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.