A Layperson’s Primer (part two): The Choice

These posts are written especially for laypersons and those coming late to the conversation currently stirring within the UMC. Part one focuses on the heart of our current debate: connection. Is it the institutional values and structure that connect us, or is it our theological task? With that question in mind, this post reviews the four plans considered.

Three years ago, the United Methodist General Conference met in Portland, Oregon for its regularly scheduled quadrennial meeting. At that conference, our Bishops called into being a Commission on a Way Forward (COWF) to corporately study and debate our official position on human sexuality. Last summer, the COWF completed its work and made recommendations to the Council of Bishops and General Conference for how a deeply divided denomination might move forward. After a good bit of political wrangling and an internal judicial review, versions of three plans will be deliberated February 23-26 at a special session of General Conference.

A couple of things to note:

  • There are actually four plans being promoted by various groups and concerns within the UMC. Keep reading.
  • A provision for a gracious exit is currently attached to only one “official” plan, and that provision is so narrowly defined as to be unhelpful to those who want to move on after the vote.
  • Consequently, other petitions have been submitted asking the Conference to consider some kind of workable provision for a gracious exit for those who cannot abide whatever decision is made at General Conference.
  • Three of the four plans have been reviewed by the United Methodist Judicial Council (the fourth plan was not reviewed because it was not part of the Commission’s recommendation), which means we can hope a vote taken at General Conference will not be overturned.

As mentioned, three plans were recommended by the Commission on a Way Forward. A fourth plan, The Simple Plan, has also been submitted as a petition to be considered. Here’s a snapshot of each plan:

The One Church Plan removes language in the Book of Discipline around issues of human sexuality, leaving it to churches to determine their own guidelines on issues like membership, marriage of same-sex couples, or ordination of LGBTQIA+ persons. There is no exit ramp attached to this plan.

The Connectional Conference Plan divides United Methodists into three main “camps” — traditionalist, centrist and progressive. These three camps would share affiliated services while being otherwise autonomous though governed by one Council of Bishops. There is no exit ramp attached to this plan.

The Traditionalist Plan (now modified after action by the Judicial Council) maintains language in the Book of Discipline around issues of human sexuality, calls for greater accountability, and provides a gracious (but narrowly defined) exit for those who cannot in good conscience abide by that language.

The Simple Plan — not crafted by the COWF but petitioned by United Methodists for the Simple Plan — removes all language from the Book of Discipline pertaining to human sexuality and gender, clearing the way for same-sex marriage ceremonies, the ordination of LGBTQIA+ persons, and their inclusion at every level in the life of the church.

Filter these four plans through the question posed in the opening paragraph of this post: What connects us — institutional values and structure, or our theological task? Both the One Church and Connectional Conference Plans focus more on institutional preservation at the expense of theological clarity. They call for United Methodists to set aside personal values for the sake of institutional unity, making our shared structure the foundation of our connection.

Ironically, the plans on either end of the spectrum have much in common in terms of what they represent. Both the Traditional and Simple Plans are crafted around the idea that what matters to a United Methodist is what we believe. Both plans emphasize a particular (though opposing) biblical interpretation. Both provide theological clarity on the other side of a vote. While I disagree with the theology around the Simple Plan, I have to respect the integrity of those who are committed to a clear theological position.

So I ask again: What connects us — institutional values and structure, or our theological task? I am convinced that it is our theological task that binds us together. Methodism’s great contribution to the world is our brand of systematic theology — our approach to grace, the spiritual disciplines, our classical interpretation of scripture, our gathering of souls into sanctifying communities (promoting the process of sanctification all the way through to being made perfect in love in this life), our insistence on personal and social holiness. This is our distinctive. This is what makes all the rest of it worth it.

What’s more, I believe theological clarity around this historical expression of faith can breed revival. This is not hopeful emotionalism. Look around the world. In those places where clarity of conviction has been demanded of those who follow Jesus, Christianity is growing. We praise God for the explosive growth of Methodism in Africa, for example. Meanwhile, in those places where moral relativism and pluralism are the prevailing culture, Christianity withers.

