by Chris Ritter
Legislation is now in the hands of the delegates for the most highly-discussed UM General Conference in living memory. The One Church Plan (OCP) will arrive in St. Louis with the blessing of a majority of our bishops. They have stated what goes without saying: It is “not perfect.” A better question might be “Is it adequate?” Is it an actual, serious, sober, and unifying solution that moves our denomination past its current morass to refocus us on mission and ministry?
Some bishops are now beginning to openly admit that the OCP does not live up to its marketing language and promises of unity. The plan says that it protects the consciences of those who believe that marriage is the union of one man and one woman. In spite of these pat-on-the-head assurances, we have slim evidence that anyone holding to Jesus’ definition of marriage (Matt. 19, Mark 10) finds the OCP to create a workable reality. We do have a diversity of voices saying, “If this is where the UMC ship is headed, we will not be able to go along.”
Friends from Africa have recently stated that passage of the One Church Plan would likely cause our African Central Conferences to send letters of disaffiliation to the United Methodist Church in America. They would presumably continue as the “UMCA,” the United Methodist Church of Africa, with their own General Conference. If true, this equates to an immediate membership drop of over 40% carved from the only areas of the UMC that are steadily growing. Think of Sears Holding Company divesting itself of Target and keeping only Sears and K-Mart.
If Africa disaffiliates, the UMC would shift Westward in many of our ethical and theological conceptions. Methodism’s innate balance and global focus would be irrevocably degraded. The makeup of General Conference would align ideologically with all the other U.S.-only Mainline denominations who have been through the same sexuality struggles. We have ample empirical data from all those who have tried this local approach (ELCA, TEC, PCUSA, UCC, DoC) that it leads to division and accelerated decline. Looking for vitality in this scenario would like putting a pan of water in the freezer and expecting it to come to a boil.
With the possibility of full membership losses in Africa and partial membership losses in the United States, one might ask why General Conference would consider a plan that effectively forces the exit of a majority of United Methodists. The One Church Plan is only adequate if the goal is a complete overturning of the Gospel definition of marriage. It is wholly inadequate if the goal is unity or vitality.
It is clear that some delegates do not yet understand what the misnamed One Church Plan actually does. Here is a summary:
- The definition of marriage in the United Methodist Church would be changed from a union of a man and a woman to a union of “two adults.”
- The OCP removes denomination-wide prohibition against self-avowed, practicing homosexuals serving as clergy.
- United Methodist congregations may hold an all-church vote allowing same-sex weddings to be celebrated at their altar. This potentially divisive meeting could be triggered by the pastor, the church council, or any member able to collect the signatures of 10% of the congregation (¶ 248).
- LGBTQ Bishops in same-sex relationships would serve the UMC as General Superintendents and be funded by General Church apportionments with no legal recourse for those who object.
- The OCP empowers any United Methodist clergy to conduct same-sex marriage should they choose to do so, regardless of the position of their local church or annual conference.
- The lay members of an annual conference are not allowed be part of the decision as to whether openly gay clergy should be ordained into the conference.
- Traditionalist United Methodists bishops are forced to appoint active clergy who are in same-sex relationships.
- United Methodist bishops who cannot, of good conscience, ordain practicing LGBTQ clergy are required to allow another bishop to come in and ordain them.
- The OCP removes United Methodist support for laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
- A statement of disagreement would be added to our Book of Discipline saying that “we agree we are not of one mind” on issues of human sexuality.
- It removes the statement that the UMC does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers homosexual practice as incompatible with Christian teaching.
- The means to remove a pastor for being in a same-sex relationship is eliminated on a church-wide basis. This means that openly gay clergy will be guaranteed an appointment and formerly closeted gay clergy may be as open as they like anywhere they are serving.
- Clergy who leave the denomination will have their vested pension converted to a different type of instrument.
- There is no exit path in the One Church Plan. It only states that any church that manages to negotiate an exit must pay a prescribed portion of the conference’s unfunded pension liability.
With such sweeping changes, one will legitimately ask how the One Church Plan could be framed as a unifying compromise. The plan spells out in multiple places that no clergy shall be forced to conduct same-sex weddings. It also indicates that the clergy session of an annual conference can decide who they want to see ordained or not. But pastors are already empowered to choose for whom they will and will not conduct weddings. And annual conferences will not be able to stop unqualified people from being ordained any more than the UMC is now. The Queer Clergy Caucus in the UMC boasts over 300 members. The code has already been cracked on how to make it through the ordination process even when one does not meet the stated requirements.
The One Church Plan tosses the radioactive hot potato of human sexuality issues from our quadrennial General Conference to the annual conference and local church levels. It invites the very contention that degrades unity in conferences and local churches. Decisions that should be rooted in ethics and theology will be determined on personality, power, finances, and influence.
A note to Centrists: Pretending like the One Church Plan is an adequate solution keeps us from the necessary work of continued creativity. The Judicial Council just handed us a very lengthy and interesting decision that highlights the possibility of non-uniform standards and annual conferences accepting full or semi-autonomous status. Surely there is enough fodder in this decision to take us beyond our current range of options. Speaking only for myself, I would need a solution that (1) provides separate conferences, (2) creates separate episcopacies, and (3) provides for customized funding in the general agencies. (Both the Connectional Conference and Traditional Plans accomplish this.)
We won’t do our best work while we pretend that the bishops’ recommendation is somehow adequate. If I had to choose between the Queer Clergy Caucus’ “Simple Plan” and the One Church Plan, I would support the Simple Plan for the sake of clarity and honesty. At least that plan does not indulge in marketing that doesn’t correspond with reality.