Peopleneedjesus.net is pleased to offer this guest post by Frank Holbrook, a lay member of the Memphis Annual Conference and delegate to the 2020 General Conference of the UMC. Frank is a retired attorney and graduated from Florida State University and the University of Georgia School of Law. He serves as conference president of United Methodist Men and also serves on the Episcopacy Committee. When not working as a civil mediator, Frank is Board Counsel for the Northwest Tennessee Entrepreneurial Center and President of the Northwest Tennessee Angel Fund, LLC. Frank shares that these views are his “own and always subject to both challenge and change.” He is now has his own blog at http://planegrace.com.
AN ALTERNATE APPROACH TO UNITY – AN EFFORT TO AVOID RULING FROM THE GRAVE
The Bard-Jones Plan is an admirable effort to offer a “thought experiment that we hope others will take seriously and consider as they are making decisions about the future of the church” (Bishop Jones quoted by United Methodist News Service July 10, 2019). One of the possible outcomes recognized by the Bard-Jones Plan is “Begin with a vision of what we would like The United Methodist Church to look like in 2022 and negotiate a new unity, a new connectionalism, a new Methodism, an amicable separation, or a mutual blessing/parting of the ways, which creates more space between United Methodists who are not currently living well together.”
This is one person’s effort to participate in the thought experiment concerning the future of the United Methodist Church. It is not an advocacy piece nor one that tries to justify a particular point of view concerning the church’s current struggle over the presenting issues of human sexuality, ordination and enforcement of the Book of Discipline (“BOD”). Throughout this paper these issues will be collectively referred to as the “presenting issues”. The thoughts expressed in this paper are strictly the views of the author and should not be considered as being endorsed by, or representative of, any organization with which he is affiliated.
It is easy to assume that if GC 2019 is repeated by GC 2020, by 2024 member attrition will make the United Methodist Church a very different representation of Christ’s Church on earth. People may argue about the church’s progressive/centrist/traditional composition based on the results of annual Conference balloting and General Conference may be able to make it easy or hard for a local church to leave the denomination, but there is no way that the United Methodist Church can compel anyone to attend church, be a faithful steward or continue as a member. We potentially are on a path to see the equivalent of a denominational neutron bomb, the structures will be present but the people will be gone. While the Bard-Jones plan doesn’t describe the issue in these apocalyptic terms, it recognizes this potential outcome and the urgency of seeking a solution.
This is the first of a series of papers, written by a non-theologically trained layman to offer particulars concerning a plan that would would provide continuing communion of the people known as United Methodists by creating new expressions of Methodism. These expressions would build upon the United Methodist Church’s work and provide new avenues to engage in the great commission.
Foundational Point 1 – GC 2020 must avoid efforts to rule from the grave
During my years practicing law I became familiar with the phrase “ruling from the grave.” This occurs when a person making a will puts conditions on a gift being made by the will. For example, a grandparent might leave property or money to a grandchild under the condition that grandchild take some action before the time the grandchild turns 25. A bequest might read as follows: “I leave my granddaughter a sum of money on the condition that she completes her college degree in accounting by the time she turns 25 years of age.” By making this gift in this fashion, the person making the will is attempting to control the grandchild by ruling from the grave; the granddaughter must (a) complete college, (b) have a degree in accounting and (c) accomplish the task before she turns 25.
A fundamental assumption underlying many of the proposals being floated in advance of GC 2020, including the Bard-Jones Plan, is that each new expression of Methodism will have as it’s starting point the existing BOD. The Bard-Jones plan terms the new expressions it envisions as the Progressive, Open and Traditional Methodist Churches. It also leaves open the possibility of additional new expressions (“Churches in Europe and Asia could form their own Methodist Churches or to belong to one of the two or three churches, with the precise nature of the relationship to be determined.”) However, the plan expressly contemplates that any new expression is birthed within the existing institutional constraints of the BOD with limited changes made to the discipline based on the presenting issues.
Essentially the Bard-Jones Plan creates multiple new United Methodist churches each of which is cloned from the United Methodist Church DNA. In many ways this approach is similar to the quote, perhaps apocryphal, attributed to Henry Ford regarding his Model Ts “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” Our attitude seems to be that a new expression can be anything it wants to be as long as it conforms – mostly – to the existing BOD. We seem to be offering a basic model with a choice of a few options packages related to the presenting issues.
Like the Bard-Jones plan, we have seen that tendency throughout most of the separation proposals to attempt to “rule from the grave.” By making a number of conditions attached to the new expressions, the UMC is limiting what can emerge from the present circumstances. What is really needed is the opportunity to allow God to truly create something new. Throughout this difficult season we have often invoked Isaiah 43:18-19 (“18 Don’t remember the prior things; don’t ponder ancient history. 19 Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it? I’m making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness.” CEB). Shouldn’t we be open to the possibility that the new thing may be more than we have envisioned or are discussing.
