by Chris Ritter

We are less than forty days from General Conference and the Connectional Conference Plan (CCP) is receiving new attention.  Bishops David Yemba and Sandra Steiner Ball, moderators of the Commission on a Way Forward, issued a New Year’s message to the church highlighting the plan that dominated most of the commission’s legislative labors.  Last week, Bishop Gary Mueller from Arkansas issued a press release underscoring the merits of the CCP.  He also contacted delegations asking them to give the denominational overhaul further study.

I like the Connectional Conference Plan.  It is a thorough, systematic, and fair resolution to the crisis in the United Methodist Church over mutually contradictory visions of Christian marriage.   It has been carefully constructed by the Commission on a Way Forward to create space for everyone in the UMC with separate conferences, funding, and bishops.  It provides a comprehensive resolution that maintains a modicum of unity while addressing the complexities of our institutional life.  The plan avoids property disputes initiated by the unauthorized exits that would likely follow passage of the One Church Plan.  The CCP also avoids the continued rancor and defiance possible under the Traditional Plan.  Why is such a fair and gracious plan not already the front-runner?

The CCP is complex and provides a daring new vision for United Methodism.  Also, the CCP’s constitutional amendments create significant challenges in that they must (1) be passed by a super-majority at General Conference and (2) be ratified by an aggregate 2/3 vote in annual conferences around the world.  This has led some to unfairly label the plan “dead on arrival.”  But that is unfair hyperbole.  The first hurdle is surmountable, especially for legislation that offers an alternative to the win/lose scenarios fostered by the other plans.  (In my delegation, the CCP finds support from persons across the ideological spectrum.)  Admittedly, the global ratification process creates uncertainty.  Delegates would leave St. Louis not knowing if we have a workable way forward or not.  But I’m suggesting here a work-around that has not yet been explored.

An Addition to the CCP

The following proposal attempts to create a backstop, or fail-safe, for the Connectional Conference Plan that could be implemented in the event that the CCP’s constitutional amendments fall short of ratification.  This model is based on insights gained from October’s Judicial Council Decision on the Way Forward petitions.  Just as the One Church and Traditional plans will come to St. Louis with improvements and additions, this fail-safe feature could be introduced in the legislative process as a way to compliment the good work of the Commission.  It is a kind of “CCP Lite” achievable under our present constitution.  This proposal is not nearly as far-reaching as CCP, but it starts us down the same road of sorting congregations, annual conferences, and jurisdictions under different rules and bishops.  This legislation could also become a stand-alone proposal in case none of the other plans find their necessary support.

Summary

The CCP Back-up Plan would be triggered only if the ratification votes for CCP failed passage.  It enables new structures called “Charter Conferences,” autonomous Methodist churches tightly affiliated with the UMC in their constitution and supervised by a UMC college of bishops of their choice.  Each jurisdictional and central conference would be able to decide whether or not they will enforce the limitations in the Book of Discipline around same-sex marriage.  Those annual conferences who disagree with the decision made by their jurisdictional or central conference would have the option of becoming a charter conference under the supervision of a different college of bishops.  Individual congregations and clergy out of step with their conference would also be empowered to form a charter conference relating to whatever UM college of bishops they choose.  Charter conferences create a space for those who don’t feel at home where they are currently placed in our connection.

Advantages

  • This proposal is in keeping with the vision, mission, and scope of the Commission on a Way Forward.
  • Adding this fail-safe takes some of the uncertainty out of the Connectional Conference Plan. If the ratification votes fail, we still have a Way Forward.
  • This addition should aid in the ratification of the Connectional Conference Plan amendments.  Instead of choosing between the CCP some desired alternative, voters would be choosing between the CCP and the fail-safe.
  • Charter conferences would be available to both progressives and traditionalists, avoiding the feeling of a second-class status to those of a particular ideology.
  • This plan could also be adapted as a primary plan if the CCP falls short of 2/3 super-majority support. It has the same simple-majority burden of passage as the One Church Plan and the Traditional Plan.
  • This proposal honors the work of the Commission on a Way Forward and draws heavily on the Connectional Conference Plan, the One Church Plan, and the Traditional Plan.
  • It keeps the denomination together while beginning a sorting process that will place us under different rules.
  • It ends trials by providing a space for everyone.
  • The official positions of our church remain untouched, protecting our Central Conferences.
  • Jurisidictional and central conferences are treated identically.
  • It points toward a diversified future but allows that future to happen in modest steps.

Disadvantages

  • Charter conferences might not be able to vote on future UMC constitutional amendments without altering the constitution to allow this.
  • This plan leaves work to be done in the areas of the Episcopal Fund, general church apportionments, and the future shape of jurisdictions.
  • Some existing U.S. annual conferences may experience a significant change in funding, requiring accelerated mergers with other conferences. This challenge is not unique to this proposal, however.
  • This is a complex addition to an already complex plan.  But, after all, we are a multi-layered denomination in a complicated situation.
  • It will take concerted leadership to bring this proposal into final form and place it before the General Conference for consideration. The legislation will need to be vetted to insure that it stays within constitutional bounds.

