As the recommendations from the Commission on a Way Forward headed to the Council of Bishops, many in the United Methodist church waited, cautiously optimistic, about the results. The questions of which of the three plans would be presented were raised, and the tension mounted. The tension is no more really. The Council of Bishops has sent two plans back to the commission for refinement to be presented to them again. As many suspected, some of us outright said, and most quietly thought, the commission has chosen two paths toward inclusion. The language that they are using around these paths is interesting to be sure. Chris Ritter did an excellent job speaking to this. I will add my two cents to it in just a moment. If you are not familiar with the the plans that were sent to the Council of Bishops, there are a great many analysis of them, but this is the one I feel to be the most concise.
The UMC itself has reported on the two proposals that will be sent back for refinement to the commission on a way forward. It boils down to what kind of inclusion do you want to support. Do you want to support a congregational model of inclusion, or do you want to support a loose confederation that allows for inclusion. I want to briefly examine these two proposals and what the Council of Bishops has said about them. I maintain that anything that changes the church’s stance on homosexuality violates the Articles of Religion and other standards of faith. If you are interested in that rather long read, you can find it here.
First up, we have the One Church Model. The Council of Bishops had this to say about it. “The one-church model would give conferences, churches and pastors the flexibility to “uniquely reach their missional context in relation to human sexuality without changing the connectional nature of The United Methodist Church.” I like to cal this plan Judges 1. I want to start with the end of this statement. specifically the part that says “without changing the connectional nature of the United Methodist Church”. I will again refer to the UMC official site where the church describes herself. “It is at General Conference where delegates wrestle with today’s issues in light of scriptural teachings and the church’s understanding of that teaching. Here is where the church’s official stands and church policies are made regarding such issues as human sexuality, abortion, war and peace, as well as determination of ministries and funding.” (source) Either the Bishops are not familiar with the understanding that the Church has one voice, and that is the General Conference, or they are willfully leaving that out of the “connectional nature of the United Methodist Church”. The first option is a startling amount of ignorance that likely means they should not be a Bishop and the second is a willful attempt to misrepresent what the connection is, or as us plain speaking types like to call it, a lie. I suppose that there is a third option, that being that the Bishops have taken it upon themselves to redefine what the connection means absent any input from any one, and kept that change to themselves, but that might just be worse than the first two. They next speak about the missional context of the local church in relation to human sexuality. That’s a whole lot of words to say that the church has no idea what proper sexual ethics are. The Book of Discipline, unpopular as it is these days, has a lot to say about the mission of the UMC. For example, it has the rationale for the mission. ” ¶ 121. Rationale for Our Mission—The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world by proclaiming the good news of God’s grace and by exemplifying Jesus’ command to love God and neighbor, thus seeking the fulfillment of God’s reign and realm in the world. The fulfillment of God’s reign and realm in the world is the vision Scripture holds before us. The United Methodist Church affirms that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Savior of the world, and the Lord of all. As we make disciples, we respect persons of all religious faiths and we defend religious freedom for all persons. Jesus’ words in Matthew provide the Church with our mission: “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you” (28:19-20), and “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. . . . You must love your neighbor as you love yourself” (22:37, 39).” So to talk about the elephant in the room, namely “love”, I will direct you to a brief writing delving into the concept. An improper understanding of love in the two great commandments is a large part of how we got here in the first place, but I digress. Let’s look at the specific phrase that the church has put forward defining the mission however. “Jesus’ words in Matthew provide the Church with our mission: “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you” So tell me how the church, as a corporate body, is supposed to teach when she can’t decide what is true? Marriage is one man and one woman and sex between two of the same gender is inherently sinful in Georgia, but up in New Hampshire, it’s just fine? How is that teaching what Christ taught? When did Christ teach situational morality so that pastors could reach their unique missional context? Not only is the Judges 1 plan contrary to what is in the Book of Discipline about the mission of the church it makes the Great Commission impossible to carry out.
Second, we have what I lovingly (by lovingly I mean just the opposite, pardon my sarcasm) call the Judges 2 plan. “The multi-branch, one-church model would include shared doctrine and services and one Council of Bishops, while also creating different branches that have clearly defined values such as accountability, contextualization and justice. The five U.S. jurisdictions would be replaced by three connectional conferences, each covering the whole country, based on theology and perspective on LGBTQ ministry — progressive, contextual and traditional branches. Annual conferences would decide with which connectional conference to affiliate.” Now this plan might be the best option to preserve the institution of the UMC in some semblance of a familiar way. If that is your goal, then I would hazard a guess that this is likely the best way, and the most long lasting way. If your goal is faithfulness however, I don’t think that it can be. There are several reasons why this is true, but I am going to concentrate on one. “The multi-branch, one-church model would include shared doctrine” It can’t. Again, we have the Council of Bishops showing startling ignorance, them lying to us, or them deciding that sexual morality is not a part of the doctrine of the church. Just so we are on the same page, let’s grab a definition of doctrine: “a belief or set of beliefs held and taught by a church, political party, or other group.” Got to love the dictionary. There can’t be a shared doctrine if what is being taught is different. In those days people did as they pleased…
The Judges 1 and 2 plans are full of double speak and inconsistency. They, by their own descriptions, can not accomplish what they set out to without an amount of cognitive dissonance that should frighten anyone. For a faith that describes itself of being of both heart and mind, the mind part, that is rational thinking, has been left out as the plans are logically inconsistent with themselves and what the UMC has said about herself. It is because the plans are self contradictory that I don’t think either of them will work, no matter if they are passed, unless the UMC is just giving up on using reason in any meaningful capacity and starts redefining things like the great commission, eliminating sexual morality as being any sort of doctrine (church teaching), etc. These may be institutional fixes, but they are not faithful ones. The call from God still rings today. “Be holy because I the Lord your God is holy”. That goes for the church too, and these plans simply aren’t.