What’s in the Traditional Plan

Photo by Good News Media.

By Thomas Lambrecht –

United Methodists around the connection are reading the three plans that will be voted upon next February at the 2019 General Conference in St. Louis. In this issue of Good News, I will be analyzing the “Traditional Plan,” the proposal that has been endorsed by the Renewal and Reform Coalition (Good News, Confessing Movement, UM Action, and the Wesleyan Covenant Association). This analysis takes into account the October Judicial Council decision regarding the plan’s constitutionality and legality (see analysis on pp. 6-7).

The Traditional Plan is founded on retaining what evangelicals and traditionalists believe is the Scriptural teaching that sexual relationships are to be reserved for the covenant of marriage between one man and one woman. Based on the votes of previous General Conferences, a Traditional Plan appears to have the best chance among the three main proposals of being adopted.

The Traditional Plan retains the current stance in the Book of Discipline that values all persons as equally “of sacred worth, created in the image of God” and believes that the practice of homosexuality is contrary to God’s will. Because of widespread disobedience to the church’s prohibition of same-sex weddings and the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals, the Traditional Plan dramatically enhances accountability to the church’s requirements and closes many of the loopholes currently being used to avoid accountability. At the same time, the Plan offers a gracious exit for annual conferences, congregations, bishops, and clergy who cannot in good conscience abide by the church’s historic standards.

Key features of the Traditional Plan include:

• The requirement that every annual conference vote on whether or not it is prepared to fully uphold and enforce the entire Book of Discipline, including the standards of the church around same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. Those annual conferences unwilling or unable to enforce the Discipline are allowed to withdraw from The United Methodist Church and form a self-governing Methodist church that would allow same-sex marriage and LGBT ordination.

• Annual conferences that did not agree to enforce the Discipline or who failed to do so would, as of January 1, 2021, no longer be able to use the United Methodist name or logo, and would be unable to give or receive funds through the general church.

• Any annual conference could, by a simple majority, vote to withdraw from The United Methodist Church and keep its assets and liabilities. The annual conference would still be responsible for its pension liabilities and could continue to sponsor a pension program through Wespath.

• Any local church in a departing annual conference could vote to remain in The United Methodist Church and abide by the current provisions of the Discipline.

• Every bishop would be required to submit a statement as to whether or not he or she is prepared to fully uphold and enforce the Book of Discipline, including the standards around same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals, and to hold those under their supervision accountable to those standards. Any bishop unwilling or unable to do so would be subject to a disciplinary process. The Judicial Council declared the original proposed process through the Council of Bishops unconstitutional. See the “Upgrades” section later in this article (p. 27) for the process that will be suggested instead.

• Any group of 50 or more local congregations could vote to withdraw from The United Methodist Church to form a self-governing Methodist church, upon payment of each local church’s share of their annual conference’s unfunded pension liability. The details of this provision are still being developed because the original part of the plan was declared unconstitutional.

• Any local church that wants to allow same-sex marriage, but is in an annual conference that will continue to prohibit such under the current Discipline, could vote to withdraw from The United Methodist Church to join a self-governing Methodist church that allows same-sex marriage. The local church would have to pay its share of their annual conference’s unfunded pension liabilities. Again, the details of this provision are still being developed because the original part of the plan was declared unconstitutional.

The 2019 General Conference of The United Methodist Church will be held in St. Louis next February.

• Bishops and clergy who are unable to live within the boundaries of conduct established by the Discipline would be allowed to transfer to a self-governing Methodist church that affirms their beliefs.

• Annual conferences and congregations that depart from The United Methodist Church could continue to participate in Wespath and could negotiate fee-based services from other general boards and agencies of the UM Church. They could also continue to participate in joint mission through the General Board of Global Ministries, as well as partnerships for mission and other joint projects, with the agreement of the UM entity involved. Changes would be made to the pension program to ensure that pension liabilities are fairly cared for.

• Institutions related to The United Methodist Church would remain affiliated with the annual conference they are affiliated with, whether that annual conference withdraws or remains in the church. But such institutions could form cooperative relationships with other bodies and could, under the provisions of their own bylaws, change their relationship from one denomination to another.

• Any self-governing Methodist church would create its own Book of Discipline and be self-supporting financially, including funding its own bishops.

• The definition of “self-avowed practicing homosexual” would expand to include persons living in a same-sex partnership, union, or marriage, in keeping with Judicial Council decision 1341.

• Bishops would be required to nominate as members of the conference board of ordained ministry only persons who are committed to upholding and enforcing the provisions of the Discipline, including those related to the candidacy and ordination of LGBT persons. Bishops would also be prohibited from ordaining a self-avowed practicing homosexual as a clergy person or consecrating as bishop anyone who is a self-avowed practicing homosexual.

• Clergy found guilty by a trial court of performing a same-sex wedding would have a mandatory minimum penalty of one year’s suspension without pay for a first offense, and removal of clergy credentials for a second offense.

• Bishops would not be allowed to dismiss a complaint unless it has “no basis in law or fact.”

• “Just resolution” process and agreements would be reformed to ensure that complainants are included in the process and, where possible, agree to the “just resolution” before it is finalized.

• The counsel for the church in a church trial process would be given the same right of appeal for egregious errors of church law that the defendant now enjoys.