Sample Legislation

New ¶ 2803. An Alternative Way Forward.

Should any or all of the constitutional amendments necessary to implement the Connectional Conference Plan fail to be ratified following General Conference 2019, the measures in this paragraph shall become effective upon certification of the ratification votes.  The provisions of this paragraph shall take precedence over all other paragraphs in the Book of Discipline except those in the Constitution:

  1. There may be Charter Conferences as herein set forth:

a) Charter conferences are autonomous Methodist churches tightly affiliated with the United Methodist Church and supervised by a United Methodist college of bishops.

b) An existing United Methodist annual conference, provisional conference, or missionary conference may become a charter conference upon majority vote of the annual conference session by approving the following resolution: “The (name) Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church assumes the status of Charter Conference as enabled in ¶2803 of the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church and agrees to the conditions, constitution, and concordat as therein set forth.”

c) The General Council on Finance and Administration shall provide each Charter Conference with a standardized constitution binding the charter conference to ¶2803 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church and the following concordat:

i. The United Methodist Church and [name of charter conference] (hereafter referred to as the charter conference) approves this standard concordat defining the relationship between The United Methodist Churches and the charter conference as provided in ¶2803 of the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church. This concordat becomes effective upon satisfaction of the requirements of that paragraph. Any alterations to the standard concordat proposed by the charter conference shall not become effective until and unless approved by the General Conference of The United Methodist Church.

ii. We agree that our primary mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world and to cooperate in the furtherance of this mission.

iii. The charter conference accepts the doctrine, liturgy, and discipline of The United Methodist Church and, as much as it is practical, shall organize itself functionally as an annual conference of The United Methodist Church except as herein set forth.

iv. The status of charter conference shall become effective six months following a vote (¶2803.1.b) by the former United Methodist annual conference, provisional conference, or missionary conference to become a charter conference.

v. Individual congregations in a charter conference may transfer to the United Methodist annual conference designated to cover their location. These transfers shall be governed by the provisions of ¶41 of the Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church.

vi. The boundaries of a charter conference shall be governed by the jurisdictional or central conference to which the charter conference relates.

vii. The charter conference shall select at the time of its organization a United Methodist college of bishops to supervise them in their work. The college of bishops shall include the charter conference in their plan of supervision as set forth in the discipline of the United Methodist Church and a bishop shall be assigned to the charter conference under the provisions of ¶406.  A new college of bishops may be selected by the charter conference with majority approval by the Interjurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy, provided that notice is given to each jurisdictional or central conferences affected at least one year in advance of their regularly scheduled conference session. 

viii. Upon selection of a college of bishops, the charter conference shall function as much as practically possible as an annual conference of that jurisdiction or central conference. The United Methodist Church shall recognize the membership of the charter conference in its formulas for representation to the General Conference, and the general boards, commissions, and agencies of the church. A charter conference is allowed the same basis of representation as annual conferences of the United Methodist Church.

ix. The charter conference may be granted delegates to the jurisdictional or central conference to which the charter conference relates and members of the charter conference may serve on jurisdictional boards, commissions, and agencies as elected in keeping with ¶529 of the United Methodist discipline.

x. The charter conference may use the United Methodist name and insignia in keeping with the standards set forth by the General Council on Finance and Administration. It may also use the insignia developed by GCFA reflecting the particular ministry rules under which it operates (see ¶2803.2 and ¶2803.6).

xi. The charter conference may be assigned apportionments by the General Council on Finance and Administration commensurate with those of annual conferences of The United Methodist Church as provided under ¶2803.4.

xii. Clergy may transfer to and from charter conferences under the provisions of ¶347 of the United Methodist Book of Discipline.

2) Anticipating the possible implementation of this paragraph, each jurisdictional and central conference shall select one of the following two options at their regularly scheduled session in 2020. The option shall not be in effect unless this paragraph is enacted.

a) Standard Option – marriage and ordination rules of the Book of Discipline shall be in effect with all their current restrictions and chargeable offenses related to same-sex marriage and the certification, licensing, consecration, and ordination of clergy in a same-sex marriage.

b) Modified Option – chargeable offenses and restrictions related to same-sex marriage are not in force. Specifically, clergy are no longer restricted from performing same-sex weddings. Annual conferences are no longer restricted from certifying as candidates, licensing, or ordaining self-avowed, practicing homosexuals. Congregations are no longer restricted from hosting same-sex weddings. 

3) A simple majority vote shall be required to approve one of the two options (¶2803.2). Clergy serving under the modified option shall not be subject to chargeable offenses related to same-sex marriage. Annual conferences operating under the modified covenant shall not be restricted from certifying, recommending, licensing, or ordaining self-avowed practicing homosexuals in a same-sex marriage. Congregations operating under the modified option shall be permitted to host same-sex weddings. This shall not be construed as in any way limiting an annual conference’s reserve right to vote on the character, conference relations, and ordination of its clergy.

4) Changes brought about by the modified option (2803.2(b) shall become effective twelve months from adoption to allow time for annual conferences, provisional conferences, and missionary conferences time to consider becoming a charter conference under the provisions of this paragraph.

