under the chargeable offense of “immorality” in those locations where homosexuality might be considered to fit with that description.  Multiple Judicial Council decisions, however, have necessitated the litigious language about homosexual practice we have today.  (See a summary of this case law in the end notes).  If the specific chargeable offenses are removed, there is no way to stop same sex weddings and ordinations from taking place anywhere and everywhere throughout the denomination.  The sheer breadth of this change throughout our diverse denomination should give us pause.  Whatever we do in 2016 I would think that plans that prescribe carte blanche change to all sectors of the church should be avoided.

Close Loopholes

Someone once saw the impious W.C. Fields reading the Bible. They expressed their surprise and inquired what he was doing.  His pulled the cigar from his lips and answered:  “Lookin’ for loopholes!”  People have been reading the UM Book of Discipline that same way for over thirty years and General Conference has regularly plugged the holes discovered.  See the end notes of this post for a summary.

The A&W Plan authored by Bill Arnold and David Watson suggests that we grant clergy or churches that cannot abide by our rules the freedom to exit.  In order to plug the holes presently being exploited, they suggest we change the way chargeable offenses are handled to better insure pastors are held accountable.   The plan also calls for greater accountability for bishops so that jurisdictions can no longer shield our episcopal leaders from consequences for not upholding our rules.  Others have suggested holes could be plugged by establishing minimum sentences for clergy performing same sex weddings.  Generally speaking, many conservative groups are in favor of measures like these. (UMAction and Good News are working separately on some and I have authored a few of my own.)  I am aware of one plan to move episcopal accountability from the jurisdictions to a general church structure, thereby better insuring that our bishops enforce our rules.  The trick to plugging loopholes is doing so in ways that will pass muster with the Judicial Council and not be ruled unconstitutional.   If recent General Conferences have taught us anything, it is that great scrutiny is applied by our highest court.   Even if successful, however, attempts to make our standards on human sexuality fully enforceable will trigger four more years of clergy trials, protest, and defiance on our progressive side.  I wonder if we have the stomach for this.

Structural Change

The remaining option is the one for which I have been forcefully advocating:  structural change.  The question is not whether it is possible to remain one denomination while operating under two different understandings of human sexuality. We are unofficially doing that now.  The problem is that how we are doing it is causing us to be perpetually distracted and preventing us from focusing on mission and ministry.  Progressive feel stifled and Traditionalists feel threatened. Our rules are irregularly enforced, which is unjust.

An adequate structural solution is based on the following tassumptions:

  • We are not going to arrive at a single unified opinion on whether homosexual practice is in keeping with the moral vision of Christianity. We have people on both sides that would rather die than change their minds.  Time spent trying to change each other’s minds could be better utilized.
  • This debate is symptomatic of a larger divide regarding how the scriptures are read and applied to ministry. Structural plans are not “just” over homosexuality.  The two views at work are mutually exclusive and will be in perpetual conflict unless a covenantal border is established.  There is either going to be a truce or ongoing battle.
  • Substantive change in the BOD language regarding homosexuality would harm our growing Central Conferences’ capacity to do ministry in their contexts. Even a secular business strategist would tell us that harming our only expanding market is organizational suicide.
  • This debate is poisoning our church with distrust and preventing us from working on more substantive issues. Every proposal for the general church is viewed through the lens of how it will affect the balance of power in our most divisive issue.  Settling this issue in a comprehensive way will free energy for other important matters.

There is no shortage of conceptual solutions, most of which are fanciful:  everything from creating “Progressive Missionary Conferences” to creating special federated congregations where homosexual practice is allowed.  Most of these fail because they try to employ a feature of our denomination to do something other than what it was created to do.  These are not translated into legislation or up for serious consideration.

There is one major proposal that seeks to restructure the church by adding a layer to our already top-heavy structure.  The Northeastern Jurisdiction Global Structure Taskforce  has developed a detailed plan that would add a Regional Conference level between the global General Conference and our Jurisdictional/Central Conferences.  While not referencing homosexuality, the plan is viewed in light of an earlier 2008 “Worldwide Nature of the Church” plan that was passed at General Conference but soundly rejected for ratification, especially in Africa.  Some would view both plans as a way to pass more progressive social positions in America by segregating out conservative international voting blocs.  While this plan has the distinction of being the only plan with complete legislation, apart from mine, I feel it is a non-starter for all the reasons mentioned.

Simply knocking the issues down to the annual conference level will likewise not work.  Facets of our connectional covenant like open itineracy make it difficult to “live and let live” in the same conference given the fact that mutually exclusive worldviews are at work.   Ideological minorities become “trapped” in judicatories based solely on geography.  Conference-level issues like ordination require that a conference adhere to a single approach.  A fruitful ideological alignment would involve an appointing bishop, appointed clergy, and congregations with the same moral vision.  It is in this environment that ministry synergy occurs.  A jurisdiction is the only structure in our denomination that has the potential for providing this.

