by Chris Ritter
“Full legislative power of the General Conference includes the authority to adopt a uniform, standardized, or a non-uniform, differentiated theological statement.” -Decision 1366, Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church.
As wide as differences have become, is it possible for United Methodists to live in the same house? The Judicial Council’s October rulings on the Way Forward plans provide essential information as our denomination seeks to answer that question. Decision 1366 was prodigious and precedent-setting. It broke new ground in the interpretation of our constitution, leaning only lightly on previous rulings. There are plenty of things I don’t like about it. But I also maintain that it provides new lenses to bring into focus a solution distinct from anything currently on the table.
All throughout the Way Forward process, it was anybody’s guess as to whether the One Church Plan was correct in asserting that General Conference could enable non-uniform ministry standards. (Some very credible thinkers assumed not.) It was likewise anyone’s guess as to whether the Traditional Plan was correct in its proposal that annual conferences in the U.S. could become self-governing. The October ruling has answered both of these questions in the affirmative.
These two tools alone (autonomous yet affiliated conferences and non-uniform ministry standards) provide ample fodder for a fresh approach to an institutionally integrated Way Forward. The fact that legislation deadlines have passed and camps have formed around the existing plans has unfortunately limited the continued creativity of our church. Few have expressed interest, at least publicly, in going back to the white board to draft a solution aimed at bridging the huge divide between the One Church Plan and the Traditional Plan.
But the two plans in the foreground are both quite radical. The One Church Plan, for instance, changes the definition of marriage for the entire church. (It could have stopped short of this by simply allowing dissent to the teachings of the church.) The Traditional Plan seeks to remove those who will not live by our current United Methodist standards. Either would undoubtedly trigger a significant exodus. To avoid schism (if that is still a goal) we need a “non-uniform unity” that does not require moral compromise.
The Connectional Conference Plan, our current third way, is not getting much of a hearing. That’s a shame because it is the only fair, comprehensive, and egalitarian plan on the table. The CCP’s required constitutional amendments are viewed, rightly or wrongly, as a fatal weakness. The two remaining plans have come to the forefront because they can be accomplished without super-majority passage and conference ratification. Shooting for 50.1% puts us in a combative mode before we even begin. The two plans don’t need to be good, only marginally less bad than the other. This whole win/lose paradigm is antithetical to Christian conferencing and our delegates’ mandate to be stewards over the whole connection.
Back to the Drawing Board
Writing plans for the future of the UMC was, at one time, something of a hobby of mine. I now see myself as a semi-retired from this and revisit the white board with some degree of reluctance. But the current two options are so gladiatorial in design that a new concept is urgently needed before February 23 is upon us.
What follows is a sample proposal using the tools revealed by Decision 1366. It uses elements of the One Church and Traditional Plans that passed constitutional muster. Here is a broad outline, intended to stimulate further reflection:
- General Conference creates two clergy covenants: Let’s call them “A” & “B.” Option A would reflect the values of the One Church Plan (perhaps without the local church vote required for same-sex weddings). Option B would reflect the values of the Traditional Plan with corresponding chargeable offenses and accountability measures attached.
- Each U.S. jurisdiction must vote to operate by either Covenant A or Covenant B. (Alternatively, one option could be the default. I am simply striving for equity here.)
- There would be a new, autonomous, conference-level body created in each jurisdiction. These new bodies would be for churches and clergy in that jurisdiction who cannot live with the choice of covenant that was made. While technically new, autonomous denominations, the constitution of these bodies would require them to function almost entirely like a UM conference. These bodies would be subsidiary to the UMC (but not their old jurisdiction).
- The autonomous bodies remain strongly connected to the UMC through a pre-approved constitution that includes allegiance to a comprehensive concordat with the UMC. (Although autonomous, their constitution would be predefined. This is similar to the process we use now in ¶572 when an annual conference outside the U.S. becomes autonomous.) These new subsidiary U.S. bodies would get full representation at General Conference based on their membership. They are bound by their founding documents to be nearly fully connected in spite of their native autonomy. The autonomous status is given primarily to release them from the jurisdictional alignment mandated in the UMC constitution. These bodies would geographically overlap the other conferences in their former jurisdiction.
