by Chris Ritter
My preference is that General Conference 2019 passes a workable “Option Three” Multi-branch Solution for United Methodist divisions over biblical authority and human sexuality. I hope this solution makes space between incompatible ideologies without creating winners and losers. I hope it requires no violations of conscience and keeps us all somehow connected. I hope it is something we can overwhelmingly affirm and that it gives rise to a New Connectionalism that is a worthy heir of our historic Methodist connection. I have written my own proposal to this end, but it also behooves us to talk about the Commission’s “Option One” which places “a high value on accountability.”
People often ask my ideas for the Option One paradigm. In some ways, this is the default way forward. It is what we have done every four years since the 1970’s. General Conference 2016 was set to pass a whole new raft of accountability proposals coming out of the first week of discernment in legislative committees. I have little doubt they would have passed. The obvious majority support for these legislative items among delegates sent others scrambling for an alternative. A legislative “hail Mary pass” tabled multiple human sexuality petitions and created The Commission. Barring any good ideas coming from The Commission, General Conference will just pick up where it left off. For many, Option One is the only way forward with integrity.
The accountability agenda of 2016 was an inadequate patchwork of reforms aimed at tightening up loopholes in judicial processes for clergy charged with violating the Discipline. The inherent weakness was that these measures’ continued dependence upon the good faith of the bishops to enforce the rules governing clergy in the UMC. If we thought that a realistic possibility across the board, we are now disabused of that notion. These legislative measures also had to tiptoe through a constitutional minefield of due process protections for clergy and restrictive rules protecting the superintending role of bishops.
But the situation has changed significantly over the past two years. Entire conferences have officially voted their dissent to our Book of Discipline. Bishop Oliveto is in office awaiting the Judicial Council mandated processing of her status. Disobedience is now flagrant and this makes accountability, in some ways, much simpler. New concepts for accountability create a strong Option One should GC2019 seek to exercise it.
If I had to write the best proposal for Option One, here are the ideas I would explore:
Annual Conference Accountability
The police officer of the United Methodist brand is the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA). They regularly receive reports of abuses to our name and insignia, investigate these, and send “cease and desist” notices threatening legal action. The Council is also the technical employer of our bishops. GCFA is directly accountable to General Conference and must follow its directives. For instance, they are charged with making sure that no church funds are used to promote homosexuality.
One accountability idea would be to mandate GCFA to receive and process reports of annual conferences that are not in compliance with the ministry standards of the UMC. This would build on their responsibility for maintaining the UMC “brand.”
- The Council would be instructed to send a notice of any reported non-compliance to the chair of the Board of Ordained Ministry, the group that certifies to the Clergy Session each year that all the clergy are in good standing and blameless in their life and conduct. The BOOM chair of the conference in question would have ninety days to respond to the report.
- Unless that conference is found to be making sustained and credible efforts at living according to the Book of Discipline and cooperating with GCFA inquiries, they would be barred from using the United Methodist name and insignia as a conference. They would also be placed under financial quarantine by GCFA, meaning that they could neither receive funds from or send funds to the general church.
- Upon request, the conference would have one year to draft and implement a plan of correction. If sustained and credible measures toward compliance to the Book of Discipline are not implemented during this time, the ban on using the UMC name and insignia would be extended to the congregations of the conference, unless they individually vote to remain part of the UMC. I am not sure General Conference can “kick conferences out” of the UMC, but we could quarantine them and deny them usage of our name. In practical effect, the conference would no longer be part of the United Methodist connection. GCFA would send letters to the congregations of the conference informing them of their options.
- An exit ramp for quarantined conferences would need to be approved. I recommend the affiliated autonomous status currently used overseas.
- The Jurisdictional Conference would convene to redraw the map of its annual conferences to cover the territory ceded by the exited annual conference. Congregations voting to stay in the UMC would be placed in the UM conference assigned by the jurisdictional conference to cover their location. The exited conference would keep its property and would be free to seek their own relationship with Wespath, UMCOR, and other entities with which they may desire to affiliate.
I believe it would be a game-changer if we made the Board of Ordained Ministry accountable for keeping their conference fully United Methodist.
All United Methodist bishops would be required to sign a pre-defined, extremely specific statement annually expressing their commitment to teaching, supporting, and upholding the ministry standards of the Book of Discipline. Those failing to do so would receive no salary from GCFA that year.
Just Resolution Reform
Bishops are currently empowered to dispose of complaints against clergy under the terms of a just resolution agreement. Because consent of the one filing the complaint is not required, this power has been used to shield clergy from accountability. General Conference could clarify that the purpose of a Just Resolution is to restore adherence to the Book of Discipline. Any clergy that is a party to a Just Resolution agreement would be required to include a pledge of obedience to the doctrine and Discipline of the church. Bishops would additionally be required to include a statement outlining how the resolution agreement will make it likely that the Discipline would be followed by all parties in the future. No admission of guilt would be required, but a pledge to follow the Discipline in the future would be a necessary component of a Just Resolution agreement.
My preference for the Way Forward is Option Three, a multi-branch approach. I have written many proposals toward this end. But there are significant hurdles to be overcome by any proposed structural solution. The measures described in this post honor and enforce the group discernment processes of our church. They respect our polity, can be implemented without constitutional amendments, and do not reference homosexuality specifically. Clean law and order proposals should find support among faithful United Methodists. These measures should be paired with a generous exit ramp for churches, clergy, and conferences who cannot, in good conscience, affirm the The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church.
Join me each Monday for a special day of prayer for The Commission on a Way Forward as they complete their work.