by Chris Ritter
The Connectional Table of the United Methodist Church is recommending legislative language to the 2016 General Conference that would remove prohibitions in the Book of Discipline against same sex weddings and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. The list of six non-constitutional amendments (below) is offered with the promise that individual pastors would not be forced to conduct same sex weddings and that annual conferences could continue to prohibit practicing homosexuals as candidates for ministry should they choose to do so.
The plan is hailed by some as a “live and let live” solution to the divisive infighting that has beleaguered our denomination for decades. Clergy trials over issues of homosexuality would be eliminated as chargeable offenses for these matters would be removed. The plan is marketed as a means to achieve peace, end debate, and allow everyone to follow their individual conscience on matters of sexuality.
Before I offer my critique, let me say that the folks on the Connectional Table, without a doubt, love the church. Bishop Ough has a strong reputation as a thoughtful episcopal leader and everyone that serves on the CT has distinguished themselves as a leading voice in the denomination. The plan the CT proposes, however, fails the very definition of the word solution. UM’s are presently searching for a livable way forward for moderates, conservatives, and progressives that reduces our level of conflict and allows everyone to stay United Methodist. The Connection Table Plan, I feel, would immediately heighten conflict at the local and annual conference levels and eventually force some United Methodists to choose between violating their conscience and exiting the church.
FIGHTING HOUSE TO HOUSE
If the CT Plan ends the fighting at General Conference, it would only signal the beginning of combat operations at the local and annual conference levels. There, the many facets of our connectional covenant could become weaponized in the struggle over which vision of the Christian life will be in force. This battle will be most intense in moderate conferences where opinion is closely divided. Votes at the annual conference might go back and forth, putting lives and ministries in limbo.
It is no secret that the clergy in the UMC are, general speaking, more liberal than the congregations they serve. No mention of the concerns of laity is offered in the CT plan. For all my issues with Adam Hamilton’s proposal, he at least states that same-sex weddings should not be conducted at the altar of churches who do not want them (even if he offers no real way of preventing it). If the chargeable offense of conducting a same-sex wedding is removed, there is nothing to prevent a clergy from conducting such a ceremony at the altar of the church to which they are duly appointed. Local church councils can adopt policies against this, but nowhere are clergy legally bound by such positions (in fact, boards of trustees are forbidden from interfering in a religious service planned by the pastor).
Neither are laity empowered to reject a practicing homosexual as pastor under this plan. Our policy of open itineracy means that any clergy in good standing is eligible for appointment in any church to which the bishop might assign him/her. Attempts to legislatively curtail the power of bishops have run afoul of the fourth Restrictive Rule ensconced in our constitution and have been struck down by Judicial Council. Some would argue that bishops certainly have common sense and would not appoint a pastor where he/she would not be welcome. But each pastor in good standing is going to be appointed somewhere, including to appointments beyond the local church (such as the district superintendency) which affects each local church in the conference.
I remain unconvinced that individual annual conferences could, under the plan, effectively prohibit non-celibate homosexual clergy. The Judicial Council case law on this issue goes back to the late 1970’s. The reason why our list of chargeable offenses for clergy are so painfully specific is because Judicial Council rulings have dictated they must be so to achieve the disciplines we have sought to enforce. Each clergy has an unlimited constitutional right to appeal to the jurisdictional and general levels of our church per our Restrictive Rules. I remain skeptical that an annual conference could effectively exclude someone from ministry based on a category of lifestyle without the weight of the Book of Discipline behind them.
Before we celebrate with the CT the ability of clergy to follow their own conscience under this plan, let’s consider the plight of conservative clergy who serve in progressive conferences. Will it still be easy to maintain one’s position against same sex marriage when the District Superintendent or bishop is married to someone of the same gender? This is the place where the Connectional Table seems particularly naïve about the implications of their plan for our connectional structure. Once the nose of the camel is under the tent, the rest is soon to follow. If the progressive view reaches a tipping point in a conference, the power to make pastoral appointments can be used to isolate or eliminate pockets of resistance. We are seeing ample evidence in our culture of the language of tolerance giving way to pressure to conform once the agenda gains the upper hand. Let’s remember that some UM’s see the acceptance of homosexual practice as a social justice crusade that cannot stop short of total victory.
