by Chris Ritter

Funny things happen to human vocabulary when we are trying to sell something.   “Used” becomes “pre-owned.”  Push mowers become “walk-behinds.”  We aren’t asked to spend on something but to “invest in.” A “medium” at the coffee shop become a “tall.”   This change in language is not insidious…  it’s just marketing.  We all do it and are surrounded by it every day.

Much good-faith effort has been invested in a Way Forward for The United Methodist Church.  But make no mistake:  We are quickly entering the marketing phase.  It is especially important now to pay attention to vocabulary.  I want to talk to you about the word “contextual.”  It showed up prominently in this week’s important update on the Way Forward.

All labels for the various camps in our denominational human sexuality debate are imperfect.  Words quickly fall in and out of usage.  Contextual seems to be the new word for “centrist,” a well-worn epithet that has been so misappropriated as to have become meaningless.  When we see contextual, it seems we are supposed to think about flexibility, or maybe a slightly creamier peanut butter with the fluidity to fill all the varied nooks and crannies of the bread.   The most recent Way Forward press release named “traditional, contextual and progressive values” as points on a continuum that need to be balanced.  Contextual seems to be our new name for the middle.

It’s a carefully chosen word.  Only bad pastors fail to take context seriously in their biblical exposition or ministry planning.  The word is especially strategic when we recognize an important voting bloc the Way Forward is being marketed to:  Central conference bishops and delegates.  One legacy of the old colonial mission strategy was that Western churches did not respect the context of the people they were trying to reach.  Contextual is an appeal to the common-sense idea that things can and should look different in various places.

Beyond appreciation for strategic marketing, it should be noted that using contextual as a middle point on a continuum is nonsense.  All plans are contextual.  This whole debate is over what makes sense in our United Methodist context.  The language of context masks the reality that we really are dealing with two competing orthodoxies vying for control of a denomination.

One headline from the recent Way Forward conclave reads “Bishops Avoid Extremes in Unity Discussions.”   The article was about the bishops’ majority preference for “Option Two” (the contextual one… formerly known as the local option).  Is this a mediating position between two extremes?  One possible model is to enforce our current language, another is to change our current language, and the third is to create a structure that can support more than one set of standards.  Someone will need to explain to me how the second choice is the middle in any way other than the numerical ordering.

If any plan allows differentiation by context, it would be Model Three, the Multi-Branch plan.  As described in the recent press release, the Model Three being drafted by the bishops is a far-reaching plan that does away with our current jurisdictional conferences.  It will require constitutional changes that remove organizational patterns that have been with us since 1939.   (I drafted and analyzed a very similar model here.)  The complexity of all this opens our bishops to the charge that they are deliberately crafting an unlikely alternative that makes Option Two the preferred path by default.  I trust this is not the case.  But there are structural plans available that are relatively simple and do not require amendments.

What is so bad about requiring amendments?  Changing our constitution requires a 2/3 majority vote at General Conference, a very high bar for any human sexuality legislation to attain.  Then the legislation goes to every annual conference around the world where it must attain a 2/3 aggregate vote.  This takes overwhelming support and lots of time.  We still don’t know whether amendments passed at General Conference 2016 have been approved.  Offering up a plan requiring amendments to compete with a plan that does not creates an apples/oranges situation.

Our bishops have offered no legislative language to date.  For any of the three options, the details will be crucial. Here is the latest description of Option Two, now styled the “One Church Model“:

The One Church Model gives churches the room they need to maximize the presence of United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible. The One Church Model provides a generous unity that gives conferences, churches, and pastors the flexibility to uniquely reach their missional context in relation to human sexuality without changing the connectional nature of The United Methodist Church.

One wonders of this language is aimed at convincing central conference bishops to go along with changes in the U.S. in exchange for guarantees that the funding will continue and that the ministry rules they follow will not be affected.

Let’s assume here that the contextual plan follows in the spirit of the Local Options that came before it.  Look particularly at the plan offered by the Connectional Table to General Conference 2016.  The intent seems very similar.  It would remove chargeable offenses for clergy participating in same-sex activity or officiating at same sex marriages.  It would alter the Social Principles to say that marriage has “traditionally been understood” as the union of one man and one woman (as a sort of museum piece for historical reference). It adds assuring language  that says no clergy has to officiate at a same-sex wedding if they don’t want to and that no conference has to ordain anyone they don’t want to.  The word “context” is used fourteen times in three and a half pages.

The effect of these changes, however, would not be contextual.  They would be universal.  Do we really think that an annual conference could reject a clergy candidate based on a same-sex relationship while bishops of the church in good standing are doing the same thing?¹  There would be no standard for a conference disciplining a clergy for performing same sex marriages.  There would be no way for local churches to prevent their pastor from officiating at a same sex wedding at their altar.  (Our rules prevent local church trustees from interfering in religious services deemed appropriate by our clergy).

Funding for Bishop Karen Oliveto and all future bishops in same-sex relationships would continue from the Episcopal Fund supported by every local congregation’s apportionments… no contextualization.  There is no way to financially support some of our bishops without supporting all.² Clergy would have no recourse if they found themselves under the supervision of someone currently deemed by our church as in a lifestyle incompatible with Christian teaching.  Annual conferences would have no way of refusing the appointment of a bishop pursuing a gay lifestyle.  Local churches would have no basis for refusing the appointment of a pastor in a same-sex relationship or determined to officiate same-sex weddings.

Individual clergy and congregations would be  subject to open-ended pressure to conform to the tenets of the sexual revolution.  Hold-outs could be targeted by public demonstrations or back-room manipulations of the supervisory and appointive processes.  Every local church would be under pressure to decide whether same-sex marriages are something they would embrace in their own wedding policies.  Each clergy would need to personally justify any refusal to officiate a same-sex wedding to the couple and their family members.  The dysfunction we currently see at General Conference would be pushed down to the annual conference and local church levels.

The plan offered by Connectional Table was rejected by General Conference 2016.  The same delegates are coming together a year from now in St. Louis.  It is difficult to not see the One Church Model as anything other than fresh wrapping paper on the gift we decided to return last year.

But I choose to keep an open mind.  Maybe our bishops have found a way to address the above concerns beyond the stated promise of an exit ramp.   But, under the banner of contextualization, a majority of our bishops now at least seem ready to recommend wholesale changes to our understanding of marriage and human sexuality as our best Way Forward.   That is their right.  But let’s not call this centrist, contextual, or a compromise.⊕


Read my full round-up of possible Way Forward legislation here.


¹ I have heard it argued that “immorality” would stand in the clergy standards and that annual conferences could charge a pastor based on that if they deemed same-sex practice immoral.  Any defendant, however, need only to point to how their behavior is identical to some United Methodist bishops in good standing.

² Lonnie Brooks from Alaska has authored a Local Option that also localizes our episcopacy to avoid the conflict described.  It would require constitutional changes with supermajority passage and ratification, which is a nearly impossible hurdle to be jumped by any Way Forward proposal.