The “None-Church Plan” of the UMC

I was invited this past weekend to a meeting that alleged that it was a gathering of theologically diverse opinions on the practice of homosexuality in relation to The United Methodist Church. We made declarations that the press would not be invited and that our discussions would be kept private. I even turned down an interview by the United Methodist News Service though someone had evidently already ratted me out as holding a certain opinion. It should have been little surprise that yesterday I saw a news article that had a multitude of folks from the same meeting sharing their opinions, all of which were different than mine.

I find it very disingenuous when it feels like progressives have invited a few token traditionalists to their meeting. I was not going to fall into the trap of being provoked to speak up in opposition. That would have only led to more demonization of the traditional perspective and victimization of those on the left whom I genuinely count as persons of sacred worth and many as friends. Those who really know me are certain of my integrity and love for the UMC. The final straw came out yesterday evening when I was informed that some people who went from the meeting in Nashville to the Uniting Methodists meeting in Dallas reported that the Nashville meeting was unanimous in its support of the One Church Plan. Since then I have been informed that report was erroneous. Actually it was basically stated that there was consensus of support except for 5 people. I have heard all sorts of reports, either true or apocryphal, of overwhelming support for the One Church Plan, but let me tell you from first-hand experience, it is not the case everywhere, and it was not in Nashville.

Unanimity couldn’t be further from the truth. Bear in mind that the Nashville meeting was decidedly a progressive group. Someone volunteered that the leaders attempted to have more traditional voices present, but they refused to come. I don’t know that for sure, but what I am certain of is that when we as a group were asked to vote by secret ballot only 10 persons said they were 100% all-in for the One Church Plan (OCP); 26 voted that they would support it, “but it’s not perfect;” 15 voted “Yes, with reservations;” 3 said “Yes, only if changes are made;” and 2, including me, voted “I’m not in favor.” A progressive bishop presented his pitch for the OCP and said that there were problems with it, the Connectional Conference Plan, and the Traditionalist Plan, but when pressed by questions about what he liked about each, he could not name anything he liked about any plan except the OCP. He couldn’t name anything wrong with it either.

What does this narrative say about so-called unanimity and the hard-press sell by members of the Council of Bishops? First, there was no unanimity. There were people on the left and the right who oppose the OCP because it is either seen as a further slap in the face to progressives who want more extensive full inclusion of gays and their allies, or it was a slap in traditionalist’s faces because it is ruinous to our ecclesiology and Biblical hermeneutic. Only 10 people out of 55 were “all-in.”

So we have bishops who are disregarding the promises made in the Council to stay out of the fray of support or non-support. It seems that the only bishops holding to their promises are the conservative ones. The bishop who spoke to us also gave some telling numbers of the vote on the plans at the Council of Bishops (COB). He stated that 58% of the COB wanted to support just one plan, not three. When that was decided he said 60% voted for the One Church Plan. I thank God for the 40% especially since I thought via news media or word of mouth that the number of progressives was much higher. Then he reported that after the OCP was made the main plan, 90% of the COB wanted the OCP plus the other two plans presented. The obvious conclusion is that there is not unanimity in the COB.

I do worry, however, whether or not whomever decides the presiding bishops for the Special Session of General Conference can find someone genuinely unbiased enough to adequately preside. I hate to think such a thought, but given the propaganda machine out of the COB for the One Church Plan, it makes me wonder. The bishop that presented to us in Nashville even suggested strategies to get the One Church Plan passed. I am grateful that the Judicial Council basically forced the COB to refer the whole matter back to the Commission on a Way Forward instead of it coming straight from the COB. There is no way, by Judicial Council precedent, that the COB could refer anything straight to the General Conference without violating the “separation of powers” that exists in our ecclesiology.

