As the United Methodist Church’s specially called 2019 General Conference approaches, there has been much attention given to the so-called “One Church Plan” pushed by a liberal faction who currently holds a modest majority of the Council of Bishops (COB).
I have analyzed that plan at length in a series of articles.
It is time to give some more serious attention to the other main option, the Traditional Plan.
I have observed some liberals denounce this plan in rather extreme terms. But even this dismissive rhetoric has been extremely brief and vague, with little evidence that such critics have taken much time to seriously study this plan’s actual provisions and context.
So what’s the truth?
I am admittedly not neutral. UMAction, like other renewal groups, supports the Traditional Plan, with some important amendments that I will address below.
But I hope that this can provide a helpful, informative summary of what would be done by this proposal.
In comparing the Traditional Plan to the so-called One Church and the Connectional Conference Plans (all of which are included as alternatives in the final “Way Forward” report), a few things particularly set the Traditional Plan apart:
- It is the only plan that fully maintains our denomination’s current policies and standards disapproving of homosexual practice, just like other forms of sex outside of marriage;
- It is the only plan that fully respects the consciences of traditionalist United Methodists;
- It is the only plan that offers a substantial olive branch of gracious treatment to congregations and others who strongly feel that they cannot, as a matter of conscience, remain in a denomination that adopts the rest of the plan.
I find it helpful to think of the Traditional Plan as having five basic parts:
- Screening for new clergy.
- Accountability for clergy.
- Accountability for bishops.
- Accountability for annual conferences.
- Gracious exits for congregations
At the outset, a few basic contextual matters need to be understood clearly. Our UMC’s governing Book of Discipline teaches that homosexual practice – as well as all other extra-marital sex – is inherently immoral, bans “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from being clergy, forbids our ministers from performing or our congregations from hosting same-sex wedding ceremonies, and forbids the use of official denominational funds from being used “to promote the acceptance of homosexuality.” These provisions have been on the books for years, repeatedly re-affirmed by General Conference.
But the crisis that provoked the specially called 2019 General Conference came from an increasingly public and strident movement of some (by no means all) liberal United Methodists openly defying these standards. When this disobedience has been challenged, the typical response of those violating these standards has been to hide behind relatively obscure technicalities of other portions of church law, for the sake of effectively preventing these policies from being followed in some cases, particularly of the Northern and Western United States.
This has resulted in deep mistrust, congregations losing members, and guilt-by-association harm to United Methodist ministries. It has also provoked some to start asking questions like “if liberals can disobey the parts of the Discipline related to morality, why can’t we disobey the parts saying that we have to pay apportionments?” It is widely agreed that these worsening tensions are unsustainable.
The Traditional Plan would directly address the technicalities and loopholes that have recently been exploited by the disobedience movement. The Traditional Plan would NOT create any fundamentally new moral or doctrinal standards. It would NOT “kick anyone out” solely on the basis of their belief. Rather, it would restore some integrity to our life together by ensuring that United Methodists would be bound together by a meaningful covenant. It would do this in five key ways.
First of all, it would improve the screening of candidates to become new clergy. It would basically close loopholes some dissident annual conferences have been using to defy the UMC’s longstanding ban on approving “self-avowed practicing homosexual” clergy candidates, require basic questions to be asked of all candidates, and make bishops intervene to prevent homosexually active from being ordained.
This simply prevents disobedience to the standards we have already have had in place for decades. It would have not much obvious impact on most annual conferences around the world. As for those annual conferences whose boards of ordained ministry (the main bodies charged with screening ordination candidates) have declared their open defiance of our standards, this would simply get them to do what they were supposed to have been doing all along.
Significantly, this plan does NOT force anyone to be kicked off of these boards with no choice. It does NOT even require members of these groups to agree with the UMC’s present standards on homosexuality. It does NOT exclude anyone from the privilege of such leadership roles solely on the basis of their beliefs about sexual morality. It would simply require that when the bishop assigns new members to these boards (which would normally begin in 2020), that they all be individuals who have pledged their willingness to uphold the standards and requirements of our Discipline, regardless of their personal views. This parallels the requirements we have already had in our Discipline for many years, requiring that members of a church jury be individuals willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads, and excluding prejudiced jurors who would be pre-committed to misusing their role to undermine the very standards they would be charged with upholding.
One of the petitions references “self-avowed homosexuals” as barred from ordained leadership. I have heard from a reliable source that the omission of the word “practicing” was an unintended error, and that drafters of this plan would like to see this petition amended to instead reference “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” I strongly support this crucial amendment. I never recall hearing any leader in any of the renewal caucuses ever saying that they would want to bar someone from ordination just for being attracted to members of the same sex, if such a candidate was committed to celibacy.
