by Chris Ritter
My last post set off an extended debate with my fellow Illinoisan, Bishop Bill Lewis, who took me to task over an opening comment that the One Church Plan (OCP) was endorsed by something less than a super-majority of the Council of Bishops. Bishop Lewis:
I was there. I keep careful notes. You are not correct with your “facts?”. There was an early straw “test the house” vote on all three options. It’s purpose was to get a sense of the direction the house was moving. It came early in the discussion and had no official status. The spread that time was 39, 15, 8. That is 8 for the TO [Traditional Option]. There are 62 active bishops eligible to vote. There was only one official vote on a specific proposal. That count was 54 to 8 for the OCP. (87 percent)… You can’t sleep through this stuff.
Comments made by others during my online conversation with the bishop helped me realize that this understanding of overwhelming, super-majority support of OCP is much larger than one person. I believe this claim deserves the more thorough challenge I hope to offer here.
My contention (which I thought was settled fact) is that the official vote by the Council of Bishops was only to approve the entire Way Forward Report. This report, as negotiated during their meeting, would include the legislative enactments for all three Way Forward plans. A vote for the report did not equate with an endorsement of the One Church Plan alone. The report merely reported an earlier-established majority preference for the OCP. In fact (and against the majority wishes of The Commission) the Council of Bishops added back the Traditional Plan into the report which did not even exist in legislative form at the time. I don’t dispute that a majority of active bishops support the One Church Plan. But I do wish to refute the exotic claim that 87% (all but eight) active United Methodists bishops endorse the OCP as the best path forward for the UMC.
Does It Matter?
Technically speaking, it does not matter what the Council of Bishops voted. Bishops have no vote at General Conference. After the May COB meeting, the Judicial Council ruled (Decision 1360) that the role of the bishops was limited to forming The Commission. They had not been asked to endorse any of its plans or even to bring the Commission’s work back to General Conference. Prior to this ruling, it was assumed by the Council of Bishops that the Commission would report to them and they would, in turn, report what they wanted to General Conference. The Judicial Council’s decision set off a scramble to write the Council of Bishops nearly out of the Way Forward Report. It’s final form does not even mention the Council’s support for the One Church Plan.
But the fact remains that supporters of the One Church Plan, including at least one bishop, reference 87% support by the Council of Bishops to add to the plan’s provenance. So let’s take a closer look.
To my knowledge, Bishop Lewis is the only bishop to share the vote totals from the Council of Bishops’ meeting. So these are the only numbers we have. One can only surmise that the Council asked their members not to share such data. Why? They were going for a consensus report in order to show as much of a unified face as possible given our deep divisions and the imminent threat of formalized division. They did several things to arrive as something close to consensus, including adding back the Traditional Plan. I do not dispute Bishop Lewis’ numbers or believe he would record inaccurate data. But he is sharing only a piece of what happened and offering it as a conclusion. Some reports described a series of tests and polls. We have no data from these other tests of the body or have the wording of how these various questions might have been posed.
Bishop Lewis reports that, early in the meeting, the Council tested the house by asking each of the 62 bishops present which Way Forward Plan they would choose. The One Church and Connectional Conference Plans were in legislative form and the Traditional Plan was in sketch form. His notes indicate the following spread:
- One Church Plan – 39 votes (63%)
- The Connectional Conference Plan – 15 votes (24%)
- The Traditional Plan – 8 votes (13%)
In order for the 87% OCP support narrative to be true, those voting for the Connectional Conference Plan swung their votes to the One Church Plan by the end of the meeting. Is this what the bishops understood as their vote?
Majority vs. Overwhelming Majority
The following was released on May 4 by the Council of Bishops:
Having received and considered the extensive work of the Commission on a Way Forward, the Council of Bishops will submit a report to the Special Session of the General Conference in 2019 that includes:
- All three plans (The Traditionalist Plan, The One Church Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan) for a way forward considered by the Commission and the Council.
- The Council’s recommendation of the One Church Plan.
- An historical narrative of the Council’s discernment process regarding all three plans.