The subject of ecclesiology and the One Church Plan weigh heavily on my opposition to it. We are a connectional polity. That’s our means of governance. Local churches don’t call their preachers because we are a “sent ministry.” So stay awake when progressives want to say that yielding on the issue of homosexual practice won’t hurt us because it didn’t hurt the Presbyterians, Lutherans, UCC, Disciples of Christ, Episcopalians, and Cooperative Baptists, etc. Well, we do things differently than all of those. Every one of them in some fashion or another call their own pastor. That’s not who we are. If the One Church Plan passes then we will run down the road toward congregationalism where every church decides who they want for their clergy. Who will lose? My daughter, who is a UM Elder, for one. Churches that still want the proverbial white male in their 30’s with 3 children with an impossible 30 years of experience are often unwilling to have a female pastor or person of color even if they are much more qualified. Congregationalism will destroy our unique “sent ministry.” By the way, the Episcopalians, ELCA Lutherans, PCUSA Presbyterians, and all the rest who have loosened their stance on homosexuality have lost an average 30% of their membership in just a few years. So much for Making Disciples of Jesus Christ. If this issue affects these “call” and “modified call” systems this way, the ramifications for us will be worse. It will be a sea-change for our connectional system.

So the One Church Plan sends us down an awful precipice where everyone decides their own prerogative on same sex behaviors and marriage and would necessitate local church votes, annual conference votes, and individual clergy decisions on whether they can perform same-sex unions, allow their churches to do the same, and if bishops can’t in good conscience ordain, commission, or license someone who is self-avowed and practicing then another bishop who is willing to do it must be brought in. This all smacks of confusion and not connectionalism. For all you Judicial Council readers like me, look at Judicial Decision 544 which says this as it pertains to same sex unions and behaviors in relation to our ecclesiology, clergy standards and appointments:

“Although the paragraph under consideration relates to homosexuality, the question presently before the Judicial Council is not restricted to that particular issue. The matter before this body is one of the connectional system within The United Methodist Church and the relationship of the ministry to both the General and Annual Conferences. The Constitution, Par. 15, gives the General Conference the power to fix the basic requirements for ministry, while it becomes the responsibility of the Annual Conference, as set forth in Par. 36, to measure, evaluate, and vote upon candidates, as regards the minimum standards enacted by the General Conference. Ordination in The United Methodist Church is not local, nor provincial, but worldwide. While each Annual Conference is a door through which one may enter the ministry of the entire church, the Annual Conference cannot reduce nor avoid stipulations established by the General Conference which must be met by the church’s ministry everywhere. An Annual Conference might set specific qualifications for its ministerial members, but does not have the authority to legislate in contradiction to a General Conference mandate or requirement.”

Every African and whomever else has been falsely promised that this One Church Plan won’t affect them needs to know that it does! “Ordination, etc. is worldwide,” and our minimum standards are global. The One Church Plan has a huge constitutional hurdle when it promotes annual conferences as the arbiter of minimum clergy standards. The General Conference cannot delegate its power to a lesser body. We are not a diocesan polity where each area does its own thing. Pargraph 543.7 2016 Book of Discipline says that the BOD can be adapted, but only “as the special conditions and the mission of the church in the area require, especially concerning the organization and administration…” So, the OCP’s so-called promise of local adaptation simply doesn’t ring true. Do you want to be part of a denomination where Christian faithfulness, money, resources, and reputation are linked to that which God, the overwhelming majority of Christendom and the General Conference have declared incompatible with Christian teaching?

Our connectional polity brands how we’re different from other denominations, and why we need more uniformity in our minimum credentialing standards. How in the world will bishops and cabinets decide which clergy fit with which church if the standards are all over the place? The One Church Plan is the most deceitful title of any plan I know. Instead of unity of the church, it fragments it even more. Rather than promoting unity, it reduces The United Methodist Church to a shell of what we’re meant to be in making disciples as a connectional enterprise.

