Still Just Four

by Chris Ritter

Note:  This is the third edition of a post summarizing the options for the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church concerning the hotly contested issue of human sexuality.

We are in the final push toward General Conference 2016.  My fellow delegates are trying their luck at booking hotels for Portland in May.  Annual conference delegations are meeting for prayer.  Tomorrow all the various legislative proposals will begin to be translated into the languages of the global delegates.  The release of legislation is not expected until January, but there is every indication that my basic premise still holds:  There are only four basic options for General Conference.  What follows is a survey of the landscape.

I continue to list formal schism approved by General Conference as a non-option.  Elected delegates tend to be institutional, hymn-singing, card-carrying, cross-and-flame-emblazoned United Methodists.  I predict nothing north of single-digit support for separation, amicable or otherwise.  The schism clock was rolled back even further this month when our African UM Bishops issued a joint statement that called for biblical faithfulness on the topic of marriage and human sexuality and affirmed that the church must not separate over these issues.  The Africans I know are deeply convinced that division only weakens the church.  It seems our Central Conferences will act as a unified voting bloc against schism and there will be little or no talk on the floor of conference about becoming more than one denomination.

If there is separation, it will come in the fallout of the decisions made at GC2016.  Of course, the more dramatic the action, the more likely schism will be.  Sweeping change, however, is looking less and less likely.  Any form of non-sanctioned, post-conference schism would be messy, piecemeal, and litigious.  As such, it will not be an attractive option for the vast majority. What we are in, we are in together.

So, there are still only four realistic legislative outcomes.  Each of these options has its supporters and detractors.  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.  If I get it wrong, I will make corrections with appropriate apologies.  The four options are:  (1) No BOD Changes, (2) Relax Standards, (3) Close Loopholes, and (4) Structural Change:

OPTION ONE:  No Changes Now in The Book of Discipline

For all the cries for clear and concerted action on the part of General Conference, some prefer legislative restraint.  The heart of this reserved approach is the hope that continued cultural and ecclesial change will be so sweeping on the issue of homosexuality that it will become a non-issue at a later date.

Given indications that the makeup of GC2016 is perhaps more traditionalist than 2012 (which was, in turn, more traditionalist than 2008) some progressives are taking the position that the less done at General Conference, the better.  Instead of crafting legislation or brokering back-room compromises, some are putting their energies into orchestrating high-impact demonstrations that will grind the proceedings to a halt.  Love Prevails is an example of a group committed to disruption and they feel GC2016’s location in the Northwest will give them home field advantage.  To counter what many expect to be high political theatre, law-and-order types have advocated for opening the floor of GC2016 to only elected delegates.  (Here are posts for and against this.)

Milder progressives, while supporting legislative change, are willing to follow what they see as the long arch of history bending toward justice.  They note that American culture is evolving rapidly and it may just take a little more time for the church to catch up.  No substantive changes to our human sexuality stance at General Conference would mean the temporary sacrifice of their agenda (and like-minded colleagues) in more conservative conferences and jurisdictions.  In more progressive conferences the language in our Book of Discipline is already operationally null and void.

Same sex weddings are happening all the time in spite of our rules. Church trials, though high-profile, are actually rare.  In Seattle, we had two lesbian UM pastors wed to each other by their district superintendent at the altar of a United Methodist Church.  Lesser examples happen nearly every day.  The reason you don’t often hear about these weddings is because no complaints are filed and, when they are, sympathetic bishops dismiss them quietly through the just resolution process allowed by our Discipline.  The cases you see in the news are only those clergy who get a complaint filed against them AND have a bishop willing to uphold our Discipline.  Our episcopal leaders, sworn to uphold the rules of the general church, are nevertheless held accountable in their jurisdictions and two of these (the Western Jurisdiction and the Northeastern Jurisdiction) have voted official defiance to the BOD’s stance on human sexuality. Openly gay clergy are likewise becoming more common.

Some who self-identify as moderates likewise advocate for legislative restraint at GC2016.  The United Methodist Centrist Movement has advocated continued study.  Dr. Steven Harper, who gained notoriety as someone from evangelical UM circles having moved to an affirming position related to homosexuality, advocates for GC2016 selecting a “Round Table” whose role it would be to bring a plan for unity to GC2020.  Dr. Harper also advocates for a global prayer initiative for church unity, which is commendable.  (Since publication of this post, Dr. Harper has elaborated upon his position here.) Perhaps the passage of time will soften the pockets of resistance to same sex marriages that exist in U.S. culture.

It is not universally agreed upon that time favors the progressive UM cause.  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, in a generation, be a majority African denomination and Tooley predicts this will bring sweeping change.  Although UMAction, a wing of the IRD, will be presenting legislation to tighten enforcement of our rules on homosexuality, they seem to place the greatest hope for lasting reform with this demographic tsunami.

