After numerous delays from others, the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church has done us all a great service by finally publishing the full legislative details of each of the three plans being forwarded as alternative paths for evaluation at our denomination’s 2019 General Conference, at least in English.
The three plans are named: “the One Church Plan,” “the Connectional Conference Plan,” and “the Traditional Plan.” The full legislation (i.e., petitions to amend specific paragraphs of the UMC’s governing Book of Discipline) for each of these has been posted as Exhibits A, B, and C for an upcoming case for the UMC Judicial Council’s upcoming October session.
The full report of the Commission on a Way Forward, with a general historical overview as well as timelines and narrative summaries for each, is included as Exhibit D.
This full report reveals that the better-known commission members publicly endorsing what they call “the One Church plan” include, among others, Matt Berryman of Chicago (who until recently was the CEO of the Reconciling Ministries Network, which has been the main caucus seeking to liberalize UMC standards on marriage and sexuality), Dave Nuckols of Minnesota (an outspoken member of RMN’s national board of directors), and Brian Adkins of the California-Nevada Conference (a self-described “LGBTQI religious leader” who was ordained in 2016 in what an apparent supporter of this action said was “in direct conflict with the Book of Discipline” and was done as an “an act of ‘ecclesial disobedience’”). It was recently reported that this plan to liberalize our denomination’s sexuality standards is favored by 60 percent of active United Methodist bishops, but that the remaining bishops, especially among non-U.S. bishops constitute a significant group supporting either of the other two plans.
I will have more to say later about the Traditional and Connectional Conference Plans.
But for many weeks and months, we have heard so much vague rhetoric, assumptions, and educated guessing about what the “One Church Plan” (also informally called the Liberalization Plan by some) would and would not do. I have even recently seen some of this plan’s strongest supporters say such things as that it actually “is not a progressive plan.”
But now that we have the actual plan, it is worth highlighting some key ways in which the rhetoric of some of its supporter contrasts with this plan’s actual provisions.
Here are some briefly stated myths and facts about what the authors have called “the One Church Plan”:
MYTH: “In the One Church Plan, no annual conferences, bishops, congregations, or pastors are compelled to act contrary to their convictions,” as its architects assure us in their narrative summary (and repeated by liberal Bishop Robert Schnase of Rio Texas).
MYTH: This plan would include generous space for traditionalists “without disrupting their ministries” and would keep congregational voting “to a minimum,” as the plan’s narrative summary assures us, thus bringing a new level of peace to our denomination’s internal conflicts.
FACT: This plan would bring us a whole new level of bitter, divisive conflict, disruption to vital ministries, and in the long run this plan, more than any other, would MAXIMIZE divisive votes by congregations.
MYTH: The One Church Plan would somehow advance the cause of UNITY among all current United Methodists (it’s right there in the name!) and would greatly extend and expand our ministry in various contexts.
FACT: This Plan is guaranteed to split apart and dramatically restrict the size and impact of the United Methodist Church, in drastic ways from which the denomination would be unlikely to ever recover.
In the days ahead, I will be attaching hyperlinks to the bolded text above linking to new articles explaining each item in more detail, based on careful analysis of both the legislation and narrative summary for this plan.
But for those readers looking for the bottom line, I will now offer a brief summary of some key facts.
For understanding what this plan would actually do, one must look carefully at how the proposed changes interact with other relevant parts of the Discipline.
While some have described this plan as a “local option,” this plan would actually go much further than what that phrase may suggest. It would REQUIRE every UMC annual conference to accept same-sex weddings, which goes further than the liberal policies that split the Episcopal Church in 2003.
It would liberalize the definition of marriage and other relevant official teachings for United Methodists everywhere in the world.
It would make removing the ban on “self-avowed practicing homosexual clergy” the default position of every United Methodist annual conference around the world, and the burden for adopting regional exceptions would be imposed entirely on traditionalists.
This plan would regionalize and localize the most emotionally bitter fights of General Conference to instead take place at central conference meetings, annual conference clergy sessions, and eventually every U.S. congregation.
It would largely disenfranchise U.S. lay members of our denomination on major decisions. Laypeople (with few exceptions) would be prevented from having any binding authority to participate in regional decisions about whether or not our respective annual conferences will accept the new liberalized ordination standards. As for our congregations, they could forbid same-sex weddings on the church property, but they could not prevent their pastors from performing such ceremonies off-site or refuse to accept openly partnered gay pastors.
If the goal is truly to “let everyone decide what is best for their own context,” then shouldn’t lay people be an integral, non-marginal part of making such major decisions about United Methodism’s mission and ministry in their context? Not if this plan passes.
This plan would also exclude licensed local pastors and associate clergy members of annual conferences – who represent a major portion of active pastors in many regions – from being involved in each conference’s decisions about sexual-morality standards for our clergy.
Despite the misleading “One Church Plan” name, this plan, more than any other, is most guaranteed to split our denomination apart, with massive membership losses around the world, the results of which could drastically deplete finances available for ministry in the UMC’s overseas central conferences.
There would be a temporary allowance for central conferences to continue to have more traditionalist marriage and ordination policies in their own context, but this allowance would be on shaky ground, and potentially could be canceled with ease.
There are some provisions designed to protect the consciences of traditionalist Americans who remained within the UMC, but these have some rather major gaps. This plan would still force traditionalist-leaning annual conferences to pay the salary support of an openly homosexually partnered bishop (despite explicitly recognizing that this violates the conscience of traditionalist believers), force all United Methodists around the world to accept the authority of other partnered homosexual clergy who would lead denomination-wide leadership bodies, and force traditionalist congregations in some areas to accept and submit to the authority of a homosexually partnered bishop.
This plan also offers no olive branches whatsoever of respect, grace, or amicable treatment toward congregations in which the members overwhelmingly felt they could not remain in a denomination with these new standards. This plan follows the same pattern that has led to the ugly spectacles in other denominations of bitter, costly, and deeply wounding battles in secular courts over the physical property of departing traditionalist congregations.
At times, the narrative summary of this plan offers a rosier picture, with lots of language of how bishops and other relevant officials could or might or might not handle some of the specific concerns noted above in less damaging or adversarial ways. And if this plan passed, we can expect that in some local cases, things might be handled in relatively nicer, more amicable ways than the worst-case scenarios. But the actual legislation for the plan lacks actual processes to protect against such problems and abuses.
In the absence of this plan offering a clear roadmap for handling some of the inevitable conflicts that would arise, our strongest predictors are examining the patterns of behavior we have already observed in our bishops, especially our most liberal U.S. bishops, and in reviewing what similarly placed officials in other denominations did after they adopted something similar to this Liberalization Plan.
Between now and February 2019, we can expect to hear a lot of spin and rhetoric from this plan’s supporters portraying this plan as much less liberal and less risky than what I have noted above.
Some of this is reminiscent of how a few years ago, the liberal caucus Love Prevails made a show of nominally opposing the Connectional Table majority faction’s proposal to roll back our denomination’s restrictions on same-sex weddings and partnered gay clergy, and this being used to claim that the plan was not really liberal but some new “Third Way,” but then after this plan failed, and there was no more need to claim it was somehow a compromise, one of the most prominent Love Prevails activists admitted that she actually supported that plan.
I encourage all United Methodists to follow the links, get the facts for yourself, and contact the General Conference delegates from your annual conference to make sure they understand the true nature of this plan.