by Chris Ritter
The group “Mainstream UMC” made a deposit in my inbox last week entitled “Talking Points for the One Church Plan.” Formed by Rev. Mark Holland of Kansas, Mainstream UMC is organized for the express purpose of passing the One Church Plan (OCP) at General Conference 2019. This plan would reverse or make unenforceable current United Methodist positions on marriage and human sexuality.
I appreciate Mainstream UMC’s clear and unabashed statement of purpose. The Talking Points they offer, however, are each strikingly inaccurate, misleading, and/or incomplete. Way Forward Commissioner Tom Lambrecht offers his excellent responses to the Talking Points here. These are mine:
“It is faithful to Scripture and the example of the Apostles in Acts 15 of allowing different practices in different mission fields.”
The very reason every General Conference since 1972 has affirmed marriage as definitively the union between one man and one woman is because that is the only view that has been found faithful to Scripture. That definition does not come from some obscure ceremonial code in Leviticus, but from the Gospel, the words in red from Jesus Christ our Lord. John Wesley commented on these words (Mark 10 and Matthew 19) by saying that Christ himself “makes the marriage union to be between one man and one woman only.” The One Church Plan is unfaithful to Scripture in that it allows any United Methodist clergy, regardless of annual conference action on this subject, to deviate from the pattern of marriage prescribed by Jesus. Unlike the issue of divorce, there is no nuance offered elsewhere in Scripture describing conditions under which same-sex marriage may be acceptable. While offering grace and forgiveness for all, the moral vision of the New Testament universally excludes homosexual practice.
The cited Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 yielded a decision that directly contradicts the One Church Plan. While the Council agreed that Gentiles should not have to be circumcised, it also made specific prohibition against sexual immorality (Acts 15:19). The New Testament sexual ethic is in place for all Christians, regardless of geography or background. Mainstream UMC misuses the text by implying that the Jerusalem Council blessed ethics by zip code. It did not. The moral demands of the Gospel are universal.
“It has been vetted by one of the most rigorous processes in our denomination’s history, a faithful, two-year study by the Commission on the Way Forward.”
The One Church Plan has not been vetted. It is being vetted. Next month the Judicial Council will rule on its constitutionality. Dr. Bill Lawrence, former president of that august body, has found no less than five conflicts in the OCP with our Constitution. These conflicts strike at the heart of the OCP’s already questionable promises to protect the consciences of those who hold the traditional view of marriage.
The two year process that yielded the One Church Plan also brought us the Connectional Conference Plan. In fact, Commission members have reported that most of their legislation-writing time was spent discussing and writing this other plan. While a majority of Commission members endorsed the One Church Plan, I have seen no indication that anyone on the Commission not already supportive of same-sex marriage has turned to support the OCP. If it is a genuine compromise that actually protects the consciences of Traditionalists, it seems that there would be some level of support across ideological lines. (The few Traditionalists featured by the Uniting Methodists group actually support same sex weddings being held in their local congregations. That means, by definition, they are no longer Traditionalists on this issue.)
“It has been recommended by nearly two-thirds of all active UM Bishops.”
Only one vote was taken at the Council of Bishops’ meeting and the vote totals were not released. This vote recommended the One Church Plan and stated that all three plans should be submitted to General Conference for possible action. The “nearly two-thirds” statistic is an anecdotal number from un-released polling data that has elsewhere been described as “majority but less than super-majority” support for the OCP. See my post about these numbers here.
“It allows different regions in the U.S. to adapt to their mission field.”
I will skip the philosophic discussion about whether the church must adapt to the values of a culture in order to reach it. Suffice it to say that this was not the evangelization method adopted by the early church that allowed them to spread like wildfire throughout the Roman Empire. Neither is it the method of evangelization that sparked the rapid expansion of Methodism in 19th Century America.
The OCP’s promises of contextualization is misleading. It is more accurate to say that United Methodist standards will undergo wholesale change, especially in the U.S. All conferences in the U.S. will potentially have “self-avowed, practicing homosexual” clergy under guaranteed appointment. The constitutionally-questionable process of each conference passing their own ordination standards would not touch upon the dozens of “Hidden Faithful Siblings” (closeted gay clergy) that the Queer Clergy Caucus reports are already serving in Traditional Conferences.
Under the One Church Plan, all United Methodist clergy are empowered to perform same-sex weddings, regardless of geography or mission field (where secular law allows). Supporters of the OCP seem deaf to how the present controversy already makes it difficult for many United Methodists to do ministry in areas shaped by Traditional Christian values. Evangelical UMC’s are finding it difficult to attract and retain members when other United Methodist clergy and churches make headlines supporting things commonly understood to be in conflict with Scripture. The One Church Plan will exacerbate this difficulty.
