by Chris Ritter

The United Methodist News Service yesterday published  a plan that has been circulating for several months in inboxes throughout the UMC.  Bishop Scott Jones and Bishop David Bard offer “a new form a unity” that can be enacted by a simple majority at General Conference 2020.  Bard-Jones envisions “two or three self-governing” denominations being birthed from United Methodism.

In spite of some shared history at SMU, Bishops Jones and Bard are something of an odd couple.  Jones leans traditional; Bard leans progressive.  Bard is a recently minted bishop and Jones has served in the episcopacy since 2004.  Jones is taller than average and Bard is… not.  What they share is realism and a strong motivation toward a comprehensive settlement of the divisions that bedevil the UMC.  Both have been willing to think outside the box of the current institution and this is something of a rarity for UM bishops.

The Plan

The proposal envisions GC2020 enacting legislation that will enable the UMC to divide into two or three new denominations.  The new expressions would each have their own approach to human sexuality: Progressive (Simple Plan), Open (One Church Plan) and Traditional (MTP).  Following GC2020, each annual conference would join one of the new bodies and participate in one of three organizing General Conferences, each to be held in 2022.  Individual congregations not in harmony with the decision of their annual conference could vote to be placed in an annual conference of another group.

The new denominations would be in full communion* with each other and participate in the World Methodist Council.  Wespath, UM Publishing house, and Archives & History would be spun off as independent organizations serving all three churches.  The Open Methodist Church (name a mere placeholder) would presumably attract a majority of the American UMC and inherit GBGM, Discipleship Ministries, GBHEM, GBCS, GCRR, UMCom, COSROW, and UMM. The other new denominations could contract with these agencies for services if they like.   The World Service Fund, Episcopal Fund, Interdenominational Cooperation Fund, and Ministerial Education Fund would be dissolved and their work accounted for in the new bodies.

All successor denominations could use the UM logo and the name “United Methodist,” as regulated by a shared GCFA, the governance of which would be based on a proportion of membership.  No group is required to use the UM name and logo and customization would be prudent to avoid confusion.  

United Methodist bishops would each choose a new expression to join.

The Process

What are Bard and Jones trying to accomplish?  They want to end our impasse by providing a means of separation.  And they want this means of separation to happen within the significant restraints of our current constitution.  Amendments require supermajority passage and ratification votes around the world, adding time and uncertainty to an already tenuous situation.  A straight-up vote to dissolve the UMC would take at least one constitutional amendment.  A straight-up vote to divide the UMC would likewise affect the constitution.

A mechanism is needed to provide space between warring parties… and something that can be accomplished by a simple majority at GC2020 in Minneapolis next May.  Bard and Jones suggest we scuttle the UMC ship by stripping it of its essential parts as the passengers board three new vessels.

The legislative mechanism for the Bard-Jones Plan would be a new version of  Petition 90041, a part of the Modified Traditional Plan that was never approved at GC2019.  This legislation has the advantage of being previously approved by the Judicial Council as constitutional.  At GC2019 it was referred to the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters where it failed to find support.  (Time ran out before it could be brought before the plenary body as a minority report.)  Some progressives and centrists later regretted opposing 90041 because it would have allowed a way for annual conferences to leave the UMC with their assets following the passage of the Traditional Plan.  It was the part of the MTP aimed at providing space, peace and a fair allocation of assets.  Passing the Traditional Plan without this key piece has caused the heightened acrimony and continued “stuckness” experienced since February.

The Bard-Jones Plan also recommends that paragraphs related to complaints against persons for officiating same-sex weddings or for the consideration of LGBTA persons of candidacy, licensing, commissioning, and ordination be suspended during the transition period as conferences move into the new denoninations.

The Problem

For Bard-Jones to work, every annual conference and bishop needs to leave the UMC for one of the new denominations.  While the Judicial Council has determined that General Conference can approve a process for annual conferences to leave the UMC, forcing AC’s to leave the denomination is another matter entirely. Choosing a branch will be difficult in some locations.  Some annual conferences will lose significant membership no matter which branch they choose.  Bard-Jones is not explicit about what would happen if an annual conference chooses not to choose.

Giving the governance of GCFA to the three new denominations may be part of the plan’s answer to this question.  If an annual conference failed to choose a branch, they would be left in limbo instead of becoming part of one of the new expressions  They would inherit the keys to a car without an engine, steering wheel, or tires.  The general agencies and assets would have already been given away.

GCFA is the technical employer of United Methodist bishops, so this group will be well positioned to encourage movement.  Constitutional issues need to be carefully studied. If there are problems a remedy may be found in assigning the “Open” UMC as the inheritor of any remnants of the old institution.   This would place upon them the burden of inheriting the UMC constitution.

The Prospects?

This plan needs 50%+1 support at GC2020.  Initial reactions have been mixed, but these seem knee-jerk rather than based on detailed analysis of the plan.  Some have tried to locate Bard-Jones within the grid of the Way Forward Plans.  But it is really a different animal.  Unlike the Traditional Plan, it grants the majority of the general agencies to the “Open” denomination.. so the U.S. majority position of the UMCNext Group is respected.  The need for structural space by Traditionalists is honored in a way unseen in the Simple Plan and One Church Plan.  And it goes much further than the Connectional Conference Plan by providing for separate denominations.  Bard-Jones also incorporates some of the best ideas from the past five years to (hopefully) avoid constitutional amendments.

The UMNS article announcing the plan used the word “umbrella” which triggered those thirsty for separation to view this as a new version of the CCP.   This is not an umbrella plan.  We need to realize that every plan contains within it some amount of marketing language.  (This was true of all the Way Forward Plans, as well.)  To make the plan appealing to those who want to maximize institutional unity, we see phrases like “new unity,” “full communion,” and shared governance.”  You have to look beyond the veneer to ask, “What is this?”  

Bard-Jones is an amicable divorce with a shared custody arrangement.  

That is, it represents a proposal for separation with some thoughtful ideas about fair custody of denominational assets following the structural division.  It leaves us with three autonomous denominations, three books of discipline, and three general conferences.  Barring the emergence of regional churches, the result will likely be a U.S.-led denomination, a global Methodist denomination, and a possible Progressive Methodist connection.  The hope is that three fresh expressions can do a better job of reaching people for Jesus Christ than our single, stuck expression.

It is important to hear from episcopal leaders willing to name our current reality and suggest a death with dignity for our current institutional expression.  The Bard-Jones Plan seems an honest effort to provide a place for all United Methodists to find a connectionalism that fits.  It leaves significant questions open about the future of the church in Africa, Asia, and Europe.  As this plan is translated into detailed legislative language, it will be important to seek the wisdom of the Judicial Council on some of its more unique aspects.  Further refinement will undoubtedly come now that the proposal is public.  But we can at least thank Bishops Bard and Jones for moving the conversation forward at a crucial time.

 

*Full communion means that we recognize each other’s ministries.  It does not mean that each body is bound to accept the decisions made by the other or required to receive clergy by transfer without scrutiny.

 

Photo Credit: Mike DuBose, UM News.

 

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