By Rob Renfroe –
Soon we will know which plan or plans the United Methodist Council of Bishops will recommend to the extraordinary General Conference in St. Louis. In just a matter of months we will learn how the Council proposes to resolve our denomination’s emotional and destructive division over sexual ethics. For over four decades we have waited for the Bishops to speak clearly and act decisively so we can move forward in mission and message as one church. It’s not an overstatement to say that the future of the UM Church and the credibility of the Council will be determined by the solution they put forward.
“Time is running short and we need to focus,” begins a press release from Bishop Bruce Ough, president of the Council of Bishops, on January 22, 2018. “Simple is better than complex. Reasonable detail is better than ambiguity. Fewer disciplinary changes is better than more. Honor the parameters and values of the Mission, Vision and Scope document – unity, contextualization and enhanced mission.”
Because I love our church and because so much is riding on the bishops’ proposal, I was deeply troubled by Bishop Ough’s statement. I would love to learn that my concerns are unfounded – that I’m reading too much into Bishop Ough’s words regarding the various proposals the Council is considering. Let me explain my concern.
The bishops have reported that three plans have been put before them. One would strengthen the church’s present position against homosexual practice and would allow progressive churches to leave the denomination. Another, often referred to as “the local option,” would let individual pastors determine whether they will marry gay couples, and each annual conference would be free to determine if it will ordain practicing homosexuals. A third option would create three branches within the UM Church, each with a different sexual ethic, ranging from thoroughly progressive to fully conservative (the latter of which is actually nothing more than maintaining the church’s present position).
The details of the third option have not been made public, probably because they have not been fully determined. And they have probably not been determined because they are numerous and challenging. How will churches and pastors decide which of the three branches they will join? What if there are more fully committed progressive pastors than there are progressive churches willing to receive them? What if there are more progressive bishops than there are progressive annual conferences – must conservative conferences accept a bishop whose sexual ethic is different than its own? Will all churches be expected to pay apportionments to national boards that promote policies contrary to their beliefs? Can a conservative conference live with a partnered lesbian bishop on the Council that oversees the entire church? Or must there be three different councils? This third “multi-branch” option cannot be the plan Bishop Ough had in mind when he called for a plan that was simple rather than complex, with little ambiguity, and few disciplinary changes.
Where does that leave us? Option one – a more tightly-enforced Book of Discipline and liberal churches exiting the denomination – will never be recommended by a Council that leans left and largely believes we need to liberalize the church’s position (there are notable exceptions within the Council). The only plan remaining and the one Bishop Ough seems to be suggesting is the “local option.” Annual conferences vote. Pastors make their own decisions. The church stays together. And it’s done. Simple and with little ambiguity.
Except for one small detail. It will create schism, not unity. At its first national conference in Chicago, October 2016, with over 1400 pastors in attendance, The Wesleyan Covenant Association approved a statement that said, “A plan that requires traditionalists to compromise their principles and understanding of Scripture, including any form of the “local option” around ordination and marriage, will not be acceptable to the members of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, stands little chance of passing General Conference, would not definitively resolve our conflict, and would, in fact, lead to the fracturing of the church.” Good News sent a similar statement to the Commission on a Way Forward. So did the Confessing Movement. So did UM Action.
I’m not troubled that the Council might recommend a plan that conservatives disagree with. I expect they will. What does disturb me is that it appears the Council will propose a plan that all of the denomination’s conservative leaders have said will fracture the church and lead to a mass exodus. Why would it do that?
One reason could be that the bishops don’t believe us. All I can say is, “Pass the plan and you’ll find out. You may not understand it but we will not remain in a church where pastors and bishops are free to promote and bless what we believe is contrary to Christian teaching and dishonoring to God.” We are told that we should find this plan acceptable because we will not be forced to perform marriages and blessings that we do not support. I can appreciate that progressives don’t truly understand us. But whether they can comprehend our reasoning or not, they need to hear it: It violates our consciences to be in a denomination that promotes what we believe counters God’s will and purposes. We can live in a church where there is disagreement about our church’s teaching about marriage and sexuality – we’ve done so for decades – if pastors and bishops who promised to uphold the church’s teachings actually do what they promised. What we cannot do is remain in a church with an official sexual ethic that denies the clear and consistent teaching of Scripture. Liberals don’t have to understand our thinking. But they would do well to take our warning seriously. The local option will create schism – and it is likely to be litigious, costly, and ugly.
Another reason may be that the bishops simply may not respect us. In addition to innumerable small and medium-sized heartland congregations, we lead some of the largest and most vibrant congregations in the denomination. From the town and country congregations to the megachurches, we pay millions and millions of dollars in apportionments, including their salaries. For decades, we have represented the majority opinion within the church concerning sexual ethics as demonstrated at every General Conference where the issue has come to the floor. At the same time, our deeply help beliefs seem to be dismissed because one supposes that the bishops think they know better – or simply want to promote a different worldview.
“Contempt is the number one factor that tears couples apart,” writes Dr. John Gottman, one of the world’s leading experts on relationships and researchers on marriage. “People who give their partner the cold shoulder—deliberately ignoring the partner or responding minimally—damage the relationship by making their partner feel worthless and invisible, as if they’re not there, not valued.”
Contempt doesn’t destroy marriages only. It destroys all relationships. And that’s how traditionalists will perceive the bishops’ putting forth the local option. We have told them it doesn’t work for us. We have told them it will force us to leave the church. We have voted it down at General Conference.
If this is the bishops’ plan for the future of the church, what can we believe but that they hold us in contempt? “Deliberately ignoring the partner.” “Responding minimally.” Yep, that’s a pretty good description of what the bishops will be doing to the majority of the church if they promote the local option. And the message to traditionalists will be that we are, in Gottman’s words, “invisible” and “not valued.”
Treat us with contempt and one of three things will happen. One, we will defeat the plan and the bishops will have failed in the one thing we have asked them to do in decades – resolve our division and lead us forward – leaving the church in chaos and further disunity. Two, we will put forth a plan that resolves the conflict by allowing traditionalists to be faithful to our understanding of Scripture, and that plan will pass. Three, the local option will pass and we will become invisible. You won’t see us or many of our churches in what’s left of the denomination. As for our value, you’ll find out how much we added to the church when we’re gone.
But maybe I am wrong. Perhaps, Bishop Ough and the Council won’t make the mistake of ignoring what we have told them in good faith. Maybe they will value us enough to take us seriously and propose a plan that we can endorse. Maybe I’m wrong. I’d love to be wrong. I pray that I am wrong.