This continues a series examining the proposal to the United Methodist Church’s specially called 2019 General Conference which has been endorsed by a majority of our denomination’s active U.S. bishops and which is being marketed as “the One Church Plan.”
There are other plans submitted to this General Conference, which will be examined later.
The UMC Judicial Council has now published all of the specific legislative proposals of this plan for amending our denomination’s governing Book of Discipline as Exhibit A of a case for its upcoming October session. Meanwhile, a congregation whose senior pastor strongly supports this plan has posted its entirety online, including its official narrative summary.
I am presently highlighting some key contrasts between some of the rhetoric and misunderstandings surrounding this so-called “One Church Plan,” and the actual facts about it that have now been made clear.
If you are just starting or would like to see my summary of the plan and overview of this series, please click here.
Much of the rhetoric promoting this plan has described it as a mere “local option,” allowing everyone to decide what is best for their own context. But when we look at the details, we see that this plan would actually impose United Methodist same-sex marriages in EVERY region of our denomination (at least in the USA) with no region having the right to have more traditionalist policies, widely remove restrictions on “self-avowed practicing homosexual” clergy, impose one-sided burdens on any regions wishing to maintain traditionalist standards to even a limited extent, exclude most laypeople and non-ordained clergy (licensed local pastors and associate members) from key local and regional decisions on such matters, impose pastors and bishops who perform same-sex unions or who are homosexually partnered on traditionalist congregations who do not want such spiritual leadership, and set a legal foundation to potentially prevent any central conference outside of the USA from having more traditionalist policies.
The details are explained below.
MYTH: This plan would establish a “local option” on whether or not to celebrate same-sex wedding ceremonies, leaving it up to each regional annual conference to set its own policies.
FACT: This plan would dramatically change the marriage standards and policies THROUGHOUT the UMC.
The widely heard phrase, “local option,” can suggest the sort of system we have seen in other denominations of basically letting each region decide its standards for marriage and clergy, and in regions that allow same-sex weddings, saying that pastors can only perform them if their congregation approves. Indeed, in a sort of video advertisement for this plan, a bishop who is a leading proponent described it as merely granting freedom to a local congregation to take a particular approach to same-sex unions (implied to be a more permissive approach than our current ban) “if there’s a consensus” in the congregation.
This plan, however, is much more aggressively liberal than that in several key ways.
It would make a few simple but dramatic changes to the Social Principles to remove current traditionalist teaching related to marriage and homosexuality, including taking away the definition of marriage as being limited to the union “between a man and a woman.” This means that United Methodists around the globe would no longer be able to point to these traditional biblical values as part of the official Social Principles of our denomination, which would be a very major loss.
This particular change could set the stage for a subsequent major change in church law. In Decision #1185, the UMC Judicial Council rejected arguments from the New York Conference that our ban on homosexually partnered clergy violated the right of ministers affirmed in #XXI of the Methodist Articles of Religion, part of our constitutionally protected core doctrine, “to marry at their own discretion.” The Judicial Council’s reasoning was largely based on ruling that the current language of our Social Principles legally defined “marriage” and “to marry” as being limited to unions between one man and one woman. But with this precedent, the so-called One Church Plan’s removal of the Social Principles current language on marriage could ultimately serve as the basis of a future Judicial Council ruling invalidating restrictions on homosexually partnered clergy in every annual conference and every non-U.S. central conference around the world.
It would also add several sentences to ¶105, part of the UMC Discipline’s theological section, to declare that the UMC is not of one mind on the morality of homosexual practice and relationships, and that our denomination no longer has a position beyond agnostically affirming both those who take a traditionalist position and those who take a revisionist position. In other words, this would force all United Methodist regions around the world to accept the very sort of statement traditionalists have repeatedly said is unacceptable at previous General Conferences.
This part of this plan would seem to go a bit further by suggesting that God Himself is not of one mind on the question, as it talks of the leading of God’s own revelation and grace as the very source of people coming to directly contrary positions.
And both the Social Principles and ¶105 are part of the Discipline that United Methodists outside of the USA must accept without modification (per ¶101). So there is nothing “local” about these particular changes.
