by Chris Ritter
With a disastrously divided General Conference just a few days away, the outlook is indeed grim for our global United Methodist gathering. Progressives don’t seem to have the votes to change our rules and Traditionalists don’t seem to have the votes to enforce them. We don’t hate each other enough to be divided or love and respect one another enough to be truly unified. Thousands of activists are being trained to grind our quadrennial proceedings to a halt. A frustrated ten-day conference would mean a financial loss to the church of an amount approaching $1500 per minute. This is dwarfed, however, by the loss of opportunity to work constructively on issues of mission, ministry, and turnaround.
All sides are coming to Portland to win. But in the game we are playing, a win is the same as a lose. If Progressives overturn our positions on human sexuality, a post-conference schism is almost all but assured. If Traditionalists are successful in maintaining our standards and implementing new accountability measures, we can look forward to a new season of attempted enforcement through judicial means (that is, clergy trials). Neither of these outcomes bode well for our future.
It is with these things in mind that I called an Emergency International Summit of top leaders in The United Methodist Church. I was heartened that almost everyone invited decided to attend. We gathered early this week in Geneseo, Illinois because of its ease of access, local charm, and reputation of Midwest hospitality. The fact that this summit only actually happened in my imagination made travel for the group quite easy.
We started the meeting, of course, with prayer. When I peaked up, I noticed that many others were doing the same. The distrust in the room was palpable.
I opened the summit by suggesting we each go around the table and state our position, starting with the person on my immediate left:
- Imaginary Adam Hamilton stated that he almost didn’t come to the summit because he had been disappointed by too many such meetings in the past and had burned many long hours he will never get back. He said he realized his “local option” really isn’t translatable into legislation, but hoped we could at least agree at this General Conference that we disagree. He brought us all signed copies of his excellent new book Half Truths, which we gratefully received.
- Imaginary Matt Berryman from Reconciling Ministries spoke next and said that #itstime to end the United Methodist Church’s discriminatory language against LGBTQ people. He sited stories of hurt, exclusion, and faithful United Methodists who happen to be gay. He expressed concerns over the UMC’s ability to engage Millenials if we maintain our discriminatory language.
- Imaginary Rob Renfroe from Good News spoke in a warm but serious tone about the consequences for any church where lawlessness is allowed to reign and where human wisdom replaces the authority of scripture.He said United Methodism is drifting without proper leadership on the national level. Policies are being planned, opinions are being espoused and monies are being spent for some causes which do not claim the support of a great many United Methodists. Yet we seem helpless to do anything about it. As a result, thousands of our members drop out each year, or change denominations because of frustration. He called the church to renewal around the centrality of scripture.
- Imaginary John Lomperis from UMAction, a wing of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, agreed with Renfroe but added that mainline churches who have changed their stance on human sexuality have only accelerated their decline by accommodating to the culture. He sited dire statistics from the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, PCUSA, and the United Church of Christ.
- Next, an imaginary group of African bishops spoke.. eerily with one voice. They said the church must stay true to scripture about human sexuality, and that the unity of the church must be maintained. They stated they are very much against any division of the church.
- Imaginary Steve Harper spoke softly and seriously about the harm currently being done to the church, the Bride of Christ. He called for a period of prayer in which any retributive actions against pastors for matters related to homosexuality would be suspended.
- An imaginary representative from the Council of Bishops read from following prepared statement: “As bishops of The United Methodist Church, we recognize that we are one church with a variety of contexts around the world and that we are not of one mind on human sexuality. Our hearts break because of the divisions within the church. We call upon all United Methodists to pray for us and one another.” When asked, “Is that it?”, she only looked away.
- Imaginary David Watson and Bill Arnold spoke about the need to meaningfully enforce our Discipline and to grant a gracious, non-punitive exit to those who cannot abide by it. They advocated for minimum sentences for clergy conducting same sex weddings, new accountability for bishops, and for making complainants a necessary party to any Just Resolution Agreement.
- At this point, imaginary Amy DeLong stormed through the door and interrupted the meeting. She said that Love Prevails is committed to standing against the institution that is doing violence of LGBQT people. She said, rather forecfully, that she and others are divesting themselves from institutions of the church that protect the status quo. She demanded an immediate and complete reversal of discriminatory language against the church’s gay children.
- Imaginary Bishop Bruce Ough from the Connectional Table cautiously offered that a possible “third way” might be removing language about homosexuality from some parts of the Discipline.