5) Bishops, as general superintendents of the entire church, shall meet all United Methodist standards.  All chargeable offenses shall apply to bishops except in their role of commissioning, ordaining, and appointing clergy in same-sex marriages approved in a conference operating under the modified option in ¶2803.3. 

6) The General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) shall create two new cross and flame insignia representing the two options described in this paragraph. The insignia shall reflect distinction amidst our continued unity.  Congregations and conferences may use these insignia to reflect their distinctive ministry rules and may also continue to use the standard cross and flame insignia as governed by GCFA. 

7) An annual conference, provisional annual conference, or missionary conference wishing to operate under a different option than the one selected by the jurisdictional or central conference to which they belong (¶2803.2) may vote to become a charter conference as set forth in this paragraph. Upon majority support for such a vote, the conference shall likewise select a United Methodist college of bishops to supervise them in their work.  Certification of these votes shall be sent to the colleges of bishops involved who shall cooperate to develop and initiate a plan of transition.  This shall include the convening of a jurisdictional or central conference session to define new annual conference boundaries..

8) General Conference hereby authorizes the formation of one new missionary conference in each jurisdiction and central conference that may be joined by congregations and clergy who, because of their leadership needs and understanding of the Gospel, determine to operate under an option different than the one in effect for their annual conference (¶2803.2) . Once organized, a missionary conference authorized by this paragraph may become a charter conference under the provisions of this paragraph and relate to the United Methodist college of bishops of its choice. The formation of the missionary conference shall be facilitated by the college of bishops in each jurisdiction or central conference under the provisions of ¶586.  A congregation may transfer to the missionary conference under the provisions of ¶41.  Annual conferences are encouraged to be gracious and generous in granting these transfers.  A congregation thus transferring must pay any amount of unfunded pension liability calculated by Wespath upon their exit. There shall be no minimum size for missionary conferences formed under this paragraph until July 1, 2028 when the missionary conference must be comprised of at least fifty ordained elders.  Once organized, the missionary conference may become a charter conference under the provisions of ¶2803.1.

9) Charter conferences relating to the same college of bishops may merge or divide as approved by the jurisdictional or central conference to which they relate.  By July 1, 2028, no charter conference shall be comprised of less than fifty ordained elders.

10) Any unfunded pension liability shall stay with a conference becoming a charter conference.  Wespath, the General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits, shall determine liability and provide services to conferences in transition.

11) The Interjurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy shall facilitate any episcopal transfers deemed expedient due to the provisions of this paragraph. These transfers shall be governed by ¶49.

12) In light of the changes brought by this paragraph, The Interjurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy shall bring legislative proposals to future General Conferences to include (a) a new design for the United Methodist episcopacy reflecting the changing needs of the annual conferences and (b)modifications to the Episcopal Fund that allows each jurisdictional conference to decide how many bishops it needs to best fulfill its mission and to fund those bishops completely from its jurisdictional budget.

13) In light of the changes brought about this paragraph, GCFA is charged to monitor realities within the church and bring legislative proposals to a future General Conference(s) related to a new design for our general agencies, jurisdictions, and apportionments. 

Questions and Answers

Is this CCP Fail-safe plan constitutional?

It is designed to operate within the restraints of the UMC constitution using insights gained from Judicial Council Decision 1366.  As a late-coming proposal, it should be vetted by peer review and General Conference should request a ruling from Judicial Council as we meet in St. Louis.  

The CCP Fail-safe has two options and the Connectional Conference Plan has three.  Why the difference?

Although the Connectional Conference Plan creates three Connectional Conferences, many believe that only two would actually form.  Progressives would likely join the middle group rather than isolate themselves in a connectional conference that guarantees LGBTQI inclusion.  As a mere back-up, this plan is trying to avoid unnecessary complexity.  Those who want three options should work for ratification of the CCP.

How would this legislation be introduced?

All the other Way Forward plans will be coming with corrections and additions flowing from Judicial Council Decision 1366.  This addition would be introduced in the same manner as those other updates.

What happens to bishops under this proposal?

Bishops, as general superintendents of the entire church, must meet the standards of the Book of Discipline.  It is left to future General Conferences to propose a more thorough division of the episcopacy that would allow the types of diversity enabled by the Connectional Conference Plan.  Those who don’t like a shared episcopacy in this back-up plan would find greater motivation to approve the full CCP.

Conclusion

This addition to the Connectional Conference Plan would eliminate some of the uncertainty following General Conference 2019.  At the very least, we would leave St. Louis knowing that every United Methodist would be able to locate themselves under a covenant where they feel more at home.  Having a built-in back up to the CCP should aid in the passage of the CCP’s constitutional amendments.  If the fail-safe was triggered, it would move us gradually in the direction of separate conferences and episcopacies under the same denominational umbrella.  General Conference should be able to merge this work nicely with the Global Book of Discipline proposals that are coming to General Conference 2020.

 

Photo Credit:  http://www.5byfivecreative.com/blog/commemorating-50-years-of-the-gateway-arch-and-st.-louis-blues-through-desi

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