Some speak of the UMC’s shift “from liberal to global” as an accomplished fact.   The watershed moment might have been our denomination’s sweeping rejection of constitutional amendments passed at GC2008 that would have placed Africa and the U.S. in separate regions and under separate rules.  At the time of its passage, the global restructure was billed as something good for Africa, a corrective to inherent colonialism in the church.  When it came time for the ratification votes in the annual conferences, it was viewed (fairly or unfairly) as a clever way to segregate African delegates from decisions affecting the U.S. church.  Far from the 2/3 majority needed for ratification, African conferences rejected these measures by as much as 95%The U.S. conferences rejected them, too.  There are several proposals coming to GC2016 that would seek to accomplish what was failed to be realized in 2008.  We will cover these below, but I expect them to be met with skepticism by Africans and America traditionalists who appreciate the African influence in the church.

OPTION TWO:  Relax/Remove Standards

Progressive groups, like Reconciling Ministries Network, are forcefully pushing for a reversal of our language regarding homosexuality.  RMN reports to have filed four petitions to change our BOD language and two resolutions.  In addition to seeking the removal of language about homosexuality being incompatible with Christian teaching, Progressives want to see chargeable offenses removed for gay clergy and pastors of officiate gay weddings.  There will also be resolutions aimed at calling the church to better support LGBTQ youth.  Watch for the phrase, “going back to our pre-1972 language.”  1972 was the year when our then four-year-old denomination first adopted the Social Principles commissioned at our 1968 Uniting Conference  It is also the first year the Book of Discipline mentioned homosexuality.

As I have argued elsewhere, complete reversal of our denominational position on human sexuality would force millions of United Methodists into a violation of conscience in order to remain in the church.  Thankfully, few are advocating this approach.  There are, however, big names favoring a gentler but widespread 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.  When the pastors of some of the largest United Methodist churches met at a fly-in meeting in Atlanta earlier this month, Hamilton shared his desire to see modest changes that give at least some nod to the progressive understanding of human sexuality.  His current project is to change as few words in the Book of Discipline as possible, thinking this will increase likelihood of passage.  Watch for the addition of a sentence after our stance on homosexuality that reads something like:  “but there are thoughtful Christians who disagree.”

A statement acknowledging our disagreement is not a new proposal.  There were similar efforts in 2008 supported by Kent Millard and others, which were defeated.  Another attempt in 2012 was supported by James Howell, Mike Slaughter, and Adam Hamilton.  When this failed, the United Methodist News Service issued the tongue-in-cheek headline:  Delegates Cannot Agree They Disagree on Sexuality.  While the statement that United Methodists disagree with one another over issues of human sexuality is obviously true, its adoption is thwarted by distrust.  Traditionalists reject the statement not because of what it says, but what it doesn’t say.  They are suspicious of “we disagree” because it seems to invite each group to develop their own set of implications flowing from this.  It is a transitional step toward a thinly veiled endgame.  This actually intensifies the tension in our system rather than neutralizes it and serves to heighten the distrust in our already stressed connection.

Within the last two months, a private meeting convened by a United Methodist bishop with prominent clergy from across the spectrum met to try once again to develop a compromise.  The result was a conceptual proposal that granted a more progressive understanding of human sexuality but paired it with an exit for conservative clergy and congregations.  This plan was released by Kent Millard to some of his friends and became more public than some at the meeting had hoped.  Details of the plan appeared in a critique by Timothy Tennent, President of Asbury Theological Seminary.  Tennent’s comments reflect the reaction of many conservatives and the plan, to my knowledge, went no further.  Adam Hamilton withdrew his support due to the exit clause.  (This is the fourth private round table I am aware of that was convened by a UM bishop, included opinions from across the spectrum, and ended in complete frustration.) The fact that the proposal went as far as it did is an indication that some large conservative congregations in the UMC want nothing more than the opportunity to exit the fray with their property intact.  Rob Renfro, President of Good News, an Evangelical renewal group within the UMC, has likened the current state of affairs to a “cage match” which is bringing out the worst in us all.

It is not clear whether Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter’s June 2014 “A Way Forward” (a.k.a. The Local Option) has been translated into legislation for consideration by GC2016.  It seems not.  While they received endorsements numbering in the thousands, the plan lacks a realistic means of implementation.  Months after the release of A Way Forward, Mike Slaughter joined forced with The Centrist Movement (whose web site seems to have become inoperable).  Hamilton issued a May 2015 update on the status of his proposal, found here.  The thrust of the Local Option is that local churches would decide whether they will conduct same sex weddings and annual conferences will decide if they will ordain openly gay clergy.  You can read my critique of the plan here and here.