Pastors who cannot, due to issues of conscience, conduct a same-sex wedding will be forced to defend that decision alone against the rising tide of cultural acceptance. This actually degrades the opportunity these pastors have to be in ministry with same sex couples that come to them. Gone is the opportunity to say, “I cannot conduct your wedding due to the covenant to which I am bound, but I would still love to be your pastor.” Refusal to conduct a same-sex wedding is now a matter of personal rejection. Both pastors and church councils would find themselves subject to the various opinions of those that hold power in and give money to the local church. Individual clergy and congregations might also be pressured from outside groups.
Some progressive clergy will likewise not fare well under the CT Plan. Candidates for ministry that are practicing homosexuals will likely be caught in the back and forth of clergy standards disputed in moderate conferences. When tens of thousands of dollars in student debt is on the line, uncertainty is not desirable. If annual conferences will be asked to develop their own policy standards, these will be debated annually from the floor. If boards of ordained ministry will decide, these can be stacked by the resident bishop who nominates members to the board. If votes will simply be taken at clergy session without guiding standards, candidates will not know if they are acceptable until end of their long and expensive journey toward ordination.
Under the CT Plan, there will be, in very short order, openly practicing homosexual superintendents and bishops in the UMC. Imagine, through the eyes of our African brothers and sisters, the spectacle of a bishop in a same-sex marriage presiding over the 2028 United Methodist General Conference in Zimbabwe*. Progressive jurisdictions have the power to elect general superintendents that hold responsibility over the entire church, including on general boards and agencies. Because of the structure of the Episcopal Fund, African and other conservative conferences would be forced to help fund the salaries of bishops in same sex relationships. This coerces some United Methodists into the precise violation of conscience the CT Plan claims to prevent.
There is no mechanism, in the CT Plan, for individual clergy and congregations to opt away from the direction of their annual conference in the acceptance (or rejection) of clergy in same sex marriages. The tyranny of geography that we currently see in our U.S. church would continue to be in effect. I believe there are better ways for us to be a United Methodist Church.
LOOKING THROUGH CONSERVATIVE EYES
Pretend for a moment that you are a biblically conservative United Methodist. You view sex, like all of God’s good gifts, as subject to corruption. You don’t want to see homosexual people mistreated, certainly. Neither do you believe homosexuality is in keeping with the Creator’s complementary male/female design for humanity. You view homosexual practice as a sort of inherent rebellion against God’s created order (Romans 1) and sanctification as a progressive re-ordering of our lives and loves in keeping with God’s intention. You view sexual sin, in light of 1 Corinthians 6:18, as more serious than other sorts of sin because of its amazingly intimate power. You view marriage through the unanimous lens of two millennia of Christian teaching; that it is the enduring union between one man and one woman, as idealized by Jesus in Matthew 19. You cannot accept personal sexual fulfillment as a Gospel value. Sexuality, for you, is something given by God with which you serve God and (in Christian marriage) your spouse, and in which you both mystically typify the relationship between Christ and the Church. You hear many Gospel calls to self-denial and cross-bearing as the Christ-given path to life. You likewise see ample evidence of the degradation of life that happens when sex becomes a master instead of a servant. You understand that all are sinners in need of grace, but you feel the demand of some in your church to go beyond acceptance to blessing what you understand God to have forbidden. In the larger culture, you witness billions of dollars being spent in media aimed, at least in part, at normalizing and even glorifying same-sex relationships (along with other forms of sex outside of God’s intended plan). Finally, you see your denomination crumbling to this pressure in an attempt to frame itself as “nice” and open-minded as defined by an increasingly secular culture.
The view just described is vastly under-represented at the Connectional Table of the United Methodist Church but, I dare say, is the view underpinning a majority of United Methodists worldwide. This is also the worldview that under-girds our current BOD positions on human sexuality. Other clamoring voices, like those of Love Prevails (who stormed the Connectional Table meeting eighteen months ago) seem to have held undue sway in the deliberations that led to the CT Proposal. It is widely admitted (see moderates like Adam Hamilton and James Howell) that two mutually exclusive worldviews are at work based on different approaches to scripture. The middle ground between these two is quickly eroding.
