Plans For a Methodist Future

Fenton

Fenton

By Walter B. Fenton –

This spring at least four broadly conceived plans have been proposed for the future of The United Methodist Church. The most controversial of the four, a proposal to consider amicable separation, was put forward by a group of large church pastors and theologians. For reasons connected to, but also separately from those motivating the pastors and theologians, Bishop Mike Coyner offered not so much a plan as a “series of questions” that might lead to a plan. And still two other plans were put forward to preserve the church’s unity while accommodating deep divisions within it.

What motivated this burst of proposals? For the group of leading pastors and theologians, it was controversial events within the denomination over the past six months. Some progressive clergy, contrary to the Book of Discipline, have presided at same-sex services. Many have not been charged, and in at least two instances, bishops declined to hold the offending clergy accountable. An inconsequential 24-hour suspension was given in one case and the charges were simply dismissed in the other case. Several bishops have publicly declared their intention to avoid any future trials. For the leading pastors and theologians an important line had been crossed. Progressive clergy and bishops across the connection were, as they had previously warned, now openly and collectively disregarding parts of the Discipline in the practice of their ministries.

The Rev. Tom Harrison, pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and one of the pastors considering amicable separation, said, “Two groups are locked in diametrically opposed positions . . . [and] the conflict has escalated to the point where one group is breaking the covenant which binds us together. A new path must be found.”

Harrison and others pastors (including a few of my colleagues at Good News) who have joined two conference calls and will meet in person this summer, are still in the process of trying to create a new path. Despite all the consternation over the very mention of the term “separation,” the group has not actually presented a plan of separation. Rather, it has asked, “Is [it] not time for persons of good faith, representing the spectrum of theological positions within The United Methodist Church, to begin discussing ways to create a ‘win-win’ scenario for the mental, emotional and spiritual well-being of everyone involved?”

Without offering details at this juncture, the group has observed, as Dr. Maxie Dunnam, Chancellor of Asbury Theological Seminary, put it, “There is no viable ‘third way,’ or ‘compromise,’ so why not be Christian and civil, valuing each other, and work out a separation that will allow both groups to serve the Kingdom with the kind of commitment and passion essential for any powerful witness we wish to make.”

Not so fast, the Revs. Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter said, two of the denomination’s most well known pastors. Hamilton, in an interview with United Methodist News Service, admitted that at least in part, “phone calls with those pastors and laity calling for a formal split in our denomination” motivated him to submit, with his colleague Slaughter, a plan to maintain unity despite deep divisions.

The Hamilton/Slaughter plan, which has been endorsed by hundreds of clergy and lay people, proposed “local” and “regional” options with regard to the contentious issues of same sex marriage and the ordination of openly gay clergy. Their plan would retain the Discipline’s current language prohibiting same-sex weddings, but it would allow a local church to set aside the ruling if its pastor and a super-majority of the congregation’s members agreed to do so. Likewise, the denomination’s official position would continue to prohibit the ordination of openly gay clergy, but any annual conference would be allowed to override that if its members voted accordingly.

Hamilton and Slaughter, who at the 2012 General Conference submitted an “agree-to-disagree” petition on homosexuality that the delegates declined to pass, believe their “local option” approach could preserve church unity while allowing for a diversity of local opinions and actions within the worldwide connection. “I don’t know if the local option is the right alternative,” Hamilton said. “If there is a better one I pray it surfaces. But the threat of a major division of our church should lead us to a willingness to consider alternatives that hold together most of our churches.”

The Rev. Chris Ritter, member of the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference, said he believes he just might have the alternative Hamilton, Slaughter and others are looking for. Ritter’s proposal calls for the elimination of the five U.S. geographical jurisdictions in favor of two. And the two would not be defined by geographical borders, but rather by “divergent approaches to scripture and ministry.”

Essentially, local churches would be given the opportunity to affiliate with other like-minded UM congregations and annual conferences across the connection. For instance, a conservative local church in California, surrounded by a sea of liberal ones, would be given the option of joining the jurisdiction more akin to its ethos. And likewise, a liberal church in Alabama could join the jurisdiction that skewed more progressive on theological and social issues. In addition, each jurisdiction would determine its own Social Principles.

Ritter argued that his proposal would preserve unity, avoid costly legal battles over property and assets, and move the denomination “past the divisive infighting” so it could  “focus externally on mission and ministry.” He readily acknowledged new ways would have to be found for funding general board and agencies, and particularly the Episcopal Fund. However, he said he believes his plan would preserve in their entirety the essential work of ministries like UMCOR and the General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits.

In at least some sense, Bishop Coyner, leader of the Indiana Annual Conference, was a source for the Hamilton/Slaughter plan and the Ritter proposal. In an article, Coyner asked a series of questions that were clearly intended to move the UM Church beyond controversial debates, and to consider a “flattened” denominational structure that would be more “innovative and flexible.” Like the Hamilton/Slaughter and Ritter plans, he foresaw a church with a vastly reduced superstructure and one with more local autonomy.

