by Chris Ritter
With the announcement today of the Minneapolis Convention Center closing during the month of May, the already likely specter of General Conference being postponed has become a certainty. The timeline for General Conference is now in the hands of the Commission on the General Conference and they will not be able to set any date for the foreseeable future. There is a constitutional mandate to hold General Conference every four years and a need to approve a quadrennial budget prior to January 1. A majority of delegates must gather for a quorum. Justice demands international delegates have opportunity to fully participate.
Is there a way forward for United Methodism if no General Conference can meet?
Maybe yes… at least partially.
Last June, I suggested a strategy that could be employed by jurisdictions. That suggestion was followed by a similar model offered last August by Sean Delmore and Becca Girrell of the New England Conference. In October, former President of the Judicial Council, William Lawrence of SMU, weighed in with his own concept of sorting United Methodists within the existing jurisdictions.
I thought now might be a good time to review these concepts. None of them require any changes in our current Book of Discipline. All of them require jurisdictional conferences to meet. It is not a slam dunk this will even be possible by July… but let’s assume it may be for the purpose of this discussion.
The Ritter Model
Jurisdictional conferences are empowered to set the boundaries for their annual conferences. My thought experiment involves each jurisdictional conference widening the boundary of each annual conference to the full geographic extent of their jurisdiction. Every annual conference would technically be as large as the jurisdiction itself and overlaps with all the others. Why?
This would allow local churches within the jurisdiction to transfer to any annual conference they like under the provisions of constitutional Paragraph 41. This provision allows congregations to vote themselves into another annual conference “in which it is geographically located.” That currently only exists when a missionary conference overlaps with standard conferences. Widening the technical boundaries of all annual conferences in the jurisdiction would make them all overlap with each other. Then congregations could use Paragraph 41 to change conferences, providing a means of sorting similar to that enabled by the Feinberg Protocol… except within the rubrics of the UMC. Jurisdictions would need to make sure they had at least one traditional and one progressive annual conference available.
I was not suggesting that some annual conference be allowed to obey the Book of Discipline while others would not. But that is happening already. This model allows local churches and clergy to transfer to an annual conference that interprets the BOD in a way they could support. When General Conference gets around to meeting, the sorting processes imagined by the Protocol would be well underway.
Paragraph 41 is a clumsy process. It requires 2/3 majority votes in the church conference and the two annual conferences involved. But we are no longer talking about ideal scenarios. We are choosing among bad options at this point. This would at least give us some forward movement.
The Delmore-Girrell Model
Sean Delmore and Becca Girrell of the New England Conference offered a “Jurisdictional Redraw Strategy.” They suggest that each jurisdiction create two new annual conferences that overlap all the others. One would operate in accordance with the Traditional Plan. The other would be Progressive. So the conference boundaries would stay in place for the existing conferences. There would be two new conferences that overlaps them all.
Presumably, these two new conferences serve as “release valves” for all the others. If you were a Progressive congregation stuck in a conference too traditional for you, you could join the new progressive conference. If you were a traditional congregation trapped in a conference too progressive for you, you could join the new traditional conference created for your jurisdiction.
There are minimum numbers of clergy required to constitute an annual conference. This would need to be negotiated somehow under the Delmore-Girrell model.
The Lawrence Model
William Lawrence, former chair of the Judicial Council, wrote last October about his vision for a jurisdictionally-based solution. In his “Way for the United Methodist Church to Move Forward: An Option Based on Constitutional Principles,” each jurisdiction creates one of more non-geographic conferences. The Western Jurisdiction, for instance, would create a new conference for its traditionalists. Other jurisdictions might require the creation of new conferences for both traditionalists and progressives.
I commend Lawrence’s proposal to you as the most complete and well-researched of the three models. He sees his work as an alternative to separation. I offered mine as more of a prelude to full separation.
There are detailed processes in the constitution for bishops to transfer from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. These are seldom if ever used. Perhaps this is the time to import a traditional bishop into the Western Jurisdiction to oversee a traditionalist conference there. A Northeastern Jurisdiction bishop recently indicated his intention to join a new traditional Methodist denomination should the Protocol be approved. The NEJ could create a traditionalist conference within their borders for him to oversee. The trauma of separation would be lessened once the Protocol is passed. Or maybe the UMC can find some sort of new stasis for the time being.
Let’s hope GC2020 can come together sooner rather than later. But some thought has gone into solutions independent of GC action. If GC2020 is unable to meet or unable to agree on a solution, there are a few options yet available.