by Chris Ritter
Reactions to the Love Alike Plan are starting to roll in. This brand new concept addresses divisions in the UMC over human sexuality without moral compromise. It stands alone as the sole structural solution that can be enacted by a simple majority at General Conference 2016. The brochure for the plan is: 3.0 Love Alike Legislation. Below are some responses to the questions I have been fielding from those interested in the plan.
Why does The United Methodist Church need a solution?
Divisions in the UMC over homosexuality (and the larger, related issue of scriptural authority) have reached a point of crisis. Some insist that our positions are inherently unjust and discriminatory while others view compromise on this issue as a rejection of the clear teachings of scripture. Two of our five U.S. jurisdictions have officially voted to defy the Book of Discipline as it relates to human sexuality. Same sex weddings have become somewhat common in conferences where bishops are willing to shield pastors from accountability. One of our bishops has conducted two high-profile same sex weddings in open defiance of our rules. There have been calls to break The United Methodist Church into two or more denominational bodies. While there is very little support for formal schism at General Conference, the possibility of a messy post-conference division of the church remains. General Conference 2016 will meet in Portland from May 10-21 in order to discern a direction for our denomination.
What are the other proposed solutions and why is a new solution needed?
Conservatives, traditionalists, and some from our growing global Central Conferences would seek to enforce our rules by adopting new accountability measures. These include minimum sentences for clergy conducting same sex weddings, moving episcopal accountability out of the jurisdictions to the general church, and making changes to the “just resolution” process that has been used by bishops to shield pastors from trial. If enacted, this approach would signal a renewed season of clergy trials in an attempt at enforcement. Progressive groups would seek to completely remove or reverse language in our Book of Discipline that describes homosexual practice as incompatible with Christian teaching. This would force some United Methodists to choose between the classic view of scripture and their church. For all the debate, it is very likely that Progressives don’t have the votes to change our rules and Traditionalists don’t have the votes to enforce them. These leaves us locked in four more years of continued, distracting conflict.
One type of mediating solution is to simply pass this issue down to our annual conferences and local churches. While seemingly fair, this approach actually has the potential to exacerbate our divisions. (One only needs to think about the word “annual” in “annual conference” for a moment). As conferences are currently defined solely by geography, great conflict is likely in mixed or moderate areas. Other attempts at a mediating position call for a general slackening of our rules that would make them less enforceable throughout the entire global church. The Connectional Table Plan, for instance, removes being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” from the list of offenses for which a clergy could be charged. This means that openly gay clergy would be in good standing and eligible for appointment to any congregation or superintending role. When a progressive jurisdiction elects a gay bishop, their salary would be paid through the Episcopal Fund. This will be unacceptable to many United Methodists and they will undoubtedly withhold apportionments. If clergy are allowed to conduct same sex weddings, they could do so in any church to which they are duly appointed whether the congregation approves or not.
Plans that allow more than one approach to homosexuality to exist somewhat peacefully within the same denomination may be thought of as Structural Solutions. Compartmentalization prevents United Methodists from being forced by one side or another into moral compromise. An example of this approach is the Jurisdictional Solution. The problem with changing our structure is that it requires amendments to our constitution and the requisite super-majority passage and global ratification. The agreement needed for such overwhelming support is likely not to be found in our present polarized environment.
What is the Love Alike Plan?
The Love Alike Plan is the only structural solution for our divisions over human sexuality that could be enacted by a simple majority at General Conference. This is achieved through a new, innovative approach. The plan would keep the official language in our Book of Discipline and would grant individual U.S. annual conferences the option of dissenting from these positions with a 2/3 majority vote. In exchange for this liberty, dissenting conferences would simultaneously approve the release to other UM conferences any congregations and clergy who choose not to dissent. There is an inherent right in this plan for every United Methodist to be pat of a conference that abides by the Discipline even if their conference votes dissent. The plan is named for a famous quote by John Wesley:
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.
How did you think this up?
Two years of studying and writing proposals for the UMC yielded this plan. The “Eureka!” moment came when I realized how to accomplish a structural solution without constitutional amendments. The Love Alike Plan is a fusion of my earlier Jurisdictional Solutions with a little Covenantal Unity Plan thrown in, and generously sprinkled with Adam Hamilton’s “Local Option” and “we disagree” proposals.