It is well documented that the bishops all went home from their meeting with their own version of events. Those supporting the OCP tended to highlight the council’s majority support for it and those with reservations about the OCP tended to highlight that all three plans would be forwarded to General Conference. These conflicting reports led to the following clarifying statement May 18:
“The Council of Bishops has voted by an overwhelming majority to share the work done by the Commission on a Way Forward on the three plans and to recommend the One Church Plan. The One Church Plan will be placed before the 2019 General Conference for legislative action. To honor the work of the commission, and in service to the delegates to the 2019 Special Session of the General Conference, the Council of Bishops will also provide supplemental materials that include a historical narrative with disciplinary implications related to the connectional conference plan and the traditionalist plan. The recommendation adopted by the COB reflects the wide diversity of theological perspectives and the global nature of the UMC as the best way forward for our future as a denomination.”
Note the gap between “overwhelming majority to share the work” and “to recommend the One Church Plan.” The overwhelming majority was to share all three plans. The simple majority decision was for the One Church Plan.
The motion was to submit a report. The report recorded the Council’s earlier-established majority support for the One Church Plan but only as one of three points. Voting to approve a report is not the same thing as voting to endorse a particular plan in the report. Bishop Scott Jones attempted to clarify this by explaining: “It is important to understand that three official actions were taken as part of the one formal motion…”
Bishop Ken Carter, the newly minted President of the Council of Bishops, issued the following comments following the vote:
First, a motion was approved by the Council of Bishops that the three plans discussed by the Council of Bishops and the Commission on a Way Forward will be included in a report to the special session of the General Conference in February 2019. These are:
- A traditionalist plan that retains the present language about human sexuality
- A one church plan that removes the language and allows for adaptation, and
- A connectional conference plan that allows for three distinct bodies within a larger church, with different perspectives on human sexuality.
The motion of the COB was passed with strong support. And all three were carried forward, to be discussed, because the values of our whole church are present in the three different plans, and we did not want to suppress the conversation. We also wanted to honor the legislative work that will take place in the delegations. This work was done with intense prayer, listening to scripture and to each other, and with love for the Lord Jesus Christ and his body, the church.
No active bishop, to my knowledge, went forth from the Council of Bishops claiming anything more than simple majority support for the One Church Plan. Bishop Lewis’ understanding seems to be an outlier. A question for personal reflection: If our seriously divided Council of Bishop achieved an 87% consensus on our church’s most hotly contested issue, would the roll-out of that announcement have happened like it did? It would have a been a triumph of episcopal alignment worthy of celebration. They would have sprayed each other with champagne before a full press conference. The actual announcement and subsequent clarifications were far from this.
The Rise of the Traditional Plan
The biggest surprise for many from the May Council of Bishops’ announcement was the revival of the Traditional Plan. Following the November 2017 Council of Bishops’ meeting, the Commission on a Way Forward decided to focus only on the Connectional Conference Plan and the One Church Plan. The Traditional Plan was left only in sketch outline form. The Way Forward Report records, “It was reported to the Commission on a Way Forward that the Council of Bishops did not vote on or express any preference on the models but when asked which model(s) the Commission should develop, both the One-Church sketch and the Multi-Branch sketch were the focus.” It is unclear who made the decision to de-emphasize the Traditional Plan, but that decision was fully reversed at the May 2018 COB meeting.
We can debate what happened that caused the Traditional Model to resurface. Since there is no official account, all reports are anecdotal. One African bishop told me that the episcopal leaders of the African Central Conferences met together during the Council of Bishops meeting and formulated a written statement. The statement said that they could not go home to their people with only the two plans under discussion. The statement was read aloud to the Council by a designated bishop. When the President of the Council thanked them for the statement and attempted to move on, objection was raised and the Council was asked by the African leaders to discuss what they just heard.
I am told this statement by the African bishops was responsible for the inclusion of the Traditional Plan in the Way Forward report. If the Council wanted anything approaching a unified report, the Traditional Plan would need to be in it. (I am not sure how many African bishops were present at the meeting, but there are thirteen episcopal areas in Africa.) If this isn’t what happened, I have not heard another explanation for why the Traditional Plan was added back.