- The autonomous bodies must choose a United Methodist college of bishops to supervise them. This episcopal college would include them in their plan of oversight. (Examples: The Traditional Autonomous Body in the Western Jurisdiction might choose to be supervised by the Southeastern Jurisdiction’s bishops. The Progressive autonomous body in the Southeast might choose to be supervised by the college of bishops in the Northeast.) The autonomous bodies would be granted representation at the jurisdictional conference to which they relate.
- GCFA would be instructed to develop two versions of the Cross & Flame, reflecting differentiation amidst unity. These could be used at the discretion of conferences and churches. Everyone is also welcome to use the standard Cross & Flame, which will continue as the insignia for our entire connection.
- Decision 1366 makes conferences the grantors of transfers. Local churches who have voted to seek release from their annual conference would be relieved, by General Conference actions, from the obligation of paying apportionments until the transfer is complete. This is designed as a disincentive for conferences that might be prone to dragging their feet on approving the transfer with their property.
- A whole annual conference in disagreement with their jurisdictional choice of covenant could become an additional autonomous body and released from their jurisdiction. When the conference votes to take the new status, their old jurisdiction would create a new conference map that fills the vacated territory. Individual congregations in that conference may rejoin the jurisdiction by transfer. Once they vote to make their request, they are relieved from paying apportionments until the transfer is complete (as in #7 above).
- General agencies should be funded in a new way. Instead of an apportionment assigned by GCFA, agencies would negotiate contracts with each annual conference (or autonomous body) for services provided… starting in (say) 2021. If general agencies cannot successfully demonstrate their value to the annual conferences, they will experience reduced financial support. Some might fare better under such a meritocracy.
- The Episcopal Fund would need to be re-visited in the near future, moving to a system where each jurisdiction decides how many bishops they actually need and funds them accordingly. The general Episcopal Fund would be retained only to fund bishops overseas. This is listed here as future work because it would require a constitutional amendment.
- The UMC Council of Bishops would meet once a year instead of twice a year. As in the Connectional Conference Plan, it would primarily handle ecumenical concerns. There could be a new structure for active bishops who share the same covenant. These would also meet annually.
- Central conferences overseas could be empowered to choose one of the two covenants or write their own.
- Our existing Interjurisdictional Committee on the Episcopacy would handle any transfer of bishops that might be needed between the jurisdictions.
A Duplex… with a Generous Commons
The above outline seeks to get us to separate compartments within the same house, maintaining some mutually agreed-upon shared space. The net result would be something akin to the Connectional Conference Plan with maps representing both covenants overlapping the entire U.S.A. Future General Conferences (starting in 2020) could follow up on the trajectory of this plan by proposing constitutional amendments to arrange all U.S. conferences (including autonomous ones) into two new jurisdictions based on covenant. Over time, each branch could decide how it wants to manage its identity… alternatively highlighting either its particular covenant or its United Methodism. This plan could be enacted without amendments, but would leave future constitutional work as highly desirable. More general church functions should be shifted to the jurisdictions.
Yes, I remember someone saying something once about a house divided against itself is not able to stand. But we are already there. And I would argue that the divisive options we have before us do not adequately reflect our values of love and unity. What we are going for here is a non-uniform unity without the moral compromises and supervisory manipulation that are inevitable when two theologies vie for ascendancy within the same jurisdiction and annual conference. Would it work? I tend to believe that something like this would keep significantly more people in the UMC than either the Traditional or One Church Plans. But maybe the church is already committed at this point to showing up in St. Louis and slugging it out. Thoughts?
You have done it again! Have you sent this plan to the organizers of the “gracious exit” movement? If they supported this, that might help it get traction.
Thanks, Jamie. I have not. It may be too late for a new model, but I can hope.