- Actual Chris Ritter spoke next about his plan to achieve amicably unity in the UMC through one of the three “Jurisdictional Solutions” he developed over the past two years. There were minor nods of agreement at some points in his presentation but few were willing to commit. He smiled politely when the group commended him for his “hard work and creative thinking.”
- The next person to speak was one from which we had all been waiting to hear. Imaginary John Wesley, who seemed to have been meditating with his eyes closed during most of the meeting, arose and looked silently at each of us for a moment in turn. He then lifted his right arm and said, “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.” Then, right before our eyes, he vanished.
We each looked at each other and seemed to realize in unison that we needed to get to work. We turned on the coffee pot, divided into groups, and rolled up our sleeves. Books of Discipline were opened. Newsprint was taped on the walls. Food was ordered in. We determined work through the night until we had come up with a plan for General Conference 2016 that would avert continued schism, avoid forcing some United Methodists into violations of conscience, do no harm to our growing global church, and grant liberties to those who cannot do their brand of ministry under our current rules. We acknowledged that compromises would be necessary.
When morning dawned, we were all surrounded by crumpled paper, spent markers, and empty pizza boxes. We had produced a creative synthesis of earlier reform ideas. Not everyone was happy or even satisfied, but our cautious, exhausted smiles acknowledged that we had created a new plan for the UMC with at least a chance of passage. Some in the room were especially impressed that we did so without amending the constitution. We couldn’t agree on what to call the proposal, but some began to refer to it as the “Love Alike Plan” based on Father Wesley’s admonitions to the group.
Here are the KEY COMPONENTS:
- Annual conferences in the U.S. would, once certain conditions are met, will have opportunity to vote official dissent to the Book of Discipline’s most contentious statements related to homosexuality. Congregations and clergy of officially dissenting conferences could ordain “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” and could celebrate same-sex weddings. They could even use their annual conference funds to promote the acceptance of homosexuality.
- Dissenting conferences and their congregations would indicate their dissent from church teaching with a single identifying keyboard character after the name of their church or conference. This character is to be of a neutral nature and assigned by GCFA after the name of their church or conference. For example, “Foundry United Methodist Church⊕” or “Pacific Northwest Annual Conference (D)”. (I know this will seem silly to some, but some traditionalists insisted there be a visible way to distinguish a dissenting church or conference).
- Because every United Methodist congregation or clergy has the inherent right to be part of a conference that adheres to the Book of Discipline, those in a dissenting conference would have freedom to relate to another annual conference should they choose to do so. This is accomplished through an innovative but constitutional process. The result is that dissenting conferences would be granted special liberties and, in exchange, they would be required to allow the release of those who continue to want to accept the position of the UMC on human sexuality.
- Bishops, as General Superintendents of the church, would be required to meet the standards of the Book of Discipline in reference to their personal lifestyle.
ENABLING THIS SOLUTION
- General conference has the constitutional power to change the boundaries of the jurisdictional conferences upon the consent of the majority of the annual conferences of each of the jurisdictional conferences involved (¶39). For the purpose of this solution, General Conference would set the boundaries of each of our five jurisdictions identically as the boundaries of The United States of America. This means that all all five jurisdictions would be national in scope and completely overlap. Their constituent conferences would not necessarily be required to do ministry nation-wide, but there would be no limitation on them doing so. While super-majority ratification is not required, a majority of conferences in each jurisdiction would need to approve this.
- Jurisdictional conferences have the constitutional power to determine the boundaries of their annual conferences (¶27.4). For the purpose of this solution, each jurisdictional conference would set the boundaries of EACH of their annual conferences identically as the boundaries of The United States of America. This gives each of our U.S. annual conferences the authority (technically speaking) to operate anywhere in the United States.
- General Conference would allow annual conferences, under tightly defined conditions, to vote non-compliance with our denominational position on homosexuality in ¶¶ 304.3, 341.6, 161.F, 161.B, and 613. A 2/3 majority vote would be required as the necessary and pre-defined enabling legislation would also release congregations that will not dissent from UM teachings. Under this new freedom, the clergy members of dissenting conferences shall not be chargeable under ¶2701 for being a self-avowed, practicing homosexuals, conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions, or for performing same-sex wedding ceremonies. The requirement of faithfulness in marriage under this paragraph shall include same sex marriages recognized by the state.