Secondly, the Traditional Plan would ensure accountability for clergy who violate our standards. Liberal bishops would no longer be able to abuse their authority, as several have done in recent years, to simply dismiss complaints or announce laughable “just resolutions” to prevent any real accountability for clergy who violate our sexuality standards (or other standards). Then if a minister has been found guilty of violating our ban on performing same-sex union ceremonies, s/he must face a minimum penalty of a one-year suspension for the first offense and automatic defrocking for a second offense. This would provide a far more effective deterrent against such pastorally harmful ceremonies than some of the more token penalties (such as “24-hour suspensions”) we have recently seen in liberal regions.
For years, there was a widespread expectation, continuing today in much of the denomination, that everything outlined above was how our accountability system would function. So this part of the Traditional Plan would largely amount to restoring what the majority of United Methodists have already understood the standards of our Discipline to mean, while maintaining due-process rights.
The ways in which some liberal U.S. bishops have prevented accountability have effectively amounted to a system in which a single individual in each annual conference (the bishop) alone has the dictatorial power to decide what the standards will and will not be within each bishop’s kingdom, regardless of Scripture, the Discipline, or the mood of the annual conference. The Traditional Plan would thus restore democratic governance, by ensuring that the standards passed by our representative General Conference actually mean something.
And if a church trial very blatantly refused to uphold our biblical standards, the Traditional Plan would allow such abuses to be appealed, in extreme and carefully limited circumstances.
Thirdly, the Traditional Plan would hold bishops accountable for enforcing these standards. Again, it would remove the key loopholes and technical ambiguities that some liberal bishops have recently used to claim that they have been upholding the letter of church law while obviously undermining its spirit. So after the Traditional Plan passed, if a bishop still used his authority to enable and protect violations of our sexuality standards, it would become simpler to hold such bishops accountable for “disobedience to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church.” Then the Traditional Plan would make it a bit easier for the global Council of Bishops to force any bishop into suspension or early retirement as a means of accountability.
While it is not widely understood, it is important to note that with the recent passage of a constitutional amendment on episcopal accountability, the Council of Bishops is already charged with establishing processes for holding individual bishops accountable on a global basis, and the Council already has the right to discipline a wayward bishop by subjecting them to suspension or early retirement, by a two-thirds vote of active bishops around the world. A key change in the Traditional Plan would be to lower the threshold needed for the bishops to punish one of their own from a two-thirds super-majority to a simple majority.
Many are dubious if the Council of Bishops can ever be trusted to hold each other accountable to our sexuality standards. It is also worth noting the systematic injustices of how the Council over-represents liberal American regions while under-representing more traditionalist regions. For example, there are now more United Methodists in central Africa (with a mere four bishops) than in the U.S. Western, North Central, and Northeastern Jurisdictions COMBINED (with a whopping 23 bishops).
As an alternative, the Rev. Dr. Maxie Dunnam, former president of Asbury Theological Seminary and honorary chairman of the Confessing Movement, has submitted a petition, as an amendment to the Traditional Plan, which would create a new global committee of non-bishops to oversee complaints against bishops for sexuality-morality matters. I strongly recommend this petition. If anyone is inclined to give our bishops one more chance, our bishops have five whole months to use the new power we have already given them to show us how serious they are about using and beginning processes to hold each other accountable. We will see by February what, if anything, they have to show for it.
Fourthly, the Traditional Plan would boldly confront the reality of how some entire annual conferences are now openly defying our sexuality standards. It would require every UMC annual conference to vote on whether or not it will comply with the Discipline’s bans on homosexually active clergy, same-sex weddings, and the use of annual conference funds “to promote the acceptance of homosexuality.” Those refusing to commit to these standards would be cut off from our denomination’s finances and prohibited from using the UMC’s official name and logo.
While this is a form of punishment, it also needs to be understood as a protection for vital United Methodist congregations, annual conferences, and ministries who are faithfully following our standards. Given the global “brand” of our denomination, any major actions of one region are widely perceived, within and beyond the UMC, as reflecting on all of us. For those with ears to hear, there is already so much harm and disruption of United Methodist ministries becoming negatively viewed, within and beyond their congregations, by the prominent public actions of United Methodist leaders elsewhere. Why should we give a “blank check” to people to publicly associate the reputation of the rest of our denomination with their promoting doctrines and practices directly contrary to those of the United Methodist Church? Why should we force faithful but financially struggling congregations to divert money from their offering plates to subsidize leaders in other regions who use those apportionment dollars to defy UMC standards? As for the ban on receiving money from such annual conferences, this prevents them from making the rest of the denomination financially dependent on them, as otherwise there could easily be situations of disobedient conferences using money as a hostage-holding weapon in attempts of coercing the rest of us into accepting bad behavior.
