The United Methodist Church’s Judicial Council recently reviewed the three main proposals submitted to the specially called February 2019 General Conference to identify any conflicts with the UMC Constitution. Both the final ruling by our denomination’s top court and much of what was said in the process of this judicial review provided much clarification about the decisions facing delegates to the 2019 conference.
To clear up some of the widespread misunderstandings of such matters, I previously wrote a summary of what United Methodists can take away from this judicial review process, and a more detailed examination of what this ruling means for the Traditional Plan.
Now it’s time to look at some key matters this process has clarified about the so-called “One Church” Plan.
Some language of some parts of the One Church Plan (OCP) was also ruled unconstitutional, although not as much as with the Traditional Plan.
Earlier, I wrote a series of articles in which I:
- Summarized main concerns about the OCP;
- Outlined how it is NOT really accurate to call the OCP a “local option” as it would go much further than a true local option in demanding more uniform submission to liberal values on sexuality;
- Pointed out key ways in which the OCP would disruptfully impact central conferences, despite claims that it “has no effect on Central Conferences outside the United States”;
- Detailed several ways in which the OCP would offer little grace or respect for the consciences of traditionalist United Methodists, despite assurances to the contrary; and
- Noted how despite all the rhetoric about “unity” being used to sell the OCP, it would lead us down the same path that has disastrously split apart other denominations, while also bringing a whole new level of divisive conflict to meetings of central conferences, annual conference clergy sessions, and eventually EVERY local congregation.
In the aftermath of this Judicial Council ruling, all of these basic concerns about the OCP remain, or have been made worse, and so are worth reviewing.
I have already noted how this would impose a new, unfunded mandate on the seven central conferences into which the UMC is organized outside of the USA. Only a central conference that fully accepted the moral changes of the OCP would have its burden minimized, while any central conference in which a significant number of members wanted to maintain traditionalist standards would have an effective penalty imposed on them of having to spend all kinds of extra time, money, and energy to go through a process just to keep the standards they have already had in place. Some of the discussion around this recent judicial review suggested that in some cases, a central conference may have to have a costly special session in order to meet and adopt a new policy of simply keeping their current standards on sexuality.
If a central conference simply could not afford the major financial costs this would involve, would supporters of the OCP be more likely to say “We’ll provide money to help you re-adopt a traditionalist standard with which we disagree” or instead say “If you cannot afford to jump through the new hoops we’re requiring for keeping traditionalist standards, then I guess you’ll have to submit to our new liberalized marriage and ordination standards”?
The OCP would disenfranchise laity, bringing a new level of clericalism to our denomination. In both our current system and under the Traditional Plan, key decisions about sexual morality in ordination standards are made by General Conference, where clergy and laity are equally represented. But it is not quite accurate to say that the OCP would transfer such decisions “to the annual conferences.” At the annual conference level, these decisions would be limited to the clergy session and boards of ordained ministry, which only include a rather small portion of hand-picked laity.
Interestingly, in his reply brief submitted to the Judicial Council, the lead submitter of the OCP (whose views likely represent those of at least some others who developed the OCP) argued that the members of the full annual conference “lay and clergy alike” have a right to determine general policies related to ordination standards, provided that there are limits on laity voting on “applying those standards to particular individuals.” If the chief drafters and promoters of the OCP did not believe that they had to mostly exclude laypeople from these decisions, then why did they choose to do so? I have not seen an answer.
At the congregational level, lay members in the SPRC (staff-parish relations committees) and other leadership positions would have no right to refuse to accept a pastor who performed same-sex unions off-site or who was personally in a same-sex relationship. I have written earlier about how the OCP would trample on the consciences of traditionalist United Methodists, despite assurances to the contrary. By striking down a provision in the OCP for a pastor to be moved from a congregation with whom s/he had “unresolved disagreements over same-sex marriage,” the Judicial Council has removed one of the OCP’s few notable protections for the consciences of traditionalists.
If the OCP’s leading promoters were truly committed to protecting the consciences of traditionalist believers as a long-term core value, then I would have expected to see some now offer proposals for how to preserve the values of the stricken provision (within the limits set by this ruling), or at least express some disappointment at this part of the ruling. But I have not seen any of that.
