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?