Seeing the Future

By Rob Renfroe –

I don’t have a crystal ball. I’m not a prophet. And I’m not claiming to have “a word from God.” But I think I can see how the called General Conference may end next February.

The bishops have spoken predominantly about two options which they are likely to put forth. The first proposal is called “The One Church” Plan. Previously it was referred to as “the local option.” Each pastor would determine whether to marry gay couples and each annual conference would decide whether to ordain practicing homosexuals. We would be one church with two different sexual ethics, some of us teaching that marriage is between a man and a woman and others proclaiming that marriage is the sacred union of two persons. Some of us would teach that loving homosexual relations are a gift from God to be celebrated; others of us would refer to such relations as contrary to God’s will, even sinful. 

This “one church” plan has been around for a good while. It was proposed at General Conference in 2016 and fared so poorly in committee that its rejection was a certainty and it was not even brought to the floor for a vote. This plan would require evangelicals and traditionalists to belong to a church that allows and promotes what they believe to be contrary to the clear teaching of God’s word. It’s hard to understand why the bishops think the same plan might pass when practically all of 2016’s delegates are returning to vote in 2019.

The “one church” model will be opposed in St. Louis by the same coalition that defeated it in the past – traditionalists in the U.S., delegates from Africa (almost unanimously), and most delegates from The Philippines and Eastern Europe. This coalition, or some form of it, has been the majority opinion on every significant sexual ethics vote that has come before General Conference for four decades. In fact, this alliance even defeated a less progressive proposal that United Methodists simply admit that we have differing opinions regarding homosexuality. I’m not a prophet but I don’t need to be to predict that “The One Church” Plan will fail again when it is proposed in St. Louis.

The second proposal has been referred to as “the Multi-Branch plan.” This proposal divides the church into three jurisdictions. One jurisdiction would be fully progressive with pastors required to marry gay couples. A second jurisdiction would be traditional in its beliefs and would not allow its pastor to marry same-gendered persons. A third jurisdiction would permit pastors to determine their own policies. Ordination of gay persons would likewise be required, forbidden, or allowed (but not required) of annual conferences, depending on the jurisdiction they joined.

For some evangelicals this plan is more palatable. The distance between the three branches is sufficient for some traditionalists to “live with” this model even if it’s not their first choice.

But can it pass? Probably not, because it requires constitutional amendments, meaning it must pass by a two-thirds margin at the called General Conference and by the same margin when it is considered later by annual and central conferences. Some progressives will not vote for this plan because they see it as an institutionalizing of injustice. Many evangelicals, both in the U.S and around the globe, will reject this plan because it also requires them to remain in a church that allows and promotes what the Scriptures forbid. Even if all of the progressives and one-third of the traditional delegates accept this plan, it will still fail to gain the two-thirds approval that it requires.

I’m not a prophet and I don’t have a crystal ball. But I can see a very unhappy ending for the special Conference that was called for the bishops to resolve our division over sexuality. If the only two options considered are the ones the bishops have been promoting in their press releases, chaos will be the result when they are defeated.  The church will be demoralized. The bishops will have failed.  Progressives will rampantly break the Book of Discipline. Conservatives will stop paying apportionments. Churches will leave the denomination. Members in huge numbers will depart to find non-Methodist churches to join. And there will be no one to look to for leadership. The bishops will have failed their trust and will have no moral authority to guide the church. The “centrist” leaders again will have lost their attempt to liberalize the church. Progressives will be seen for the true minority they are.

We will be in disarray and we will be leaderless.

In the meantime, the situation in the church is only getting worse. The decline in attendance is increasing. Bishops and annual conferences continue to disregard the Discipline by appointing self-avowed practicing homosexuals to leadership positions and by passing policies allowing the ordination of practicing LGBT persons (see page 6). More local churches are leaving the denomination. Mistrust and cynicism are growing. The morale of clergy in much of the U.S. is in the depths. Many are worried and anxious about the future of the church and its implications for their own personal situation. It is past time for the pain to end and this conflict to be resolved.

What’s our hope? That some other group will bring forth a plan that might resolve our dysfunction and our division. After all the time and expense that has been consumed in creating two plans that cannot pass, our hope is that a dissenting group of bishops, a global coalition, or some other group will create a plan that can pass. It will not be a plan that pleases everyone. It may not be a plan that “keeps us together” if that means having two or more positions regarding sexuality in one church. But it is time to resolve our differences and be done with the constant acrimony and fighting. That’s why the Conference was called. That’s what the bishops were asked to do. But if they won’t, then someone else must. Or I see a very unhappy ending for United Methodists.

