by Chris Ritter
Our rescue dog is a Chihuahua mix named Dottie. I laughed when I saw the picture above because it both looks like her and accurately reflects her dramatic swings in personality. With a simple ring of the doorbell, she goes from sweet to savage. As she threatens to bite the leg off the latest boy scout selling popcorn at our front door, I quote to her a phrase I first heard in seminary from professor Dr. Theresa Fry: “God don’t like ugly.”
A simple adage: God’s children should not be ugly to each other. But General Conference 2019 is primed to get VERY ugly. This fight brings out the worst in all of us. It touches on matters of faith and sexuality that are very personal. People with entirely different views of the world are locked into a decision-making process where the stakes are high. The consensus model of decision-making at General Conference has long given way to bare-knuckle, partisan, win/lose politics. The battle lines are drawing up around two options: The One Church Plan that redefines marriage in the UMC and the Traditional Plan that seeks to maintain the current church-wide definition of marriage. Whichever of these plans passes, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth by the other side.
But it really doesn’t have to be this way. A good deal of the “ugly” can be neutralized. There might even be ways to come out of General Conference stronger than we are now. Here’s how.
Employ the Golden Rule
Before we vote where the United Methodist Church is going to stand on human sexuality and marriage, let’s decide to treat those on the losing side of this vote with grace. Let’s treat them like we would want to be treated if the tables were turned. Employing the Golden Rule will cause us to ask, “What would I want if I was forced to leave the United Methodist Church for the sake of conscience?” Here are some ideas.
- If an annual conference leaves, it should leave with its assets intact.
- If a congregation finds itself in an annual conference with a view they cannot support, they should be allowed to re-affiliate with their properties intact. They should pay only what is necessary to uphold a fair share of the pension commitments made by the conference they are exiting (as calculated by Wespath).
- Those leaving should have the opportunity to coordinate with like-minded others who are exiting.
- There should be protections that the supervisory system will allow congregations and clergy to leave free and clear without the supervisory structures hampering these decisions.
We should spend the first day of General Conference crafting a life raft for those who will be disenfranchised from the human sexuality votes at General Conference. If we build a life raft we ourselves would be willing to board we can be assured that we have treated one another like sisters and brothers. The gracious exit mechanism included in the Traditional Plan could be applied to any of the Way Forward proposals.
Whatever disconnection happens will not be total. At the very least, we will all be part of the World Methodist Council. But I predict we will do much better than that. There are ways to give everyone access to things we now share. The Traditionalist Plan contains a “Standard Concordat” that relates exiting annual conferences and congregations back to the UMC. It envisions certain annual conferences becoming autonomous and contracting with each general agency for services. New conferences can also be formed by groups of fifty or more congregations. But there are many iterations of a concordat relationship to consider.
- Near Total Connection. Exiting churches are autonomous in terms of human sexuality standards but are fully affiliated otherwise. They continue to use the UMC name/logo, pay full apportionments, have full representation at General Conference, and seats on the boards of our general agencies. The concordat would specify that the autonomy only extends to human sexuality rules and the UM BOD will be followed otherwise. One General Conference is retained. Autonomous conferences choose one of our twelve colleges of bishops and are included in its plan of oversight.
- Substantial Connection. The autonomous conferences have a name and logo related to, but distinct from, the cross and flame. The concordat specifies a set of “essential services” that are shared between the UMC and the autonomous bodies… like pensions and disaster relief. Representation is given on the boards of the general agencies to which autonomous conferences relate. The autonomous bodies have their own Discipline that fits under the new Global Book of Discipline. An apportionment is assigned by GCFA for the shared work.
- A la Carte Connection. Autonomous conferences are truly autonomous with their own identity, name, and logo. They have their own General Conference and Discipline. These bodies are allowed to contract with general agencies at their own discretion for shared services (or not). This is the model in the current Traditional Plan.
It will take a good deal of the ugly out of General Conference 2019 if all the parts remain in significant relationship with one another. We are not kicking fellow United Methodists into “outer darkness” but moving them into a customized relationship where they can do their thing.
Do Something Good for the Mission
Wouldn’t it be great if General Conference 2019 configured the church in ways that actually made us more effective in reaching people for Jesus Christ? It is possible. There are creative and constitutional methods to reconfigure The United Methodist Church into an umbrella under which many Methodisms might flourish. Using the affiliated autonomous model within the United States allows groups to form around more issues than the over-worn topic of human sexuality.
Professor Ted Campbell of Perkins has stated “there are times when Christian groups really need to be separated into their own corners for the sake of their missional work. United Methodists right now,” he says, “need to find a way to get out of each others’ hair for the sake of our mission.” Campbell has raised the vision for a high-church expression of United Methodism that would build on the Ecumenical Wesleyan Society. (Listen here at around 27:30)
I was thumbing through some reports of the Methodist Episcopal Church from the Nineteenth Century, our time of explosive expansion. There were German, Swedish, and Indian Conferences. There was a “Mexican Border Mission Conference.” The conference maps of the Methodist Episcopal Church significantly overlapped those of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. The Illinois church I grew up in was actually planted by the Southern Church. As near as I can tell, our obsession with strict geographic borders was a byproduct of our effort to eliminate the Central Jurisdiction. Missionary Conferences are our only specialized, overlapping conferences currently. Maybe it is time to bring back more contextualization.
The only two plans before General Conference 2019 that allow for newly configured conferences are the Connectional Conference Plan and the Traditionalist Plan. These deserve particular study. In the discussion and negotiation that will happen between now and February, I hope all the various constituencies of The United Methodist Church can come together collaboratively and invent a Methodism that will work serve us well for the next let of our journey. We can do it… and God don’t like ugly.
Photo Credit: https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/lily-lu