By Thomas Lambrecht –
There are four comprehensive plans being considered by the special General Conference in February in an attempt to resolve the deep theological conflict within our church. Three of the plans (Traditional Plan, Connectional Conference Plan, and One Church Plan) were offered as part of the report of the Commission on a Way Forward. The fourth plan is the Simple Plan, offered by the Queer Clergy Caucus.
The Renewal and Reform Coalition is supporting the Modified Traditional Plan (MTP). The MTP is basically the Traditional Plan with the addition of two petitions submitted by Maxie Dunnam. In an effort to dispel any lingering confusion, here is what the MTP (TP+) entails.
What is in the Traditional Plan?
The Traditional Plan is the only plan that maintains the current teachings and requirements of the church defining marriage as between one man and one woman, declaring all persons as created in God’s image, of sacred worth and welcome in the church’s ministries, forbidding clergy from performing same-sex weddings, and forbidding annual conferences from ordaining self-avowed practicing homosexuals. Under this plan, this would remain the position of the whole church (not just parts of it).
The Traditional Plan understands that the crisis we face is not one of different opinions, but of different practices. Twelve annual conferences in the U.S. have declared in one way or another that they will not be bound by the requirements of the church regarding same-sex marriage and ordination. These activist annual conferences are responsible for the current split within the denomination. The most effective way to restore unity is to require uniform standards of ordination and church practice regarding same-sex weddings. Restoring unity will therefore require greater accountability measures in order to ensure that the requirements of the Discipline are kept.
Solely because of the disregard for our denomination’s standards for marriage and sexuality, the Traditional Plan must include these enhancements:
- The definition of a self-avowed practicing homosexual (thus not eligible for ordination) is expanded to include those living in a same-sex marriage or union or those who publicly state they are practicing homosexuals (Petition #1).
- Measures are enacted to ensure that members of the Board of Ordained Ministry are committed to abiding by the requirements for ordination in the Discipline, and that those who are not qualified will not be recommended for ordination, commissioned, ordained, or consecrated (Petitions #5-9, 12).
- Annual conferences are required to vote on whether or not they will uphold and enforce the Discipline. If not, they would no longer be entitled to use the name United Methodist or the cross and flame insignia, and they would not be able to give or receive funds through the general church. Such annual conferences would be encouraged (not required) to withdraw from the denomination and form a new, self-governing (progressive) Methodist church (Petition #10).
- Bishops would be required to certify whether or not they would uphold and enforce the Discipline. If not, they would be encouraged (not required) to withdraw from the denomination and help form a new, self-governing (progressive) Methodist church (Petition #10). Bishops committing acts of disobedience would be subject to charges and possible trial.
- Clergy convicted in a church trial of performing a same-sex wedding would be subject to a minimum penalty of one year suspension without pay for the first offense and removal of credentials for a second offense (Petition #11).
- Bishops could no longer dismiss a complaint for any reason (or no reason). They could only dismiss a complaint if it had no basis in law or in fact (Petition #13). Bishops who improperly dismiss a complaint would be subject to charges.
- The process of resolving a complaint through a “just resolution” would need to include the person who filed the complaint at every step. The person charged would have to recommit to upholding the Discipline, particularly those provisions under which they were charged (Petition #14-15).
- The church could appeal a trial court verdict if there were egregious errors of church law or administration (Petition #16).
The Traditional Plan is the only plan that provides a gracious exit for those unwilling to live within the boundaries established by the Book of Discipline. This gracious exit is not required, but is available for annual conferences, groups of congregations, individual congregations, bishops, and clergy. They would be able to form or join a new, self-governing (progressive) Methodist church that is separate from the UM Church.
- Annual conferences could withdraw from the denomination by majority vote. They would continue to be responsible for their pension liabilities and could sponsor a new pension plan with Wespath. They could also become a “concordat church” and contract for services from United Methodist boards and agencies, participate in mission partnerships, and support joint mission projects (Petition #10, 17).
- Individual congregations or groups of 50 or more congregations could withdraw from the denomination upon a 2/3 majority vote and with the approval of their annual conference (also by a 2/3 majority vote). The only payment they would need to make is to cover the congregation’s share of their annual conference’s unfunded pension liabilities. These local churches could also participate in pension programs, mission, and ministry through the new, self-governing Methodist church that they would join (Petition #10, 17).
- Bishops and clergy could transfer to the new, self-governing Methodist church upon approval by the receiving denomination (Petition #10).
