UMC Next, has released a summary of their proposal to the next General Conference. The details of the plan have not been released, or at least I have not seen them, so I am commenting on what is written in the proposal and do not have any inside information or the like. Having read it, I find several things troubling. I encourage you to read the entire summary as I will address only a few parts in no particular order.
“In response to the passage of the Traditional Plan and the concern that
the United Methodist Church should not be defined by a plan that insists on uniformity of belief and practice in a divergent and contextualized global church, the UMCNext Proposal includes the following provisions:” Let’s think about this for a minute or two and examine what is being said. This is in direct response to the traditional plan, so it then is in direct response to questions of sexual ethics. I fully recognize that many have differing views on proper sexual ethics, and I have little desire to debate them here, the idea that sexual ethics are somehow contextual (depending on or relating to the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea.) has no basis in scripture. While we do, and will likely continue to, disagree on what constitutes sexual immorality, scripture does not indicate that it changes based upon context. Such an argument can allow for plural marriages, incest, and the like, at least theologically. Note here that I did not say “would”, simply that it can. It is not only sexual immorality that can be justified in this way however, it is nearly anything. So long as you can find a suitable context, what is sin can vary from place to place and situation to situation. Calling the faithful to holy living, both personally and corporately, is not a hindrance to the ministry of the church, it is a vital part of it, especially in the Wesleyan context which we all claim to live into. You can not do this effectively if you do not have an understanding of what that is, and what it looks like practically. Contextualizing sin is the hindrance, not the solution.
“Local Church Disaffiliation – allows local churches in annual conferences in jurisdictional and central conferences who vote with a two-thirds majority to enter a new life as a Wesleyan church. This opportunity is available until 2024. Those churches who form a viable denomination can partake of shared services such as Wespath, Archives and History, and UMCOR on a fee-for-service basis. This allowance applies to all local churches in the connection.” Right off the bat, the 2/3 threshold is unrealistic and untenable. If we were to reverse this and apply the 2/3 threshold to those churches who wanted to stay in the denomination, a great many would have a difficult time meeting it. I believe that a simple majority is the best way to determine exits. I am wary of the tyranny of the majority, but if we are going to have a gracious exit that forms new expressions, then the minority should not rightly dictate who can, and who can not, leave. Let’s be honest about this. Nothing ends pleasantly, otherwise it would not end. What we can do though is allow the majority members of a church to determine what happens. I think it is likely that there will be a fair amount of lateral growth in many churches as those who disagree with the majority opinion perambulate to a Wesleyan expression that better shares their understanding. That is of course only my opinion, but I think it a sound one. I am also concerned greatly by the idea that UMCOR, for example, becomes a fee for service model. Frankly I am not sure how that would work, but it sounds a mess.
“Create a Commission on the 21st Century Church to prepare a comprehensive proposal for a for new structure and governance plan that addresses historic inequities and injustice and includes clarification related to the adaptability of The Book of Discipline. Call a Special Session of the General Conference in 2022 that would serve as a Constitutional Convention. The purpose of this meeting is to ensure that The UMC takes the next faithful step to create a new structure of The UMC according to a renewed/resurrected mission, vision, and values.” Because another commission and another special called General Conference will fix everything…just like the first one did. I am also more than a little concerned that somehow this is the fault of the system that is in place. That is simply misplacing the blame. Our General Conference system may be bulky and unwieldy, but ultimately it functions, or does not function, because of us. A new polity and governance is not going to change the people in it. It also smacks a little bit of “we did not get our way, so we will make sure we do in the future”. That is me assigning motive, and that is dangerous of course. The calls to overhaul the system did not start in earnest until the vote went the “wrong way”. I also think that writing a new constitution and the like would require a 2/3 vote at the very least, and might not be able to be done without dissolving the church. The later was suggested to me by someone, but I have no idea. I know that an amendment takes 2/3 and so a new constitution should as well. This seems to me like it ends in the local option that keeps being defeated.
“Concordat or covenant agreements should be entered among all resulting
Methodist expressions.” In a different section of the summary the following is said: “An agreement of the future relationship, similar to a concordat (¶574) or covenant (¶573) that Wesleyan churches outside of the U.S. and other
churches, respectively, may enter, is offered and negotiated for approval at
the 2020 General Conference.” Sp the agreement that a new expression will have to agree to is negotiated without said new expression? Really? That is pretty harsh. Agree or else! Oddly enough, that is the exact complaint that UMC Next, and others, have about the Traditional Plan. Assuming that it is based upon the concordant or covenant churches as outlined in the current BoD, and constitution of the church that is apparently going to be rewritten shortly after this (the time frames here are bizzare…), I have very serious concerns. About a concordant church, our BoD says the following: “Such concordat agreement shall entitle the two churches to the following rights and privileges: a) A program of mutual visitation may be arranged by the Council of Bishops in cooperation with the equivalent leadership of the other concordat church. The Council of Bishops may
assign one or more of its members for episcopal visitation to concordat churches.
b) Clergy may be transferred between the two churches in accordance with ¶¶ 347.2b and 571.2.” About covenant churches, the following is said: “An Act of Covenanting will include recognition of our respective baptisms as different facets of the one baptism; recognition of one another as authentic expressions of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church of Jesus Christ; recognition of the
ordained ministries of the two churches; commitment to systematic participation in full eucharistic fellowship; and commitment to function in new ways of partnership, visitations, and programs. “ If the UMC Next folks, and those who think that our problems are simply over sexual ethics are correct, then the entire point of this break up is that traditionalists do not believe that self avowed and practicing homosexuals are qualified for ministry. (Horribly clunky language…) That is the whole point! (Not really, it is a symptom of much deeper differences, but I digress). To leave the denomination that you disagree with about ordination standards, among other things, you have to enter into an agreement that recognizes the very people as qualified for ordained ministry that the day before you said were not. That is a draconian cost, especially when combined with everything else. If a traditionalist stays they are a hypocrite and if they leave with their church, then they are a hypocrite and must in essence admit that they were wrong. There are Bishops and pastors that are not at all a part of the apostolic church of Jesus Christ. That is a part of the problem. In essence, it forces you to admit that you were wrong so that you can leave if you somehow manage to scrape up the 2/3 of a vote that few churches can. Talk about a kick in the teeth. This is not gracious. At the same time, a good many of those who will remain United Methodists do not believe that traditionalists are a part of the apostolic church of Jesus Christ.
At the end of this is still some form of forced connection that simply is not there. There may come a time when the sort of relationships this plan envisions happen, but they must happen organically and not be forced, and they must happen after there has been time to process and heal from the carnage we have made of this. Carey Nieuwhof writes about six signs that your church is becoming, or already is, a toxic environment.
- The politicians win
- What is said publicly is different than what happened privately
- Conflict is dealt with by talking about people and not dealing with people
- Church fights are normal
- There is an entrenched us against them mentality
- No one takes responsibility
This sounds a lot like us. Until it no longer sounds like us, we need to be separate and without ties to each other on a theological level. By all means we need to stop being toxic, but we need to do something different than the norm of near impossible expectations and requirements meant to demean. This plan does not accomplish that. It is more of the same processes that have gotten us here, and you end up where you plan to go. Perhaps the details will change my mind, and indeed I hope that they do, but as the summary goes, I can not in good conscience endorse this as a plan of separation.