A Primer on the Conflict (Part II)

Bishops confer over the issue of whether the legislative committee can refer items to the denomination’s Judicial Council for review during the 2019 United Methodist General Conference in St. Louis. Clockwise from lower left are Bishops Thomas Bickerton, John Schol, David Bard, Julius C. Trimble, and Cynthia Fierro Harvey. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

By Tom Lambrecht –

In conversations and emails, I have frequently heard frustration and confusion regarding the situation in The United Methodist Church. Perhaps a succinct overview of our conflict will be helpful to people who are lost in the details or new to engaging with it. Naturally, this summary is offered from the point of view of a traditionalist, and others may see events differently.

Last week, we discussed the history and evolution of the conflict and identified the players. Today we examine the strategies of the different players and the plans to be considered in Minneapolis.

The Strategies

Up until the late 2000’s, many centrists voted with traditionalists because they thought it was the best way to keep the church together. Due to increased cultural acceptance and changing church political calculations, nearly all centrists are now siding with the progressives in pushing for change in the church’s position. Some progressives (most notably RMN) are willing to work with centrists to create a “big tent” church that allows, but does not require, same-sex weddings and ordination. Other progressives, however, are impatient with this approach and desire immediate affirmation and “liberation” of LGBTQ persons in the church (primarily the UM Forward group).

Some centrists and progressives believe that “history” is on their side and are committed to staying in the UM Church indefinitely to fight for changing the church’s position, while perhaps allowing traditionalist congregations to leave with their property. Other centrists and progressives believe that the only way to resolve the conflict and move forward is for separation to take place or to withdraw from the church (if it continues a traditionalist position). While 57 percent of centrist and progressive leaders voted for some form of separation at a spring meeting, some were encouraged to stay and fight by the increased success of centrist and progressive clergy being elected as delegates to General Conference 2020.

Some traditionalists believe that we should continue to fight to preserve the current stance of the UM Church indefinitely, while providing a gracious exit for annual conferences and local churches who cannot live with that stance. Most traditionalists, however, are in favor of some form of amicable separation plan that ends the fighting and allows traditionalists to come together in a new denomination that can carry out the church’s mission and ministry unhindered by opposition from an incompatible theological perspective.

A wild card in all of this is a conversation convened by Bishop John Yambasu of Sierra Leone (Africa). In a series of meetings currently ongoing, progressive, centrist, and traditionalist leaders, central conference representatives, central conference bishops, and U.S. bishops are meeting with a professional mediator to explore the possibility of a “grand bargain” that all could agree to. If successful, this group could propose new legislation for 2020 or modify proposals that have already been submitted. Although the deadline for submitting proposals to the 2020 General Conference has passed, the Book of Discipline allows an annual conference to submit a new legislative proposal no less than 45 days before General Conference (¶ 507.6). A special annual conference session could be called to submit such a new plan. It remains to be seen whether this mediated conversation will reach agreement on a new proposal.

The Plans

A number of plans to resolve the crisis have been submitted to the 2020 General Conference, many of which have not been publicized. Below are the three most public and viable plans.

The Traditional Plan seeks to pass most of those parts of the plan that were found unconstitutional by the Judicial Council or were not passed in St. Louis. Provisions mainly enhance the accountability of boards of ordained ministry, create a new accountability process for bishops through the Council of Bishops, and create a pathway for annual conferences and local churches to withdraw from the church with their property in a less expensive way. The Renewal and Reform Coalition views this option as our “Plan B” in case a plan of separation does not pass General Conference.

The Indianapolis Plan was developed by a working group of progressive, centrist, and traditionalist leaders. It is a plan of amicable separation that would create two or more new denominations birthed out of the UM Church based on theological perspective, including a centrist denomination that continues the current structure and polity of the UM Church. The denominations would have no organizational link with each other, but could work together on clergy pensions and benefits (Wespath), UMCOR, and the Publishing House. Annual conferences and local churches could decide by majority vote with which of the new entities to align. General church assets would be equitably divided among the new denominations. The new denominations would begin organizing immediately and be fully up and running by January 1, 2022. (See indyplanumc.org for more details.) The Renewal and Reform Coalition supports this option as its preferred plan, and it has been formally endorsed by the WCA Council. Other progressive and centrist leaders have also endorsed the plan.

