After much anticipation, the Council of Bishops of the global United Methodist Church concluded its week-long meeting in Chicago today with a press release summarizing a “motion” approved in response to the Commission on the Way Forward.
While this is big news, the Council has also made some frustrating decisions that amount to withholding key information from the church for an extraordinarily long time.
The Way Forward Commission, appointed by the Council of Bishops, has been working since 2016 to develop proposals to seek resolution of our longstanding internal tensions over a vocal minority’s disagreement with and disobedience of the UMC’s official teachings and policies forbidding homosexual union ceremonies or the ordination of anyone openly sexually active outside of monogamous, heterosexual marriage. Final decisions on any such proposals will be made at a specially called UMC General Conference in February 2019, to which I will be a voting delegate.
The press release serves as a brief summary, rather than a full report, of the decisions our bishops made this week during the closed sessions that took up the majority of their business time. It announces that the Council of Bishops will forward three separate plans as possible options to the 2019 General Conference as part of its final report:
- a Traditionalist Plan, which has previously been described as maintaining our present sexual-morality standards, increasing enforcement measures, and allowing gracious exit ramps for congregations and others unwilling to follow our standards;
- a so-called One Church Plan, which has previously been described in terms of removing the UMC’s traditionalist teachings and policies on marriage and sex, and officially authorizing same-sex “weddings” and homosexually active pastors, throughout our denomination; and
- a Connectional Conference Plan, which has previously been described as replacing the five jurisdictions into which the UMC is currently geographically divided within the United States with two or more nationwide jurisdictions that would each have its own theology and policies related to marriage, while somehow remaining part of the same denomination.
In the previous months, so much of the reporting and political bluster treated any sort of “Traditionalist Plan” as dead, off the table, and not something the “Way Forward” process would take seriously.
So it is very good news to learn that in fact our Council of Bishops has done at least a partial course correction by agreeing to forward a Traditionalist Plan as one of the options it will put on the table for us delegates next year.
It is disappointing that our Council of Bishops has chosen to “recommend the One Church Plan as the best way forward for The United Methodist Church” by majority vote. Such a plan, more accurately labeled the Liberalization Plan, is completely irreconcilable with Scripture, unfaithful 2,000 years of consistent global Christian tradition, and very pastorally harmful, most especially to self-identified LGBTQ individuals and their loved ones.
And where is the basic honesty of advocates of the Liberalization Plan when they insist on marketing it as “the One Church Plan,” when any intelligent observer can see that this would be the one possible plan most guaranteed to split apart the church?
At a press conference earlier today, outgoing Council of Bishops President Bishop Ough said that they would not publicly share the exact numbers of how the Council voted on matters related to this report.
But in any case, the report that the majority of active United Methodist Bishops confirms what many have long suspected about the liberal biases of our Council of Bishops as a whole. So while there are a number of individual faithful bishops we can appreciate, this report makes clear that at this point we cannot trust majority of the Council of Bishops, as a collective group, to offer much in the way of doctrinally, spiritually, or morally helpful leadership for our denomination.
But traditionalist United Methodists should not worry. This plan should be dead on arrival at next year’s General Conference. Under the leadership of the aforementioned Bishop Ough, the Connectional Table already tried submitting a multi-piece plan with the same basic idea to the 2016 General Conference, and this was defeated in committee after committee. And the delegates to the 2019 General Conference will largely be the very same people as the delegates who already rejected this idea in 2016.
The Connectional Conference Plan has even dimmer prospects, given how it would require complex constitutional amendments needing the support of at least two-thirds of all General Conference delegates, while I am aware of no sizable constituency anywhere in our global church who is really wanting such a plan.
Hopefully, the 2019 General Conference will not waste more than a minimal amount of the church’s time and money on either of these plans.
One significant disappointment today was the Council’s choice to dramatically extend a lack of full transparency about their report and this process.
What exactly are the proposals for change within the “Traditionalist Plan” or in the “Connectional Conference Plan”? Our bishops seem to be, bizarrely, under the impression that no one else in the UMC needs to know for another two months. The press release shares absolutely nothing about what will actually be in either of these two plans. Today’s statement shares some summary information on the Liberalization Plan, but leaves many major questions unanswered (such as: if a previously ordained minister in a traditionalist U.S. annual conference publicly announces his engagement in homosexual practice, would there be any way to discipline such clergy?).
For the last year-and-a-half the Way Forward Commission has chosen to make its important meetings closed to observers. Some United Methodists have decried this lack of transparency as hurting trust. Others of us have really tried to extend benefit of the doubt, even this have been difficult, with the expectation that the full and final report would be released by the end of the Council meeting this week.
Now the bishops are saying that even though they have finished their final meeting to discuss and vote on recommendations to forward to the 2019 General Conference, based on the Commission’s report, they now want to withhold any public sharing of their full report, beyond the two-page press release issued today, for a period that may last longer than another two months.
