Warning: Lots of United Methodist insider talk in this post. If you are not United Methodist, you might find this all a bit confusing. In fact, I find it confusing myself.
The Commission on a Way Forward has presented an interim report to the Council of Bishops. The report is not particularly surprising, but it could be quite helpful nonetheless. In what follows I’ll make a few brief comments on the commission’s proposals.
Before I do, though, I want to thank the members of the commission. You have invested huge amounts of time, intellect, and emotional energy in this attempt to find a way through our current denominational impasse. I know your work is not over, but I’m grateful for your efforts in bringing us to this point.
The Three Sketches
A recent UMNS article describes sketches of three models:
- One sketch of a model affirms the current Book of Discipline language and places a high value on accountability.
- Another sketch of a model removes restrictive language and places a high value on contextualization. This sketch also specifically protects the rights of those whose conscience will not allow them to perform same gender weddings or ordain LGBTQ persons.
- A third sketch of a model is grounded in a unified core that includes shared doctrine and services and one COB, while also creating different branches that have clearly defined values such as accountability, contextualization and justice.
- Each sketch represents values that are within the COB and across the church.
- Each sketch includes [a] gracious way of exit for those who feel called to exit from the denomination.
Let’s take the first sketch: affirm the current language of the Book of Discipline and place a high value on accountability. This is a conservative proposal that was moving forward under the language of the Covenantal Unity Plan at the 2016 General Conference. The commission was called into being largely to prevent this plan from moving forward. Were it to resurface, would it finally bring true resolution to the denomination? I once thought that it would. I am less convinced of this today, for three reasons:
First, true accountability in the UMC would require a different structure of accountability for the bishops. Right now, bishops are held accountable at the level of the jurisdiction. If other bishops in the jurisdiction wish to look the other way when their colleagues act in ways that are inconsistent with the spirit and letter of our church law, there is nothing stopping them from doing so. Moving episcopal accountability to the level of the general church would require constitutional amendments, and these are very difficult to pass.
Additionally, the first sketch would involve years of continued fighting, Facebook fury, ecclesial disobedience, and political posturing. My sense is that many among us have grown weary and want resolution. I personally did not give my life to Christ and the church in order to fight political battles. The will to continue our denominational civil war has waned. We are serving neither Christ nor the church by perpetuating our infighting.
Finally, while “each sketch includes [a] gracious way of exit for those who feel called to exit from the denomination,” this does not mean that anyone will necessarily leave. Those who are most committed to ecclesial disobedience see ordination and marriage of LGBTQ persons as absolute non-negotiables. A church that is not inclusive on their terms is grievously in sin. Better to fight on, regardless of the consequences, than to form a new progressive Methodist denomination. Further, data from the more progressive denominations in the United States suggest that such a church is not likely to be able to sustain itself beyond another two decades.
How about the second sketch? This plan “removes restrictive language and places a high value on contextualization. This sketch also specifically protects the rights of those whose conscience will not allow them to perform same gender weddings or ordain LGBTQ persons.” This is essentially a moderately progressive plan, in keeping with the goals of those who self-identify as centrists. It would involve removing from the Discipline the assertion that homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching. The “contextualization” piece probably means that, in places like Africa and parts of the American South, same-sex marriage and ordination of non-celibate LGBT people will remain prohibited.
Will this plan bring resolution to our denominational conflict? Quite possibly it would, but only because a large segment of conservative United Methodists would leave the denomination. Only the elusive “traditionalist-compatiblists” would remain. Remember: each sketch leaves open the door for a “gracious exit” for those who cannot live within the revised structures. The UMC in the United States would soon become univocally progressive.
The unfortunate central conferences would find themselves in a very difficult position under this scenario. They could go with the conservatives, with whom they tend to have more theological agreement, but will the conservatives form a new denomination? What will it look like? Will they continue the same level of central conference support? There are many unknowns here. Alternatively, the central conferences could stay with the main branch of the denomination, now weakened by the conservative exodus, perhaps unable to provide the same level of support as before, and declining at an accelerated rate.