Yes, I agree with you! You make more sense than what we are approaching! I have talked to many elders and lay folks who are preparing to leave the denomination. I do not believe our Bishops understand the problem we are facing!
Thanks, Tom. Things are looking very ugly. We need new hope.
I have said that the best option on the table is the connectional conference plan, but is also the least likely to pass. Thank you for proposing something similar that might actually pass. Now, let’s hope some delegates to General Conference are listening.
Thanks for reading and responding.
Thanks for reading and commenting. Can you be more specific as to which provisions cause you concern. True, one argument for staying with OCP vs. TP is that the Judicial Council has already weighed in.
Chris, thank you for your continued effort to bring unity to our denomination. Many of your points sound great. But how would this plan prevent continued fighting over the current LGBTQ issues at General Conference in the future? How would it prevent fighting over other progressive issues that the denomination is currently experiencing (false teaching about the divinity of Christ, bodily resurrection of Jesus, the Trinity, etc.)? It seems to me that progressives will continue to fight until all “discrimination” is removed from the connection. They see this as a justice issue and therefore cannot rest until all “injustice” is eliminated.
Thanks for reading and responding. I’m guessing once the church is divided into two wings, the sides would need to play nice with one another because it would become much easier for either to leave. The CCP does this same sort of thing. One oft-repeated comment is that the CCP might be a mere prelude to a split. We all know that deep theological issues are at play in this discussion. No one can stop UM’s from arguing at General Conference. But something like this would sort us out at the jurisdictional and conference levels. It would be up to the two sides to make it work or not.
Would we be alright with a “wing” of the church saying that adultery is perfectly alright in the eyes of God . . . idolatry, lying, etc.?
I get what your main focus in on Chris and I am not trying to be mean and critical. But that is a question that has to be answered. I, for one, could not with a clear conscience approve of such a plan. I would never go for allowing people to live under a false teaching that would hurt them or even destroy their souls.
I think that even conservative/ traditional folks in the UMC need to get away from all this UMC mess and do some praying and thinking for themselves. I am thankful for the UMC and grateful for that it has blessed me with. But sometimes the “cares of life” that come with the UMC can “weigh” us “down” and even put us in a “drunken stupor” (see this week’s lectionary passage in Luke 21).
I do not think that the people in the pew would go for such a thing. And I also do not believe that there is any energy at all to go down such a path. But I know that you are trying and that it is easier to tear something down than to build something. Peace
Thanks for your comment, Josh. We started the conversation talking about ideal scenarios. Now we are now down to “least horrific.” It sounds like your preferred solution is an evangelical exodus from the UMC. The best way to champion this is to support the One Church Plan. Most people that just want out (I have many friends in this category) see OCP as the best Way Forward because it would trigger the exit your are advocating for an in the largest numbers. Some very smart and faithful people agree with you that this would be the best scenario. I just see my commitment as a GC delegate to work toward something like a stable solution that includes as much of the church as possible.
I do not have a “preferred solution.” I just wanted to point out that there are some ethical problems with allowing a “wing” of the church to form that teaches false/wrong doctrine. I personally do not want to be a part of that.
I think that United Methodist leadership is way more tolerant of false doctrine/ beliefs than what we find in the early church (which John Wesley constantly looked back to for guidance). I would never want “witch hunts” but this mess that we have largely comes from not being careful with our doctrine and theology. UM’s do good at loving others and neighbor but not so well at loving God with all of their heart, soul, and MIND. And so, I do not think that anything good is going to come out of continuing down this path of giving people who are on the wrong path more leeway to go down the wrong path.
I don’t like to be that dude who quotes long blocks of Scripture but this one really speaks a word to all in the UM world:
17 But you, my dear friends, must remember what the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ said. 18 They told you that in the last times there would be scoffers whose purpose in life is to satisfy their ungodly desires. 19 These people are the ones who are creating divisions among you. They follow their natural instincts because they do not have God’s Spirit in them. 20 But you, dear friends, must build each other up in your most holy faith, pray in the power of the Holy Spirit, 1 21 and await the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will bring you eternal life. In this way, you will keep yourselves safe in God’s love. 22 And you must show mercy to 2 those whose faith is wavering. 23 Rescue others by snatching them from the flames of judgment. Show mercy to still others, 3 but do so with great caution, hating the sins that contaminate their lives.
