by Chris Ritter
One things seems clear as we analyze proposals for the Way Forward: There will be pain. I have argued that disruption will be the greatest and longest with the One Church Plan. We now have a fairly detailed outline of this legislation favored by a majority of the Council of Bishops. Rev. Donna Pritchard, a member of the Commission on a Way Forward, recently offered a presentation to the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference on the details of the One Church Plan:
- Each annual conference decides ordination
- Each clergy decides marriage
- Each local church decides wedding policies
- Each annual conference pays for their bishop and supports Central Conferences through apportionments
- Removes current prohibitive language from the BOD
- Honors diversity of perspectives
- Maintains global connection while honoring cultural and geographical differences
- No constitutional amendments required
- Little disruption to mission, or to UMC boards, agencies, or institutions
- Allows mission in line with context relative to LGBTQ inclusion
The Radioactive Hot Potato
Proponents of the One Church Plan are quick to point out that no local church vote is mandated. But pay attention to the first three points above and the word “decides.” If you think getting to decide about same sex marriage is a gift, I would invite you to think further. More and more United Methodists are discovering what this will mean. In discussion forums on the Way Forward, I often hear repeated a simple and passionate request from laity and clergy alike: “Please don’t make us decide.”
I have argued elsewhere that the One Church Plan will not result in one church and will certainly not enhance unity. All Way Forward plans either cut or tear the UMC. The unique feature of the One Church Plan is that it deliberately passes a radioactive hot potato down from our quadrennial policy-making body to our primary settings for ministry: the annual conference and the local church. This is not a gift.
Annual conferences form the bread and butter of our connectional life and will be hit hard by the One Church Plan. The pain will be worse in the very regions where United Methodism is strongest. A recent Straw Poll held at the 2018 North Georgia Annual Conference (the largest in the U.S. with more members than the entire Western Jurisdiction) revealed that 25% of the body would leave if the UMC changed its position on human sexuality (5% would leave if we didn’t). A slim majority of the body indicated that they favored the current BOD language on human sexuality.
Under the One Church Plan, hold-out conferences reluctant to ordain clergy in same-sex relationships will be systematically targeted. The battles will be played out in the press as well as the floors of annual conference. The issue will be brought up until the current teachings of our church fall. But the disruption will not be limited our annual meetings. We saw this recently in a case in Ohio where a pastor was brought to trial for marrying his long-term partner in a ceremony timed to coincide with General Conference 2016. The pastor and his legal team successfully put the church on trial using the local press, naming and shaming those who are trying to hold him accountable to his clergy vows.
Proponents of the One Church Plan are quick to point out that local congregations will only vote “if they want to.” In reality, however, the One Church Plan installs a big red self-destruct button that anyone in the church (or community) can hit. You only need one person willing to make a stink over same-sex marriage.
I am told pastors can officiate whatever weddings they want under the One Church Plan. This means that clergy will need to explain to couples that not officiating their weddings is a personal decision and not a denominational policy. Same-sex weddings can only be held at the altar of the church if local church wedding policies allow it. It will be fascinating to see how this is worded legislatively. Will same-sex weddings be allowed only in congregations that vote to allow it, or will same-sex weddings be allowed in congregations that have not made policies against it? What is the default? This is not insignificant because the path requiring no vote will become the norm. And it will determine whether more traditionalist or progressive congregations will initially face the burden of a decision.
Either way, there will be local votes. Most congregations will avoid this issue entirely until someone wants a same-sex wedding at the altar. By that time the decision will not be theological but personal. It will be the grandson of the church council chair, the daughter of an SPRC member, etc. Decisions will be made in the context of local church politics and relational/financial influence. The potential for harm is great.
Under the One Church Plan, I am told that pastors that cannot officiate same-sex weddings are to secure clergy that will perform these ceremonies if their local church policies allow it. This compromises a pastor’s ability to shepherd her/his congregation according to their understanding of biblical teaching. It is likewise naive to think that the local church will not be profoundly affected by their pastor officiating same-sex weddings outside the church building.
A Less Bad Way Forward
There is no great Way Forward. But there are less bad ones. Solutions that allow congregations and clergy to locate themselves in like-minded annual conferences avoid fully passing the radioactive hot potato down to local congregations. There will still be a few votes in congregations out of step with their conference, but the vote is what covenant to join and not deciding the nature of Christian marriage directly. Once the decision is made, issues of Christian marriage will be decided above the level of the local church… no more congregational “big red button.” Both the Traditionalist Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan allow this orderly and less hazardous sorting. The Traditionalist Plan can be accomplished without constitutional amendments I commend it to you for careful study and consideration.
Image credit: http://www.businessinsider.com/reddit-versus-the-button-2015-4?r=UK&IR=T