- Any new self-governing Methodist church formed by those exiting the denomination could become a “concordat church” that maintains a connection through voluntary partnerships and eligibility to participate in some United Methodist programs (Petition #17).
How does the MTP differ from the Traditional Plan?
There are two kinds of modifications that the MTP brings to the Traditional Plan. The first kind of modifications takes into account Judicial Council Decision 1366, which ruled a number of provisions of the Traditional Plan unconstitutional. Only six of the original 17 petitions can be adopted as printed. Three petitions (#2-4) cannot be adopted at all, and the rest need amendments in order to bring them into compliance with the Judicial Council decision. The amendments will actually improve the plan, as well as satisfying the letter of the law under the Constitution. The amendments are relatively straightforward and will be made public soon in order to give delegates a chance to consider them.
The second kind of modifications that the MTP brings to the Traditional Plan are a few additions that strengthen and perfect the Traditional Plan as originally proposed. The original version stayed very close to the sketch provided by the Commission on a Way Forward. Since that sketch, proponents of the Traditional Plan have identified ways to strengthen the accountability and graciousness of the plan and submitted those modifications in two petitions by Maxie Dunnam.
The first petition creates a new global committee to handle complaints against bishops. This global process replaces the original accountability process that was declared unconstitutional (Petitions #2-4 of the Traditional Plan). This global committee, made up of one clergy or lay member from every annual conference in the world, would administer complaints against bishops. Since the complaint process would not involve bishops holding other bishops accountable, it would get around the built-in conflict of interest in the current accountability process. Since bishops are colleagues and members together of the Council of Bishops and the College of Bishops (where accountability lies), it is difficult for them to hold each other accountable. The track record of the episcopal accountability process is very poor, with no bishop facing a church trial in 50 years. Many legitimate complaints have been dismissed or otherwise finessed over the years to protect bishops from accountability. This new process is needed in order to restore accountability for bishops.
The second petition actually substitutes for Petition #10 in the Traditional Plan. It is identical to that petition except for the following additions:
- Allegations that an annual conference is not upholding or enforcing the Discipline would be submitted to the global committee established by the first petition. The committee would investigate the complaints against the annual conference and could recommend necessary remedial actions or recommend that the conference be placed on the sanctioned list. Such recommendation would need to be approved by General Conference and could result in the conference losing its ability to use the United Methodist name and cross and flame insignia, as well as being unable to give or receive money through the general church. This provides an accountability mechanism for annual conferences.
- Bishops who refused to uphold and enforce the Discipline would no longer receive from the general church expense money for housing, office, or travel, thus enhancing accountability.
- Any annual conference withdrawing from the denomination would receive a one-time grant of $200,000 to help defray the costs of disaffiliation (mostly legal and administrative costs). This is part of the effort to provide as much grace as possible to the gracious exit.
- The two Dunnam petitions need amendments to bring them into compliance with Judicial Council Decision 1366.
- A technical correction to this petition makes explicit that the plan takes effect upon the adjournment of General Conference, rather than waiting until January 1, 2020.
The MTP makes very few changes to the Traditional Plan, but they are important ones. It proposes adoption of 13 of the 17 original petitions, amended to comply with Judicial Council rulings. And it adds two petitions submitted by Maxie Dunnam, also amended to comply with Judicial Council rulings.
The Renewal and Reform Coalition believes that the Modified Traditional Plan provides the best path to unity for The United Methodist Church. It maintains unity of practice and standards in our global denomination, rather than allowing each part of the church to create its own practices and standards. It maintains unity with Scripture, 2,000 years of Christian teaching, and the tradition of the church. It allows the creation of a unity based on willing participation and willing compliance with the covenant created by General Conference, while giving those unwilling to participate a gracious way out of the covenant to create their own denomination with standards they are willing to uphold.
Based on surveys and conversation, the Modified Traditional Plan is the way to keep most evangelicals and traditionalists in The United Methodist Church. Up to 90 percent of evangelical leaders have told us they would find it necessary to leave the denomination if the One Church passes. But very few evangelicals are planning to leave if the MTP is enacted. Most will wait to see if the accountability measures restore unity and compliance. The MTP is the best way to keep our connection with global United Methodists, who overwhelmingly have a traditional view toward marriage and human sexuality. Many of them have told us that passage of the One Church Plan would lead them to leave the denomination, as well.
The Renewal and Reform Coalition hopes that General Conference will prayerfully consider the provisions and principles of the Modified Traditional Plan and find in them a viable way toward a united and fruitful future for United Methodism.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. He is a member of the Commission on a Way Forward.