By Scott Jones-
The recent proposal by the group “Uniting Methodists” is a welcome addition to the conversation in our church because it proposes a new form of unity that should be considered. They have put forward brief proposals in preparation for a meeting this November. Under the heading “Ordination” they say: “We call for disciplinary changes so that annual conferences are neither compelled to ordain LGBTQ persons, nor prohibited from doing so.” (Call this the AC Option). Under the heading “Officiation” they say: “We call for disciplinary changes so that clergy are neither compelled to officiate at same-sex weddings, nor prohibited from doing so.” (Call this the Clergy Option).
I have argued previously that our current crisis stems from the principled disobedience of clergy, bishops, annual conferences, and a jurisdictional conference and that we must now craft a new form of unity for Wesleyan Christians. There are several possibilities, including this one.
The “Uniting Methodists” group includes some seasoned and trusted leaders of our denomination. Unfortunately, they have chosen not to give the details of their proposals and to address how they would actually work. Perhaps their group is too diverse to agree on these at this time. That is unfortunate because we are only nine months away from the deadline for petitions to the special session of General Conference. At this stage of the discussion, proposals should be more fully developed. We are running out of time for deep analysis of serious proposals.
Another possibility is that leaders don’t want to disclose the ramifications. Some leaders in the moderately progressive part of our church believe that we need small steps like these because in the next 10 years the UM Church will become fully inclusive of LGBTQIA persons. They privately see these proposals as gently leading the church toward a conclusion they regard as both inevitable and correct. Thus, these are not stable plans for unity but transitions toward a progressive church.
Because our conversation is so important, I think two ramifications of these proposals should be named, whether or not members of the group are aware of them. Combined, they mean that their proposed new form of unity is diocesan Methodism.
The AC Option proposal would mean the end of itinerant general superintendency. Bishops right now are able to serve any episcopal area in their jurisdiction because all make sacred promises to uphold our discipline and to maintain our doctrine. Under the AC Option plan, there would be wide differences between bishops and their practices regarding homosexuality. Each bishop would have to declare his or her willingness to ordain and appoint LGBTQIA persons or not do so before an assignment to an area could be made. The most likely way to handle this is to copy the Episcopal church where each diocese elects their own bishop who serves them until retirement. Each diocese would then set its own bishops’s salary and pay its own episcopal office expenses. We would then need a general church Episcopal Fund only for Central Conferences unless the diocesan model applies there as well.
The Clergy Option would end itinerancy. Currently, all pastors are committed to preaching and maintaining United Methodist doctrine and obeying its discipline. We welcome a spectrum of interpretations but there are clear limits. For example, no United Methodist pastor can in principle refuse to baptize infants. No United Methodist pastor can in principle reject the ordination of women. We are committed to open itinerancy without regard to race or gender. Allowing an option about performing same-gender marriages means every local church would have to clarify whether they wanted a progressive or traditionalist clergy (on the issues of homosexual practice) appointed as their pastor. Coupled with the AC Option, each local church would have to specify if they were open to someone without regard to sexual orientation and gender identity. The best solution to this also comes from the Episcopal Church where each congregation chooses its own rector and the bishop has much more limited influence in the process.
Assuming the constitutional issues can be solved, (see para. 19) I welcome a debate about whether a diocesan polity is the best new form of unity we can devise. Thanks to the Uniting Methodists for putting such a bold idea on the table.
Scott Jones currently serves as the resident bishop of the Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church with his office in Houston. This editorial originally appeared at extremecenter.com and is reprinted by permission. Bishop Jones’ most recent book is The Once and Future Wesleyan Movement (2016).
This is an incredibly naive take, and, quite frankly, I expect better from a bishop. This is a critical issue because what is at stake is “Are traditional approaches to hermeneutics correct?” (i.e. do the words on the page in Holy Scripture mean anything specifically or does the reader get to make it up as he goes along? Seeing as the bishop was kind enough to write this article, I’m going to assume he believes that his words carry a specific meaning that he would not like distorted). Either they are or they aren’t. If they are, then this suggestion is very close to the definition of sin itself (approximately “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes) and therefore absolutely unacceptable. If they are not then we may as well throw the Bible in the garbage because our authority is no more and no less than ourselves. This is a crucial issue because the gospel itself is at stake, which is why I am now a former United Methodist.
And many of us are thinking about joining you. I cannot continue in a church that does not even enforce its own rules.
So many are ready to jump ship. Perhaps that is the agenda all along. If so, it may soon be accomplished. How sad would our forefathers be!
In response to the previous comments: Bishop Jones is pointing out the problems, or, at least the challenges, for UM polity, if the Uniting Methodists proposal prevails. He is not commenting on the validity or appropriateness of the proposal regarding same-sex marriage. That is a crucial matter, but a separate one.
I think we should focus on his description of the progressives who are engaging in “principled disobedience.” I am very willing to accept that progressives see their actions as principled. The question is, which principles? This is where we disagree and there is no middle ground.
As a bishop, Scott Jones must pay attention to the implications for all these proposals on UM polity.
Stephen, the problem I have is that church polity and doctrine cannot be separated because ultimately, the only authority for both is the Scriptures. There is some wiggle room in how certain passages are understood, but the conversation should still be about what is scripture teaching us about church polity or homosexuality. Neither of those two specific issues is the fundamental issue, just like Luther’s fundamental issue with the Catholic church was not indulgences. These those two specific issues are outgrowth of a fundamental issue that is what is our authority. Either it is the content intended in the words on the page, or it is us. It cannot be both, and the conversation cannot really succeed fruitfully until that question is answered. I’m not entirely sure what it means to be a Christian (and therefore past of any church) if fundamentally you are not submitting your self to God’s word I hope that clarifies my point somewhat.
From a practical perspective, a diocesan polity did not help The Episcopal Church navigate the sexuality question. Reality is, no mainline denomination, regardless of its polity, has been able to successfully navigate the sexuality question intact. There is absolutely no reason to expect the UMC to be able to do so. As far as I am concerned, the problem is a lack of a core doctrine that everybody agrees to. There may be one in writing, but in practice the American branch of the UMC is theologically all over the map and discovering that reality is not helping my already strained relationship with the local UMC who engaged in a badly handled attempt to make the church more meaningful to more people. The church that drew me in because of who it was regardless of what pastor walked in the door is now blowing in the wind with whatever pastor walks in the door. Plus, I am fairly certain I live in a truly theological diverse conference that probably leans progressive by a simple majority. My guess is any attempt to shove the problem down to a more local option is going to create complete and total chaos in this Conference. And in case nobody has noticed, after GC2016, the disobedience spread to other issues besides sexuality; namely the church’s association with the Religious Coalition of Reproductive Choice and a decision regarding Israel. I am more than frustrated that I was born into this mess. I heartily agree with what somebody stated after GC2012,the UMC is way too busy fiddling with its own limitations to be able to connect people to the transforming power of God–I know because I spent just shy of 60 years in a spiritual never never land unable to find peace with either God or the world. As John Wesley stated, that is an absolutely miserable place to be! Currently, I am in this until I am not and my patience is running thin. Especially since the church is question the validity of its own processes! It means something that multiple General Conferences has come up with the exact same answer re sexuality. Restructure all you want, in the end, it will most likely be the people in the pews who determine the fate of the UMC.