I think it is fair to say that proponents of Hamilton’s Plan would look to a proposal from the Connectional Table as its closest legislative equivalent.  The heart of this plan is to maintain our current positions on homosexuality but render them unenforceable throughout the church.  The plan would only slightly tweak our statement in the Social Principles but completely remove chargeable offenses for clergy officiating at same sex wedding or being a “self-avowed, practicing homosexual.”  The support of the Connectional Table lends heft to this proposal, but Bishop Mike Coyner, who sits at the Table, believes the plan will not pass.  The changes introduced would be much more extreme than it would seem on the surface.

The reason why the language in the BOD is so painfully specific on homosexuality is because a long history of case law has necessitated incrementally detailed language in order to enforce our rules.  These protections removed, no local church would be able to prevent their pastor from officiating a same sex wedding at their altar.  (Pastors are not accountable to rules passed by the local church and church trustees are forbidden from interfering with pastors’ ability to conduct religious services in the facilities of the church to which they are duly appointed).  There would no basis for rejecting sexually active gay candidates for ordination, even in conservative conferences.  Openly gay clergy would be considered in good standing and eligible for any appointment anywhere, including as district superintendents and bishops.  Moderate conferences would have great difficulty.  You can read my full critique of the CT proposal here.

OPTION THREE:  Close Loopholes

General speaking, traditionalists and law-and-order moderates hope to better enforce the rules already in our Book of Discipline; closing loopholes that are currently being exploited to allow same sex weddings and the ordinations of self-avowed, practicing homosexuals.  Cultural conservatives expect to have a slim majority at General Conference 2016. This gives them an opportunity to pass well-conceived accountability measures.  However, passage of toothier constitutional amendments requiring larger  majorities are likely beyond reach.  Therefore, great care must be given to make sure that whatever measures are passed can stand to the scrutiny of the Judicial Council when inevitable challenges are issued.  Traditionalists have been in conversation to craft legislative proposals that are understandable, practical, and in keeping with our polity.

Expect the approach by the traditionalist camp to be varied.  The strategy will be to throw a lot of different things against the proverbial wall because it is difficult to guess what will stick amidst the legislative tumult. The goal, however, is to better insure that violations of the Book of Discipline will come to trial and be met with consequences large enough to prevent future infractions.

The plan that best captures the legislative hopes of the Traditionalists is the Covenantal Unity Plan (CUPlan) released October 2015.  This is a re-branded, expanded, and improved version of the earlier, conceptual A&W Plan authored by Bill Arnold and David Watson.   The plan, which had input from Good News and UMAction, is comprised of six proposals:

  1. When a complaint is issued against a clergy, the complainant must be a party to any “just resolution” agreement. The just resolution process is a feature of our response to pastors under complaint.  With the blessing of the bishop, a written agreement with the respondent can forestall a clergy trial by spelling out an equitable resolution to the complaint.  Under the present rules, the one making the complaint need not be a party to the agreement.  Under the new rule, they would be.
  2. If a just resolution includes admission on the part of the clergy that the Book of Discipline was violated, the pastor must issue an apology to appropriate parties and agree to adhere to the Book of Discipline.
  3. Accountability for bishops is moved from the jurisdictional to the general church level.
  4. Minimum sentences are established for clergy performing same sex weddings. This would be a one year suspension without pay for the first infraction and loss of clergy credentials for any subsequent infraction.
  5. Those churches that wish to leave the UMC because of our position on human sexuality could do so with their property.
  6. Those pastors who wish to leave the UMC would be able to do so with their pensions.

You can read my evaluation of the CUPlan here.  In summary, I have a few constitutional questions about some of the proposals and disagree with the exit procedures.  I do not believe Progressives are of a mind to leave the church.  This means that passage of the CUPlan would trigger four more years of high-profile clergy trials.  The bitter divisions in our church would continue and be played out in the media.  While passage would solidify the conservative trend at General Conference, it fails my definition of a real solution.  Given where we are as a denomination, I doubt whether the genie can ever be put back in the bottle, no matter how tight the rules.

OPTION FOUR:  Structural Change

The remaining option is the one for which I have been forcefully advocating:  structural change.  This option necessitates constitutional updates which require 2/3 majority passage at General Conference and 2/3 majority aggregate vote in the annual conferences.  This means wide consensus, something difficult to find in our polarized environment.  However, a true solution should involve us all.  Otherwise, it is something one side is doing to the other.

[Note:  I have written a new structural plan that does not require constitutional amendments.  It is called the “Love Alike Plan.“]

There are structural changes on the drawing board that continue the effort to put Africa and other Central Conferences under their own set of rules.  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 the 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 achieve more progressive social positions in America by segregating out conservative international voting blocs.  A more thorough critique of the NEJ plan in found  here. 

