By Thomas Lambrecht –
The special called General Conference on February 23-26, 2019, is fast approaching. Over the next several weeks, delegates will be focusing on the proposals with singular and prayerful attention, hoping to find a solution to the 40-year conflict that has led to schism in The United Methodist Church.
The Commission on a Way Forward has submitted three plans to General Conference. The One Church Plan (OCP) would change the definition of marriage to “two adults,” allow pastors to perform same-sex weddings, and allow annual conferences to ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals as clergy. At the same time, the OCP maintains the validity of both traditional and progressive views toward marriage and sexuality, believing that both perspectives can co-exist in one denomination indefinitely. It contains protections for persons of both persuasions, so that under this plan (for the most part) no one would be forced to act counter to one’s conscience.
The Traditional Plan (TP) maintains the current position of the church that all persons are of sacred worth and loved by God, that sexual relations are to be reserved for marriage between one man and one woman, and that the practice of homosexuality is contrary to Christian teaching. The TP continues the prohibition on pastors performing same-sex weddings and annual conferences ordaining self-avowed practicing homosexuals as clergy. It requires annual conferences and bishops to declare their willingness to uphold and enforce the Book of Discipline in all respects, and institutes other accountability measures in order to gain compliance with the Discipline. At the same time, it provides a gracious exit for annual conferences, local churches, bishops, and clergy who cannot abide by the requirements of the church.
The Connectional Conference Plan (CCP) replaces our current five geographical jurisdictions in the U.S. with three theological connectional conferences – Progressive, Traditional, and Unity. All three branches would continue to share some general church agencies, such as pensions, Publishing House, UMCOR, and missions. Other agencies would serve only those connectional conferences that desire to participate in them. Each connectional conference would have its own rules for clergy conduct and standards for ordination. Conferences outside the U.S. would be their own connectional conference or could join one of the three U.S. conferences. Bishops and clergy would serve only within their chosen connectional conference under that conference’s rules.
In addition to these three plans, individuals have submitted eight other plans for General Conference consideration. All but two of the plans are a variation of the One Church Plan. Most of them are not as well thought-out as the Commission’s work and will probably not gain much traction.
Because the Connectional Conference Plan requires constitutional amendments, meaning it needs a two-thirds vote at General Conference and a two-thirds vote of all the annual conference members to ratify it, most delegates are not considering the CCP as their first choice. The plan’s complexity and four-year implementation schedule are also drawbacks to that plan.
So we are left with primarily the Traditional Plan (with a few modifications proposed by the Renewal and Reform Coalition) and the One Church Plan as the primary options under consideration. What are the most important factors in choosing which direction the church should take?
Scripture. For evangelicals, the Bible has to be the first consideration in determining a faithful way forward for the church. The OCP elevates unity and the teaching of John 17 as the primary scriptural value to pursue. The TP focuses instead on faithfulness to Scripture’s teaching on the theological meaning of marriage and holiness in sexual relationships.
Because of the deep chasm between the two perspectives over which scriptures take precedence and how they are to be interpreted, there is no agreed-upon foundation for making a biblically faithful decision. Lost in all of the back and forth is the bare fact that there is no credible interpretive framework that explains the biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality in a way that allows the church to approve the practice of homosexuality. Progressive biblical scholars do not agree on any one approach, and many of them have a vested interest in a non-traditional interpretation because they have a loved one who has come out as gay.
Evangelicals regard faithfulness to Scripture as the beginning point and often the endpoint of discussion. The TP is the only plan that remains faithful to the scriptural teaching on marriage and sexuality. Most of the other plans adopt a position that contradicts Scripture.
Conflict. The motivation for appointing the Commission on a Way Forward was to find a way to resolve the conflict that is disrupting the ministry of the denomination, sapping time and energy that could be more fruitfully spent on leading people to Christ and serving the poor and needy.
Unfortunately, neither the TP nor the OCP is likely to bring a quick end to the conflict. Under the TP, bishops and annual conferences would be required to declare whether or not they would uphold and enforce the Book of Discipline, including on matters of marriage and sexuality. If not, they could be disciplined by the church and would be encouraged to withdraw and form a more progressive denomination that would operate according to their beliefs and values. If those not willing to abide by the Discipline act with integrity and withdraw from a denomination that they cannot support, the conflict would largely end. Many progressives, however, have stated that they will not voluntarily leave the denomination and would insist that the church “kick them out.” While the TP has enhanced accountability measures that should make discipline more certain, progressive insistence on continuing the fight will likely mean that some accountability actions will continue for some time.
While the OCP insists there is room in the church for a variety of beliefs and practices around marriage and sexuality, its adoption promises to multiply the conflict, rather than end it. Every annual conference would have to decide whether to ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals. Those that choose not to would face increasing pressure from both culture and the progressive wing of the church to capitulate. This would entail annual battles at recalcitrant conferences until they finally vote “the right way.” Local churches, too, would face increased conflict. Whenever a church member or friend would ask for their same-sex wedding to be performed in the church sanctuary, there would have to be a congregational meeting to vote whether or not to allow it. Instead of deciding based on principle alone, the local church would now need to consider the personalities requesting the same-sex wedding, making the decision that much more emotionally laden.
Central Conferences. More than 40 percent of United Methodism’s members exist in what we call “central conferences” outside the United States. How would the plans affect them?
The vast majority of the central conference members favor a traditional understanding of marriage and human sexuality. Many have told us that they strongly support the Traditional Plan. It would enable them to continue as part of a global denomination guided by a common identity and shared theology and ethics.