Comments

  1. William (Bill) Fitzgerrel says:

    I notice that you did not consider the third option, which is a proposal to “tighten” adherence to the Discipline and create consequences for those bishops and conferences that refuse to discipline in a significant way those who defy the Discipline (I am writing largely from ignorance of the specifics). I would like to hear your take on the possibility that such a proposal would pass and what would be the consequences. Though I would favor such a proposal, I am not optimistic that it would achieve its intentions. I think that it would lead to greater “civil disobedience” and chaos. Personally, I think that the best proposal is one that calls for an orderly, respectful, and loving dissolution of the denomination. The desperate rhetoric that calls for “unity” fails to recognize that Biblical unity is defined in I Corinthians 1:10: “that you all agree”–literally “that you all say the same thing.” None of the three proposals will move the denomination toward that kind of unity. Certainly, we do not want a denomination that does not allow diversity of opinion in non-essentials, but we cannot go on as we are today. And none of the three proposals will bring resolution. Yes, we will be unhappy at the end of February, 2019, but no more unhappy than we are today. Incidentally, thank you and Walter Fenton for your book “Are We Really Better Together?”

  2. In the Minnesota Annual Conference (one of the conferences served by Bishop Ough, outgoing President of the Council of Bishops), we had a meeting of clergy with Bishop Ough this past Monday to hear a report on the Council of Bishop’s recommendation to the 2019 GC.

    (Along with Bishop Ough’s report, and his explanation of the Council’s rationale for their recommendation, we had the usual worship, table discussions and talkback that we’ve had for years, obviously meant to promote the agenda of “can’t we all just get along.”)

    Bishop Ough began his comments by telling us that the Council of Bishops has been the most prayerful about this issue as they have ever been, literally spending time on their knees in prayer at their recent meeting where this decision was made. He also said each plan/model had it’s supporters, but in the end, the One-Church Plan had a large majority of support. He reminded us that the CoB is not a legislative body, but a conciliar body, and only one actual vote was taken at the end of their deliberations (which chose the One-Church plan). However, it was clear from his comments that many Bishops voted for the One-Church Plan who clearly favored one of the other two plans, but they simply knew there was not enough support for it to be chosen.

    Bishop Ough explained that the Council of Bishops is putting forth one recommendation to GC, the One-Church Plan. Both the Traditional model (not even called a “plan”) and the Connecting Conferences Plan will be included in their report as information, but will not be voted on.

    The Bishop did a thorough job of explaining why they are putting forth the One-Church Plan, and it all comes down to what might be possible in light of constitutional amendments, etc. They just don’t think the Connecting Conferences Plan is possible, as you alluded to above, Rob. Very little chance of passing the needed amendments. The Traditional model is basically in the report because it was one of the three proposals looked at by the Way Forward commission, but at our meeting, when it was put up on the screen, there were red letters under it that said, “not recommended by the Commission or Council” (I took a photo of this with my phone, as did many others there, so I know this is accurate). Those red letters do NOT appear under the Connecting Conferences Plan, and on screen under the One-Church Plan, it says in red letters “Council of Bishops Recommends”.

    I agree with you, Rob, that the One-Church Plan has no chance of passing, and we will be back at square one, and in chaos. The only solution, painful as it is, is amicable separation, or dissolution and let various factions envision their way forward.

    The more orthodox, evangelical clergy I talked to at Monday’s meeting with Bishop Ough clearly cannot serve in good conscience in a denomination under the One-Church Plan. Sadly, this indecision is probably going to linger on into 2020’s GC.

  3. Pastor Rob,
    With all due respect, I believe that many UM’s had always believed that either Good News or the more recent Wesleyan Covenant Association would be the body that would step forward to assume a mantle of leadership, when and if the UMC imploded. This is the moment that many of us believed these traditionally identified organizations would reveal some design/plan for disaffected UM’s, who see no option of remaining in the church. If we are being told that neither organization has an idea of how we might be “held together” under some Wesleyan-based confederation, perhaps that’s how this situation will resolve itself. However, if either GN or the WCA harbor any desire to stand forth in a position of leadership, you have NOW reached the time of critical mass. If you choose to defer from assuming a more tangible leadership role, we might be disappointed, but will go our various ways. However, speaking solely for myself, I will be very disappointed that decades of faithful, traditional UM representation ends in this manner. I feel we have much to consider and pray about. I will especially be praying for the leadership of Good News and the Wesleyan Covenant Association. Whatever God has in our future, I trust that all remain true to God’s leading and His word.

