by Chris Ritter
The quick video I shot this week garnered a much bigger reaction than I had expected with thousands of views and lots of online discussion. The video explained how the “affiliated autonomous” status might help the UMC out of the morass in which we find ourselves. I seem to have struck a nerve.
On the one hand you have people who, like me, have been looking for some structural mechanism to create space for more than one vision of United Methodism to move forward without blowing up the entire denomination. Response has been extremely good from these quarters.
Reaction has been negative from those who are hoping for a plenary change in our denominational positions on human sexuality. This plan is threatening to the idea that the only Way Forward is the Local Option (aka One Church Model), unless we go through the cumbersome and unlikely process of amending our constitution. The concept I have put forth can be accomplished by a simple majority vote at General Conference 2019.
The basic concept is that a simple change to the Discipline would allow conferences to become affiliated autonomous (AA) bodies in the U.S., just as we currently allow overseas. These autonomous conferences could bind together into something akin to a new connection. Individual clergy and churches could be swapped between conferences of the jurisdictions and the autonomous conferences. These AA bodies would have access to the general agencies of the United Methodist Church through a standard concordat agreement that can be written as generously and graciously as we like.
On the graphic for this post, you see the logos of seven affiliated autonomous bodies. All of them overtly display their connection to the UMC through their adaptation of the cross and flame. None of them are subject to the Book of Discipline of the UMC. These are not Central Conference bodies. These are autonomous churches that retain an affiliation and partnership with the UMC in spite of the fact that they are governed by their own rules.
I lift these autonomous bodies up because of the criticism that this plan would create second-class Methodists. Not true. Is Puerto Rico second class because they left the North Central Jurisdiction in the 1970’s? They have pensions through Wespath (a privilege our UMC Central Conferences don’t have). They are part of our National Hispanic Plan. They send their bishop to the Council of Bishops of the UMC and delegates to the UMC General Conference. Yet they elect their bishop through their own processes, have their own Discipline, and hold their own General Conference every six years. They are doing what works for them. A wonderful partnership is currently happening between the Iglesia Metodista de Puerto Rico and UMCOR as recovery continues from ravages of Hurricane Maria.
I ran this plan through the filter of the Golden Rule. Would I be satisfied serving in an affiliated autonomous body? I can answer with an unequivocal “yes.” In fact, if something like the Local Option passes, I would hope that the affiliated autonomous status would be offered to clergy like me who would find themselves in a position of moral compromise. Consider: One Way Forward would be for GC2019 to create the domestic affiliated autonomous status as a first action and decide on the denominational position on human sexuality as a secondary action. It might draw the venom from the wounds of our church to know that everyone will have a safe place to land.
As it stands now, the Local Option offers little relief for Progressive clergy and churches in more traditionalist areas. Rev. Ben Gosden commented on the plan in an online forum:
A few thoughts from a “more-progressive-than-not” pastor serving in a conservative conference (South Georgia) on why I think Chris’ plan (or some variation of it) is the best plan available:
1) It offers the gracious exit no other plan seems to do. We know it’s inevitable, but no other plan conceptualizes it. I don’t want people to leave, but at this point we’re naive to think it won’t happen.
2) I’m willing to leave for the sake of the greater good of the kingdom. If you’re a progressive and you think this somehow creates a “second class” tier of Methodism for you, I’d challenge you to consider whether you just want to win an argument.
3) To combine 1 and 2 – This scenario offers a peaceful way we can loosen the connection now and not blow the opportunity to come back together in 50 years after our numbers continue to decline and we’re forced to unite again.
4) Chris’ plan has secondary implications that make it even more exciting. Namely, it forces a structural change. Our agencies are bloated and have little accountability for effectiveness. Our system is wrought with flaws from our union-mentality among clergy to our institutional preservation among leaders to our lack of ability to close dead churches. I could go on. This plan offers a foundation where we can build multiple new structures better suited for ministry in the 21st Century.
