by Chris Ritter

Six legislative proposals form the basis of the “Covenantal Unity Plan” (the CUPlan) that was released yesterday.  Endorsed by names such as Dr. Bill Arnold, Dr. Billy Abraham, and Dr. David Watson, the plan aims at restoring order and providing meaningful unity in The United Methodist Church.  I have great respect for the drafters and endorsers.  I assume Arnold and Watson are the source of the plan as it is very similar to what was formerly introduced as their A&W Plan.  Good News reports that ideas by Arnold/Watson were enhanced by work by Dr. Jeff Greenway and Dr. Greg Stover.  Some of the sharpest orthodox minds in the UMC are supporting this “better way forward”.

One might think of the CUPlan in contrast to the plan proposed by the Connectional Table in May, which captures the best hope of Progressives for General Conference 2016:  Allow our clergy to officiate at same sex weddings, remove negative language about homosexuality from our social principles, and remove chargeable offenses for homosexual practice among the clergy.  Call it “Progressive Plan A”… the point from which negotiations from the left will begin.  (I offer my critique of the Connectional Table Plan here.)  We might think of the CUPlan as a Plan A for Traditionalists… the very best they can reasonably hope to accomplish at General Conference in terms of defining the future of the church.

Four of the six legislative measures in the plan aim at greater accountability to the Book of Discipline with regards to homosexuality:

First, the plan requires the consent of the complainant before a written grievance against a clergy could be considered as duly settled through a just resolution process.  As it stands now, a bishop can declare a just resolution without the consent of the person who brought the initial charges.  Many feel this has been used to shield clergy from prosecution for conducting same sex weddings in those places where the bishop is willing to overlook the Book of Discipline.  Practically speaking, passage of this measure would mean that more complaints would come to trial.  We might need to think through the ramifications of every complainant being able to force a matter to clergy trial.  There are likely many cases where a bishop’s ability to quietly dismiss matters has served the church well.

Second, a just resolution agreement reached with a clergy must include “an apology and commitment to changed behavior in order to bring about healing and reconciliation.”  The intent here, I believe, is that a clergy must agree to not violate the Discipline again before being let off the hook.   To use theological language, they must repent.  I wonder if the drafters leave themselves open to the charge of misappropriating the intended role of the just resolution process.  It is possible that the Judicial Council might rule that clergy cannot be forced to apologize for something they have not been found guilty of under the constitutional protections of due process.  Requiring an apology presupposes that the respondent must admit guilt as a part of any just resolution.  As our Discipline states:  “[A just resolution] is not part of any judicial process.” (¶363.b)  It falls under the heading of a supervisory response overseen by the bishop.  This provision could possibly run afoul of the constitutional restrictive rule against “destroying our plan of itinerant general superintendency” (¶20) which has been widely used in Judicial Council decisions.  It might be better to require all parties involved in any just resolution process (bishop, complainant, and respondent) to simply reaffirm their commitment to upholding the Book of Discipline.  Further study is warranted here… by a team of lawyers.

Third, accountability for U.S. bishops is moved from their jurisdiction to the interjurisdictional committee on episcopacy.  This would prevent progressive jurisdictions from shielding members of their college of bishops from prosecution for not upholding the Book of Discipline.  After all, bishops are general superintendents of the church, paid by general church funds, and should be held accountable at the general church level, even if they are elected jurisdictionally  (I like this idea).  The interjurisdictional committee on episcopacy was originally created to handle any transfer of bishops between jurisdictions.  My guess is this hasn’t happened much.  The drafters utilize this little-used structure in our polity for a new purpose. Intriguing.

Fourth, minimum sentences are assigned for clergy conducting same sex weddings.  Trial courts finding clergy guilty would not be allowed to assign penalties less than a one-year suspension without pay for the first offense and termination of conference membership for any offense thereafter.  To my knowledge, this would become the only instance of minimum sentences in our Discipline.  This measure is obviously aimed at preventing the “slaps on the wrist” assigned by some clergy trial courts.

Along with the above four measures aimed at restoring adherence to the Book of Discipline, there would also be two measures allowing free exit to any and all who cannot live under the rules.  Congregations could leave the denomination with their property after a 90-day study period if they morally object to the stance of the Discipline regarding homosexuality.  They would be allowed to disaffiliate themselves from the UMC by a 2/3 church conference vote.  This creates wiggle room in the “trust clause” which reverts local church property back to the conference should the congregation cease to be United Methodist.  (Some are already claiming that this measure of the plan might be struck down by Judicial Council on constitutional grounds.)

In the final legislative measure of the CUPlan, clergy would be assured of their right to leave with their pension funds in tact if they object to the denominational stance on homosexuality.  The drafters note that clergy already have the right to leave with their pensions in place and this measure simply provides certainty that this will not change.

