By Thomas Lambrecht
“I look upon all the world as my parish,” famously said John Wesley. As we gather in St. Louis, The United Methodist Church – one aspect of Wesley’s spiritual legacy – is in ministry in 60 different nations around the globe. Within the last 20 years, a notable shift has occurred from the UM Church being a declining North American-centric denomination (6.9 million members) to one that reflects a growing 40 percent of our membership (5.2 million) found on the continent of Africa. An additional 200,000 members are found in the Philippines, Europe, and Eurasia.
Whatever decision is made in St. Louis regarding United Methodism’s future must be made with these changing realities in mind. The majority of North American bishops have endorsed the One Church Plan. We don’t believe that the OCP will situate United Methodism for a faithful future. Instead, we support the Modified Traditional Plan as the best way to proceed.
First, the MTP is the only plan that maintains the church’s position in line with the clear teaching of Scripture and 2,000 years of church teaching. Since United Methodists claim that Scripture is our primary authority for matters of faith and practice, this is no small consideration.
Second, the Modified Traditional Plan deals with the real cause of division within the church – not different beliefs, but different practices. Proponents of this plan believe that the unity of the church is at stake, and that church unity requires common standards of sexual morality that apply in every time, place, and culture. Yet, at least ten annual conferences and two jurisdictions have voted in one way or another to disobey the Discipline. Bishops have dismissed complaints alleging clear violations of the Discipline. Boards of ordained ministry continue to recommend unqualified candidates.
The only way to restore unity of practice is to have clear accountability processes that do not allow bishops and annual conferences to flaunt the covenant they promised to uphold.
The Modified Traditional Plan puts bishops, annual conferences, and clergy in the position of having to make a clear decision: will I abide by the Discipline and hold those under my supervision accountable to it or not?
Finally, the Modified Traditional Plan (alone among all the plans) provides a gracious exit for those unable to live by our covenant. The MTP gives those who decide they cannot abide by the Discipline the freedom to depart from the UM Church and form a denomination that is more in keeping with their convictions. Annual conferences are free to withdraw. Bishops and clergy may transfer to the new denomination. Congregations can transfer to the new denomination while keeping their property and buildings. Provisions are made for securing the pension program and promises made to our retired clergy.
Why Not the One Church Plan?
Proponents of the One Church Plan claim it can also restore unity by allowing every annual conference, clergy person, and congregation to set their own moral standards when it comes to marriage and human sexuality. While this approach sounds great in theory, this attempt to accommodate all opinions will not work in the real world.
For evangelicals, the primary reason the OCP does not work is that it officially affirms the practice of homosexuality, contrary to Scripture. This action alone will cause many congregations and members to seek to depart from the church, which will in turn greatly weaken the denomination.
The OCP fosters a disconnected solution to the conflict over moral standards. By allowing each entity to make its own determination, the OCP weakens the connection and encourages a centripetal force that could spread to other areas of disagreement in the church. The end result will be a much looser connectionalism that betrays our Wesleyan DNA and heritage.
Far from ending conflict, the OCP will instead spread the conflict that currently happens mainly at the general church level down to the annual conference and local church. Annual conferences will have to decide whether to ordain practicing homosexuals, with all the conflict that decision entails.
Likewise, congregations will be engulfed in conflict. When their pastor performs a same-sex wedding, traditionalist congregants will have no recourse, other than to leave the church. And if a couple requests to be married in the church building, the congregation will have to take a vote in order to allow it. The conflict around that vote will further alienate members of the congregation, causing some to leave.
The One Church Plan ignores the reality that there are two mutually exclusive teachings being promoted in the church. The two teachings cannot coherently live in one denominational body. And the OCP makes no provision for those who by conscience must depart. The One Church Plan fundamentally changes the church’s teaching and identity, while not allowing those who disagree with this new reality to leave in a gracious way.
A healthy and sustainable covenant cannot be obtained by forcing people who disagree with it to stay in it. The Modified Traditional Plan seeks to provide a way to end the conflict with integrity, while restoring the unity that has been torn apart by recent schismatic actions.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson, vice president of Good News, and a member of the Commission on a Way Forward.