Do we have this same mindset that James had about the spiritual health of others, even those who we disagree with? Do we really believe that some of the folks might go to hell if they keep on teaching false doctrine and false morality? I doubt that there are many UM Elders who would have the conviction to say “yes.” They are just too “nice”
You’ve delineated a comprehensive, but probably not exhaustive list of the areas that will need to be addressed. As I was reading it, I was expecting you to end with a “throw-up-one’s-hands-in-exhaustion” conclusion. Is it worth it for us expend such energy, or would the Kingdom be better served if each side went their own way, each seeking to love and serve God to our best belief and understanding?
Thanks, Don. I’m afraid that even the UMC is such a complicated and integrated machine that even going our own way would require quite a plan… and one we are unlikely to agree to through our official decision making bodies. That means the cloth will be torn rather than cut. It may be where we are headed.
As a pew person who has spent a lifetime experiencing the good, the bad and the ugly of the Methodist/United Methodist Church, I entirely agree that “something needs to give”, that somehow the denomination needs to clarify what it believes and stop speaking contradictory and conflicting messages. However, in the quest to do so, there is a question that is never asked: How does that happen without decimating local churches who are the end result of decades of unclear and inconsistent teaching?
“To avoid schism (if that is still a goal)…” What a remarkably understated comment, Chris. I believe that avoiding schism continues to be the overriding goal for many UMs of good will who believe dividing the church does not, in any way, honor Christ or reflect God’s heart. I continue to be baffled by those who believe one part of Scripture is more, well, “inspired” or “authoritative” than others when it comes to this issue. Why isn’t John 17 and Ephesians 4 held as highly inspired and equally authoritative as Leviticus, Romans, I Corinthians, and I Timothy? Jesus prays for unity and the first mark of the church is “one.” It occurs to me avoiding schism ought to be the goal above all others. I am so very grateful for your return to the whiteboard, albeit reluctantly. Some humble servant of Christ and the church may just come up with a “Holy Spirit surprise” before Feb. 26th when GC adjourns. I wouldn’t be surprised if you were that person. Blessings.
I continue to be baffled by the way progressives seem to isolate scriptures and take them out of context rather than look at the Bible as one whole word. Is it not arrogance to pull John 17 and Ephesians 4 out of context and imply Jesus was referring to the UMC? I have unity with my brothers and sisters in other denominations even though I might disagree with some of their doctrine. I can have far greater unity with some people in the current UMC after a split since they would no longer be teaching doctrine that is contrary to denominational doctrine.
It’s difficult to declare unity within a denomination when some pastors teach that Hell is really a state of living here on earth and that the is really not an eternal Hell as the Bible describes. Can we say we are unified when some teach from the pulpit that there is no such thing as the Trinity, that Jesus isn’t really God, and that He didn’t really rise from the dead? I suppose we can say we have unity, but that would be a lie. As a Christian, I can’t have unity with those who proclaim that Jesus is just one way to heaven. I can’t have unity with those who teach that Jesus didn’t die for our sin. I can’t have unity with pastors who have taken the idea of God’s love and twisted it into a human understanding that is ultimately a defilement of the image of God.
You ask about avoiding schism. We are already in schism. We are being torn apart right now. Local churches agre being impacted as they learn of the heresy that is being taught in some of our churches. Does any of this glorify God? Does it reflect God’s heart? If you think it does, then we have two very different understandings of God.
I have the privilege of serving in the same conference with Randy. He is an “Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile”… perhaps the most thoroughly United Methodist person I know. When I write that I don’t know many Traditional Compatibilists, Randy is the stand-out exception. GC2019 would do well to make him pope for a day. The problem would be solved with integrity and grace.