The Next Generation UMC Plan was developed by the UMC Next leaders, including centrists and some progressives. The plan would repeal the parts of the Traditional Plan that were passed in St. Louis. It would also change the church’s position by deleting the teaching that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” allowing same-sex weddings, redefining marriage by removing the idea that there be two spouses and that they be a man and a woman, and allowing persons in same-sex relationships to be ordained and appointed as clergy. The plan creates a moratorium on all complaint processes related to sexuality and would allow church money to be spent to promote the acceptance of homosexuality. The plan provides for local churches (but not annual conferences) to withdraw from the church with their property by a two-thirds vote of the church conference in a less expensive way. Rather than an equitable division of general church assets, the plan envisions the General Conference making grants to departing churches from apportionments paid during the 2021-24 quadrennium. (See https://umcnext.com/legislation/ for more details.) This plan is supported by UMC Next, Mainstream UMC, Uniting Methodists, and Reconciling Ministries Network.

Amidst all the confusion and maneuvering, United Methodists should pray for God to bring clarity and some degree of consensus on a positive way for our embattled denomination to move forward in ministry.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. 

 

Comments

  1. I view statements that say “some” or “most” without any data behind those descriptors with some degree of skepticism unless there are data that explain how we can say that. Are we talking about only American traditionalists or are we also including our overseas Methodists? Were there any surveys or polls taken that would enable us to say that most traditionalists want this or that? I never heard of any. A little more detail here would be nice. Given the block voting of African delegates it would be nice to know what plan they favor.
    Who are the Centrists and Progressives supporting the Indianapolis Plan? It is time they came out and started selling this plan if they believe it is the best way forward. Name some names please. These progressives will need to engage in serious dialogue with their fellow progressives about why the Indianapolis plan is better than the progressive plans put forward. Or perhaps they actually view the Indianapolis plan as their plan B when their first choice fails.
    I am getting tired of the phrase “amicable separation” when we really mean a non-litigious separation, unlike the Episcopal Church that spent tens of millions suing each other. There will be nothing amicable about any separation especially at the local church level.
    I am kind of hoping all the plans fail and the traditionalists start leveling charges against BoD violators. Force everyone to choose and then we can move forward. That would provide clarity.

    • Kevin,
      Your straight forward questions and request for clarity, unfortunately, has too often been been met with resistance, suspicion, and even fear across the church. Somehow, the “don’t rock the boat”, “go along to get along”, and “live and let live” mentality became the norm. This, I believe, opened the door rather wide over these last several decades for the American liberal contingency of the church to seize control of its leadership. Out of that, it has made it difficult to inform local congregations, to emphasize the importance of electing local church delegates to annual conferences, and ultimately the election of truly representative delegates to General Conferences. Unless I am wrong, American progressives have thrived in large part due to our polity.

      But, I do wonder how each member of the United Methodist Church would vote, after fully understanding each position on the sexual ethics and marriage conflict, as to which of the three emerging denominations he/she would want to belong:

      ——- Traditional Methodist Church

      ——- Centrist Methodist Church

      ——- Progressive Methodist Church

  2. James 1:22

  3. Steve Zinser says

    Rev Lambrecht has put together an invaluable, concise summary that we can give to our churches. It is important to get facts in the hands of United Methodists everywhere.

  4. Gary Bebop says

    Are some traditionalists trying to work deals? The way some traditionalists are parleying with their counterparts in progressive conferences suggests anxiety about the outcome of GC2020 and desire to work out a modus vivendi (an arrangement) before collapse of the current UMC model. Such fragmentation of unity saps traditionalism of its strength and undercuts its high moral ground.

  5. Mainstream USA claims the Africans are supporting the us as a separate central conference. If true were sunk. Anyone know if this is true. I doubt their claims.

  6. The crux of the liberal argument — “love thy neighbor as thy self” cancels out the command of Jesus Christ, “repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations” in this new “unity” Methodist church Ken Carter envisions — if you’re in the right “context” (nation, geographic location)?

    ———————————————————————————

    United Methodist bishops opened their autumn meeting just months ahead of General Conference 2020, where many church members expect to see some kind of denominational split.

    “Words like ‘disaffiliation’ and ‘resistance’ and ‘gracious exit’ and ‘dissolution’ have become the common language of our vocabulary,” Bishop Kenneth H. Carter acknowledged in his address to the Council Bishops.

    The United Methodist connection, the president of the Council of Bishops added, “is strained.”

    However, Carter indicated he is not ready to throw in the towel on the multinational and theologically diverse denomination.

    He insisted that his fellow bishops could still work toward the unity they promised to seek in their consecration vows. He suggested starting with the words of Jesus in Matthew 22:37-40, which lists love of God and love of neighbor as the two greatest commandments.

    “So what if we began to redefine the connection as the love of neighbor?” Carter asked his colleagues. “And what if we did this from a posture of convicted humility?”

    The phrase “convicted humility,” he explained, refers to an attitude that “combines honesty about the differing convictions which divide us with humility about the way in which each of our views may stand in need of corrections.”

    Carter, who also leads the Florida Conference, spoke to more than 100 active and retired bishops who came from four continents to the meeting at Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center.