This plan does provide for a sort of “local option” on the narrow question of WHERE same-sex unions can be performed. It would replace the current ban on all same-sex unions with a new policy of banning them on a congregation’s property unless and until that church’s membership votes to allow such ceremonies. So in other words, it would dramatically liberalize our current standards by officially allowing same-sex unions to be performed in any UMC congregation in which a bare majority of members present at a particular meeting wanted this, and also allow United Methodist pastors to perform all the same-sex weddings they want in other locations. Contrary to the aforementioned bishop’s rhetoric, the change to ¶341.6 makes clear that such dramatic change in a congregations are not to be made by “consensus,” but rather by a mere simple-majority vote of members present at a Church Conference.
And despite this somewhat local option on WHERE same-sex unions can occur, this plan removes all restrictions on WHO among UMC clergy may perform them.
This plan’s simple removal of the ban on same-sex wedding ceremonies from ¶341.6 and ¶2702.1, combined with the plans proposed language asserting a broad right of clergy to perform same-sex unions, means that every UMC annual conference, at least in anywhere in the United States, MUST allow any and all of its clergy to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies. And if an overwhelmingly traditionalist annual conference did not want to have United Methodist same-sex weddings performed by its clergy, then too bad. This plan would effectively dictate to ALL annual conferences, at least in the USA, that they are now forced to accept United Methodist same-sex weddings, and that they can no longer stop what they believe to be fundamentally a biblically unfaithful, pastorally harmful practice, within their own context.
And while congregations who disapprove of same-sex unions could forbid their pastors from performing same-sex unions on church property, this plan would not do much to forbid their pastors from performing them elsewhere and then publicly bragging about it. The staff-parish relations committee could inform the bishop that they absolutely do not want to keep or be sent such a pastor. And bishops may (or may not) choose to grant such congregations’ wishes, but nothing in the plan would require bishops to do so.
The proposed new ¶340.3c includes some vague language about a particular pastor being re-assigned over “unresolved disagreements over same-sex marriage.” This language may have some implications for a traditionalist congregation getting a same-sex-marrying pastor moved away even if s/he wanted to stay, but this is not clear. The framing and wording of this petition suggests that the concern is limited to the individual “good conscience” of the pastor, so that if s/he kept performing same-sex unions over his congregants’ tearful objections but did not want to move, this pastor may not have to move.
In any case, nothing in this plan would allow any congregation to have a policy of refusing any pastors who are publicly known to perform same-sex weddings, no matter how contrary this may be to the congregation’s deepest values and how damaging being known to have such a pastor would be to its contextual witness and mission.
There is also a basic math problem. It has long been noted that in the USA, clergy are often more theologically liberal than the laypeople, and that there are many more liberal clergy than there are liberal congregations to go around. If this plan passes, it is likely that in many annual conferences, there will be more pastors performing same-sex unions than congregations who approve. With our guaranteed appointment system, this would necessitate that bishops appoint some clergy who perform same-sex unions to congregations who disapprove of them.
So when it comes to WHO among our clergy could perform same-sex unions, this plan is only a “local option” if we define the “local” nature as not indicating any particular region or place, and not involving any group discernment among a community of people, but rather as being so “local” that the discretion for this option extends no further than the person of each individual minister. Quite a triumph for autonomous individualism!
Bizarrely, other than the pastors’ own individual consciences, the only truly firm limitation this plan allows on United Methodist clergy being able perform such ceremonies is based solely on whether or not the pastor happens to be in a location “where civil law permits a pastor to perform same-sex marriage services.” On a practical level, this phrase would apply to pastors in the entirety of the United States as well as several other nations in which the UMC has a presence (South Africa and much of Western Europe). On a spiritual level, this plan would effectively force our denomination to effectively let secular politicians outside of the church in some ways determine the church’s internal morality and theology on the key matter of marriage.
MYTH: This plan would establish a “local option” of letting each annual conference decide whether or not it wanted to accept “self-avowed practicing homosexual” clergy.
FACT: Not really.
First of all, this plan would remove current restrictions against “self-avowed practicing homosexual” clergy. So then by default, every annual conference would automatically no longer have a policy forbidding clergy or clergy candidates from violating biblical teachings against homosexual practice.
If United Methodists anywhere really wanted to keep our current traditionalist ordination standards even in their local context, then the burden would be entirely on traditionalists in each region to do the hard work of writing up a policy and pushing for an emotionally charged vote, all to get their annual conference to simply keep the policy it already has now.
More liberal United Methodists would face no such burden. A liberal annual conference could have an official policy of officially welcoming homosexually active candidates, but there would be little need. The current restrictions would already be lifted, making liberalized ordination standards the default and continued traditionalist standards the exception.
