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.