by Chris Ritter
The Way Forward report is now public and I support either the the Connectional Conference Plan or the Traditionalist Plan. But there is a lot more horse trading to be done between now and February. We might be back to the drawing board, for instance, following the Judicial Council’s review of the plans in October. Also, General Conference has its own version of “smoke filled back rooms” where the proverbial sausage gets made. In all the back and forth that is yet to come I have one sincere appeal: Give us traditional annual conferences in the U.S. where marriage is still the union of one man and one woman. This is the bare minimum to avoid violations of conscience. Two of the current Way Forward plans provide for this and one does not.
“There will be traditional conferences under the One Church Plan.” Not so… not really. Same sex weddings can be conducted by any clergy. Existing clergy who “come out of the closet” will be guaranteed appointments and there would be no basis to remove them. Even if some conferences found a way to maintain a traditionalist identity under the One Church Plan, most traditionalists in the US would not have access to them due to geography.
This isn’t a quest for ideological purity. United Methodists will always disagree with each other on any number of matters. Most of this disagreement produces healthy tensions that keep us in balance. This is different… a struggle to find a place to stand in connection with the United Methodist Church AND our biblical convictions. And it makes sense for mission and ministry, too. Given the fact that the annual conference (the “basic body” of our church, ¶33) has the task of equipping local churches in making disciples of Jesus Christ, the very least we need to be effective is operational consensus on the nature of Christian discipleship.
Progressive conferences within United Methodism will have no problems adapting to the reality created by the One Church Plan. As has been argued, it simply legitimizes what has been happening for years. But United Methodism is numerically weak in these culturally progressive areas. We also need to consider what the One Church Plan will do in those places where United Methodism is strongest.
The North Georgia Conference, the largest in the U.S., recently held a straw poll. 59% said that they agree with the church’s current teaching on human sexuality and 25% would leave the denomination if a local option plan was passed. That is an exodus from one annual conference equal to the full membership of the Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain conferences combined! If General Conference does not give these laity and clergy a place to land under the United Methodist umbrella, they we will be forced out completely and thrown into law suits to keep their properties.
Four issues fuel the need for truly traditionalist annual conferences.
The Appointment Issue
“Through appointment-making, the connectional nature of the United Methodist system is made visible.” ¶425
When the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America approved partnered gay clergy, they could make an argument that those congregations not wanting these pastors would not have them. “Don’t want a gay pastor? Don’t hire one.” They have a call system. We United Methodists have an appointive system for deploying clergy. United Methodism is more interconnected than many other denominations.
We United Methodists also have something called open itineracy that aims to make us inclusive in terms of welcoming leadership from women and racial minorities. By our rules, pastors in good standing are eligible to be appointed by the bishop to any ministry setting. That won’t work any more under the One Church Plan without creating violations of Christian conscience.
Just prior to General Conference 2016, over 100 LGBTQ United Methodist clergy went public and established what is now known as the Queer Clergy Caucus. I don’t consider these folks the enemy by any stretch of the imagination. My hope is that General Conference 2019 will have a place for all of us to land with integrity. For every LGBTQ clergy who came out, more still waiting to do so. UMNS cites Laura Young, regional organizer for Reconciling Ministries Network as stating that gay clergy in more traditional conferences have yet to come out.
Once out, these gay clergy in traditionalist conferences are not subject to review by the Board of Ordained Ministry any more than other clergy in good standing. Even though their conference has not approved clergy in same-sex relationships, they will be serving nonetheless. Traditionalist bishops will be required to appoint them under the One Church Plan. If you are a progressive you view this, of course, as progress. If you are a traditionalist who believes that homosexual practice separates us from God’s creative intentions, you see this creating multiple violations of conscience.
The Supervision Issue
Accepting clergy orders in the United Methodist Church is giving your life away. You stand before the conference and profess that you have studied the doctrines and polity of the church and find them in harmony with Holy Scripture. You agree to serve where those appointed over you assign. Other people, with due consultation and conversation, decide where you will live, work, and even sleep. Our ministry is done under the supervision of others. It is what we sign up for.
The supervisory structures of the UMC can also be used to engineer the conference after the image of the one doing the engineering. The bishop nominates who will serve on the board of ordained ministry. The board of ordained ministry creates training and equipping opportunities for clergy. The cabinet of a conference decides which pastors rise to prominent pulpits. There are also punitive appointments. “We can’t get rid of you, but we can stick you over there.”
The One Church Plan shifts an ugly battle down from General Conference to the annual conference level. I don’t want this type of manipulation to happen for traditionalist clergy, but I also don’t want this for LGBTQ clergy, either. Allowing competing views of human sexuality loose within each annual conference will create a battle ground where the levers of power designed for mission will be weaponized, wielded against those not in line with those holding power.
The Funding Issue
The One Church Plan seems to acknowledge that it is problematic for traditionalist conferences to pay the salary of a bishop who in in a same sex marriage.* That is why the plan asks GCFA to make sure that each episcopal area funds their own bishop. Under the One Church Plan, however, traditionalist congregations (in places) will be serving under and funding district superintendents in same-sex marriages. They will be paying for staff that are trying to take the church in a different direction. The Oregon-Idaho Conference recently hired a “LGBTQA+ Advocacy Coordinator.” They found a way to fund this position through a private foundation to avoid restrictions currently in place. But the conference has blessed this position and its work. Traditionalists can be forced in many ways to financially support a model of ministry that they believe is doing spiritual damage.
The Synergy Issue
An inconvenient truth is that our previous efforts at unity (jurisdictionalism in 1939, theological pluralism in 1968) have done more harm to our mission than our occasional divisions. I am still for unity, but not just any unity. The connection we are looking for is synergistic, heart-felt, and propellant.
Ministry does not work well when churches and clergy feel they are held hostage. When traditionalists in a progressive conference feel that every youth gathering is just going to beat the drum of an agenda they do not support, they send their youth to something else. This weakens the impact of the United Methodist event. We need to offer ministries on the conference level to which we can all say “amen.”
Dr. David Scott, Director of Mission Theology for the General Board of Global Ministries has recently asked, “Are There Too Few Mainline Denominations?” He builds on work by Rodney Stark and Roger Finke who argue that structural innovations that come with new ecclesial bodies allow churches to find new ways to be successful. A “free-market approach to religion that provides more religious choices is good for religious adherence.” The lack of “religious options and competitors on the mainline side may be one reason for mainline membership decline starting in the mid-twentieth century.” Instead of forcing our various streams of United Methodism into the same old structures under the banner of “unity,” might it be better to allow different sorts of ideologically aligned conferences to spring up and evangelize in new locations?
We won’t be able to hold the United Methodist flotilla together without allowing individual clergy and congregations to board different annual conference ships. Even if we could, we shouldn’t. The Connectional Conference Plan allows for sorting at the annual conference level, but it does so in a way that impacts our constitution. The Traditionalist Plan allows conferences, clergy, and congregations who cannot support our position on human sexuality to form their own body with a continued relationship with the UMC. If the One Church Plan added a similar generous, connectional exit provision it would be much more palatable. But that would take honesty about the fact that it overturns our denominational position on human sexuality and marriage. As it is currently written, the name “One Church Plan” has an Orwellian scent that anticipates the season of systemic manipulation that is to come.