by Chris Ritter
It has been travelling around selected inboxes for weeks and now the final report of The Commission on a Way Forward is public. The release did not happen as (revisedly) promised with versions offered simultaneously in all the official languages of the UMC on July 30. Instead it showed up in a filing to the Judicial Council, made public by the operating rules of that body. The fact that this important document stumbled out like a middle-schooler pushed onto the dance floor seems somehow fitting. “Ready, fire, aim” seems the norm in United Methodist world lately.
It is a long report. Hopefully, the first impression we all get is gratitude for the hard and difficult work of the Commission on a Way Forward. There is no evidence that anyone changed their minds on human sexuality as a result of the Way Forward process. However, it is clear that a very diverse group of United Methodists worked together in close quarters to flesh out three genuine options for our denomination. Doubtless, commissioners helped perfect proposals to which they were adamantly opposed. This says something about the character and commitment of the people involved. Thank you, Commission!
There will be barrels of ink spilled between now and February. This post is designed to give some general first impressions.
The One Church Plan
A lot of thought went into the One Church Plan and new features were added that aim to pacify the concerns of Traditionalists. There are some prudent features. One is the rule that an annual conference cannot reconsider its position on homosexuality for a full thirty months after taking a vote. This prevents the fight over homosexuality from becoming an annual ordeal. The right of a United Methodist clergy to not officiate in a same sex marriage is spelled out. But the right to officiate or not officiate has always been present for clergy. Many of the measures offering protections are window dressing. Make no mistake: The One Church Plan is a wholesale change of The United Methodist position on human sexuality and a redefinition (or de-definition) of marriage.
Supporters of the One Church Plan will be quick to point out that no local church vote is mandated. Only those churches who want to hold same-sex weddings at their altar need call a church conference vote. But the simple fact that congregations are allowed to vote opens them up to pressure. Anyone who wants to raise a stink over same sex marriage could apply pressure to a congregation or its leaders in any number of ways. Decisions will then be made based on personality and influence instead of theology. And pastors can officiate whatever weddings they want outside the church property without a vote (where civil law allows). There is nothing the conference or congregation can do to regulate this and both are affected by these these pastoral decisions.
I find the updated chargeable offenses in the One Church Plan to be oddly worded: “not being celibate in singleness or not faithful in
a heterosexual a monogamous marriage.” Unfaithful in a monogamous marriage? Is that possible? Didn’t the marriage cease to be monogamous at the moment the unfaithfulness occurred? Why not just “faithful in marriage”? Does this means that a pastor found sleeping around town could avoid charges if they could demonstrate that they were in an “open” marriage? The Commission is full of good, smart, ethical people and I am fully confident this is not the intent. This just struck me as strange.
I think there is a good chance that the One Church Plan is unconstitutional. It delegates powers assigned to the General Conference down to the annual conferences. Also, additions to Par. 340 require that clergy that cannot resolve conflicts with their charge over same sex marriage “shall be reassigned.” This imposes on the appointive power of the bishops, it seems to me. It will be interesting to see what the Judicial Council thinks in October.
The Connectional Conference Plan
I submitted three versions of The Jurisdictional Solution to General Conference 2016 as a path toward resolving our conflicts over human sexuality. They all used the extra upper judicatory layer of our denomination to create space between Methodisms. The Connectional Conference Plan is a highly refined version of these plans and I would be happy to endorse it. It is the most “centrist” plan in the report. No one endorsed the Connectional Conference Plan without also endorsing one of the other two plans, which adds to the centrist bonafides of the proposal.
Unfortunately, bringing this level of separation while preserving some sort of shared umbrella requires complexity. The CC Plan is twice the length of the One Church Plan. Its constitutional amendments create a super-majority hurdle it will be unable to clear. For this reason alone the Connectional Conference Plan will come to GC2019 as a dead letter. I say this with great regret because it is a worthy heir to the Jurisdictional Solution work on which I labored for several years. We need some way to sort ourselves into different conferences if we are going to be able to be in non-coercive connection with one another.
The Traditionalist Plan
There are a whole laundry list of accountability measures that comprise the Traditionalist Plan. The heart of the proposal, however, is a mandatory and generous off-ramp for those conferences, congregations, and clergy who cannot live by the Book of Discipline. They can accept a new status in which they set their own rules and borders while retaining a relationship with the UMC. Those of you that follow my legislative work may remember “The Platypus Plan” that allowed affiliated autonomous bodies in the United States (like we currently allow them overseas and in Puerto Rico). That model was absorbed into The Traditionalist Plan. I am very happy to see it part of the final Way Forward report.
The Traditionalist Plan gives a very fair, non-punitive, and hopeful option that was not previously on the table. I hope that this affiliated and autonomous status does not get lost amidst all the accountability and enforcement language. The Traditionalist Plan gives birth to something completely new and, along with the Connectional Conference Plan, allows peaceful co-existence among differing stripes of Methodism… something not the case with the One Church Plan. Those that remain fully United Methodist are held accountable to the Book of Discipline, restoring integrity to our covenant. I am happy to endorse this as our most realistic and fair Way Forward.
I don’t think anyone can now legitimately argue that General Conference 2016 simply “kicked the can down the road.” All three Way Forward plan offer the church things not on the table at the last General Conference. We needed this pause to reflect and study and those charge with the task did an admirable job. That being said, the option endorsed by our Council of Bishops creates real and open-ended harm. It further muddies the moral teachings of our church and their relationship with Scripture as interpreted unanimously through Tradition. The most centrist proposal, The Connectional Conference Plan, would need a miracle to pass and an even bigger one to be ratified. The Traditionalist Model, with all its accountability and enforcement language, actually offers an extremely gracious path toward creating another brand of Methodism that retains connection with the United Methodist Church. I commend this for careful study.
Photo Credit: http://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2016/03/how-seriously-read-scientific-paper