- Because United Methodist congregations and clergy have the inherent right to belong to an annual conference that operates in harmony with the Book of Discipline, particular language granting new geographic freedoms must be included for the non-compliance resolution to be in effect for an annual conference. That is, churches and clergy that want to live by the Book of Discipline would have pre-authoriztion to leave these dissenting annual conferences. Permission of bishops serving dissenting annual conferences would not be required for clergy to transfer to a non-dissenting conference.
- Conservatives will likely only support this plan if it was passed along with elements of the CUPlan that would be in effect for non-dissenting conferences. These would establish minimum sentences for conducting same-sex weddings, make complainants a necessary party to just resolution agreements, and move episcopal accountability to the general church. Of course, the minimum sentences would be moot for clergy of dissenting annual conferences.
You can read the legislation by clicking:3.0 Love Alike Legislation. I would like to thank all participants their creative and hard work. We now leave our work in the hands of our General Conference delegates.
For those of us whose marriages have produced homosexual children and know for a fact that it was not chosen do respectfully pray for a loving solution that will enable ALL of God’s children to have equal rights and love from within United Methodist Church.
Hilda Atkins Moore, author of Two Sons Twice Born.
What a fun article, well written.
But 8mcuripus about churches in on dissenting annual conferences. Can they leave and join a disseminating annual Confrence? Did I just missed that part?
Thanks, Jenny. Progressive congregations in non-dissenting conferences could transfer to a new conference under a little-used provision already in the constitution. Non-dissenting conferences are encouraged to honor these requests. I appreciate the comment and question. This could work!
Chris, as usual excellent work. I guess my question is similar to Jenny’s above. My Discipline is at the church & I am at home so I have not read Par. 39. My question, however, is why the same language is not used for churches & clergy in a non-dissenting conference who want to join a dissenting conference? “Encouraged to honor” strikes me as having a very different tone from what is in 4b & 4 g. Is there not an implied assumption that non-dissenting conference will naturally not be punitive & not interfere with pastors & congregation seeking to transfer?
I am also curious about how the legistics work with respect to a pastor and lay delegates who find themselves out-of-step with what had been their historic Annual Conference actually traveling & attending their new Annual Conference. For example, how far might a cong. or pastor have to travel to be a part of a non-dissenting conference? Or likewise a cong. or pastor in the southeast to relate to a dissenting conference? Is the distance a potential liability & excessive burden? Thank you again for your work and pastoral heart.
Great questions, as always. Thanks for reading the post. There is an inherent preference in the plan for the BOD position on sexuality. There is a guaranteed right to be part of a conference that abides by the BOD but not an automatic right to be part of one that does not. I would hope that non-dissenting conferences would release churches with strong opinions in the other direction. According to Economist Don House, the U.S. will only have 17 UM annual conferences by 2050 due to decline. Larger conferences are going to be a reality for all of us regardless. This plan leaves it up to the annual conferences as to how geographically large they want to get. Some might find ways to use technology to stretch their boundaries. Others might choose to keep things within a certain geography where they can be effective. Thanks again for taking a look at the plan.
There was one more group . . . a group of young, passionate people who love the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition and who are not burnt out. They looked on the whole things and said, “WTH is all this? You people are so nice to each other that it’s almost sick. Why don’t you say what’s truly on your heart? Why do you play make believe and act like everyone’s beliefs are equal, valid, and true? Why do you not follow Jude’s counsel to “be merciful to those who doubt; save others by snatching them from the fire, to others show mercy mixed with fear – hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh”
I’m sorry; I don’t mean to be holier-than-thou or a jerk. But everyone needs to quit with the whole “nice” thing and just say what they mean. I would rather see some passion and some heat rather than this cold, sterile, politically correct, “let’s keep it together” type junk. Blech! C’mon people, love each other and God enough to be truthful, admit that the current situation is nasty and needs to stop, and move on towards proclaiming the Gospel and making disciples.
And – by the way – I don’t think that would be John Wesley’s reaction. He might react that way to a Pietist or a Calvinist but he would not act that way towards anyone saying that it’s O.K. for a man to have sex with another man or that it’s O.K. for a woman to have sex with another women. C’mon now.
Fair comments, Josh. The institution, however broken, has given much to many, including me. I am one that would need to leave if our positions were completely overturned. I just don’t feel that a new denomination is what we need as we move into a post-denominational reality. Our differences are not minor. They are profound, and they matter. Thanks for your voice in the church.