Certainly, there are many things incompatible with Christian teaching, and I often feel the dishonesty and pain of singling out just one thing. I am sorry for my sisters and brothers who have experienced harm over this issue. However, I have been harmed, too. The whole denomination has been harmed by the religious terrorists that have co-opted sessions of General Conference, the Connectional Table, and lots of other church venues with their protests. We have been sidetracked, distracted, and harmed as a denomination. One leader this past weekend offered a telling statement, “Everyone’s truth is the truth.” No, it isn’t. Jesus said, “I am the way, the TRUTH, and the life.” The bishop presenting the OCP this weekend said the Traditional Plan is “un-Biblical” even though it represents orthodox Christian teaching from the church’s inception.

God did have something to say about marriage, as evidenced in the complementarity of Genesis 1 and Romans 1. God wants us male and female in relationship because that partnership best defines the Biblical plan for human interaction. Jesus said in Matthew 19:5-6 and Mark 10:7-9, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.  So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” The same words are repeated in Genesis 2:24! The issue, therefore, of homosexual practice is a bell-weather issue about the authority of Scripture, the nature of humankind, the doctrine of sin, and much more. If everyone’s truth is the truth then why did Jesus need to die on a cross? On women’s leadership in the church and on questions of race there is clear evidence in Scripture that supports women’s ordination and the fact that God calls people of every nation and race, plus there are passages to the contrary. But, in the case of homosexual practice, the Bible consistently denies its validity in every instance. As Wesleyans we believe in Sanctifying Grace; i.e., that God doesn’t save us through Jesus Christ to leave us the way God found us, but to transform us for the transformation of the world.

So, I’m not giving up on the UMC, but we need to be ready for 2019’s Special Session of General Conference. Traditional delegates from the US, Africa, Europe, and the Philippines must not compromise and pass the so-called One Church Plan. Enough is enough! The “progressive” tactic isn’t new. This will be my 7th General Conference. I’ve seen this all before. For instance, the 32 constitutional amendments of 2008 were an attempt to separate us into theologically diverse regions and those amendments overwhelmingly failed. The Connectional Table’s Local Option Plan didn’t even make it out of committee in 2016. By a mere 23 vote margin the Commission on a Way Forward was created and it has been dominated by bishops under a cloud of secrecy.

The One Church Plan preferred by progressives and 60% of the COB is not a way forward. It will do more harm than good. With thanks to the faithful members of the Commission and the 40% of the bishops who value our ecclesiology and the Gospel over expediency and yielding to culture, I have to still say without any equivocation: “Vote the One Church Plan down!” It is really the “None Church Plan.”

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Prayers for The UMC Judicial Council

The United Methodist Church’s version of the Supreme Court, otherwise known as the Judicial Council, will be ruling in October about Karen Oliveto’s consecration as a UM bishop, and they’ll be adjudicating whether an annual conference’s clergy session and Board of Ordained Ministry can properly have before them persons who have self-avowed behaviors that are in violation of the United Methodist Book of Discipline. It is basically a question of whether an annual conference’s prerogatives outweigh General Conference’s actions.

The first major Judicial Decision which established that General Conference is preeminent in legislation and supersedes annual conferences’ administrative function, was made back in 1972. In reference to the establishment of the General Council on Ministries, the Judicial Council  stated in Decision 364, “The General Conference may not delegate legislative functions and responsibilities which are assigned to it by the Constitution.” This specifically helps us pray for the Judicial Council because at issue is who outranks whom in our checks and balances system. The bottom line is exactly what the Book of Discipline says in Par. 509.1,2: Only the General Conference has the authority to speak for the church.

Judicial Decision 1321 that was rendered at GC2016 also covers this in great detail and cites previous decisions of church law (All Judicial Council Decisions can be researched online at http://www.umc.org/who-we-are/judicial-council). Decision 1321 reinforces that the General Conference certainly has full legislative authority over all things “distinctively connectional” (Par. 16), including matters of defining minimum clergy credentialing requirements (Cf. Judicial Decision 536). There are plenty of Judicial Decisions that make the recent actions of certain annual conferences null and void, even the election of Karen Oliveto. My interpretation of the aforementioned decisions is that it is impossible in our connectional polity for an annual, central, or jurisdictional conference to contravene the General Conference.

