by Chris Ritter
Over the past few days, notable voices have sounded the alarm on just how terrible a UMC schism will be. Christy Thomas this week posted that nothing can now stop the UMC schism and”the train wreck accompanying the dissolution is going to be horrifying.” James Howell predicts the UMC will fall apart with nothing less than “carnage” we can only now begin to anticipate. For his own congregation he predicts:
We would quickly have to lay off two thirds of our staff, and hack our mission spending down to a small fraction of what it’s been. Within months, a clinic in Haiti would shut down, families moving out of homelessness would head back to the streets. We’d be the laughingstock of Charlotte. The new conference of the new denomination wouldn’t even be all that glad to have us, as we’d have so little money left to send in.
Let’s take a deep breath. I am not for schism and have proposed four major solutions to avoid it. At the end of the day, most United Methodists are connectional, moderate folk and see a future of continued cooperation on things important to us all. Both those on the left and right want to spare local churches from divisive votes on human sexuality. If division happened, there would still be much on which we would seek to cooperate. United Methodist schism might be better conceived as re-shuffling rather than cutting the deck.
What if the coming UMC schism actually turned out to be a relatively minimal affair, a proverbial tempest in a teacup?
Think about it. Annual conferences would continue to exist even if the UMC did not. Congregations and clergy are bound to the UMC only through their conference relationship. Unlike the UMC at large, conferences are legally incorporated entities with assets, liabilities, and contractual obligations. (See my post “United Methodist Future(s)”.) As long as clergy and congregations remain in their conference, true schism can only happen when annual conferences sever ties with one another. When you think schism, think conferences.
Consider the Schism of 1972. I would not be surprised if you never heard of it. It was actually a fairly amicable exit of a single U.S. conference from the UMC. The schism was approved by General Conference and followed by a concordat that defined continued cooperation in mission and ministry. It serves as an example of a very connectional disconnection.
Soon after our denomination formed, members of the Puerto Rico Annual Conference were alarmed over what they perceived to be a unilateral decision to dramatically reduce the financial support they were receiving from the denomination. In the consternation that followed, they decided that a new relationship with the UMC was warranted. One option was to seek status as a Central Conference. In the end, and by a narrow margin of only five votes, they chose to petition General Conference 1972 for status as an “affiliate autonomous” body. The request was granted. The decision was later challenged and upheld by the Judicial Council in 1979.
What was clear from the time of division is that the UMC and the Methodists of Puerto Rico wanted to continue to do much together. The UMC relied upon Puerto Rico for leaders in its National Plan for Hispanic Ministries. There were many valuable connections through the Board of Global Ministries.
It was not until 1992 that the relationship between the UMC and the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico (MCPR) was officially defined. Here are some features of that unique connectional relationship, which was extended in 2004:
- There is mutual recognition of authenticity and ministry.*
- One clergy and one lay delegate from each body are seated at the other’s General Conference.
- The presiding bishop of the MCPR participates in the UMC Council of Bishops with voice but not vote. This provision was upheld in JC Decision 692.
- The MCPR is entitled to one liaison representative, at their own expense, to each of the program agencies of the UMC.
- The MCPR participates fully in the UMC’s National Plan for Hispanic Ministries.
- Members of the MCPR are eligible for United Methodist scholarships.
- The MCPR participates in the General Board of Global Ministries.
- The UMC commits to honor agreements formed between the MCPR and individual general agencies of the UMC.
You can view the concordat between the UMC and the MCPR here. Being automous allows the Puerto Rican Methodists to organize as best suits their mission. The MCPR elects its own bishops, holds annual conference (which it calls Connexional Conference) every two years, and holds its own General Conference every six years.
Allowing something similar to to the Puerto Rican arrangement in the continental U.S. could be realized within the scope of our present constitution. We only need to allow the affiliate autonomous status inside the continental U.S. as we presently allow it internationally. It also could be implemented with fairly minimal disruption to the current workings of both the global denomination and the internal relationships within each annual conference. It would simply formalize what has already begun: conferences declaring their autonomy, but with a desire to stay connected in ministry.
Perhaps one day autonomy with negotiated relationships with general agencies will be the preferred status for every U.S. annual conference. In the short run this status should certainly be pursued by those conferences who chafe under the United Methodist rules related to human sexuality. Autonomous conferences could flex their own borders to release and accept individual churches and clergy who otherwise find themselves in a poorly matched conference relationship.
If United Methodists can foster a solution-based approach in a spirit of good will, we should be able to accomplish something much better than the apocalyptic disaster predicted by some. Modelling creativity and generosity in the midst of disagreement might even provide a sign of hope in the fractured culture we seek to reach. Let’s remain calm and pray our way forward with the commission assembled by our Council of Bishops. The unity solutions I have proposed remain on the table. At the end of the day, I predict we will end up with either a very connected disconnection or an extremely disconnected connection. The practical effect will be about the same.
*We are currently in full communion with groups, like the ELCA, that allow clergy in same sex marriages. These clergy are not eligible for transfer into the UMC because they must meet the requirements of our church, which prohibit (at least on paper) clergy in such relationships.