Proposed Upgrades

After the Traditional Plan was submitted, other ideas surfaced that would hopefully make the plan even more effective. These ideas were submitted in two petitions entitled “Modified Traditional Plan” and would augment the provisions outlined above.

The reason for allowing annual conferences to leave The United Methodist Church is to provide a ready-made infrastructure to support continued ministry by those departing. Rather than having to start from scratch to put together an organizational structure, the new self-governing Methodist church could conceivably be built around existing annual conference structures. In order to facilitate this scenario, the proposed upgrade would grant each departing annual conference $200,000 to help cover transitional expenses. This grant would enable the annual conference to rebrand itself and help cover legal expenses connected with the transition to a self-governing church.

No organization can long exist when its members refuse to live by the organization’s standards and requirements.

The enhanced accountability is not designed to be punitive, but rather to encourage church members to either comply with the church’s teachings or make the decision to leave the denomination for a different church that is in accord with their views. Up until now, however, the church’s accountability processes have not been able to deal with the intentional and principled defiance of clergy and annual conferences. Hence, the need for enhanced accountability.

The key player in the church’s accountability process is the bishop. Where the bishop fails or refuses to implement the church’s accountability process, the result is chaos. Regarding concerns around same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBT persons, the majority of U.S. bishops have decided not to implement the church’s accountability process. And until now, there has not been a good way to hold these bishops themselves accountable. Bishops have demonstrated that they are unwilling to hold each other accountable in their jurisdictional colleges, which is where that accountability lies.

The Judicial Council has declared the accountability process involving the Council of Bishops envisioned in the original Traditional Plan unconstitutional, and it cannot be salvaged. That is why supporters of the Traditional Plan believe that upgrades are needed, for if the bishops are not held to the Discipline, the enhanced accountability will fail and the Traditional Plan will not work to bring about unity in the church.

The Modified Traditional Plan proposes the following upgrades to enhance accountability for bishops:

• It creates a new Global Episcopacy Committee, with one clergy or lay member from every annual conference in the global church. This body (through its executive committee) would be tasked with administering the complaint process against any bishop who is charged with not enforcing or abiding by the Discipline. This process would cover all chargeable offenses, including being charged with immorality (including not being celibate in singleness or not faithful in a heterosexual marriage), or with practices declared incompatible with Christian teachings (including being a self-avowed practicing homosexual or performing a same-sex wedding). This Global Episcopacy Committee would engage in a supervisory response with the bishop in question and would decide whether to forward a complaint for a trial. This means that no bishop would be involved in the accountability process for another bishop.

• Bishops who do not promise to uphold and enforce the Discipline, including on matters of same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBT persons, would no longer receive funding for expenses (housing, office, travel), as of September 1, 2020. According to a recent Judicial Council decision, salary and benefits for a bishop cannot be withheld because it is inherently part of the position, but the General Conference does have the power to withhold expenses.

The annual conference is also a key player in maintaining accountability to the teachings of the church. It is possible that an annual conference could promise to uphold and enforce the Discipline but then fail to do so. The proposed upgrade is to give the new Global Episcopacy Committee the power and responsibility to investigate any allegations that an annual conference, although formally committed to upholding the Discipline, has failed to do so. The Committee could require the annual conference to take remedial action or, for serious infractions, recommend that General Conference place the annual conference on the list of conferences that cannot use the United Methodist name or insignia or receive United Methodist funds from the general church.

Implications

• The Traditional Plan maintains the majority position of the church, reaffirmed by every General Conference since 1972. It maintains the unity of the church with its members outside the United States, who overwhelmingly hold the traditional view. It follows the premise that those who want to change the church should be the ones to leave, not those who are in continuity with the church’s historic teachings.

• It recognizes that there are parts of the church that can no longer live with the current strictures of the Book of Discipline and provides them with an easy and gracious way to leave the denomination and form a church that agrees with their theological understanding. Those who simply disagree with the church’s position are welcome to stay in the church, as long as they are willing to conform their behavior to the church’s requirements.

• The Traditional Plan seeks to enhance accountability for bishops, clergy, and annual conferences, to ensure that those remaining in The United Methodist Church do indeed live by its standards.

• Some progressive leaders have said they are not willing to leave the church under any circumstances. This may require the church to take disciplinary measures in order to align them with the Discipline. There is some risk that such disciplinary measures may not work or may not be taken, which could lessen the effectiveness of the plan.

• The Traditional Plan offers a hopeful way to end the conflict in our church by allowing those disagreeing with the church’s teaching to go their separate way with a blessing. Church property and the trust clause ought not to be used to coerce people to remain in a covenant against their conscience. The Traditional Plan is the only one of the three that includes a gracious exit provision for those unable to live with the church’s teachings and requirements.

• The Traditional Plan also offers those who disagree with the effectiveness of this approach to seek an exit from the denomination under the same terms.

• As annual conferences and congregations depart from the denomination, it would be necessary to redraw jurisdictional and annual conference lines.

• The Traditional Plan seeks a gracious end to the conflict in our church, so that valuable resources, time, and energy can be directed to making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

There is no easy or painless way out of the impasse that besets our church, and there is no perfect solution. Of the three plans, however, the Traditional Plan seems the most faithful to Scripture and the most gracious in acknowledging that not all members of the church may be able to live with that solution. It provides a way for those who cannot live together to go their separate ways with blessing, allowing both to pursue ministry in faithfulness to their consciences without coercion.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. He also served as a member of the Commission on a Way Forward.   

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