How is this achieved without constitutional amendments?
The constitution gives General Conference the authority to change jurisdictional boundaries upon the consent of the conferences involved. Under this plan, General Conference would set the boundaries of EACH jurisdiction as the boundaries of the United States of America. This gives jurisdictions the technical authority to operate nation-wide without requiring them to do so. Jurisdictional conferences are empowered by our constitution to adjust the boundaries of their annual conferences. Under this plan, our five jurisdictions would set the boundaries of EACH of their annual conferences as the boundaries of The United States (¶41 of our constitution acknowledges that conferences may overlap). Annual conferences would each have authority to operate anywhere in the U.S. This does not necessitate them to do so.
Completely overlapping jurisdictional and annual conference lines gives our system the fluidity we need in order to take advantage of a seldom-used provision in our constitution. Paragraph 41 allows a church to transfer from one annual conference to another in which it is geographically located. The only time this could be exercised with our current annual conference boundaries is with missionary conferences that overlap other conferences.
The Love Alike plan uses this provision to free some annual conferences to take a different stance on sexuality without forcing all United Methodists in their geography into this approach. Conferences will continue to do ministry in their traditional locations and only spread out further as they deem prudent. Non-dissenting conferences are encouraged to release individual dissenting congregations and clergy should they seek to exit. These transfers are accomplished under the otherwise seldom-used constitutional provision found in ¶41.
How would this plan be enacted?
Five realistic steps must to taken by the General Conference, jurisdictional conferences, and U.S. annual conferences in order to enable this amicable unity plan.
- General Conference, under the authority of ¶39, would set the boundaries of each jurisdictional conference as the boundaries of the United States. This is done by simple majority.
- General Conference would authorize annual conferences, under defined conditions, to vote non-compliance with our denominational position on homosexuality in ¶¶ 304.3, 341.6, 161.F, 161.B, and 613.
- Conservatives will likely only support this plan if it was passed along with elements of the Covenantal Unity Plan. These would restore order in that they would: Establishing 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.
- Jurisdictional conferences would set the boundaries of each of their annual conferences identically as the boundaries of The United States of America. This could be done at the 2016 Jurisdictional Conferences in order to speed the enactment of the solution.
- U.S. annual conferences would vote to accept the new jurisdiction boundaries approved at General Conference (by simple majority). Annual conferences may also elect to adopt a pre-defined resolution that both dissents from the positions of the church related to human sexuality and grant the exit of any congregations that cannot, as a matter of conscience, do so. This must be passed by a 2/3 majority. Permission of bishops serving dissenting annual conferences would not be required for clergy to transfer to a non-dissenting conference.
Why should Traditionalists and Conservatives accept the Love Alike Plan?
The plan calls for General Conference to accept new accountability measures that would be in force for non-dissenting conferences (basically the Covenantal Unity Plan without the exit provisions). These restore order in the church. The official United Methodist positions on human sexuality remain as they are today. Allowing some conferences to dissent frees the church from wasting time and energy trying to enforce the Book of Discipline positions upon the unwilling. There is no way to tighten our rules enough to enforce them on those parts of the church that have proved they will never be willing to accept them. The game of cat and mouse would effectively be over.
Why should Liberals and Progressives accept the Love Alike Plan?
There is a high likelihood that there are insufficient votes at General Conference 2016 to overturn our stance on human sexuality. Demographic changes in our church mean that traditionalist Central Conferences will have a bigger and bigger voice at General Conference in the future. If a change in language is accomplished, there is great risk of a post-conference split. This plan allows new freedoms to Progressive conferences. This means they can accept homosexuals as candidates for ministry, conduct same-sex weddings, and use conference funds to promote the acceptance of homosexuality. Although we will still debate the Book of Discipline together every four years, it allows progressive conferences to be in ministry with homosexuals as they wish without the current restrictions.
Why should Moderates accept the Love Alike Plan?
This plan preserves The United Methodist Church while allowing divergence of approach in the various annual conferences. Moderates who could “go either way” will experience little disruption as they would simply accept the direction chosen by their conference. Undoubtedly, we will continue to vigorously debate human sexuality at General Conference. But this has always been the case for our church. Some of the venom will be removed from the debate, however, as dissenting conferences are free to pursue their own approach under this plan. The Love Alike Plan allows the UMC to get past our gridlock and back to the business of ministry.
