As United Methodists prepare for our historic 2019 special General Conference, theologically orthodox delegates are coalescing behind the Modified Traditional Plan (MTP), endorsed by an international group of several former members of the Commission On a Way Forward (COWF) who had first supported an earlier version of the Traditional Plan.
Meanwhile, this plan has been denounced with a lot of angry and extreme rhetoric by liberal activists. This plan is “the Spanish Inquisition,” declared one outspoken supporter of the alternative “One Church Plan.” And one liberal caucus baselessly characterized the Modified Traditional Plan (MTP) as “evicting of all who disagree.”
So what’s the truth?
Since the MTP represents an update of the earlier Traditional Plan, and makes the plan compliant with concerns identified by the Judicial Council and others, the whole plan is currently found across three places. First, if you look in the Advanced Daily Christian Advocate (ADCA), you can read the original seventeen Traditional Plan petitions on pages 182-195. Second, you can look on ADCA pages 211-218 to read the two petitions submitted by Maxie Dunnam submitted on behalf of renewal leaders to substitute Traditional Plan Petitions #2, 3, 4, and 10. Third, you can click here to read the final amendments being proposed by the Renewal and Reform Coalition (of which UM Action is part) and former COWF members. (You can also click here to read the Rev. Lambrecht’s explanation of the final amendments.)
- Screening for new clergy.
- Accountability for clergy.
- Accountability for bishops.
- Accountability for annual conferences.
- Gracious exits for congregations
This remains a helpful framework, even though some details have now shifted.
- Screening for new clergy.
Any church needs standards for those set apart for leadership and for serving as public examples of Christian living. Those granted clergy status serve as ambassadors for the denomination and are authorized to serve as trusted, delicate care-givers for vulnerable people. A minister (like a surgeon) who does not have sufficient qualifications and training can do great, lasting harm.
In some liberal regions of the USA, however, official United Methodist groups charged with clergy candidates have publicly declared that they will refuse to uphold certain standards of our governing Discipline related to sexual morality.
If they wanted to change anything in the Discipline, there is a process for how they can try to convince enough other United Methodists to make a change. But in the meantime, the UMC Discipline is, in the words of its Episcopal Greetings, “the most current statement of how United Methodists agree to live their lives together.”
Why spend all this time, energy, and money on General Conference, if we allow those charged with upholding it to unilaterally ignore whatever they want?
Traditional Plan Petitions #5 (as amended), 6 (as amended), 7 (as amended), 8 (as amended), 9 (as amended), and 12 (without amendment) are necessary responses to the present situation.
Serving on a leadership team like a district committee on ministry or conference board of ordained ministry, like ordination itself, is a privilege, not a right. These petitions would simply require that from now on, anyone selected to serve in these roles must first agree to actually do the job entrusted to them, of not directly disobeying the Discipline’s standards on sexual morality or anything else. There are likely plenty of other qualified people happy to take their place, if need be.
In what other sphere of life can you expect to get and keep the privilege of serving in a certain honored position, taking the “slot” from someone else, if you refuse to actually do the job you are assigned?
These petitions would also give bishops a right and responsibility to intervene when these groups blatantly violate the Discipline standards they are entrusted with upholding.
Significantly, these petitions do NOT require anyone in these roles to personally agree, in their beliefs, with the Discipline’s standards on sexuality or anything else. They simply expect that their actions while serving in these positions will not directly violate the standards they are entrusted with following.
What’s so radical about that?
- Accountability for clergy.
There has been particular misunderstanding about this part. But after careful review, the Judicial Council UPHELD all petitions in this category as constitutional (with really just one partial exception noted below).
Recently, one outspoken promoter of liberalizing our standards has been emailing delegates suggesting that this part of the MTP would harmfully burden annual conferences with frivolous complaints. But that cannot be justified by actually looking at the petitions.
The challenge we face is that some liberal U.S. bishops have recently acted in rather heavy-handed ways to prevent certain parts of the Discipline from applying in their regions. They are essentially declaring, “I am the Bishop, I decree that within my annual conference(s) we are no longer going to respect all of the standards of the United Methodist Church to which we are subject. Instead, the only church law that applies here will be those sub-sections of the Discipline that I say apply here, and they only apply to people who I say they apply to.”
So a core question before us delegates is whether we want our church to enable an effective dictatorship of bishops, or if we think it better to restore some democratic checks and balances.
