by Chris Ritter
If the Traditional Plan is approved at General Conference 2019, a new cross and flame logo may rise on the U.S. denominational landscape. Those that cannot live by our present Book of Discipline will be granted a new connectional status that enables them to set ministry rules fully inclusive of all sexual orientations and gender identities. The new status will also allow new and otherwise autonomous groups to receive services from Wespath and other United Methodist general agencies.
Most readers of the Traditional Plan will first notice the new accountability measures:
- The definition of “self-avowed, practicing homosexual” would be aligned with a recent Judicial Council ruling to include those in a same-sex marriage.
- Those entering into a Just Resolution agreement must commit to obey the Book of Discipline in the future.
- A Just Resolution agreement cannot as easily be used to shield clergy from accountability to United Methodist ministry rules.
- The Council of Bishops can place one of its own members on involuntary leave of absence upon recommendation by a new Council Relations Committee, after appropriate due process.
- Bishops are expressly forbidden from ordaining and consecrating those who do not meet UMC standards.
- Minimum sentences are established for clergy officiating at same-sex weddings.
- Members of boards of ordained ministry must certify they are willing to uphold the Discipline before being allowed to serve. Bishops must certify those they nominate to serve on the BOOM are willing to uphold the Discipline.
Accountability to our ministry covenant is clearly part of the Traditional Plan. But the heart of the plan is found in a new ¶2801 called “Implementing Gracious Accountability” that provides a new connectional status for those who no longer wish to operate under United Methodist ministry standards.
Freed for a New Style of Ministry
No one is forced out of the United Methodist Church under the Traditional Plan. The new enforcement measures of the Traditional Plan are only in place for those who choose to continue under United Methodist rules. If the plan succeeds, the need for punitive actions should be eliminated. Trials will be replaced by transfers. The mechanism allowing this is one for which I have been advocating for as a way to achieve a stable peace: Affiliated/Autonomous Conferences.
Entire conferences, it is anticipated, will take a new connectional status that removes them from their jurisdictional conference and allows them to set their own borders. They can freely receive churches and clergy from other conferences that also want to operate under new ministry rules. (This means progressive conferences in the new status will likely pick up members.) It is anticipated that the Traditional Plan will result in a nation-wide map of progressive conferences with their own Discipline and General Conference. Connection with the UMC is retained through services offered by the general agencies. Participation in Wespath is expressly enabled.
Here is how the plan would be implemented:
- Before March 31, 2020, each annual conference would vote whether it can, in good conscience, uphold our United Methodist ministry standards.
- These conferences that cannot uphold our ministry standards have a period of time to vote and accept the new self-governing status. If they do not take the new status they remain in the UMC. But they are barred by the General Council on Finance and Administration from using the UMC cross and flame or participating in the financial life of the denomination.
- Bishops, likewise, are instructed to certify their willingness to uphold UMC ministry standards. Those that cannot are referred to the new Council Relations Committee of the Council of Bishops.
- A simple majority vote by an annual conference will allow the conference to take the self-governing status. This vote may be repeated anytime after another four year passes. All conference properties and assets are retained.
- When a conference votes to take the self-governing status, their jurisdictional conference convenes to remap its annual conferences to cover the territory vacated by the self-governing conference.
- Local churches and clergy of newly self-governing conferences that wish to remain under the United Methodist Book of Discipline have a window of time to transfer into the conference selected by the jurisdiction to cover their location.
- Local churches and clergy in standard United Methodist conferences would have the opportunity to join these new bodies by requesting a church conference vote.
Conferences taking the new self-governing status may develop their own version of the Cross and Flame as long as it is adequately distinct from the UMC version. They may also use the word “Methodist” in their name. Church-related institutions can develop ties with self-governing churches. Concordat agreements can be developed with the UMC that further reinforce our ongoing partnership. Joint support for missions is expressly encouraged.
Similar Results to the Connectional Conference Plan
The Commission on a Way Forward spent most of their drafting time on the Connectional Conference (CC) Plan that divides up the UMC along lines related to human sexuality. Although the CC Plan allows three groups to form, some (like Way Forward Commissioner Leah Taylor) have speculated that only two branches would actually form. This is due to the likelihood that Progressive UM’s would choose to join the “Unity” (middle) Connectional Conference where they can set the policies they want and still have room to advance their cause.
After the Traditional Plan is implemented, I expect we will see a new Progressive Methodist denomination that stretches across the United States. This new denomination will be built on the foundation of the twelve or so annual conferences who have voted non-compliance with the Book of Discipline of the UMC. They are free to “clone” the UMC Discipline, removing only human sexuality standards and other measures unsuited to their mission. They need not start from scratch. It seems to me that the Traditionalist Plan accomplishes the Connectional Conference plan’s result of two Methodist bodies united by the work of some general agencies. It does so, however, without requiring constitutional amendments.
Not Just a Human Sexuality Solution
Conferences can also vote to become self-governing for reasons unrelated to human sexuality. In fact, any group of fifty or more United Methodist congregations can form their own self-governing body.* The underlying philosophy of the Traditional Plan is that congregations and clergy should not be held in the denomination against their will. Neither should the denomination be log-jammed by those unwilling to keep the covenant arrived at through our agreed-upon means.
It is sometimes said that Democracy is the worst form of government… except for all the others. The Traditional Plan may be the worst UM Way Forward, except for all the others. There is no perfect plan. Careful study of all proposals reveal they all divide the UMC in some way. The Traditional Plan draws the line between those who can live with UMC standards and those that cannot. It assumes a non-punitive posture toward those that recognize their need to be in a different sort of connection. Maybe the best thing that can be said about the Traditional Plan is that it provides space for something we desperately need: Something new.
*The gracious and accessible transfer policies are not to be confused with exit by release of the trust clause to individual churches. Connectionalism is retained.