I follow the Book of Discipline and would never violate it. But if Chris’ plan came to be, I’d be happy to join an autonomous affiliated group, share ministry and pensions with my traditionalist friends, and hope that we all could find a more faithful space to be who God calls us to be.
We will have to wait to find out if the affiliated autonomous status has found its way into any of the legislative models being offered by the Council of Bishops. But in the meantime we can ask: Is the Methodist movement strengthened or weakened when new versions of the cross and flame pop up? I believe it is strengthened. The old wine-skin of homogenized United Methodism is not serving us well. Why are we fighting? It is time to free the flame.
The picture above shows the logos of the Methodist (affiliated autonomous) Churches in Puerto Rico, Argentina, Singapore, Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, and Cuba.
Colombia is the nation’s spelling. Otherwise, thanks for a good idea.
Thanks for the friendly edit!
I think this is the best way forward. I believe the GC will vote for the Traditionalist plan as evidenced by past votes. However, I doubt this can include effective enforcement measures without some constitutional amendments, a high bar. Then we resume the war that has consumed us for 20-40 years. We are not of one mind and we are already in schism. The AA could be organized in a number of ways, e.g. geographically, theologically, missionally, etc. An AA could be international, but organized around a common mission, etc. As for the trust clause, I think we already have a mechanism for this. We have seen many times a church “given away” by the AC. Usually these are small chuches with little economic value (in NGA). But Mississippi AC has done it and is doing it. It only takes a vote of the local AC to release the property. Therefore, there could be a discernment time in which an AA could organize and clergy and churches, even entire AC’s could decide to move into the AA of their choice (although most AC’s in the US have strong divisions within them, such as NGA. This would allow the amicable separation to occur within an AC). I fully believe this is the best way forward. I have no risk in stating this, happily retired. But I believe many active pastors who fear Episcopal appointive retaliation will choose this.
As usual, you offer much to think about. Several comments/questions come to mind.
1. Your “Affiliated Autonomous” plan sounds like the Connectional Conference Plan that the Council of Bishops will also put forward at GC2019 along with the One Church Plan they endorsed. Like your plan, clergy and churches would need to sort themselves into one of three (or more?) conferences.
2. Doesn’t the need for clergy and churches to decide which AA to associate with come down to the same decision that needs to be made under the One Church Plan? Only without the need for parallel conferences.
3. I was a bit taken aback by your implication that serving along side someone who has a different theological understanding is a “moral compromise”. I may differ with you on full inclusion of LGBTQI in the life of the church but I don’t feel like your understanding morally compromises me. Could you explain how you are morally compromised?
Thank you for your thoughts on how the UMC can hold together through AA. Personally, I support the One Church Plan but you have given me much to consider.
Thanks for your thoughts, Gary. Here are some responses:
1) Using AA bodies is a way to accomplish a structural solution without constitutional amendments. As you know, amendments need super-majority passage at General Conference and ratification votes around the world. Two years later, we still don’t know if the amendments that passed in 2016 are ratified (news on this expected Monday). There has to be some sorting at the annual conference level in order for there to be peace.
2) There would an annual conference vote… unavoidable. Those local churches that feel strongly enough about the conference’s decision would have the opportunity to vote, but will be a minority. We all want to minimize local church votes. The One Church Model forces a church to decide about same sex wedding whenever anyone wants to make a stink about it. The truth is that clergy can do what they want regardless of the wishes of the congregation. It severely disempowers the laity to decide what they see celebrated at their altar.
3) It is difficult to preach the New Testament sexual ethic when your bishop is in a same-sex relationship. Every youth conference and annual conference speech will beat the full inclusion drum until the entire UMC capitulates. Those that hold the historic position of the Christian faith will become second class citizens. I am not currently morally compromised, but I would if I was asked to be part of a church that makes up its definition of marriage according to the dictates of the culture. The Local Option is unworkable for me without some real protections, which would mean the opportunity to join a separate supervisory hierarchy.
Thanks again for keeping an open mind and explore all options. Blessings to you.