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    His audience is still grappling with the fallout of a turbulent special General Conference in February that saw delegates vote 438-384 to adopt legislation that tightens bans on same-sex weddings and “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy. The majority of bishops backed a plan to leave questions of ordination up to conferences and marriage up to individual clergy and local churches.

    Since the February vote, a number of United Methodist groups have taken action both in support and in resistance to the legislation. Giving in some conferences also has plummeted. This has led a number of United Methodists to conclude church members’ differences are irreconcilable.

    Bishop Benjamin Boni, who leads the Côte d’Ivoire Conference, agreed with Carter that the church has difficulties.

    After the address, Boni said in French that only God can put the church in order, and he urged all hearts to ask God what can be done to preserve unity.

    The denomination’s top lawmaking body is set to gather again May 5-15, 2020, with a number of new delegates.

    In the meantime, some bishops have been involved in conversations about the denomination’s future and possible ways to divide the denomination and its assets. Bishops preside but do not have a vote at General Conference.

    Whatever form the church eventually takes, Carter expects United Methodists will still have to work together in a time of tension. Ahead of the bishops’ meeting, he spoke to UM News of his suggestion that a moratorium on church trials related to LGBTQ restrictions be paired with a loosening of the trust clause for congregations that want to leave.

    He briefly alluded to the idea in his presidential address when he asked his episcopal colleagues to consider: “How can we have accountability and restorative justice, in this season, without trials? How can we accompany conversations without needing to control them, conversations that we are sometimes tempted to avoid, conversations that are across our differences?”

    Ultimately, he said, the denomination may discover new ways of embodying unity.

    “I hope this will create more space for contextual differentiation, even as we strengthen the bonds of our missional partnerships,” he said.

    At the conclusion of his address, the bishops gave Carter a standing ovation.

    Bishop Mark J. Webb, who leads the Upper New York Conference, said he thought there was hope in Carter “naming the reality and calling for a new form of unity.”

    Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi, who leads the Western Pennsylvania Conference, appreciated Carter’s redefining what the connection is about. “It’s about loving our neighbors,” she said.

    Retired Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, vice moderator of the World Council of Churches, said Carter’s address has resonance well beyond The United Methodist Church’s struggles.

    She noted that organizers of the World Council of Churches’ 2021 assembly have chosen the theme: “Christ’s Love Moves the World to Reconciliation and Unity.”

    “Our president of the Council of Bishops was so inspired in his address that it matched what many in the whole world are dealing with,” she said. That includes the 350 member denominations of the World Council of Churches.

    Big decisions about The United Methodist Church’s future will be in the hands of 862 General Conference delegates, split evenly between lay and clergy. But in the meantime, bishops still have a role to play, Carter said.

    “Let us support one another in our residential areas, to lead in ways appropriate to our contexts, and let us refrain from doing harm to one another,” he concluded. “And this is the good news — let us imagine that God is using all of this to make us perfect in love in this life.”

    • Bishop Carter’s address is the perfect definition of insanity: keep doing (or saying) the same things over and over expecting a different outcome.

      These bishops have learned nothing.

      They will not accept the biblical convictions of traditionalists who cannot compromise on this central, critical element of our theology and life together.

      In a different context, we might ask, “What are they smoking?”

  7. Despite the posturing and obtuse language, wasn’t The Way Forward
    articulated by the 2019 Special General Conference on The Way Forward?

    Everyone prayed for God to show us The Way Forward.
    Isn’t that what He did?

  8. Jim Wolfgang says

    I suspect the future history of Methodism books will record this period of our Methodist history as dramatically misguided. Bishop Carter as an ineffective leader of an ineffective council of bishops which would not uphold their church membership/ordination/consecration covenant vows, and allowed their annual conferences and thus the 12,000,000 member United Methodist Church to devolve into chaos and fragmentation, self destruction: some legacy for what was once the beloved U.M.C. Long ago a professor of mine, who was not Methodist, said he believed the U.M.C. would divide over homosexuality, I nervously scoffed at the thought, that was 1976. I thought, how could a denomination split over such a bizarre theology? Now I know; make popularity be the criteria for electing bishops, and place untrustworthy people in high positions and they will steer the church to their self centered agenda. That same professor said churches really do not split over theology; they split over power, property, the purse, pastors, and especially pride. As I see our predicament, the infidelity to the covenant my progressive and centrist colleagues all so solemly vowed to uphold has wrecked the church just as infidelity to marriage vows will wreck a marriage. Of the top five terrible P’s, as usual, pride is at the center: the sin of self assertion over the well being of the other. However, the Traditional Methodist true center will continue: I just hope we don’t spin off into hundreds of independent congregations, hardly a model of the cohesive parts of the “body of Christ.”

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