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.
Today’s article examines what this plan would do to the various “central conferences” in which the UMC is organized overseas.
MYTH: “The One Church Plan has no impact on conferences outside the U.S. … whose members” support the UMC’s present traditionalist standards on sexuality, as this plan’s narrative summary assures us.
FACT: This plan would indeed impact United Methodism’s central conferences outside of the USA in several rather significant ways.
First of all, as noted this plan would take away from every central conference the traditionalist statements related to homosexuality and marriage that they currently have in the Social Principles. And it would force them to accept as part of their governing Discipline new statements affirming that our present teaching is really not any more faithful than other approaches. Again, per ¶101, no United Methodist region outside of the USA is allowed to make regional adaptations to these parts of the Discipline.
Secondly, if United Methodists in overseas central conferences wanted to simply maintain our current traditionalist standards on marriage, the burden would be entirely on non-American traditionalists to go through the work of writing up motions, checking formatting, talking to people about it, and building support to pass a motion to limit the liberalizing changes within their context. The eighteen-month deadline this plan imposes may mean that in order to adopt such a policy (of simply keeping current policies), some central conferences would have to spend a major amount of their limited time, energy, and money to schedule an extra or extended session of their central conference.
This would also impose some of the most divisive and emotionally charged fighting seen at General Conference on those central conferences in which there is significant theological diversity on such questions.
Meanwhile, if a central conference’s members are overwhelmingly in favor of this plan’s proposed liberalizing provisions, then they would have to do nothing. As with U.S. annual conference ordination policies, this plan places a very disproportionate burden on those who want to at least keep traditionalist standards in their region.
It is also worth noting that this plan’s (woefully insufficient) extension of a little extra time for central conferences to react to these new policies may not even apply to all central conferences, but is explicitly limited to those “using a language other than English.” What would this mean for the traditionalist-leaning Philippines Central Conference, where English is widely spoken? What about other central conferences in which United Methodists have a variety of mother tongues but English serves as a common lingua franca in which they do business together across national lines? Should we just shut up and trust that there would be no risk of any problems with how the architects of this plan would decide such questions?
Thirdly, and most importantly, even if their central conference adopted a regional exception to this plan’s more permissive policies on homosexuality, many non-American United Methodists would no longer want to be connected to such a denomination. This would primarily be a matter of what they saw as their own faithfulness.
If we look ecumenically, we have also seen in recent years how African Anglicans have had the local reputations of their own ministries damaged as a result of the U.S. Episcopal Church adopting what was effectively a “local option” on homosexually active bishops and other clergy. We should expect similarly negative impacts on United Methodist ministries in Africa (as well as the Philippines, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East) if this plan was adopted.
Fourthly, it is clear that a significant number of traditionalist Americans will leave the UMC if this plan passes. This will very quickly impose a serious, long-term, and likely permanent blow to the amount of finances that would be available for funding ministries in the central conferences.
Fifthly, it is not at all clear that this plan would actually fulfill its promise of letting even our most traditionalist-leaning central conferences maintain traditionalist standards on sexuality.
For one thing, this plan explicitly says that United Methodist weddings must be allowed in any country whose secular laws define marriage to include same-sex relationships. Thus, if this plan passes, the default for at least four of our seven central conferences, including the Africa Central Conference (because of South Africa), would be to liberalize their definition of marriage, at least in some areas.
But even if a central conference is determined to maintain traditionalist standards by declaring that they are keeping the UMC’s traditional marriage and ordination policies in their context, rather than this plan’s new standards, it is not clear how long this could last.
Some of the most prominent liberal caucus leaders have been adamant in declaring their opposition to tolerating any “pockets of discrimination” in any part of the UMC. In response, key supporters of this plan have said such things as that this plan would be “a step in the right direction and it may be two or three steps,” and suggesting, implying, or directly admitting that after this plan passes, it would serve as a stepping stone for giving the most strident liberal activists even more of what they want in the future.
According to Judicial Council Decision #1272 and ¶101 of the Book of Discipline, all it takes is a simple-majority vote for General Conference to add new restrictions on which portions of the Discipline central conferences can adapt for their regional context.
It seems rather obvious that since adoption of this plan would be such a major, game-changing liberal “victory” that a great many traditionalists would leave, and many of those who remained would feel rather demoralized by such a “defeat” and become less engaged in denominational affairs, that future General Conferences would shift in a more liberal direction. How much longer would it take to see a simple majority of increasingly liberal delegates willing to impose same-sex unions and/or homosexually active clergy on central conferences, whether they like it or not?
In the narrative description by this plan’s own authors, they explicitly connect their push to ordain homosexually active clergy with the earlier shift to ordaining women (the latter of which I support, for the record). This is a revealing analogy. Today, while I recognize that female clergy sadly face a lot of hardships, the fact is that we officially have no “local option” or right for regional dissent on female clergy. If the architects of this plan believe that these two things are morally analogous, why would we expect them, in the long run, to accept less across-the-board support for homosexually active clergy in our denomination than for female clergy?
In fact, in Decision #155, the Judicial Council has already ruled that ordination standards are so important that once General Conference lifted the ordination restrictions on women, no central conference had any right to re-impose these restrictions. This decision was framed as, among other things, forbidding central conferences from enacting regional policies “in direct contradiction to that passed by the General Conference.” With that precedent, it is easy to see how a future Judicial Council (especially after a liberalized General Conference elects new members!) could similarly rule that no central conference has the right to re-impose ordination restrictions on “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” after General Conference lifted these restrictions.
Thus, every non-U.S. annual conference could, before too long, be forbidden from keeping traditionalist ordination policies, without General Conference even needing to adopt any next steps after this so-called “One Church Plan.”