There is a lot in this plan for Conservatives and law-and-order Moderates to appreciate (me included).  One of the most urgent tasks facing General Conference 2016 is the restoration of ecclesial order in the UMC.  We simply cannot have continued chaos and unjust, spotty enforcement of our rules.  We must also be aware, however, of what enactment of these measures would mean for the church.  They would trigger a renewed and prolonged season of high-profile clergy trials and acts of defiance/protest.  Progressives are not in a mood to walk away from this fight.  Denominational peace would not be on the horizon.

One wonders if it is possible to put the genie back in the bottle.  Two jurisdictions have voted official defiance to the Book of Discipline.  Whole conferences and many bishops oppose our rules.  There is no exit strategy for bishops who might want to leave with their episcopal pension and title.  There is no officially-sanctioned structure for dissident United Methodist congregations and clergy to join.  The prohibition of the ordination of clergy in same sex marriages is left for conferences of various leanings to uphold.  Can we ever adequately plug the holes if people’s will to skirt them is fueled by moral conviction?

The drafters  of the CUPlan are obviously trying to find a set of measures that increase accountability without requiring the supermajorities and ratification associated with constitutional amendments.  And passage of these measures by simple majority is within the realm of possibility.  The makeup of General Conference seems, overall, a bit more traditionalist than 2012.  Many African delegates would likely welcome greater accountability for American bishops on social issues as they have seen African bishops held accountable for financial issues.  GC2012 taught the hard lesson that majority passage of measures is only part of the process.  Passing constitutional muster is crucial.  There are multiple points of the plan that invite Judicial Council review.  Not the least of these is the exit strategy for congregations and the changes to the just resolution processes. Failure of these measures would put us right back where we are today.  I hope Judicial Council will follow through on their offer to review key legislation for constitutionality prior to General Conference.

One paragraph of the preamble to the CUPlan seems to contain a critique of plans like my Jurisdictional Solution that allow for more than one vision of human sexuality to exist under the rubric of the United Methodist Church:

Any denomination needs to be “United” by more than an uneasy compromise between rival groups with incompatible views. Authentic unity must be grounded in doctrine, discipline, and Kingdom-centered mission. Anything less is cheap ecclesiology, which values unity above theological substance. Genuine unity in our denomination cannot be simply an uneasy détente. We long for unity that is authentic and missionally grounded, and therefore must go beyond unity of discipline.

While I share the idealism of the drafters, I am not convinced these six legislative measures move us any closer to the stated goal.  Unity is enhanced only by subtraction.  There is no strategy to achieve a peaceful settlement, only to enforce the rules and make it easier for those who disagree to leave.

I am concerned that neither Progressive Plan A nor this Traditionalist Plan A, if passed, would prevent the end of United Methodism.  Both could trigger a post-General Conference splintering of the church.  They create lop-sided wins that would allow the other side to stay only by compromising deeply held moral convictions.  Neither are solutions.

My plans allow two or more visions of human sexuality to play themselves out over time within defined jurisdictional structures that don’t require moral compromise.  The next generation of United Methodists will be able to judge the fruit of the two approaches.  The jurisdictional solutions provide release valves that diffuse conflict and form living laboratories to discover which approach will help us make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

I said months ago that the solution I am looking for keeps everyone in the UMC and ends the fighting.  This plan, while thoughtful and well-intentioned, does neither.  Our denominational witness includes our doctrinal faithfulness, and it also includes how we treat brothers and sisters with whom we disagree. I’m not supportive of the exit clause in the CUPlan (this is breaking covenant in an attempt to save the covenant) and I don’t like the fact that it increases conflict in our already conflicted denomination.

I prefer my plan that creates a customized jurisdiction for Progressives who can no longer obey our rules (full legislation for the Progressive Jurisdictional Solution can be found here.)  I believe all three of my solutions still retain the distinction of being the only proposals that keep all United Methodists in the United Methodist Church and provide means to quell the fighting over human sexuality.  The plan put forth by the Connectional Table localizes the fighting on the congregational and conference levels.  Like plans for full schism, the CUPlan ends the fighting only if and when one side leaves.

Certainly, passage of the measures described in the plan would solidify a global, orthodox direction for the UMC.  There is a lot of integrity in the solution offered.  I want to thank the drafters for their helpful, constructive work.  They obviously believe what they say, love the church, and desire the best for all.   (I only hate the fact that their website is better than mine.)  Though it will face stark criticism, the CUPlan is at least lucid and in keeping with our polity, something that cannot be said for other plans that have been floated.

My gut tells me that both Progressives and Traditionalist will both fail to enact their respective “Plan A’s”.  The Jurisdictional Solution, I believe, is the only viable solution located between these two poles.  The most centrist version of this is the Organic Jurisdictional Solution.  I encourage you to take a look at let me know what you think.