The One Church Plan would pose great challenges to the central conferences, particularly in Africa and Eastern Europe and Eurasia. In many of those areas, the practice of homosexuality is strongly opposed and in some cases illegal. Being part of a global church where the practice of homosexuality is affirmed would place these central conference churches at a great disadvantage, and in some cases could even be life-threatening, particularly in Muslim areas of Africa. Although the central conferences could continue to operate according to traditional standards, they would be in active partnership with bishops and clergy from the U.S. who may be openly homosexual, which could jeopardize the partnership or the mission of the church in that area. Many central conference leaders have told us that they could not remain part of a global UM Church under a One Church Plan.
Unity. Much has been made about the need to maintain the structural unity of the denomination. It must be acknowledged, however, that maintaining such unity in a denomination already riven by schism is an impossible task. The deeply felt convictions of progressives and evangelicals are incompatible with each other, however much we wish it were different.
Because the Commission on a Way Forward was never allowed to consider an equitable plan of separation, we are left with two plans that would each bring about a somewhat unfair separation.
The OCP would change the church’s position to affirm same-sex relationships and affirm the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals in annual conferences that do not adopt a traditional position. For many evangelicals, that change in the church’s position is an unacceptable violation of our consciences. We have heard from hundreds of individual lay members and dozens of congregations that they would seek to leave The United Methodist Church if the OCP passes. And those are just the ones we have heard about. In a poll this year in North Georgia, fully one-fourth of the annual conference members said that they would leave the church if the OCP is adopted. I estimate that the U.S. part of our church could lose anywhere from ten to twenty-five percent of its membership in this scenario, and it is possible that up to a half-dozen annual conferences might seek to withdraw.
On the other hand, the TP is straightforward about the fact that those who cannot live by the rules established by our denomination ought to withdraw and form a new church more in line with their beliefs and desired practices. The same North Georgia poll indicated about five percent of the annual conference members said they would leave the church if the TP were adopted. As many as a dozen annual conferences might seek to withdraw, and they represent about ten percent of the U.S. membership. Not all congregations in those conferences would want to leave, but some congregations in other annual conferences would want to join a more progressive church, meaning that the U.S. church might lose as much as ten percent of its membership. The TP believes that those who want to change the church’s historic teaching ought to be the ones to depart, not those who want to maintain it.
At least the TP provides a gracious exit path for annual conferences, congregations, bishops, and clergy. The OCP as it stands provides no such exit path, although one could be added from the five different exit paths proposed by various individuals.
What is unity? This brings up the question of how we should define unity. Can we have unity as a denomination when we have different moral standards and different qualifications for ordained ministry?
The OCP stems from the belief that we can have unity around a common relationship with Jesus Christ, and that everything else can be up for negotiation. However, it is really only in this one area of sexuality that the compatibilists want to push for allowing different practices. No compatibilist that I know of is promoting that we should allow pastors to practice only believer’s baptism, that we should allow annual conferences not to ordain women, or that local churches could choose not to pay apportionments. In all these areas and many more, compatibilists expect everyone to have the same practice. And rightly so! These are the decisions we make as a denomination that fulfill our identity as United Methodists. This is the ethos or way of doing things that is uniquely United Methodist. So it is somewhat hypocritical of compatibilists to insist that only in this one area, where the church is in great danger of being influenced by our surrounding culture, we should allow variations of practice.
The TP believes that we should have a much stronger unity around a common belief system and shared practices to which we all subscribe. This does not mean uniformity in every circumstance, but it means that there is conformity on those practices that the denomination determines are central to our identity. One cannot believably make the case that moral standards regarding sexuality and qualifications for ordained ministry are less central than whom we baptize or how we share in ministry through apportionments. And if we agree on a common mandatory standard for ordaining women, how can we turn around and say we can have conflicting standards on ordaining LGBTQ persons?
The OCP “local option” approach makes no coherent sense theologically. It would weaken our connectionalism, another essential element of our United Methodist identity. And it would create a climate of congregationalism that would further dilute what it means to be United Methodist. These do not appear to be a recipe for greater unity, but rather for gradual centrifugal disintegration of the church.
Where the OCP would lean toward a “least common denominator” form of unity, the TP would seek a more robust unity around shared doctrine and discipline. Those who could not conscientiously agree to that shared doctrine and discipline would be allowed to graciously exit the church. This kind of unity gives a sense of shared values, shared purpose and mission, and a shared way of doing things that can powerfully focus the passion, time, and resources of the church on making disciples of Jesus Christ. Instead of fighting each other over foundational matters of theology and ethics, we would be able to direct attention outward in evangelism and service. Resources now devoted to intra-church conflict could instead be channeled into ministry. Congregations now uncertain of who we are as United Methodists would gain a new sense of shared identity that could energize them toward health and vitality. No longer would there be confusion about what it means to be United Methodist. Each local church would be preaching the same gospel according to the same standards, with the freedom to do so in the most culturally appropriate way for that congregation.
The Traditional Plan holds the greatest potential for unifying the church. It holds the greatest potential for ultimately resolving the conflict within our denomination, setting us free to focus on ministry and mission. The TP would open the door for further reforms that are needed to bring our mostly ineffective general church structure in line with a 21st century reality.
Please continue praying for our General Conference delegates and for the work of the Renewal and Reform Coalition, as we seek to birth a new future direction for our church.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergy person and vice president of Good News. He is a member of the Commission on a Way Forward.