I am praying that at the end of the day, our General Conference body will hear that global resonance and choose a resounding and renewed commitment to our theological task. Those who cannot abide this task as it stands should be free to find or establish another tribe, so we can get back to the work of welcoming and advancing the Kingdom of God.

The world is waiting for a clear and fair account of the gospel, my friends. Let’s give the world nothing less.

(Part three of this series of blogs deals with the grace that needs to be attached to whatever decision is made at GC2019.)

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A Layperson’s Primer for 2019 General Conference (part one): The Connection

If you are a United Methodist coming late to our current conversation, you may not be aware of how our structure fits together. Here is a brief UMC primer on how we are connected, from your local United Methodist church to this month’s gathering in St. Louis.

The local church is the heart and soul of Methodism and the basic unit of our structure. We are not a “congregational” tradition like, for instance, the Southern Baptist Convention. We are connected to each other and our decisions impact one another.

Every United Methodist church is part of a district. Districts gather three or four times a year and are presided over by District Superintendents, who function as an extension of the Bishop’s office.

Every district is part of an Annual Conference, a term representing both a geographical area and an annual gathering. An Annual Conference gathering is made up of equal parts laity and clergy who vote on matters important to their connection. Both the gathering and the geographical area are presided over by a Bishop.

Every Annual Conference belongs to a jurisdiction. A jurisdiction is a larger geographical area that encompasses a number of annual conferences. Jurisdictional conferences meet every four years. The most important thing jurisdictional conferences do is elect bishops. There are also what is known as Central Conferences, areas beyond the U.S., including Africa, Europe and the Philippines (don’t ask me about South America; it’s complicated).

The Central and Jurisdictional Conferences, along with a host of boards and agencies, together make up the General Conference. Every four years, delegates from every conference area come together to discuss the structure, doctrine and missional focus of the UMC. The General Conference is presided over by a Council of Bishops but decisions are made by the body itself, not by the bishops. Our last regular General Conference was held in 2016. Our next regular conference will be in 2020. The one held this year is a “special session of the General Conference.” This has only happened one other time since the UMC formed in 1968.

Ours is a global connection. Remember that we’ve said that the local church is the basic unit of our structure. “Connection” ends up being an important term for how all our churches and conferences relate. Being connectional means that none of us who lead in the UMC can up and make decisions in a vacuum. We belong to a global family held together by a covenantal structure. As with families, denominations (and churches, and businesses, and pretty much anything else that involves people) have huge disagreements and personality conflicts. And like families, no one really understands yours except the ones who are in it. Our connection is deep and personal.

What makes a family is that connection. It is that intangible you can’t quite define but when it is there, you know it. The United Methodist Church was designed to be like that. When we talk about the places where we disagree and what is on the table at this year’s General Conference, that question of connection is beneath all the other questions.

Are we connected? If we are not, then everyone is free to have their own opinion and go their own way. If we are not connected, at least one of the plans (ironically called “The One Church Plan”) makes sense. It fits a congregational structure. But if we are connected then whether we end up agreeing or not, we are required to live respectfully with one another inside a set of expectations. If we can’t do so, then the right step is to step out.

That question of connection and accountability is at the heart of the current crisis within the UMC.  The most volatile issue to be discussed (and has been for forty years) is human sexuality and its connection to marriage and ordination. We have reached an impasse but more than an impasse, actually. Those who disagree with our current statements on human sexuality have already chosen to ignore our Book of Discipline. Others have long since set aside orthodox tenets like the exclusive nature of Jesus as the Messiah and the global nature of the gospel. These are not secrets. People speak openly about their disagreement with big chunks of our core theology. That certainly calls into question the integrity of continuing on as if we are connected theologically when in fact, we are not.

In order to maintain our connection, we must restate our covenant. After decades of discussion, the issues that divide us must be finally, peacefully decided so we can move on. The disruption to ministry and souls demands a decision this time around.

Are we connected … or not? In other words, are we accountable to one another or not? The answer to that question determines how we define the local church, the global church and what exactly makes us Methodist.

Part two focuses on the four plans being considered at GC2019.

Part three focuses on the grace that needs to be part of whatever decision is made.

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