It really doesn’t matter if an annual conference says persons are in “good standing” if they have already self-avowed that they are in opposition to The Book of Discipline. The declaration of the General Conference is the last word, and the “right to trial” guaranteed to each UM clergyperson is moot when someone precludes the need of a trial by their own volition. Judicial Decision 980 is very specific if an annual conference’s Committee on Investigation refuses to certify a bill of charges and ignores stated facts that ipso facto would convict a person. The Decision reaches two very pertinent conclusions: “Should members of the Committee on Investigation be unwilling to uphold the Discipline for reasons of conscience, such members must step aside…” and  “persons who state that they cannot in good conscience uphold the Discipline are ineligible to serve on a trial jury.”

As a historical aside, after the 1956 GC had approved full clergy rights for women a specific case arose about some who refused to enforce the GC’s action. This Decision is a great help in understanding our denominational jurisprudence and the rights of whole entities in the church to ignore General Conference decisions. The Judicial Council rendered Decision 155 in 1958 which stated clearly that everyone had to abide by the same Book of Discipline. This was a wonderful decision in many ways, and in this case in setting a legal precedence (Par. 2611 BOD) of Book of Discipline over all other documents and entities. It alone speaks for the UMC.

Similarly, Judicial Decision 886 offers clear guidance in our current milieu. In its opening “Digest of Case,” the decision says, “The Discipline is the law of the Church which regulates every phase of the life and work of the Church. As such, annual conferences may not legally negate, ignore, or violate provisions of the Discipline with which they disagree, even when the disagreements are based upon conscientious objections to those provisions.” It seems obvious that connectionalism is based upon mutual covenant keeping, or the whole house falls.

The United Methodist position on the practice of homosexuality extends both grace and definite boundaries. It is a complex issue. Not only is the authority of Scripture involved, but also our ecclesiology. My sincere hope is that our denomination can work through this. My plea is for us to honor the Study Commission and pray for them as they do their work on “A Way Forward” on this issue.

In the meantime, all of us need to keep covenant, whether pro or con in changing the language of the Discipline about the practice of homosexuality. We pray and hold fast in the interim. I remind all UM clergy that Judicial Decision 986 says that any pastor that deliberately encourages withholding apportionments is liable for a charge of disobedience. BOD Pars. 340.2(c)(2)e, 639.4 and 247.14, last sentence, are very instructive. Let’s remain calm and let the judicial process work.

This is about the rule of canon law and covenant keeping in a connectional church. These are tenuous times for us. We can either obey the General Conference or fracture into something we’re not. I wouldn’t want to be anything else than a United Methodist. Every person who has been ordained promised to keep our rules and stated that he or she agreed with them. I made that promise, and I’m still keeping it by the grace of God.

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The United Methodist Sandwich

Someone asked me the other day where I’ve been, as in blogging. General Conference left me and our denomination in a kind of fog. There were high moments of grace when the Arapahoe and Cheyenne forgave us for the Sand Creek Massacre that was led by a Methodist Lay Preacher. The depth of heartfelt grace in the convention center was palpable. I felt a lot less grace when a thousand points of order, derisive accusations, and stalling tactics derailed any hope of recapturing Methodism as a movement.

Sure, we made some good, even great, decisions. A new hymnal was approved and that’s such a wonderful thing. We are much better at singing our faith than articulating it. In other good news, we gained 1.2 million new members, raised $75 million dollars to help eradicate preventable diseases like malaria, and we celebrated milestones like the 60th anniversary of full Clergywomen’s rights, the 30th year of Disciple Bible Study, and the 25th year of Africa University.

There was so much more for which to be grateful, but where are we really as United Methodists? The aftermath of General Conference has left me speechless for the most part with intermittent bouts of verbalized frustration. I’m somewhat at the point of thinking of us as a sandwich. There are two slices of bread on either side of the middle, and though the bread is extremely important, what’s in the middle is what’s most important. It makes it a sandwich. Perhaps if we focus on the middle we can find reasons to celebrate and move forward. I honestly think the middle is where most of us are.