It is particularly striking that the Council’s self-imposed deadline for releasing its full report is July 8. That just so happens to be the exact deadline for submitting petitions to the 2019 General Conference.
Over the next couple of months, United Methodist individuals and groups outside of the Council of Bishops will obviously be making plans to submit their own petitions to the 2019 General Conference, as they have an explicit right in our Discipline to do. However, they would first want to see what exactly would be in the three options forwarded by the Council of Bishops, to see which specific legislative concerns are already covered there and which are not.
But it is impossible to do such informed planning if the Council makes a choice to stick to its guns in refusing to release specific details of all three plans before the very date of the submission deadline.
I have a hard time seeing many non-elite United Methodists buying any claims that this is not deliberate on the part of our Council of Bishops.
Of course, such a timeline would also severely limit any UMC annual conference session held before July 8 to have terribly meaningful dialogues about the options before us, despite the fact that so many have already made plans to try to have such dialogues.
The stated reason for this extraordinarily long proposed delay is that they supposed need all of that time to translate the Council’s full report into all the main languages used by United Methodists around the globe.
But it is fair to ask why they would need over two months to do this, in a time period that coincidentally ends on a date that would be so uniquely convenient if anyone was seeking to manipulate the process to undermine contributions from non-bishops. Couldn’t they get the translation done in a week if they hired a team of people to work on different sections at the same time?
After all, the final report of the Council of Bishops was supposed to have been an adapted version of the report completed sometime earlier by the Commission on the Way Forward. Did no one even start translating any of this document into any language other than English before today?
I hope that our bishops will be willing to listen to how much deep mistrust is already out there in our denomination, try a more transparent approach, and at least work to get their full report released before Spring annual conference sessions begin meeting.
Here is the full press release issued this afternoon:
For immediate release May 4, 2018
United Methodist Bishops Recommend a Way Forward
CHICAGO – United Methodist bishops, meeting in Chicago, engaged in a prayerful process to discern a way forward. At the conclusion of the discernment process, the Council of Bishops strongly approved the following motion and rationale:
Having received and considered the extensive work of the Commission on a Way Forward, the Council of Bishops will submit a report to the Special Session of the General Conference in 2019 that includes:
- All three plans (The Traditionalist Plan, The One Church Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan) for a way forward considered by the Commission and the Council.
- The Council’s recommendation of the One Church Plan.
- An historical narrative of the Council’s discernment process regarding all three plans.
Rationale: In order to invite the church to go deeper into the journey the Council and Commission has been on, the Council will make all the information considered by the Commission and the Council of Bishops available to the delegates of the General Conference and acknowledges there is support for each of the three plans within the Council. The values of our global church are reflected in all three plans. The majority of the Council recommends the One Church Plan as the best way forward for The United Methodist Church.
Guided by the mission, vision and scope document, the bishops agreed to recommend the One Church Plan. This plan provides conferences, churches, and pastors the flexibility to uniquely reach their missional context while retaining the connectional nature of The United Methodist Church.
The One Church Plan allows for contextualization of language about human sexuality in support of the mission; and allows for central conferences, especially those in Africa, to retain their disciplinary authority to adapt the Book of Discipline and continue to include traditional language and values while fulfilling the vision of a global and multicultural church.
This plan also encourages a generous unity by giving United Methodists the ability to address different missional contexts in ways that reflect their theological convictions. The One Church Plan removes the restrictive language of the Book of Discipline and adds assurances to pastors and Conferences who due to their theological convictions cannot perform same-sex weddings or ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals.
The Council’s discernment process was guided by the over-arching desire to strategically help the General Conference do its work and to honor the General Conference’s request for the Council to help the church find a way forward.
“With convicted humility, bishops want to be pastors and shepherds of the whole church in order to maximize the presence of a United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible and with as much contextual differentiation as possible,” said newly installed Council of Bishops President Ken Carter.
The bishops expressed deep appreciation for the diligent work that the 32-member Commission on a Way Forward Commission did in formulating the three plans; the Traditionalist Plan, the One Church Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan.
While the bishops recommended the One Church Plan they affirmed that the Connectional Conference Plan and the Traditionalist Plan held values that are important to the life and work of the church and will be included in the final report to the Special Session of General Conference that the bishops have called for Feb. 23-26 in St. Louis, Missouri, USA.
Bishop Carter, who served as a one of the moderators of the Commission, said the bishops are adopting a spirit of collaboration with the Commission, and an attitude of respect for the delegations who will take up this work on behalf of the whole church.
“The Council’s prayerful deliberation reflected the diversity of the global denomination on the matter of homosexuality and many other matters. The Council affirms the strength of this diversity and our commitment to maintain the unity of the church,” Bishop Carter said.
Full details of the plans and accompanying legislative proposals will be released as soon as final editing of the entire report is completed and translated into the official languages of the General Conference. It is estimated this will be no later than July 8.
Media Contact: Rev. Dr. Maidstone Mulenga
Director of Communications – Council of Bishops
The United Methodist Church