And as for traditionalist congregations in more liberal annual conferences, they would have no right to refuse the bishop appointing over them an openly homosexually partnered clergy. It is true that such congregations could express a strong preference to not have such a pastor. It is also true that many bishops and district superintendents across the spectrum often make a point of appointing traditionalist clergy to strongly traditionalist congregations and liberal clergy to very liberal congregations, so as to minimize conflicts and headaches for everyone. But this is not true across the board. There are countless stories of bishops heavy-handedly insisting on imposing liberal pastors on more evangelical/traditionalist congregations, often causing lasting damage.
Furthermore, it is simply inaccurate to say that this plan would allow “an annual conference” to set its own standards related to homosexually active clergy. The only provision this plan has for a vote of an entire annual conference is where its proposed changes to ¶304.3 raises the possibility of an annual conference voting on such clergy standards, IF the bishop chooses to seek the entire conference’s position. But many bishops are unlikely to seek such input. And in any case, this provision is explicitly clear that even if an annual conference does strongly adopt a resolution calling for continuing our current traditionalist clergy standards, such a resolution could only have the status of “non-binding advice.”
This plan’s proposed new ¶605.10 does authorize the clergy session of an annual conference to adopt a policy to continue restricting the ordination, licensing, or appointment of self-avowed practicing homosexual clergy. But the clergy session could apparently only adopt such a policy if it was first recommended by the board of ordained ministry. This process would entirely exclude laypeople (aside from the few serving on the board of ordained ministry) from having any real authority in determining whether or not their conference maintains traditionalist standards on ordination.
And while transferring determinations of ordination standards from the General Conference to the annual conference level, this plan would maintain present language denying licensed local pastors and associate clergy members of annual conference the right to vote on “matters of ordination, character, and conference relations of clergy” (¶¶ 316.6, 321.1). In many annual conferences, these clergy pastor a very large portion of the congregations. But in the new system this plan would impose, these pastors would be excluded from these important decisions brought to their annual conferences.
Proponent of this plan have stressed the value of letting people decide what they judge best in their own eyes for their respective local contexts. But then why systematically exclude most laypeople and a huge portion of the pastors in many areas (two groups who are often more traditionalist, overall, than ordained deacons and elders) from being allowed to fully participate in such local decision-making, as this plan does?
The small United Church of Christ (UCC) has long had a well-deserved reputation as the most theologically liberal of all U.S. mainline Protestant denominations. But in terms of denying local congregations any right to refuse partnered gay pastors or pastors who perform same-sex unions, this plan from the liberal faction of the UMC Council of Bishops would actually make the United Methodist Church more liberal than the UCC!
This proposed new ¶605.10 of this plan would ultimately give an incredible amount of power to each bishop in influencing the outcome of such decisions. Remember, members of the board of ordained ministry are basically appointed by the bishop every four years. So this plan would effectively empower liberal bishops in more theologically mixed annual conference to potentially “stack the deck” by ensuring that their boards of ordained ministry are dominated by individuals who want to ordain “self-avowed practicing homosexuals,” and who would therefore block any restrictive policies. Furthermore, if an individual bishop does not like the results of how the clergy session votes on a homosexuality-related ordination policy in one year, this part of this plan explicitly gives the bishop unilateral power to either hasten or delay when new votes on the same question can be allowed.
And even if traditionalists in an annual conference were able to jump through all of the hoops to adopt a policy similar to the policy we already have in current ¶304.3 forbidding homosexually active clergy, it seems unlikely that even this could effectively prevent its clergy from being openly homosexually active.
This plan would remove any clear standard from the Discipline against clergy being homosexually active. So if an annual conference maintained traditional standards for screening ordination candidates, but then a minister in that conference who was already ordained “came out” as homosexually active, it is not clear what could be done to bring accountability. Clergy can only face formal complaints if they commit something specifically listed as a chargeable offense for clergy from ¶2702.1. But this plan would remove “being a self-avowed practicing homosexual” from the list of chargeable offenses for clergy. So at that point, any accountability for such a minister would seem highly unlikely, or even perhaps legally impossible.
Furthermore, there are already numerous cases of “cross-conference appointments.” So under this plan, even if an annual conference has a policy that simply states “self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be ordained into this conference,” this alone would not prevent the bishop from appointing homosexually active clergy members of more liberal annual conferences to at least temporarily serves as pastors and other roles within this traditionalist conference.