A JURISDICTIONAL SOLUTION
A key feature of the solution I have proposed is holding all clergy accountable to a covenant of faithfulness established at the jurisdictional level, and protecting our global church by keeping our disciplinary language intact. The jurisdictional level of our church would be un-tethered from the bounds of geography. Conferences and bishops would be self-sorted to provide double coverage across the United States. Each congregation and clergy that feels strongly mismatched in their present conference would have opportunity to be placed a new conference. (Each congregation and clergy would likewise have the opportunity to stay in their present conference.) Funding of episcopal salaries would be moved to the jurisdictional level. Mine is the only plan that provides key alignment among bishops, conferences, clergy, and congregations.
The CT Plan will only lead us to heightened conflict and escalated exodus of the faithful. It is time for a comprehensive solution that protects both sides from coercion by the other. My plan requires constitutional updates and, therefore, wide consensus, but it also seeks to be fair to progressives, conservatives, and everyone in between. Allowing our U.S. conference to self-sort into like-minded jurisdictions need not be a prelude to full organizational schism (we already have very diverse jurisdictions operating under the umbrella of United Methodism). In fact, it might open the door to greater pan-Methodist unity as other historically Methodist denominations could conference with United Methodists as their own jurisdiction. Under the two-jurisdiction plan, moderates are empowered as they would be courted from both sides. Under the six-jurisdiction plan, moderates would be allowed to stay under the current covenant if they wish.
No solution is painless or easy. My hope is that we can eliminate plans like the Connectional Table Proposal that only serve to exacerbate and localize our current divisions. I invite you to visit www.jurisdictionalsolution.org for more information about my plan and other posts at www.peopleneedjesus.net for additional views on ministry and the future of the United Methodist Church.
*While the two-jurisdiction version of my plan would allow for gay UM bishops, the six-jurisdiction version would by stipulating that the Progressive Jurisdiction not elect any bishop that does not conform to the standards articulated in the Book of Discipline.
ADDENDUM: CHANGES TO THE BOOK OF DISCIPLINE SUGGESTED BY THE CONNECTIONAL TABLE IN MAY 2015
“In the Social Principles, the GC has said that ‘we affirm the sanctity of the marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between two people who are married to each other. We believe that God’s blessing rests upon such marriage, which is traditionally between one man and one woman, . . . “
“We affirm the sanctify of marriage . . . between two people who are married to each other.” We believe that God’s blessing rests upon such marriage, which is traditionally between one man and one woman,”
Although all persons are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous heterosexual marriage.
The United Methodist Church historically has does not condoned the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God’s grace is available to all.
While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world. The practice of homosexuality is considered by many to be incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore authority for discerning suitability for ordination continues to rest with the annual conference as provided in para. 33 of the Constitution, following candidacy procedures as provided in the Book of Discipline, and authority for making appointment continues to rest with the bishop after a consultative process to determine the suitability of such an appointment.
Ceremonies that celebrate marriages between two persons committed to one another as provided in para. 161.B may be conducted by United Methodist pastors and other persons authorized in the Book of Discipline only upon following the process provided in para. 340.2a(3)(a).
¶ 2702. 1. A bishop, clergy member of an annual conference (¶ 370), local pastor, 14 clergy on honorable or administrative location, or diaconal minister may be tried when charged (subject to the statute of limitations in ¶ 2702.4)* with one or more of the following offenses: (a) immorality including but not limited to, not being celibate in singleness or not faithful in a heterosexual marriage;** (b) practices declared by The United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teachings, 15 including but not limited to: being a self-avowed practicing homosexual; or conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions; or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies;** (c) crime; (d) dis-obedience to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church; (e) dissemination of doctrines contrary to the established standards of doctrine of The United Methodist Church; (f) relationships and/ or behavior that undermines the ministry of another pastor; 16 (g) child abuse;*** (h) sexual abuse; 17 (i) sexual misconduct*** or (j) harassment, including, but not limited to racial and/ or sexual harassment; or (k) racial or gender discrimination.
United Methodist Publishing House (2013-01-01). The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2012 (Kindle Locations 2850-2851). United Methodist Publishing House. Kindle Edition.