Recently Christianity Today reported on the Ritter Plan, originated by an Illinois pastor, to divide U.S. United Methodism into two ideological jurisdictions, one orthodox and the other LGBTQ affirming, in place of the current five regional jurisdictions. The story quotes several evangelical friends who support it, and includes my quote opposing it.
Asbury Seminary’s Ben Witherington, one of United Methodism’s most renowned theologians, has critiqued the Ritter Plan here, saying: “If we want to further diminish the integrity and influence of our church in our American society, then this is a good way to assure that will happen.”
The plan’s desire to end United Methodism’s conflict on theology and sexual ethics is understandable. But the actual impact likely would be the opposite. A battle so far largely contained at the quadrennial General Conference would exponentially metastasize as all annual conferences and eventually over 30,000 local churches would effectively have to debate and choose sides, in congregational battles that could persist for years, often in litigation.
Likely liberal activists could not abide a jurisdiction that practices “discrimination,” so their protests would continue. Meanwhile, some conservatives would battle on for a complete schism. There’s also the theological problem of officially sanctioning a church zone created specifically to affirm unbiblical behavior. Isn’t Christ Lord of the whole church?
The issue of creating two ideological zones is largely politically moot anyway. As a constitutional change, requiring a two thirds majority at General Conference followed by two thirds of all votes at subsequent annual conferences globally, its passage is nearly impossible.
Recently the author of the Ritter Plan blogged that his proposal’s passage is indeed unlikely. He’s offered another idea that seems more politically attainable. The salaries of bishops refusing to uphold church law would be reduced or withheld. He cites the current withholding of two African bishops’ salaries for financial irregularities. There’s other precedent. General church agencies are prohibited from pro-homosexuality advocacy. The church’s financial oversight agency, which oversees funding of church agencies, is empowered to enforce this ban.
This idea is not constitutional so would need only a majority vote at General Conference. I suspect some critics would claim it’s unconstitutional by subjecting the executive branch of the church to more direct control by the legislative. But the legislative does have power of the purse.
Of course this Ritter Plan II is not a panacea. Some dissident bishops might seek political martyrdom by forgoing their salary, with liberal activists raising money to subsidize their defiance.
But Rev. Ritter merits kudos for thinking creatively and striving for realism. We need more such thinking. There are no quick fixes for United Methodism’s divisions. The way forward, no matter the path, will entail many incremental fixes over the course of years and decades. Per Rev. Ritter: “We may need to lace our shoes for a longer, more difficult path.”
Here’s another idea. Should bishops who preside over continuously fast declining conferences also have their pay reduced accordingly? (In many cases these bishops are the same bishops declining to fully uphold church law on sexual ethics.). This concept is probably not politically likely, but it could be helpfully provocative and highlight our church’s tragic 50 year continuous U.S. membership decline.