Traditional Plan Petition #13 (without amendment) would prevent how some bishops have been abusing their power by simply dismissing complaints, even in cases of clear guilt, for the sake of shielding certain effectively favored individuals from accountability. Bishops receiving truly frivolous complaints, when there is no clear evidence to support the accusations or when whatever the person did was not actually in violation of church law, could still dismiss the complaint.
Our Discipline also includes provision for “just resolutions” where complaints can be resolved in ways that could bring restoration without escalating further. But similarly to complaint dismissals, we have seen recent abuses of this process by some liberal U.S. bishops to effectively nullify parts of church law with which they personally disagree.
Traditional Plan Petition #15 (without amendment) would require that negotiations for “just resolutions” must actually involve the person who filed the complaint. This corrects how we have seen bishops arrange just resolutions while rudely ignoring and cutting out the complaint filer. Such “just resolutions” did not address the concerns of the offended party, making the situation worse.
Contrary to some misinformation, this petition would not give complaint filers “veto power” over any just resolution if they were being unreasonable. Instead, it would require that just resolutions operate within a sensible middle ground that avoids the extremes of completely refusing to even consult with complaint filers on the one hand, and giving complaint filers unchecked, unilateral authority to insist on unreasonable demands on the other hand. Significantly, this same essential petition was endorsed at the 2016 General Conference by BOTH the traditionalist Renewal and Reform Coalition AND the liberal Love Your Neighbor Coalition (see the top of page 2 for the latter).
Traditional Plan #14 (as amended) would require that in any just resolution, the person accused would have to agree that, whatever they think of what may or may not have happened in the past, from now on they will follow the particular standard of the Discipline they were accused of violating. (If this is not a standard to which this person was technically subject, or if the accusation is clearly factually baseless, then the complaint could instead just be dismissed as having no basis in fact or church law.) This petition was amended in response to how in its fall decision, the Judicial Council ruled that requiring pledges of future good conduct were permissible, but at this stage of the process, such a provision could not hinge on whether or not the accused minister admitted past guilt.
If a minister violated the ban on performing same-sex union ceremonies, then was confronted with clear evidence, then stubbornly refused all offers of just resolutions, then chose to make the annual conference spend all the trouble and money of having a church trial, and then were found guilty, Traditional Plan Petition #11 would require a minimum penalty. This petition would still allow for mercy by not requiring defrocking for a first offense (even though this had previously been the widespread expectation of the consequences for ministers violating this standard). But it would require serious enough penalties of temporary suspension to serve as a powerful deterrent against others following this example of covenant-breaking.
The alternative to having deterrent penalties is having more violations of our covenant, more complaints, ultimately more trials, and more anger and division all around.
And if a church trial very blatantly refused to uphold our biblical standards, Traditional Plan Petition #16 (which the Judicial Council did not find unconstitutional) would allow such abuses to be appealed, in extreme and carefully limited circumstances.
If a church trial was not really conducted according to the Discipline’s minimum standards, then it was not actually a United Methodist church trial. In secular law, there is a parallel of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that a murder suspect, in a mob-related case, face a second trial, due to the extreme circumstances of how the bribery of a judge made clear that the defendant was never truly “in jeopardy” (i.e., at serious risk of facing punitive consequences) in the first trial, so this was not double jeopardy. Even in the hopefully very rare circumstances in which this provision may be used, those seeking accountability would have no right to appeal factual findings of a trial court, everyone would still have a right to a trial and due process.
Finally, Traditional Plan Petition #1 (without amendment) would basically codify into the Discipline how a recent Judicial Council interpreted the church law banning “self-avowed practicing homosexual” clergy. This helps make it a lot simpler to enforce this standard, without asking accused clergy direct, awkward questions about their “genital contact,” as previous church law had actually required.
- Accountability for bishops.
In supporting recent proposals for episcopal accountability, ninety percent of delegates at the 2016 General Conference, and then over 80 percent of annual conference members, already voted to basically say we want to have a system of greater accountability for our bishops, and we want it to be administered on a global rather than regional basis. That is about as strong a consensus as you can get!
In its ruling last fall, however, the Judicial Council ruled that there were constitutional problems with placing such global accountability particularly within just the Council of Bishops, which would seem to undermine this new system most of us wanted.
So the Dunnam Petition on the Global Episcopacy Committee (as amended) sets up a new, representative body to handle accountability for bishops on a global scale, outside of the Council of Bishops, while ensuring fairness and due process for all.
Furthermore, Section 7 of the Dunnam Petition on the Implementation Process for the Modified Traditional Plan would directly address the problem of how some bishops have made clear their unwillingness to uphold United Methodism’s official moral standards for clergy behavior.