But such sanctions are temporary measures. Conferences that officially committed to living as something other than United Methodist would be encouraged (but NOT actually required) to take advantage of provisions in the Traditional Plan allowing them to become “self-governing Methodist churches.” If an annual conference went this route, it would still have a wide range of opportunities for continued cooperation and financial partnerships. I would expect such continued connections to be encouraged from elements on both sides. Any conference departing under these terms would be required to allow any of their congregations who wished to leave the conference and remain United Methodist.
Dunnam has another petition, which UMAction and other renewal groups support, modifying the Traditional Plan by tweaking a few details of this section. It would tighten accountability for bishops in enforcing our standards. But perhaps most significantly, this second Dunnam petition would do something tried by no other mainline denomination facing such internal conflicts. If an annual conference overwhelmingly decided that it was a theological minority unable to continue living in good conscience under the authority of our denomination, then this petition would offer the conference a one-time grant of $200,000 to help it get established as it transitioned out of the UMC. If people feel the need to part anyway, this would offer a gracious way of treating people as we ourselves would want to be treated if the shoe was on the other foot. Where else have we seen such graciousness in mainline denominational conflicts?
Fifthly, this plan would allow “gracious exits” for congregations. It would allow any group of at least 50 congregations to leave the UMC to form a self-governing Methodist church, and allow any congregation to leave the UMC later to join a self-governing Methodist church created by others. The latter could apply to a liberal congregation which felt isolated within an overwhelmingly conservative region. In such cases, departing congregations would be allowed to keep their properties, thus again sparing the UMC from recent spectacles of congregations trying to leave various denominations over sexuality controversies and then having denominational officials sue them for their property.
There has been some misunderstanding that this would open the floodgates to letting any congregation leave the UMC for any reason. But if you read the petition carefully, you will see that this is simply NOT true.
Apart from an annual conference leaving, the Traditional Plan would allow an individual congregation to leave the UMC only if it (1) can find a self-governing Methodist church to join (so that it would not just become denominationally independent), and (2) declares that it is “in irreconcilable conflict for reasons of conscience with the doctrine or moral teachings and requirements of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church on the issues of human sexuality, or with the way such requirements are being enforced, or with the resolution of those matters adopted by the 2019 General Conference.”
So this would NOT authorize any congregation to leave the UMC and become non-denominational or Baptist. Any departing congregations would have to remain in connection with a critical mass of other Methodist congregations. And it would NOT authorize congregations to leave over other, unrelated issues, such as disliking the personality of their bishop or feeling that apportionments are too darn high. Rather, these provisions offer only three (perhaps overlapping) permissible reasons for congregations to leave the UMC, all directly related to disagreements with denominational leaders over human sexuality.
The first of these permitted reasons for leaving sets a rather minimum standard for graciously treating others as we would want to be treated. While some proposals vary in details, this basic idea, of letting a congregation leave if it cannot live with our official standards on sexuality, has been gaining support. At the 2016 General Conference, the relevant General Conference legislative committee already PASSED a petition to allow congregations to leave the UMC and keep their property if they declare that they are “in irreconcilable conflict for reasons of conscience with the provisions of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church on the practice of homosexuality and the blessing of homosexual unions.” This would have likely been added into our Discipline by now if the “Way Forward” proposal had not tabled this and other “sexuality-related” petitions. Meanwhile, United Methodists across the theological spectrum are coming to support such “gracious exits” for congregations who will feel unable to live with the decisions of the 2019 General Conference, as you can read about here.
The other two reasons for letting congregations leave for their property are broader than some would like and narrower than others would like.
But here is my basic perspective on these other two reasons: The remaining parts of the Traditional Plan, as revised, are so valuable and so urgently needed, that it is absolutely NOT worth sinking the whole over a few such parts. This particular part may or may not be amended out before anything is brought to a final vote, but either way, I intend to vote for the Traditional Plan, as revised. And if the Traditional Plan, as revised is adopted in a way that includes these relatively broader (but still limited) reasons for allowing congregations to leave (other than disagreement with the UMC’s official standards), then I would hope that only a small number of congregations would want to leave for the other reasons, and I would want to do what I could with the influence I have to encourage congregations to STAY in the UMC with me rather than leaving for these other reasons.
I hope that this is helpful in separating the misinformation from the truth of this restrained, reasonable plan. I invite United Methodists across our connection to join me in supporting the Traditional Plan, as revised.