Instead, what I observed immediately before this ruling was language defending the OCP in part by describing this present period of time as an “awkward” period of transition into the new direction in which the OCP would lead us, and that traditionalist United Methodists should be tolerated during this period. This of course raises questions about how begrudging such toleration would be and how long it would last. After the ruling, at least one prominent pro-OCP caucus leader dismissively describe this invalidated conscience protection as not that important to the overall plan.
Again, the conscience protections for traditionalist United Methodists were already woefully inadequate. And now are the OCP’s key supporters already quickly abandoning some of those inadequate protections, before even implementing their plan?
Even apart from the Judicial Council’s final ruling on relevant legal questions, this review process illuminated some key points about the OCP’s relation to core, historic United Methodist theology and doctrine.
¶104 of the 2016 Book of Discipline lists among our denomination’s Doctrinal Standards John Wesley’s “Standard Sermons” as well as his Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament. In Discipline ¶103 further stresses the importance of these two documents for our theology. It recalls how they “contained the standard exposition of Methodist teaching,” “provide a model and measure for adequate preaching in the Wesleyan tradition,” and were understood by American Methodists from the beginning to constitute part of “their basic doctrine and discipline.” ¶103 notes that the Methodist Articles of Religion alone “did not guarantee adequate Methodist preaching” as “they lacked several Wesleyan emphases,” and so Wesley’s Standard Sermons and New Testament Notes have been important “as the traditional standards exposition of distinctive Methodist teaching.” ¶103 also records how in the 1968 Plan of Union for our denomination, “Wesley’s Sermons and Notes were understood specifically to be included in our present existing and established standards of doctrine.”
And yet numerous “friend of the court” legal briefs submitted to the Judicial Council (you can read mine here) outlined various parts of Wesley’s Sermons and Notes that the OCP, with its affirmations of homosexual behavior and redefining Christian marriage, would very directly and explicitly contradict. Interestingly, in all of the back-and-forth debates between two rounds of written briefs and then oral arguments, not one of the OCP’s defenders disputed the fact that this plan would indeed directly contradict the teachings of these key, defining standards of what it means to be theologically Wesleyan.
Even if our understanding of our doctrine and theology were limited to the Methodist Articles of Religion and the EUB Confession of Faith, as some OCP defenders sought to do in this process, this would not really take our present controversies off of the table. As a longtime United Methodist with a degree from Harvard Divinity School, I’m familiar with the various main arguments used to advance church endorsement of homosexual practice, as I am with how educated, informed people in liberal seminaries nowadays do not pretend that the Bible expresses no categorical disapproval of homosexual practice. The latter is not much of an issue if you do not have a particularly high view of Scriptural authority. But no revisionist arguments can be reconciled with how the EUB Confession of Faith declares that “the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments” is “the true rule and guide for faith and practice” (Article IV), and how Methodist Articles of Religion specifically affirm the authority of each book of the Old Testament (Article V) while also affirming that the Old Testament laws are divided into ceremonial, civil, and moral laws, and that “no Christian whatsoever is free from obedience of the commandments which are called moral” (Article VI). And I greatly appreciate the intellectual honesty of the many more theologically liberal United Methodists who over the years have readily admitted that our disagreements on sexual morality stem from disagreements about much more fundamental questions, including how we view Scripture, and whether or not there are “buckets” of Scripture that never reflected the heart of God.
I have more recently seen some claims from liberal caucuses and a prominent retired bishop that their “Reconciling” views on sexual morality involve no contradiction of the Methodist Articles of Religion or the EUB Confession of Faith. But I have not seen such brief assertions accompanied by any actual argument for how the contradictions could be avoided. I can obviously understand why United Methodists in the “Reconciling” movement may wish that they could honestly claim that their theology was strictly within the boundaries of the Methodist Articles and EUB Confession. But simply wishing or claiming that this was true does not make it true, any more than my claiming, “The sky is not blue!” would have any effect on reality.
Now loyalty to John Wesley is obviously not the same as loyalty to Jesus Christ. Given how people change denominations over time, I expect that at various points some individual United Methodists friends will join Lutheran, Presbyterian, or other denominations, and shift their theology on secondary issues along with their change in affiliation, while remaining beloved sisters and brothers in Christ.
But before we as an entire denomination take as dramatic a step as what the OCP is asking us to take, shouldn’t it at least give us pause when we consider how this would divorce the UMC from our own foundational, historic Wesleyan Methodist doctrine and theology?
As the Judicial Council has said, the choice is now in the hands of the 2019 General Conference.