Foundational Point 2 – What type of unity should GC 2020 be seeking?
As we approach GC 2020 there is a need for clarity and consensus about some foundational questions and terms. The first of these terms is unity.
No one in the current discussions disputes Jesus’ prayer for unity among his believers. “I’m not praying only for them but also for those who believe in me because of their word. I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me.” John 17:20-21 CEB But what does that unity look like? Too often we fail to answer this critical initial question.
There appear to be some who think “unity” must be achieved at the denominational level, i.e. the United Methodist Church must be held together at all costs because letting it separate would be violating Jesus’ prayer for unity. The existing fault lines in the United Methodist Church have lead me, and others, to conclude that experiential proof demonstrates that unity within the United Methodist Church is unlikely to emerge in 2020. If the delegates main effort in 2020 is focused on achieving denominational unity by creating a standard requiring conformity on the presenting issues, the likely result will be a repeat of GC 2019.
The underlying tension within the denomination has been recognized as one that occurs frequently. In The Church Towards a Common Vision Faith and Order Paper No. 214 (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 2013). the underlying problem was recognized and described:
While it is a common affirmation that the Church is a meeting place between the divine and the human, churches nonetheless have different sensitivities or even contrasting convictions concerning the way in which the Holy Spirit’s activity in the Church is related to institutional structures or ministerial order. Some see certain essential aspects of the Church’s order as willed and instituted by Christ himself for all time; therefore, in faithfulness to the Gospel, Christians would have no authority fundamentally to alter this divinely instituted structure. Some affirm that the ordering of the Church according to God’s calling can take more than one form while others affirm that no single institutional order can be attributed to the will of God. Some hold that faithfulness to the Gospel may at times require a break in institutional continuity, while others insist that such faithfulness can be maintained by resolving difficulties without breaks which lead to separation. (Id. at p. 14.)
After identifying the underlying problem, the paper offers this potential solution:
Through their patient encounter, in a spirit of mutual respect and attention, many churches have come to a deeper understanding of these differing sensitivities and convictions regarding continuity and change in the Church. In that deeper understanding, it becomes clear that the same intent – to obey God’s will for the ordering of the Church – may, in some inspire commitment to continuity and, in others, commitment to change. We invite the churches to recognize and honour each other’s commitment to seeking the will of God in the ordering of the Church. We further invite them to reflect together about the criteria which are employed in different churches for considering issues about continuity and change. How far are such criteria open to development in the light of the urgent call of Christ to reconciliation (cf. Matt. 5:23-24)? Could this be the time for a new approach? (Id. at pp. 14-15.)
It appears that within the United Methodist Church it is indeed time for a new approach to unity, an approach that is a commitment to change while recognizing and honoring each other’s commitment to seeking the will of God in the ordering of the Church universal.
The current Book of Discipline (“BOD’) already recognizes Christian Unity existing at different levels. In setting forth the duties of Bishops the BOD states, at ¶ 403. 1. e) that a Bishop should possess “A passion for the unity of the church. The role of the bishop is to be the shepherd of the whole flock and thereby provide leadership toward the goal of understanding, reconciliation, and unity within the Church—The United Methodist Church and the church universal (emphasis supplied)”. See also¶¶4, 6, 203,215,1913, 2102, 2401.
As we work towards unity, it appears that the unity sought between the new expressions must be unity with the church universal, not the United Methodist Church.
Foundation Point 3 – The common core of unity between new expressions.
If the unity being sought is for the new expressions to be unified as part of the church universal, the question becomes is there anything in the United Methodist Church DNA that points the way towards that unity? A principled position can be advanced that two existing documents point the way towards the proper boundaries of a new unity. The first document is the Commission on a Way Forward’s Report to the General Conference (the “Way Forward Report”). The second document pointing the way towards an acceptable framework is the BOD’s existing framework for “Full Communion”.
The Way Forward Report set forth a very workable benchmark that identifies the core for the new expressions :
The Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds; Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith; General Rules; The Wesley Hymns; Disciplined Engagement with Scripture; Works of Piety, Mercy and Justice; Sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist; Small Group Accountability and Support (Class and Band Meetings); A Connectional Way of Life that includes Superintendency, Itineracy, and Conferencing. From “Wonder, Love and Praise”, three concepts: The saving love of God is meant for all people; the saving love of God is transformative; and the saving love of God creates community. (Id. At p. 2)
It would appear that if new expressions conform to these core values such action would promote the unity of church universal. By adopting these broad core values new expressions would have great latitude to define their connectionalism as it relates to Superintendency, Itineracy, Conferencing, ordination standards and accountability.