Further—and I could certainly be wrong here—I simply can’t see committed progressives being on board with this plan. They believe that a church that will not perform same-sex marriages, will not recognize the validity of a broad range of gender expressions, and will not ordain non-celibate gay people or transgendered people is committing a crime of the most heinous proportions. At the 2016 General Conference LGBTQ advocates walked around with rainbow-colored tape over their mouths and hog-tied themselves on the floor of general conference, signaling their feelings of being silenced and disempowered. They have claimed that the attitudes of traditionalists on matters of human sexuality are killing LGBTQ people. The LGBTQ groups at general conferences past have staged “die-ins” to express the way in which they feel they have been treated in the UMC. In light of these gestures and rhetoric, it is a mystery to me how any committed progressive could align with a plan that allowed such atrocities to continue. To do so would be a betrayal of deeply held principles for which they have long advocated.
The final sketch is the most interesting. It suggests a model “grounded in a unified core that includes shared doctrine and services and one COB, while also creating different branches that have clearly defined values such as accountability, contextualization and justice.” We might call this the “umbrella” model. There will be a conservative UMC and a progressive UMC. In some ways this is reminiscent of Christopher Ritter’s Jurisdictional Plan.
With some modifications, this sketch might work. I do have some concerns, though. For example, we can probably agree upon shared services, but shared doctrine? I have never been comfortable with the claim that “there is only one thing that divides us.” It is simply not true. All manner of doctrinal expression has found its way into churches, seminaries, and even into the writings of bishops. Are we united in doctrine? Perhaps on paper we are. In practice, we are most certainly not.
Further, doctrine and practice cannot be entirely separated from one another. The idea that “there is only one thing that divides us” fails to account for the fact that our ideas about ethical matters are necessarily related to our ideas about doctrinal matters. In other words, questions about human sexuality cannot be separated from doctrines around creation, theological anthropology, and the authority of Scripture.
Finally, a single Council of Bishops will probably not work for conservatives. In many ways, conservatives see the Council of Bishops as the problem. Yes, there are individual bishops who are great leaders, but the Council seems unable or unwilling to hold its own members accountable or provide a coherent vision for our denominational future. From all appearances, doctrine and ethics take a backseat to collegiality and institutional unity.
Organization or Church?
Can this third option really work? Well, the devil is in the details. But at some point, we will have to answer a crucial question we have been avoiding: Can we remain a single church? We may remain the United Methodist Organization, but a church? That is unclear.
The problem is that we lack not only a common vision for the church, but a common vision of the church. Put differently, it’s not just that we disagree over what the church should do. Rather, we disagree over what it means to be a church. I have insisted in the past, and will continue to do so, that the church is, among other things, a moral community. We have to make decisions—as a community—over our standards of right and wrong. Disagreement among our ranks doesn’t change this. When there is disagreement, we have methods of resolution. In fact, every church has methods of resolving disagreement because, without these, unity is impossible. Our decision-making processes in the church, our ways of resolving disagreement,are instruments of unity. Once we abandon these instruments unity becomes impossible. Our recent denominational history bespeaks as much.
Any time people ask me if churches should leave the denomination, I say no. Conservatives have criticized progressives for failing to abide by the dictates of the General Conference and abandoning our processes of accountability. Thus when the tables are turned and we do not like the decisions of the General Conference (e.g., the formation of the bishops’ commission), we should not simply abandon our processes. Whether or not we think that it will yield helpful results, it is, in fact, our process, mandated by the General Conference. I am committed to waiting through the difficult interim period in which we allow our process to play out. I pray that the commission brings forward a proposal that will move us beyond our current impasse, that will do the most good and the least harm to our congregations. If this process fails to bring resolution, all bets are off. We’re not there yet, though, so we wait and pray.