    • William (Bill) Fitzgerrel says:

      Thank you, Jim, for your comments. If I am reading you right, you are asking WCA (along with GN) to step up right now with a proposal for exodus after General Conference 2019. I also notice the final sentence in Mike’s comments, which are listed just before yours: “Sadly, this indecision is probably going to linger on into 2020’s GC.” I see WCA in a bit of a quandary. They are trying to be “gentlemanly” and not enter GC 2019 already ready for schism, though it is becoming inevitable. On the other hand, they do not want to be caught “flat-footed,” as I heard one of their executives say. I say, WCA should write a petition for GC 2019 that prescribes in detail an orderly and loving dissolution of the UMC.

      • Bill,
        I believe you have the general thrust of my comments. And though I understand the desire to live in the spirit of Christian brotherhood and mutual respect, I do not believe it is premature to ask GN and/or WCA to begin to share specifics regarding their perception of a hopelessly divided UMC. I have a deep concern that various elements of the UMC (the COB, especially) are assuming that no particular traditional group is prepared to stand in the breach and present a solid, thoughtful plan to shepherd traditionalists to a new evangelical Wesleyan confederation. I may be incorrect in this concern and, frankly, I pray I am mistaken. I would prefer to see GN/WCA go to GC 2019 with a thoughtful, prayerful plan for departure, together with a list of churches and clergy pledged to join this new confederation. Should our prayers to preserve a true Wesleyan church prevail, the plans could be shelved. However, to go to the GC without solid plans and commitments seems ill-considered. Pray for God’s best and prepare for what recent UMC decisions/responses/edicts have foreshadowed for the future.

  4. I hate to say this but if Bishop Ough is correct that the traditional plan will not be considered (apparently Bishop Jones disagrees) then we may want to consider the following plan. Assuming that the One Church plan allows for an exit for churches who do not want to live under that plan, it may be to our benefit as conservatives to approve it. Then 100’s if not thousands of Bible believing former Methodist churches can form a new denomination without all of the baggage such as GBCS to take care of. An organized plan to approve the plan as long as it has an exit clause and then forming a new denomination, which the liberals would not be interested in joining may simply be the most peaceful option. We would not have to conduct large numbers of trials, to remove gay clergy, bishops, and DS’s which passage of option one would require to be effective. Progressives and gays will not leave the UMC unless they are purged which would be a very unseemly affair, damaging to the body of Christ. As all of us clergy know sometimes it is better to leave than to duke it out with out churches. When bishops are publically arguing the situatuation is getting out of hand. Maybe it is time for us to be the gracious ones and leave (and leave the bureaucracy behind). Wesleyan Covenant church sounds better than the already soiled Methodist brand.

    • I was thinking the exact same thing the other day. I would hate to have to vote for such a thing but if it allowed churches to leave and form something new without a lot of fussing and fighting . . . it may be best. I would rather invest my energy in something positive, for instance, creating new structures, connections, and ministries, rather than trying to get people to do what the BOD says. I hate to say it but the UMC is just way too broken to fix. And I think that we are all coming to the point where we have to acknowledge this reality.

  5. William says:

    Rob,
    Can you please clarify? Your May 4th article, along with multiple other reports, had the Traditional Plan still on the table and would be included in the Bishops’ report to 2019 General Conference. Are you now saying in this later article that the Traditional Plan is off the table and will not be included in the Bishops’ report?

  6. Something needs to happen soon. Methodists are leaving the denomination in droves for other churches that actually know what they believe. Sadly, I believe that both sides of this issue know good and well there will be schism, but they are playing chicken with one another because of money and power. The side that leaves first will be the group who loses the most short-term regarding property disputes, but long term, the denomination will suffer because liberals just don’t attend church in great numbers, for the most part.

    Even with the present language in the BoD, the UMC attendance slides as members flee for other churches. That tells me that the exodus of the UMC is actually more than LGBT clergy and SS marriage, I think a greater number of people just dislike the UMC and its unbiblical bureaucracy and progressive politicking.

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