How could someone tell the difference between a dissenting church/conference and a non-dissenting church/conference?
The legislation calls upon the General Council on Finance and Administration to assign a single distinguishing keyboard character for dissenting churches and conferences to place after their name on letterhead and signage. This character is to be neutral in nature so as to elicit neither shame nor pride. Examples: “Foundry United Methodist Church⊕” or “Pacific Northwest Annual Conference♦”. There may be United Methodist Churches in the same city that belong to different conferences. This allows for a distinction to be made.
Wouldn’t annual conferences become problematically large under this legislation?
Economist Don House has predicted that the UMC in the United States will go from 57 annual conferences to 17 over the next 35 years. This is due to our demographics of decline. One way to answer the question is that annual conferences will tend to get larger with or without this legislation.
A more specific answer is that no conference will become any larger than it wants to be under this plan. The only churches an annual conference might accept outside its traditional boundaries would be new churches they might start and churches from other annual conferences they might vote to receive. Progressive churches in the more conservative Southeast, for instance, might seek to be released from their annual conferences to form their own annual conference. (This annual conference could relate to whatever jurisdiction they choose). They also might also seek to join an adjacent dissenting conference. Traditionalist congregations in the progressive Western jurisdiction might likewise form their own conference under any jurisdiction they wish, or join an existing annual conference willing to accept them. An existing conference might form a district in the Western states to receive non-dissenting congregations. Annual conferences that want to stretch wider might discover new ways to use technology in order to do so effectively.
This plan enables United Methodist annual conferences to see themselves as regional ministry networks rather than states in our UMC union. A conference is simply a group of churches served by a particular team of pastors, under the leadership of a bishop. There is nothing that that requires them to be solely defined by geography.
A jurisdiction is a group of annual conferences served by a particular team of bishops. This plan allows our jurisdictions to operate anywhere they can be effective.
Why are dissenting conferences required to release non-dissenting churches but non-dissenting conferences are not required to release churches that would seek to be released to a dissenting conference?
Non-dissenting conferences are strongly encouraged to release congregations that wish to dissent. There is no constitutional way to require them to do so. The authority to dissent is granted by General Conference when an annual conference exercises its own constitutional authority to release congregations as part of the enabling resolution. There is no authority under this legislation that would require non-dissenting conferences to release any of their congregations. The only way to change this is to amend the constitution. Under the Love Alike Plan, General Conference offers to do something it can do (allow dissent) in exchange for conferences doing what they can do (vote to release congregations).
Where will all this lead us?
The Love Alike Plan enables us to get back to the business of ministry. We will save the time and resources that would otherwise be spent on futile attempts to enforce rules upon the unwilling. Trials would effectively end. Reaching this settlement on human sexuality should allow us to work constructively on future issues such as the global shape of the UMC. As it stands now, plans for global restructure (being constitutional in nature) will be stymied by our division and distrust.
Is the legislation in its final form?
Unlikely. There will be further refinement. For instance, the order and details of events involved in releasing congregations from dissenting conferences might need adjustment. It is possible that each dissenting conference might have to vote to release every church in the conference by name. The actual exit of these churches would only become a reality if voted by the church conference, congregational meeting, and the receiving conference.
What is this reference to a “congregational meeting”?
Our United Methodist constitution requires approval from a “congregational meeting” in addition to approval by the charge conference before a congregation can leave one conference for another. See ¶41. I know it sounds foreign to our polity, but it is in there! Version 2.0 of the Love Alike Legislation seeks to model this congregational meeting after the pattern of the “church conference.”
Who has endorsed the Love Alike Plan?
Absolutely no one. It is brand new. Even the author of this plan has not yet endorsed it as he has other legislation currently before General Conference. Our proximity to the start of General Conference means that those on the left and right are preoccupied with holding their coalitions together. This does not lend itself to vocal support for a mediating proposal like the Love Alike Plan. As delegates come together in Portland, there will be opportunities to conference together about all the options before us. Sharing this plan with your General Conference delegation will help move the conversation forward.