As noted, the second document defining the relationship is the current BOD. ¶ 431.1 of the BOD defines Full Communion Relationships and sets forth a framework for Expressions to be in Full Communion with one another. The important point here is that “Full Communion” is not a form contract where the new expressions fill in the blanks and send to their respective General Conferences for ratification. A Full Communion Agreement has broad outlines that may be filled in by mutual agreement of the new expressions. This would allow the new expressions to define the boundaries of Full Communion among themselves and is one way that the process would not be ruled from the grave.
An example of a point of negotiation concerning full communion is set forth at ¶ 431.1 b)(4): “recognize the validity of each other’s offices of ministry.” There would appear to be a broad range of options on this broad expression including (1) allowing free unfettered transfers from one expression to another (“full reciprocity“) or (2) allowing transfer with some vetting process in place. A Full Communion Agreement between the new expressions would flesh out these particulars.
Full communion agreements would also allow the new expressions to control and properly set the limits on the following aspirational bullet points in the Bard-Jones plan:
- We envision regular contact between leadership teams of the churches to coordinate shared mission and cooperation.
- It is envisioned that bishops of all the churches will hold regular meetings for the purpose of coordinating expressions of unity.
A commitment for each new expression to negotiate a series of Full Communion agreements with one another will allow the new expressions to be united without that unity being enforced by the existing United Methodist Church.
Foundational Point 4 – A plan of continued communion must be properly sequenced
The final critique of the Bard-Jones plan discussed in this paper is the issue of timing. It is admirable that the plan offers an ambitious two year window for significant implementation of the plan; however, the plan appears to have the sequencing wrong. The plan’s two year window is acceptable if the desired intended result will be UMC clones that merely tweak around the edges. But new expressions, if they are to be truly new expressions, will realistically require a 3-4 year implementation period and a different sequence of implementation.
Why is the sequencing wrong? The plan requires annual conferences to decide upon affiliation based on a limited set of BOD modifications and assumes that other modifications will occur after the affiliation process is completed.
Wouldn’t it be preferable if the new expressions were given an opportunity to fully flesh out what each new expression will be before a local church or annual conference decides to affiliate? Although the current tension in the UMC is framed by the presenting issues, it is clear that the genesis of the divide has deeper roots. It could be argued that the crux of the dispute is the role and interpretation of scripture.
If the divide within the UMC is deeper than the presenting issues shouldn’t each new expression be given the opportunity to frame its theology and polity in conformity with the foundational beliefs of the new expression? For example, new expressions will agree to the concepts of Superintendency, Itineracy, and Conferencing but might have significant differences in how those concepts will be applied. Isn’t it possible that new expressions could decide that Superintendency should have term limits and that Bishops should be elected by their own Annual Conference? Similarly, new expressions might rethink the relationship between the U.S. church and the Central Conferences. It is possible that the Central Conferences might create their own new expression. And undoubtedly, new expressions should be able to modify the geographic boundaries of jurisdictions and annual conferences.
It seems more logical to modify the plan’s timeline to give new expressions an opportunity to form by 2022 and then use the period from 2023-2024 to allow churches and/or annual conferences to affiliate with the new expressions.
Moreover, the new expressions should be given leeway to select their delegates for their convening Conferences. For example, it might be that each delegate to GC 2020 Would be allowed to participate in one, but only one, convening conference and the organizers of the conference could select an equal number of “at large” delegates to comprise the body of the convening conference. This is merely an example, the composition of the convening Conferences is a matter of procedure that could be worked out and should be driven by the new expressions. Otherwise, this is another area where the UMC would be ruling from the grave.
By allowing new expressions freedom to organize, there is no predetermined number of new expressions that might be attempted. But there would be the reality that each expression would need what it deems to be a critical mass to effectively present itself as a new expression that could be joined during the 2023-24 period.
This paper is the start of a thought experiment invited by Bishops Bard and Jones. Their willingness to step forward and invite people to think outside the box is simultaneously courageous and humble.
This paper offers the initial thoughts concerning a framework for a workable plan. A successful plan must start with a commitment to avoid ruling from the grave and a clear understanding of the type of unity that the General Conference is trying to achieve. This paper also provides potential framework for full communion and a proposed sequence of events to follow.
It is anticipated that additional papers will be forthcoming, but the time is short for petitions to be submitted and the work to be done is immense. It is my prayer and hope that as there is consensus reached on underlying foundational concepts then a detailed petition can be offered, one with broad support, that will allow a process to achieve proper continued communion that is a commitment to change while recognizing and honoring each other’s commitment to seeking the will of God in the ordering of the Church universal.