His initial question outlined the direction in which he thinks the church should move, “What if we allowed each AC [annual conference] . . . to make its own decisions on all matters other than those restricted by the [UM Church’s] Constitution” and “our basic doctrine and theological task”? Flowing from this question, Coyner conceived of annual conferences that, among other things, shape the church’s Social Principles to their own “unique culture and political settings;” “establish [their own] standards and processes to train clergy and laity” to meet their “unique mission field;” elects and pays for their own bishops; and “partners” with the general church’s agencies and boards rather than providing mandated financial support.

Coyner anticipated Ritter’s proposal by asking the church to consider “disband[ing] the Jurisdictions in the U.S.” and allowing annual conferences to form “affinity groups with other Annual Conferences (including in other countries).” And his suggestion that each annual conference “modify its own Social Principles . . . to [its] unique cultural and political settings” was clearly a nod to the Hamilton/Slaughter plan.

All four of these plans have one thing in common — numerous critics.

The idea of separation has generated a backlash in several annual conferences and a strong critique from various bishops. For instance, in the North Georgia Annual Conference clergy and laity signed a document stating, “[W]e are united in our opposition to schism in The United Methodist Church.” They acknowledge that the church must change, but strongly resist separation as a solution. They offered no plan of their own.

In her recent blog post, Bishop Sally Dyck of the Northern Illinois Annual Conference offered a stinging indictment of clergy like Dunnam and Harrison. Her column opened, “There’s a group of large church pastors who think they’re bigger than The United Methodist Church.” After a string of sharp rhetorical questions, strongly implying the true aim of the group is to create a “gay-free church,” she argued the denomination’s “mission, focus and impact on making a difference in the world . . . would take a devastating hit” in the event of separation.

But the other plans have their detractors as well. In a series of six columns, Dr. Timothy Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, offered a methodical critique of the Hamilton/Slaughter proposal. He asked, “Why are we being asked to believe in a quick legislative ‘single issue’ fix for a problem and crisis which has taken 50 years to come to full fruit?” Tennent wrote that a “UMC which is conceptualized as unified because we come to an agreement on how to handle this particular issue [homosexuality] is a faulty notion of unity.” He maintained that the issues dividing the church are far more fundamental than this one issue; they have to do with biblical authority, the loss of a “distinctly Christian consciousness” among the church’s clergy, and the lack of a larger vision of the “church of Jesus Christ” that moves beyond a “narrow denominational parochialism.”

As for Bishop Coyner’s and Ritter’s plans, they are sure to find strong resistance within the denomination’s institutional structure. While neither specifically calls for a drastic reduction in or the outright elimination of particular general boards and agencies, both imply as much. And along with the Hamilton/Slaughter proposal people are bound to ask of all three of these plans, “What is the point of remaining united if for all practical purposes United Methodists end up saying and doing very different things that give at least the appearance of a dis-united church?” To a greater or lesser extent, all three of the plans loosen the church’s polity and move it in a more congregational direction.

But in fairness to all of them, they are serious proposals that move the UM Church beyond the tired pieties of calling for more “dialogue,” for “staying at the table,” and for engaging in “holy conferencing.” Three of the plans are motivated by a sincere desire to maintain unity and to make the UM Church more effective in the fulfillment of its mission. And in the case of those calling for the consideration of amicable separation, the desire is to recognize that an impasse has been reached, and further debate will only hurt more feelings and hinder the denomination from playing its role in the Church Universal’s larger mission.

The plans’ authors ask serious questions: how can we do better at fulfilling our mission, what would it take to keep such a diverse church unified, and is unity being privileged to the exclusion of core beliefs and denominational effectiveness? To be sure, the authors give tentative answers, but they are thoughtful and sincere ones. And finally, to their credit, all four of the proposals appear to confront some hard facts – 46 straight years of membership decline, 76 percent of 31,965 local United Methodist churches in the U.S. now averaging less than 100 in worship attendance and 67 percent of that number averaging less than 50, and no apparent resolution in sight of a debate that has divided the church for decades. Perhaps the church does need a new plan.

Walter Fenton is the director of development for Good News and an ordained United Methodist clergyperson.

 

Comments

  1. 76% of UM churches in the US averaging less than 100 in worship, and 67% less than 50 can only accelerate rapidly downward if one of these proposed “unity” plans is adopted. Right now the UMC can barely articulate a coherent message even though it is all there in front of it IN WRITING. Unleash all these divergent and competing messages that would spring like a flood from one of these compromises and the UM church would not only have NO message at all to offer from the pulpits, but would destroy the wonderful WRITTEN message that it has as well. Suicide, nothing but suicide.

    The only place that the UMC can ever find unity is in Scripture and the humble submission to the authority of that Scripture. Why are so many running as fast as they can from that? Do we actually have that many Bishops, District Superintendents, and Clergy in our denomination who no longer believe the Bible and the authority of that Bible as the inspired Word of God?

  2. Carolyn Howard says

    I absolutely agree with Dr. Tennent . . . The problem lies with the church continually questioning the authority of the Word!!! This issue perverts the total Gospel . . . it’s real simple – we all have sin . . . we all love our sin . . . and we were all born that way . . . . but in order to commune with the Father – we must truly repent and change our behavior. May God have mercy on the UMC if we put our stamp of approval on this sin and tell the world we think it’s ok with God.

    Carolyn Howard

    .

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