Jurisdictions were actually invented to help Methodists manage their differences while staying together as a denomination.  We were not forged as a united UMC, but a jurisdictional UMC.  Division is built into our DNA.  Our problem is that our jurisdictions are positioned to help address what divided us in the eras of Jim Crow and Civil Rights, not what divides us today and moving forward.  There is an argument to be made for doing away with our jurisdictional system altogether because of its lingering association with the early and dismal days of the racial struggles in our nation.  A better idea is to use the concept of jurisdictions (call them whatever you want) to help us stay together today so that, forty years from now, there are still United Methodists to look back and shake their heads at us (either for selling out to our culture or denying justice to gays… you decide).

I have authored two plans that use jurisdictions to provide comprehensive organizational solutions to our divisions.  The two-jurisdiction plan replaces our five geographic jurisdictions with two based on ideology.  Each jurisdiction is empowered to adapt our rules in ways similar to, but expanded from, those currently granted to the central conferences.  The six-jurisdiction version creates an additional nation-wide progressive jurisdiction which annual conferences may elect to join.  The key to both these proposals is that they provide double coverage of annual conferences across the U.S.   Bishops are allowed to select a jurisdiction in which to serve and annual conferences choose (by majority vote), as well.  Those individual churches and clergy who strongly dissent from the choice of their annual conference may be placed in the conference of the other jurisdiction that services their location.   The full legislation associated with both solutions can be found on the Jurisdictional Solution website.

Who supports my jurisdictional approach?  A recent edition of Christianity Today reported that voices on the conservative side of the UMC like Maxie Dunnam, former president of Asbury Seminary, and Rob Renfro, President of Good News, see a jurisdictional approach as workable.  UMAction of the Institute on Religion and Democracy has been vocal in their opposition to both plans.  There are signs that Good News would consider a formal endorsement but are waiting for a progressive group to join them in a joint endorsement. (Wouldn’t that be something?)  I have not heard officially from Good News that they are ready to endorse.  I think it is fair to say they view my proposal as constructive and having merit.  While there are progressive groups considering an endorsement, there have already been individual progressives that have endorsed the plan as fair and realistic.  All these aforementioned folks tend to favor the two-jurisdiction version.  Progressives feel that this version puts everyone on a level playing field.  Conservatives like the fact that it gives American conferences a clear choice and ends the continued vitriol.

Some moderates, however, tend to favor the six-jurisdiction plan.    Being “people of the middle”, Moderates are averse to choosing between only two options.  One centrist bishop believes that the six-jurisdiction plan may buy our denomination valuable time by allowing conferences that will not wait on gay marriage to go ahead legally within their own jurisdiction.  Those for whom homosexuality is not a hot-button issue would be allowed the passive option of staying with their conference and jurisdiction.  A notable moderate pastor has been characterized as saying that, although he is comfortable being part of a denomination where gay marriage is happening in some quarters, he is not comfortable being part of anything that looks, theologically speaking, like the Western Jurisdiction.  Moderates like him worry that they would not feel at home in either the conservative or progressive jurisdiction.  They would, however, feel comfortable staying in their current geographic jurisdiction and living with the Book of Discipline as printed, knowing that allowance has been made for their progressive brothers and sisters.  The Centrist Movement, for reasons I don’t quite understand, speaks favorably of the two-jurisdiction plan but is strongly critical of the six-jurisdiction version.  I feel they might change their minds given further time to consider the implications of the two plans for moderate conferences.

Conclusion

Structural solutions are not very emotionally satisfying.  They are the product of realism, not idealism.  After months of study and conversation, I am more resolved than ever that the UMC in 2016 is best served by a Jurisdictional Solution.  I believe that either of my plans could work.  I feel the six jurisdiction plan would have a greater likelihood of passage and ratification, even though it does a less comprehensive job of ending our debates.  I personally favor the original, two-jurisdiction version even though it leaves as an open question the future shape of the general agencies.  My hope has been that leadership would be exercised ahead of General Conference so that we can come together to solve our problems constructively.  The more time passes, I realize that my plans may only receive serious attention after crucial divisive votes are taken.  Groups will come wanting to “win”, and that is human nature.  Thanks for taking time to tour the landscape with me.  I always enjoy fielding your questions and reading your comments.

ENDNOTE:  CASE LAW AND LEGISLATION RELATED TO HOMOSEXUALITY

When two practicing homosexual pastors were allowed to continue in ministry because the Judicial Council said there was not language requiring their expulsion, GC1984 added the language making homosexual practice a chargeable offense.  When another pastor was allowed to continue in ministry in 1993 because Judicial Council said that General Conference must better define what a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” is, General Conference 1996 provided that definition.  In 1997 the case against Jimmy Creech for officiating at a same sex marriage was dismissed because it was argued the Social Principles did not have the force of law.  This went to the Judicial Council in 1998 who confirmed that the intent of GC was that the Social Principle would have for the force of law.  GC2000 underscored this point by repeating the prohibition in another area of the Discipline.  Creech was later defrocked for a 1999 same sex wedding.  When, in 2002, an annual conference funded a ministry promoting the acceptance of homosexual practice, GC2004 extended the prohibition against funding such causes.  In 2004, Karen Damman was found not guilty because of the word “although” in the BOD.  The language was changed by GC2004 and even stronger language was added.

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