Beyond the African bishops, we have several U.S./Filipino bishops and the bishop of the Moscow Episcopal Area who have indicated that the One Church Plan is not their preferred Way Forward. I know of eight bishops (none of them African) who developed a version of my affiliated/autonomous plan and endorsed it with their signatures. Bishops, we are told, were involved with the work of turning the Traditional Model Sketch into full legislative form (which includes an affiliated/autonomous status). This Traditional Plan is included as an Appendix 3 to the Way Forward Report under the heading, “A Conversation within the Council of Bishops.” This work would not have come from a body with 87% support for the One Church Plan.
What We Know About Africa
I accepted the invitation recently to gather in East Africa with United Methodist leaders, bishops, and a few ecumenical guests. Many languages and cultures were represented. Whenever the topic of General Conference 2019 surfaced, the group certainly seemed bound closely together in resistance to the One Church Plan. To believe the 87% number being circulated, we would have to believe that all U.S., Filipino, and European bishops support the One Church Plan, along with several African bishops.
We have a statement on human sexuality issued from the bishops of the Central Conferences of Africa following their September 2015 gathering in Zimbabwe. In it they express their “shock and dismay” at the embrace of LGBT lifestyles. They reaffirm marriage as the union between a man and a woman and chide leaders who accept practices contrary to God’s Word. I have included the full text of their statement below.
To believe the “overwhelming” number in support of the One Church Plan, one would have to believe that a good number of the bishops that issued this statement swung from this previous position, through all possible structural options for the UMC, and landed on the other side in endorsement of the OCP. This strains credulity to the breaking point.
The claims of 87% support for the One Church Plan from among our bishops is inaccurate. In fact, the biggest news out of the May Council of Bishops’ meeting was the resurgence of the Traditional Plan. It is troubling that our bishops would be uncertain about what they voted on and what it means. The divergent reports from our bishops are perhaps the best evidence for the claim that this is not a body at consensus. And they lead a church that is far from consensus. In addition to unanimous rejection by every evangelical renewal group and caucus, the One Church Plan has been critiqued by respected institutional voices like Dr. Ted Campbell, Dr. Bill Lawrence, and Lonnie Brooks. The One Church Plan is only a way forward to messy division and is not a lasting, workable resolution of our current crisis.
STATEMENT ON HUMAN SEXUALITY BY THE BISHOPS OF THE CENTRAL CONFERENCES OF AFRICA – September 2015
Over the past four decades, from 1972 until the present, we have watched with shock and dismay the rapid drift of our denomination from this Holy call to a warm embrace of practices that have become sources of conflict that now threatens to rip the Church apart and distract her from the mission of leading persons to faith and making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. One of such practices is the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender). As leaders of the church in Africa, we call upon all United Methodists, Bishops, clergy and Laity to an unreserved commitment to the Holy Bible as the primary authority for faith and practice in the church. We call upon all members throughout the connection to adopt practices consistent with the teachings of the Holy Scriptures. We submit to the teachings of Scripture that God designed marriage to be between man and woman, and the procreation of children is a blessing from God (Gen. 2:24-25; Psalm 127:3-5). Scripture also teaches that all persons are sexual beings, whether or not they are married. However, sexual relations are affirmed only within the covenant bond of a faithful monogamous, heterosexual marriage, and not within same-sex unions or polygamy. The Christian marriage covenant is holy, sacred, and consecrated by God and is expressed in shared fidelity between one man and one woman for life. In this vein, we denounce all forms of sexual exploitation, including fornication, adultery, sexual commercialization, slavery, abuse, polygamy, etc. We are deeply saddened that the Holy Bible, our primary authority for faith and the practice of Christian living, and our Book of Discipline are being grossly ignored by some members and leaders of our Church in favor of social and cultural practices that have no scriptural basis for acceptance in Christian worship and conduct. Yet they continue to attempt to persuade members of the Church to incorporate these practices as an accepted code of conduct within global United Methodism. As shepherds of God’s flock, we covenant to be in ministry with those of our members who adopt practices that are inconsistent with the teachings of the Holy Scriptures.