“It has no impact on the Central Conferences outside of the U.S.”
This statement is objectively inaccurate according to the OCP’s own legislative language. There is an extended timeline in the plan intended to allow Central Conferences space to change their positions on marriage away from those placed in the general discipline by the OCP. Central Conferences in Europe, divided like the U.S. on issues of human sexuality, would be forced into renewed debate and conflict.
“It retains the global structure of the church and shared critical ministries.”
It is yet to be seen whether our Africa Central Conferences would continue in the same sort of connection we have now if the OCP was passed. At a recent meeting of UM African bishops, the group affirmed “that even if there is a split in the denomination, the Church in Africa will continue to exist as The United Methodist Church in Africa.” This has been interpreted in divergent ways. I read this as African church leaders proclaiming they will be together as the UMCA even if there is no UMC. I recently returned from a meeting in Kenya of UM leaders from around the continent. There was very little concern about the flow of U.S. dollars and very great concern over the biblical integrity of our connection. The unity they seek is unity based in Truth, not institution.
Both the Traditional Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan maintain shared support of critical ministries and grant continued access to Wespath. The One Church Plan is not our only path to maintain support for the ministries we all value.
“It removes most of the controversial and hurtful language about LGBTQ persons.”
The OCP replaces controversial and hurtful language with other controversial and hurtful language. It is a win/lose plan that merely flips who is winning and who is losing.
“It protects the conscience of individual bishops, conferences, pastors, and churches.“
Has Mainstream UMC asked Traditionalist bishops, conferences, and churches whether the One Church Plan protects their consciences? No group from the renewal and reform coalition representing the traditional side of the debate has stated that the reality created by the OCP is acceptable or sustainable. In fact, they have declared the opposite to be true. Traditional bishops will be forced to appoint clergy practicing a lifestyle declared by our current Discipline as incompatible with Christian teaching.
The ability of annual conferences to control the work of their boards of ordained ministry is over-estimated by the OCP. The fact that the Queer Clergy Caucus in the UMC has 230 members speaks to the fact that candidates are willing to interpret the questions asked of them in any number of ways. Add to this that such clergy already in traditionalist conferences will likely go public once restrictions are removed. Under the OCP any U.S. clergy can celebrate same sex weddings regardless of geography, conference affiliation, or the wishes of the congregation they serve.
Traditionalist congregations and clergy, under the OCP, will undoubtedly be supervised by bishops and district superintendents living in lifestyles currently proclaimed in our Discipline to be incompatible with Christian teaching. There are myriad ways that our supervisory and appointive processes can be weaponized against those who are not changing their views. The authors of the OCP do not get to decide what protects the consciences of those who disagree with the plan and they should stop exercising that privilege.
“It requires no votes by conferences or churches.“
The OCP will require many votes and other actions for those churches, clergy, and conferences who futilely attempt to stem the tide of the new denomination-wide view of marriage and sexuality. While no local church vote is required, churches will be forced to deal with the issue the minute a same-sex couple comes to them for a wedding. At this point, the decision will be made on the local political situation (who gives money, who holds offices, who has influence) rather than a theology of marriage. All it takes is one member to bring up the topic in a local church or annual conference.
“It is financially faithful to pension commitments for active and retired pastors.“
All three plans have features recommended by Wespath that help annual conferences keep their pension promises to clergy. The One Church Plan has no advantage in this area. In fact, the lack of exit provision means that the exodus of churches and clergy will be haphazard and chaotic. This creates a most difficult scenario for Wespath as they attempt to account for pension promises made by annual conferences.
“It puts an end to church trials.“
No, it doesn’t. Clergy trials will still be with us. The right of trial is protected in our Constitution as an essential due process protection for clergy. The One Church Plan removes the chargeable offenses that make it possible press charges against a clergy for performing same-sex weddings or having sexual relations with a person of the same gender. This is one of several reasons why we would not have one truly traditional conference left in the United States under the OCP.
“It holds the denomination together to Make Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.“
The denomination will divide if the One Church Plan passes. Because there is no gracious and orderly exit provision in the plan, there is a high likelihood that the split will be messy and fraught with prolonged and expensive legal battles. A disciple-making organization that does not agree on the shape of discipleship is doomed for failure. A group of diverse United Methodist clergy recently came together asking that an exit provision be passed by General Conference 2019. This is a further acknowledgement that the One Church Plan can not keep its promise of holding us together as a denomination.