I’m sorry if I come across harsh, Chris. I appreciate all that you are doing. And like you, I do not want to see some new denomination. I actually love many things about the UMC: the BOD, the BOW, and the way we do things together. But there is just a huge void of leadership and conviction right now.
I would be fine with your plan going through but I just don’t think that that kind of change is coming. I do think change is coming though. Money is drying up, people are getting burnt out on all the distrust, fighting, and weak leadership, and folks are going moving to churches where they will get fed. I’ve seen it in my local area as people have been leaving more liberal/moderate UMC’s to go to the one strong evangelical UMC in town or they have been moving totally out of the UMC.
Do you know if there is any movement being made to get us onto to another trajectory? At my last meeting with the DCOM, it was like goin to a funeral service. It was . . . weird. My DS who is always planning ahead has made no plans for the future past General Conference. It may be nothing but it is a very different scene since I have been in the UMC.
A view from the UMC pew: From my own observations, you did an amazing job characterizing the different players/groups who currently have an oar in the sexuality question. Everybody you described has one thing in common except for the group represented by Amy DeLong and that difference is a desire for The United Methodist Church to survive this sexuality mess and move on to other matters. The group represented by Amy DeLong is different because they are fixed on one thing and one thing only: their agenda. Which raises this question: Why is everybody else dancing to her/their tune?
I need to modify my final question: Why is everybody else dancing in response to the tune played by Amy DeLong and the group she represents? They have made it their life’s mission to change the organization they freely joined; an organization that was very clear about where it stands on the issue of same gender relationships: it is outside God’s will for humanity as expressed at the time of creation.
Once again, you have discerned the heart of the matter. My answer is she rules the Church because the Church is married to the culture, and the culture does not allow for two sides in this matter.
Looks to me like Wesley took the easy way out. 🙂
I am a conservative Pastor in a Evangelical Congregation and an x member of the UMC. I left the UMC because of the need to be in a more alive and vibrant congregation. Actually I was on a Walk to Emmaus which produced five calls to Ministry for five of us attendees. I served positionsup to Lay Director and then went to Chrysalis for young people and served through the levels until I became a Co Leader with another women I had worked in ministry with for years. Today I work in Kairos Prison Ministry so I am very familiar with the UMC culture.
When I read your plan It looks like a split with nice professional language and separation of the divisions of the congregations. It charts a path to allow the LGBT community to have their way and change the UMC into their vision of a church while the old traditionalists die off after being corralled and shoved aside. No disrespect intended.
Non Denominations are growing at an amazing pace and we have in this town several churches with a couple thousand at each service x2 sometimes. They are growing because of traditionalist, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians, and Methodists leaving because of the homosexuality issue. We have room for everyone in our churches and if any one thinks that the will of God would cause this kind of Drama and Trauma in His church and be ok with it needs to read the Bible again cover to cover. Jesus said he would build His church and I don’t see non dissenting congregations growing…………. they are coming to us. The UMC development folks say that the traditionalists will last for another ten years before enough go home to Glory for the Dissenters can flip the conference. Why don’t the Dissenters leave peacefully and gracefully and start their own organization like all of us did when we left our congregations and started our own churches many in living rooms. We have been doing it for nineteen years.
My belief is that using the reasoning that some interpretations of scripture that involve Jesus’s Love and Acceptance overriding Gods (who He happens to be) admonition to not commit homosexual acts is in my view ludicrous as if that was true ,the argument being times have changed and God has changed as well, then He would have added a caveat back in the Scriptures. No scripture contradicts another and there are no mistakes in the wording in the Bible. I guess what I am trying to say with Love is if you don’t like what the UMC Discipline stands for then go somewhere else where folks are that believe as they do. And just leave the Methodists alone. That includes clergy as well. I do not say that homosexuals are going to hell I can not judge that and I welcome them in our church as long as they are not practicing public displays of same sex affection in the church services until they get enough of the Word in them and a love for God’s mercy to repent and line their life up with the Word of God but if they start campaigning or advocating for sexual policy change then they have to go. We all come to Christ for forgiveness but repentance is part of that and we all have to give up those favorite sins we loved but were killing us and separating us from God. Mine was alcohol and chasing women in and out of wedlock and when I read that that was sin I had to stop if I wanted to be a Disciple of Christ. For those who are tired of the Drama and Trauma we have a seat for you.