For the majority of bishops, this should hardly be a problem. Only if a bishop chose to make clear that he or she refuses to uphold the Discipline, including but not limited to its sexuality standards for clergy behavior, would they face some consequences.
These bishops would hardly be victims. In line with other church law, they would still continue to receive their large salaries, which by one measure puts them among the top tenth of the one percent richest people in the world.
But the church would stop paying for their other expenses. Why should we continue taking money out of church offering plates, in a time of increasingly limited denominational funds, to support travel, office, and building expenses for people who have made it explicitly clear that they would use such support to undermine the United Methodist standards we entrust our bishops with upholding?
- Accountability for annual conferences.
The MTP addresses how some entire annual conferences are now openly defying our Discipline’s sexuality standards. It would require every UMC annual conference to take a one-time vote on whether or not they still want to be fully part of the United Methodist Church, which would of course include operating according to our communally-decided standards.
It is very important to understand that annual conference members would not be voting on whether or not they personally agree with any particular part of the Discipline. Rather, they will simply be asked if they are willing to be team players in our denomination and not seek, as an entire conference, to blatantly violate what our denomination expects of all of us, not just on sexuality.
The vast majority of clergy who want to see our Discipline change on, say, same-sex unions, are not actively violating this standard as long as it remains on the books.
So in most cases, it should be relatively easy to vote “YES” on this one-time question, and then never have to take another such vote again at the annual conference level.
Only if an annual conference takes the deliberate, unforced step of choosing to publicly, collectively refuse to respect the United Methodist way would that conference face the consequences of being cut off from our denomination’s finances and prohibited from using the UMC’s official name and logo. When time comes to voting, I would only expect a few annual conferences to take such a dramatic step, knowing the consequences.
Among other things, these consequences need to be understood as serving as much-needed protection for vital United Methodist congregations 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.
Why should we give a “blank check” for anyone to harmfully, publicly link the reputation of the rest of our denomination with their promoting doctrines and practices directly contrary to those of the United Methodist Church, and force limited-income United Methodists in the pews to pay for it?
As for the ban on receiving money from such annual conferences, this helps avoid situations of unhealthy, compromising dependencies. Otherwise, there could be situations of disobedient conferences using money as a hostage-holding weapon in attempts of coercing the rest of us into accepting bad behavior.
Such sanctions would hopefully be temporary transitions which could in some cases involve restoration. In other cases, it would result in “new forms of unity,” in which an annual conference no longer interested in listening to the rest of United Methodism was set free to pursue ministry as it wished. They would receive the gracious blessing of a one-time financial grant from the UMC (in what other denomination have we seen such generosity?), and have plenty of opportunities for continued cooperation with our denomination.
- Gracious exits for congregations
The MTP updates the original Traditional Plan’s provisions for individual congregations being allowed to leave our denomination to conform to the Judicial Council ruling.
I have seen no one defend the bizarre logic of how the Judicial Council applied Paragraph 41 of the UMC Constitution (which plainly deals only with congregations transferring from one annual conference to another within the United Methodist Church) to suddenly now govern congregations leaving our denomination, if the trigger-word “transfer” is used. But that is what we have at this point.
What remains of the MTP’s provisions for gracious exits for individual congregations now involves jumping through so many hoops that such provisions become unrealistic to actually use. So the Renewal and Reform Coalition joins United Methodists across the theological spectrum in calling for adopting another petition, separate from any plan, to have some clear, fair, gracious way to allow a congregation to leave our denomination with its property, for limited circumstances related to disagreements about our present sexuality debates.
Several such petitions have already been submitted. A most preferred version would be the “Ottjes petition” (which was already endorsed by its legislative committee in 2016 before being pulled from the calendar for the Way Forward process), with some key amendments, which are noted on page 9 of this document.
The MTP closes the main loopholes in the accountability system of our church law. But it imposes no fundamentally new standard beyond what the majority of our church has consistently agreed on for years.
Few would disagree with the basic, broad principle of having some standards for clergy behavior, while still making room for plenty of vigorous debate and disagreement in personal opinions. One possible response to that basic, necessary feature of any church is to encourage and increase the chaos, anarchy, and distraction of widespread disobedience, which is already costing our church so much and diverting so much of our energies away from vital ministry needs.
Or we can instead choose to rediscover our Wesleyan identity as an interdependent denominational community in which the whole of our community (not just one faction) and its collective decisions, while continually subject to reconsideration and discussion, are respected and honored.
The choice is now before us delegates.