Photo by Paul Jeffrey, UMNS

by Chris Ritter

Posted 11:49 on February 26, 2019

United Methodism is born again as a global church.  Like most births, the process was fraught with anxiety, excruciatingly painful, messy.  The tears will dry and healing will happen, but this can never be undone.  We are not sure what we are right now.  But we know a bit better who we are.

It is always true of General Conference that delegates go home not knowing exactly what they did.  This is probably even more true of General Conference 2019.  We passed the Modified Traditional Plan 438 to 384 (53% to 47%) without all the desired perfections that were intended.  The One Church Plan took its final gasp today in a failed attempt at substitution, 449 to 374. This was to the pain and dismay of Progressives and the never-ending consternation of American Centrists and bishops.  Many annual conferences loaded their GC2019 delegations with LGBTQ clergy and laity, so the emotion in the room was raw.  This was personal.

Not Toothless

The plan we voted to approve has constitutional issues, but the plan will hold.  The Traditional Plan was never a single idea but a menu of accountability measures aimed to enforce the simple idea that marriage is the union between a man and a woman.  These will go individually to Judicial Council but we already know the court’s opinion on most of them due to two previous rulings.  The heart of the plan, a sorting mechanism for conferences to move into a self-governing status, was never acted upon.   To the best of my knowledge, these are measures we passed that are also constitutional: (This summary is adapted from a source I deem reliable.)

  1. The definition of self-avowed practicing homosexual now includes people living in a same-sex marriage, domestic partnership or civil union, or is a person who publicly states she or he is a practicing homosexual. (Petition 1, 90032, Calendar Item 18)
  2. Bishops are prohibited from consecrating bishops who are self-avowed homosexuals even if they have been elected.  Bishops are prohibited from commissioning or ordaining those on the deacon or elder track if the BOOM has determined the individual is a self-avowed practicing homosexual.  (Petition 5, 90036, Calendar Item 4)
  3. Board of ordained ministry members must certify to the bishop that they will uphold the Book of Discipline in its entirety including but not limited to all qualifications for ordination (Par. 304, 330, 335, 336) (Petition 6, 90037, Calendar Item 6)
  4. The minimum penalty if someone is convicted of conducting ceremonies or same-sex weddings is one-year suspension without pay (first offense), and termination (second offense) (Petition 11, 90042, Calendar Item 11)
  5. The district committees on ordained ministry and conference boards of ordained ministry shall not approve or recommend persons who does not meet the qualifications of Par. 304.1-3after full examination and the bishop shall rule any unqualified candidate so recommended out or order (Petition 12, 90043, Calendar Item 12)
  6. Bishops can only dismiss complaints against a clergy if the complaint has no basis in law or fact and the reason for dismissal must be shared with the complaintant (Petition 13, 90044, Calendar Item 13)
  7. Just Resolutions must state all identified harms and how they will be addressed by the respondent. The second sentence that was found unconstitutional required that “if the respondent acknowledges action(s) that are a clear violation of the provisions of the Discipline” to commit “not to repeat the action(s).” (Petition 14, 90045, Calendar Item 14)
  8. A new requirement is added that the complainant(s) to be a party to the just resolution process and that every effort shall be made to have the complainant(s) agree to the resolution (Petition 15, 90046, Calendar Item 15)
  9. The Church can appeal a case against a clergy based on egregious errors of law to the committee on appeals and then to the Judicial Council.  If there is jury nullification, the church has recourse to prosecute. (Petition 16, 90047, Calendar Item 17)

It was a tough day for exit provisions.  The following information is based on my best understanding and has not been verified:  A provision was successfully added to the Wespath pensions petitions that allows annual conferences to assess amounts in addition to a fair share of the pension liability.  This could be used punitively in some cases to make the price tag for exit much higher.  Also, Judicial Council Ruling 1377 applies constitutional paragraph 41 to churches seeking disaffiliation.  That means a 2/3 majority vote would be required at a charge conference, a congregational meeting, AND at the annual conference session.  This is an extremely unwieldy process for churches seeking to exit the denomination.  The Taylor Disaffiliation petition was approved as a minority report and I am trying to obtain the final language.

What happens now?

The Global Council of the Wesleyan Covenant Association convenes tomorrow in St. Louis to talk about what happened and what happens next.  African delegates will go home and share the news that they successfully defending the church’s teachings on marriage.  Representatives from the Western Jurisdiction made an announcement today that is open to interpretation.  (They either said they are rejecting the actions of General Conference and invite others to join them, or they said they are starting a new connection and inviting others to join them.)  Adam Hamilton announced his intention to call a meeting of bishops and other key leaders at the Church of the Resurrection after Easter “to discuss where Methodism goes from here.”

Bad things happened today with respect to what we said and did to one another.  Holy conferencing gave way to bare-knuckle politics.  I sat at table with friends as we cast votes that hurt one another deeply.   This is a night of mourning for many who came to St. Louis with hopes of a much different outcome.  We all have folks at home that tuned in and watched organized religion at its most dysfunctional.  They cannot unsee what they saw.  I spoke with pastors already receiving messages from church members saying that they are leaving the church.  Others are receiving messages of congratulations.

Love it or hate it, this is the first page of a whole new volume of Methodist history. My guess is that it will include more than two new groups moving to capture some of the good in United Methodism.  I see a very Progressive form of Methodism growing out of a base in the Western Jurisdiction.  Another flavor may develop under leading lights like Adam Hamilton, Matt Miofsky, and Tom Berlin as a moderately progressive/evangelical heir to Mainline Methodism.  The mechanisms for new groups to form are not in place, so we have navigated off the map.

Most difficult to predict is the future of evangelical Methodism.  What does a dog do when he finally catches the car he has been chasing?  We evangelicals never really wanted to inherit the institution, we were just contending for the faith.  The UMC is a house past due for a major remodel.  I expect the crisis of the next couple years won’t be wasted and a very different wineskin will form.  One little-known fact is that WCA has received many overtures from autonomous Methodist churches seeking a reconnection of the scattered heirs of Wesley throughout the Americas and beyond.  There is the possibility of an orthodox Methodist global convergence that would be be both exciting and challenging to help foster.

I expect the first questions that will need to be answered are:  (1) Who plans to come to General Conference 2020 and (2) for what purpose?  The next few weeks will tell that story.