By Thomas Lambrecht –
Since the Council of Bishops finished their decision-making process on May 4 outlining their proposal for a Way Forward for the church, there has been much confusion. Part of the confusion stems from the careful language used by the bishops in their press release explaining their action. Part of the confusion results from the varying statements and interpretations that individual bishops have released to their annual conferences.
Based on conversations with a number of bishops, I believe that I can answer the most prominent questions that have been asked about what to expect from the bishops’ report and proposal. (Note that this is my interpretation of what I heard and is not in any sense “official” from the bishops.)
What exactly will be in the Council of Bishops’ report and proposal?
As the motion reported in the press release stated, the COB report will contain a recommendation that the General Conference adopt a One Church Plan as proposed by the Commission on a Way Forward. That recommendation will include petitions to change the Book Discipline to remove all language prohibiting same-sex weddings and the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals. It will also add language protecting those who want to maintain the current understanding of human sexuality and want to continue acting within that understanding.
In addition to the recommendation and proposal for the One Church Plan, the report going to General Conference will also contain a “historical narrative” that will explain the Council’s reasons for their proposal. That material will also contain the two other plans proposed by the Commission on a Way Forward, a Connectional Conference Plan and a Traditionalist Plan. The Connectional Conference Plan would create three theological jurisdictions (one traditionalist, one progressive, and one uniting) that would each operate under different understandings about marriage and sexuality while sharing a common core of doctrine and mission. The Traditionalist Plan would retain the current stance of the church prohibiting same-sex weddings and self-avowed practicing homosexual clergy, enhance accountability to these standards to create uniform enforcement across the church, and provide a gracious exit for those who are unable or unwilling to live within the current boundaries of the Discipline.
Will the two plans not recommended by the bishops include possible legislative changes related to those plans?
The Connectional Conference Plan has been fully developed and contains all the legislation (including constitutional amendments) that would be required to implement that plan. That legislation will be part of the historical narrative and background material in the report. That legislation could be put forward by General Conference delegates as a substitute for the One Church Plan on the conference floor in St. Louis.
The Traditionalist Plan has not been fully developed. The COB asked the Commission to focus its attention on developing the One Church and Connectional Conference Plans coming out of the bishops’ November 2017 meeting. That essentially took the Traditionalist Plan off the table, and it was not developed beyond the initial sketch of the proposal. At its meeting ending May 4, the COB changed its mind and asked the Commission to develop a Traditionalist Plan for inclusion in the report along with the other two plans.
Because the request to develop the Traditionalist Plan came to the Commission just one week before its final meeting, the Commission was unable and perhaps unwilling to further develop the plan. The other two plans received intensive and comprehensive participation from the Commission and the COB over an extended period of time, including consultation with outside legal and financial experts. That same process was unavailable for the Traditionalist Plan because it was reintroduced so late. There are legislative proposals that have been written to implement the Traditionalist Plan, but they have not been extensively vetted by the Commission. It will be up to the executive committee of the Council of Bishops whether to include legislation for the Traditionalist Plan in their report to General Conference.
If Traditionalist legislation is not included in the bishops’ report, does that mean a Traditionalist Plan cannot be passed by General Conference?
No. If legislation for a Traditionalist Plan is not included in the bishops’ report, a legislative proposal that implements the Traditionalist Plan can still be introduced at General Conference. Such legislation could be submitted as part of the regular petition process for the 2019 General Conference (deadline of July 8). It is possible (but not very likely) that the Judicial Council could prohibit other petitions besides the bishops’ report and proposal from being submitted through the regular petition process. In that case, the legislation could still be separately translated and mailed to the delegates prior to General Conference. Either way, delegates could then propose that legislation as a substitute for the One Church Plan. So yes, a Traditionalist Plan could still be passed by General Conference.
Will there be a “gracious exit” path available for churches and clergy who cannot live with whatever plan is passed by General Conference?
The bishops decided that their mandate was to provide for the unity of the church, not to encourage the departure of congregations and clergy. Therefore, an exit path will not be part of their One Church proposal. However, at least one form of exit path legislation will be included in the supplemental material, and it could be added by the General Conference delegates to any of the plans. Other exit path proposals could be submitted as part of the regular petition process, if permitted by the Judicial Council, or else submitted independently. The delegates could add any of these exit path proposals to any of the plans.
Why will the COB report and proposal not be released until early July?
There are several reasons why it will take until July to release the final report and proposal.
- The report has yet to be finished. Some minor but legally important changes were made to the One Church and Connectional Conference Plans at this week’s Commission meeting. As noted above, the Traditionalist Plan was not finished by the Commission. If the executive committee of the Council of Bishops wants to include legislation for a Traditionalist Plan (and other supporting material), that has yet to be written and decided upon. The COB executive committee will also need to reformat the report for General Conference, including putting the legislation in petition form. So the report is nowhere near finished.
- Translation of the report will have to begin from scratch, once the report is finished. The translation work that was done for the COB meeting was done by their regular interpreters, not the official legal translators that work with General Conference legal material. So that preliminary translation work would not carry over to the finished product.
- It was important to all the bishops, and particularly to the central conference bishops (those outside the U.S.), that all the delegates receive the report at the same time in their native language. If the report were issued in English right away, it would give U.S. delegates an unfair advantage in digesting and responding to the proposal. This way, all the delegates will have the same amount of time to deal with the report.
- The bishops felt that releasing a summary of the three plans without the accompanying context could create misunderstanding of the plans. Releasing all three plans in summary form would also indicate that the bishops gave equal weight to three, whereas they clearly recommended only the One Church Plan. They believe enough descriptive information has been given about the One Church Plan for people to understand what the bishops are recommending.
In an earlier statement, I called the delay of the release of the bishops’ proposal “unacceptable.” I understand and support most of the reasons the bishops have given for the report’s delay. However, the management of this whole process left a bit to be desired. If more developed plans had been given to the bishops earlier, perhaps they would have given their feedback earlier. At the same time, if the bishops had shared their feedback earlier about the need to develop a Traditionalist Plan instead of waiting until a week before the Commission’s last meeting, the Commission could have done more work to develop such a plan.
I think the COB was hoping that the report they received at their meeting ending May 4 would be complete and need only minor cosmetic changes. It could have been sent for translation quickly and would have been finished well before the July 8 deadline. The dramatic (and helpful) decision of the COB to include a Traditionalist Plan at the last minute threw off those plans and leaves us in the situation we now find ourselves.
Did the bishops really “overwhelmingly” recommend the One Church Plan?
No. The “overwhelming majority” vote in support of the bishops’ report was based on the inclusion of all three plans. Note that even then, the vote of support was not unanimous. A clear majority supported the One Church Plan, but according to one bishop it was less than a two-thirds majority. There was significant support among the bishops for both of the other two plans.
It is important to note that the bishops do not decide what the church will adopt as its way forward. (Many of them probably wish they were able to decide that.) Instead, it is the delegates to General Conference, representing all of our global church, who will decide our way forward. They will not be limited to voting only on a One Church Plan, but can consider all three options sketched out by the Commission and perhaps other plans as well, submitted by others. The gestation period is beginning, and nine months from now, we will see what the General Conference brings forth to help our church resolve its conflict and refocus on our primary mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Please pray for the delegates, as they bear this significant responsibility.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. He is also a member of the Commission on a Way Forward.