by Chris Ritter
The Indianapolis Plan is something I support but not something I celebrate. It is a hard-negotiated compromise forged among Progressives, Centrists, and Traditionalists at odds with one another. Everyone walked away from the table with less than they hoped. But the Indy Plan opens the possibility for groups to find a self-determined future with integrity. I was at the negotiating table and witnessed what each group sacrificed to craft a peace just barely acceptable to all. The sacrifices only makes sense in light of the Methodist Chernobyl Disaster in which we find ourselves.
What the Indy Plan does well is bring speedy release to the captives… progressive congregations/clergy stuck in traditionalist conferences and traditionalists stuck in progressive conferences. By this time next year annual conferences and local churches will be well on their way to a new future in one of two or three autonomous expressions. The Centrist/Progressive wing in the U.S. gets most of the current institutional structures. The financial cost of exit is lower than anything previously offered because pension liabilities are transferred to the new entities. All the groups that result will hold their own organizing/reorganizing events to craft the new institutional wineskins that are so long overdue.
What the Indy Plan does less well is create a workable path for the Central Conferences. For sure, Central Conferences (the three African central conferences being the largest) have the ability to determine their own path, but the options are not great. If they align with the Centrist UMC, they retain their place in the UMC structure and their (modest) voice in GBGM. But they would be part of a denomination that practices things contrary to their understanding of the Gospel. Their association with a denomination with gay bishops/clergy will be damaging to their mission.
If African central conferences choose to align with the Traditionalist UMC under the Indy Plan, they lose their connection with GBGM, the delivery mechanism for the financial support they receive from the United States. American traditionalists will be the smaller portion in a U.S. divide. Centrists will be less enthusiastic about supporting annual conferences of a denomination with which they are competing in the U.S. (Yes, we are in for a protracted sorting period which will devolve, I fear, into a zero sum game of institutional competition. A win for one side will be a loss for the other.)
Africa is close to achieving a UMC membership majority and they would abandon that hope if they break from the institution. Unlike U.S. traditionalists, Africans want the UMC name and logo for which they have built great respect. If one church with two brands is possible, there remains a series of structural issues that will be difficult to navigate in forming a stable, global Traditionalist Church.
Prediction: Great pressure will be applied to some African conferences by U.S. Centrists. If even one African conference can be persuaded to stay in the Centrist UMC, it would bolster U.S. Centrists’ claim of a United Methodism that continues to include the Global South. Generous financial promises can be made to any African conference willing to stay in such a church. These promises would be kept, of course, by stripping support from African conferences siding with the Traditionalist branch.
The other alternative is for Central conferences to become independent denominations. The Indy Plan calls for financial support to be retained at the same level for at least four years. Theoretically, there will also be some future division of general church assets that will assist the new denominations in their formation. But the Indy Plan is vague on this point. We Traditionalists in the Indy negotiations submitted our own proposal that called for any unrestricted assets to be pooled and divided based on membership. The assumption here is that these are United Methodist assets and should be divided equally among United Methodists. The Centrists will want assets to be divided based on the amount paid in. This would cut Africa out of any division and leave them with nothing but the future mission support provided by a GBGM in which they have no representation.
Central Conferences forming an independent denomination is no seamless endeavor. Africans generally appreciate being part of a global denomination because it saves them from being eaten alive by local partisanship and tribalism. But African United Methodists don’t really know one another all that well across their annual conferences. When they meet in their three Central Conferences they came together mostly as strangers. Add to this the language and cultural differences. They speak French, English, Kiswahili, Portuguese, and countless local dialects. There are economic differences among the various regions. Organizations like the Africa Initiative are building bridges for coordination and the bishops of the three central conferences meet occasionally. If resources are stripped (or distributed haphazardly) the African church will disproportionately suffer.
It seems to me that a guiding principle of any peace plan is do no harm to the one area of the United Methodist Church that is actually successful in making significant numbers of new disciples of Jesus Christ. Maybe the stakes in a UMC division, as far as the Kingdom of God is concerned, are primarily outside the U.S. We Americans need to get over ourselves.
Wasting a Crisis
Keep in mind that I am in favor of the Indianapolis Plan. While I name some serious omissions, it is still the best option that can be accomplished with a simple majority. The “Next Generation UMC” plan offered by UMC-Next is a hissing caldron of puss and venom with no larger vision than a reversal of GC2019. It would create the same crisis on the Traditional side of the UMC that GC2019 created on the Progressive side… only worse. This and other plans allude to a better future without creating it. There is no shortage of promissory notes out there for a New Methodism. These are checks that will be difficult to cash.
Entrenched interests in the general agencies successfully sabotaged the well-supported Call to Action Report in 2012 and have benefitted from the denominational distraction over human sexuality to keep business as usual moving forward. Efforts at real structural transformation will be only more difficult with reform-minded theological conservatives out of the mix. Centrists also run the risk of Africans staying in the UMC following the passage of the Indy Plan. Note that the human sexuality standards initially do not change, only go unenforced. The enforcement has been spotty at best for years. If Africans hold on, they could be the statistical majority by the time the institution gets around to holding another General Conference.
“Never waste a crisis” is a Machiavellian rule of politics that I often hear quoted in discussions on the future of the UMC. It seems to me that there is a real risk that our dysfunctions could be multiplied instead of repaired. This risk is not unique to the Indy Plan.
The reason GC2020 plans make only promissory notes for a New Methodism (rather than deliver it) is all about math. We are gridlocked. It takes a 2/3 majority to change our basic constitution as a church and these changes must be ratified around the world. Separation plans (The Indy Plan. Bard-Jones, etc.) rely on the recent Judicial Council ruling that says annual conferences can leave the denomination if General Conference creates a process for this. Solution-seekers have found ways to sculpt this provision to provide the needed release valve. But there are limitations. The Indy Plan is a very nice parachute. Where the jumpers are to land and who is flying the plane afterward remain open questions.
This is why I submitted a plan for a United Methodist Communion of Churches. The proposal is compatible with the Indianapolis Plan… The Indy Plan would provide the quick relief many of us in the U.S. are hoping for while the ratification of a new constitution would address the larger questions related to Africa, the general agencies, UMC assets and legacy.
Ratification of a new constitution would replace General Conference and GCFA with a Governing Council of 60-100 people that would manage the general agencies. These agencies would develop cooperative agreements with the new denominations that form. If a general agency cannot win the support of denominations representing at least 75% of the total membership of the communion, they are freed as an independent non-profit or liquidated (with their assets likely going to the General Board of Global Ministries.)
Unlike the Anglican and Orthodox communions, there is no intrinsic mutual recognition of ordination and ministry. At least initially, it is a pragmatic arrangement with an emphasis on continued support for missions. And it is voluntary. If a denomination wanted to form and not be part of the UM communion, they could certainly do that. There are a minimum number of essential services and the rest of the agencies would be funded through negotiated agreements. The Governing Council, populated proportional to membership, would manage this.
A Two-Plan Solution?
Dr. Jeffrey Barbeau of Wheaton College has a new book entitled, The Spirit of Methodism: From the Wesleys to a Global Communion. While the Indy Plan gets us a long way toward an ultimate solution for our UM Chernobyl, the Communion Plan paints a picture of the landscape beyond the sexuality debate. Autonomous denominations in the United Methodist tradition can try coming together to share the resources developed by those who came before us. Forming a communion provides an alternative to the fate realized by our sister Mainline denominations, none of whom set themselves up for a brighter future. They only managed to slow the bleeding.
Naive? Probably. But I am proud to be marked as one who continues to believe United Methodists can do better.