The Connectional Table hopes to forestall any structural plans until they have the opportunity to develop their own for GC2020.  While I agree that our global structure needs to be studied, it will be almost impossible to pass a plan reorganizing the church without first neutralizing the divisions in the U.S. Church.  Traditionalists are never going to support organizing Africa under its own rules while the African cultural influence is helping hold the line.  Every proposal is currently viewed through the lens of our divisions.  For this reason I suggest we work to achieve a comprehensive solution in the U.S. in 2016 and tackle the global church in 2020.

The question is not whether it is possible to remain one denomination while operating under two different understandings of human sexuality. We are already doing that.  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.  Our rules are irregularly enforced, which is unjust.

I have authored three versions of a solution to UMC divisions that utilizes the peculiar extra judicatory layer built into our polity, Jurisdictional Conferences.  Jurisdictions were actually invented to help Methodists manage their differences while staying together as a denomination.  This type of segmentation was devised in 1939 and retained in 1968.  A certain degree of separation is built into our DNA as the price of institutional unity.  Our problem is that our jurisdictions are strictly geographic structures positioned to help address what divided us in the eras of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement, not what divides us today and moving forward.

The first version I drafted did away with our five American jurisdictions and replaced them with two based on ideology.  This two-jurisdiction solution received a lot of attention and was recognized as a constructive way forward by those on both the right and the left.  Christianity Today mentioned it in an article about the future of the UMC.   Conferences would each choose one of the two new jurisdictions to which to belong and individual churches and clergy could opt into conferences of the other jurisdiction as needed.  It would create two overlapping maps of annual conferences that each cover the entire U.S.  Like major league baseball, we would have two leagues, each operating with slightly different rules.  The Book of Discipline language would stay in place for the global church.  The problem with the solution is that it requires our existing jurisdictions to vote themselves out of existence, something that might be difficult given the political investment in the current system. It also ensconces new language about human sexuality into our constitution.  I noticed the plan was less popular among moderates who are loathe to choose a single side in spite of the rapidly eroding middle ground.

After a period of further dialog and refinement, I developed a solution that kept our existing jurisdictions in place but created a sixth one for conferences who could not, in good conscience, live by our rules on human sexuality.  This Progressive Jurisdiction would still be part of General Conference but would have customized participation in the general church.  The Progressive Jurisdiction would be able to adapt our rules but would not be allowed to vote on measures that would not be binding upon them.  It would also participate in our general agencies in customized ways.  Churches of the PJ would indicate their jurisdictional affiliation in their signage and letterhead for the sake of clarity and have their own version of the cross and flame. As with the other solution, individual churches and clergy could opt out of their conference should its jurisdictional affiliation not be a good fit. I still consider this a very viable solution to our divisions.

The third version of the Jurisdictional Solution  allows any conference to join any jurisdiction it wants and allows any congregation to join any annual conference willing to provide service to its location.  After all, a jurisdiction is simply a group of conferences led by a particular team of UM bishops.  A conference is a group of churches served by a particular team of UM clergy.  There is no inherent reason for any of these structures to be rigidly defined by geography.  Each jurisdiction would be empowered to adapt the rules found in the Book of Discipline by a 2/3 vote.  Because it would allow for a gradual, grassroots reordering of the U.S. church, I call it the Organic Jurisdictional Solution.

If I do say so myself, the Organic Jurisdictional Solution holds great promise for the future of the UMC.  It is the only proposal before the church that fundamentally alters the interplay between the local congregation (the primary arena for disciple-making) and the annual conference (the primary unit of the church).  [See ¶201 & ¶33.]   A summary of the plan’s helpful features is posted here.   It provides a new set on incentives in our system for conferences and jurisdictions to be effective.  Healthy systems in our church would gradually overtake the unhealthy ones.  It is attractive to moderates because it allows for jurisdictions to attempt to find “third way” approaches to homosexuality.  It also solves our guaranteed appointment conundrum by retaining security of appointment while allowing congregations to exit to a more favorable pool of United Methodist clergy should one be available.  In summary, it does what no other solution to the homosexuality debate does:  It better positions the UMC for the future effectiveness.

All three jurisdictional solutions are submitted as petitions to General Conference.  While not better than deep, genuine unity, surely any of them is better than continued rancor.  They at least keep everyone in the United Methodist Church so that, a generation from now, we can disagree about something else.

Conclusion

That is the landscape as I understand it.  Let me know if I have missed something, or missed the mark in my critique.  I would call on every United Methodist to pray for the future of our denomination and for a fresh wind of the Holy Spirit to take us beyond our current divisions and into a faithful, fruitful future.  You can learn more at www.jurisdictionalsolution.org.  Your comments are always welcome.

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