by Chris Ritter
In my last post I shared my belief that the Commission on a Way Forward is working on a large-scale restructure plan as it seeks to address divisions in our church over the interpretation and application of Scripture. The Council of Bishops (COB) has allotted significant time to hearing from The Commission at their November meeting. A final commission report would need to be adopted by them at their May 2018 meeting so that the enabling legislation can arrive in the hands of delegates to the called UM General Conference (February 2019) by the summer 2018 deadline.
What I didn’t share last time is my considerable doubt that our Council of Bishops (as it is currently constituted) will be capable of bringing a plan that General Conference (as it is currently constituted) would be willing to approve. By the admission of its own members, our COB is divided to the point of dysfunction. Loose agreement is found only in a desire to maintain some semblance of the status quo. Many new structural visions currently being discussed will require super-majority support both from our global legislative body and each annual conference. If the interplay of all these forces works out like I think it might, optimism should be mitigated for our bishops producing a plan that can gain the required consensus.
This is not my wish, only a pragmatic assessment. Like the rest of the church, I am in prayer. All things are possible with God.
General Conference Taking the Lead
In this post I want to shine the light on General Conference as a key player in the future direction of the UMC. A global body, General Conference is somewhat immune to the anxiety infecting the American Church over same-sex marriage. The odds of GC2019 overturning or softening our positions on human sexuality are quite remote. In fact, committee voting at GC 2016 demonstrated that global consensus is taking the body in quite the opposite direction. This trend will become more pronounced every four years as delegation sizes shift from declining progressive conferences to the growing conferences outside the U.S.
But what can be done by General Conference should it reject the plan brought by our bishops? The limitations of General Conference are well-known. It normally meets only once every four years… not nearly enough to provide any sort of meaningful management to the operations of our denomination. General Conference is dependent upon the executive branch of our church to enforce what it passes. Many bishops have now clearly demonstrated they are unwilling to do this. (Only look at the fact that all conferences currently in schism are served by bishops who disagree with the Book of Discipline.) General Conference is a senate without troops.
But General Conference remains the only body that can speak for the United Methodist Church. Once the special General Conference is seated it can entertain business outside its stated call (if it agrees to do so by a 2/3 vote as stipulated in ¶14). And it does actually have levers it can pull to guide the denominational ship independently of our bishops. In the past, denominational disobedience happened on the level of the individual clergy. Iron-clad due-process protections put the resolution of these matters into the hands of our bishops who have any number of ways to dismiss complaints against defiant clergy. However, the game changed last year when denominational disobedience rose to the plenary annual conference level. General Conference can now open a whole new toolbox of accountability measures that does not involve our bishops.
It turns out that annual conferences, unlike clergy, are not guaranteed complex levels of due process. The General Council on Finance and Administration (the technical employer of our bishops) is directly accountable to General Conference alone (¶804). If you follow the money, it leads both to and from GCFA. This is also the body that decides who gets to use the United Methodist name and insignia.
What General Conference Can Do
General Conference can mandate that conferences affirm their fidelity to our covenant in order to continue to be part of it. For instance, GC could mandate that each annual conference in the connection adopt one of two statements in, say, the year 2020. One statement would indicate that the UMC’s positions on ministry (in ¶ 304 “Qualifications for Ordination”, ¶341 “Unauthorized Conduct”, and ¶2702 “Chargeable Offenses”) are acceptable and will be upheld in that annual conference and its subsidiary units. The other statement would indicate that the annual conference has principled moral objection with the ministry standards of the UMC and cannot uphold them.
GCFA would be instructed to certify the responses to the two statements mentioned above. Those conferences who return anything other than the pledge of covenantal faithfulness (or who refuse to respond) would be placed under a sort of financial quarantine by GCFA… meaning that money could not be received from them or sent to them. GCFA would also be instructed to withhold usage of the Cross and Flame and United Methodist name by these conferences.
Bishops, likewise, would be given the opportunity to sign a statement pledging their support to the ministry standards of the UMC or their objection to them. Bishops refusing to affirm UMC standards would no longer receive a salary from The United Methodist Church.
I believe a new form of unity is required, and this type of accountability will help motivate disobedient bishops and conferences to more actively seek it. Such a self-sorting is key to producing a lasting peace. When a United Methodist clergy or congregation decide that performing same-sex marriage is an essential part of their ministry, we can avoid trials by establishing a new sort of relationship with them. The trials should stop.
Opting for the Do-able
As an audit-able adherent to our Discipline, I believe that GCFA can be counted upon to follow the clear directives of General Conference. Their authority to manage the budget could be expanded for a few years so they can adequately respond to financial fluctuations that might occur while transitions take place. The legislation needed to enact meaningful accountability is minimal, straightforward, and requires no constitutional amendments. Passage of measures like these will send a strong signal that that the decades-long legislative game of cat and mouse is over and it is time for us all to move into a new day.
Photo credit: CRK Training