The middle is a scary place and it’s usually not a very satisfactory place to be. The June 6, 2013 edition of The Atlantic has a helpful article by Larry Alex Taunton. It’s about college students who were formerly Christians, but now count themselves as atheists. The author observed these commonalities: they had attended church; the mission and message of their churches was vague; they felt their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions, they expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously; ages 14-17 were decisive; the decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one; and, finally, social media factored heavily into their conversion to atheism.

Since the theme of GC2016 was “Therefore Go,” implying a focus on making disciples of Jesus, then we need to listen to these young adult atheists. All of Taunton’s observations strike me as especially pertinent to United Methodism. Several even more so: “the mission and message of their churches was vague,” and “their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions.” Did we come out of GC2016 with vagueness? Will the creation of a special Commission add to our lack of clarity, or will it actually help answer life’s difficult question about the practice of homosexuality?

Interesting, isn’t it? On one hand there’s a sense that we became vaguer even though the Discipline’s language on homosexuality did not change, and, on the other hand, the Commission is going to try to tackle one of the most difficult questions of our time. All the while, I want young adults and every one of every age to come to know Christ. On that, we must not be vague. In a paraphrase of systems-thinker, Ed Friedman, “Clarity equals maturity,” but, self-differentiation is difficult in a one-size-fits-all denomination that values equanimity and consistency. So our struggle is about what can we be clear about, and what can we leave ambiguous.

We can agree that Jesus is Lord, even while we hold to very different meanings of the atonement. Connectionalism is a core value, but worship styles may vary. We certainly agree that together we can do more than if we’re apart. Our seemingly insurmountable impasse is said to be about homosexuality, but I think it’s also about covenant. We are in the thick of a battle between competing covenants, and some of us claim that our understanding of covenant is more sacred than another’s. But are there different levels of covenant? Perhaps, and that’s the source of much of our conflict.

To illustrate, our W-2’s, voter registration cards, military oaths, federal loan agreements, and driver’s licenses represent civil covenants with the government, and all of these implore people to act responsibly. Our ordination documents and the Book of Discipline are at a different covenantal level, very much like marriage. When we were ordained we knew what was expected and required. Marriage vows are very clear, too, “in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish.” Certainly, there have been people who just went through the motions of a wedding without due consideration of the gravity of these statements, but that’s no excuse for violating, ignoring, or devaluing the holy covenants we’ve made.

That word “holy” may make all the difference. Some covenants are actually holy, while others only rise to the level of a “deal” or a “transaction;” i.e., like the ones that I enumerated about citizenship, though Memorial Day makes me feel the weight of holiness as I ponder how much is owed by so many to so few.  Nevertheless, systems theory and doing a transactional analysis of GC2016 may actually help the UMC. The Council of Bishops’ Commission gets to rethink what is or isn’t a vow. Hopefully, they will study the theological impact of “covenant” on both homosexuality and our ecclesiology, our very identity as a church.

Someone came by my office this morning and made me ponder our denominational situation with two statements. The first was, “Help me to choose the harder right than the easier wrong.” Secondly she stated wisely, “Help me to bring gentleness to the hard places.” We’re so afraid of the hard places, but being between a rock and a hard place is the meat of the sandwich that we call United Methodism. I pray that I can choose rightly and bring gentleness to the hard places.

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GC 2016 and Peacemaking

Maybe you’ve heard the story of the guy who fell overboard into the water. Another guy tried to rescue him, only to grab different arms, legs, whatever and finding each time that a prosthetic appendage came loose. The man in the water kept yelling, “Save me!” In frustration, the would-be rescuer said, “I would, if you would only stick together!” I wonder if that’s an analogy for the United Methodist Church and what God is trying to say to us. It is one of the big questions as we go into General Conference 2016. Will we split? Will we opt for a solution that gives local options on hot-button issues, or will we stick together?

Our connectional identity as a denomination promotes unity over schism. In my mind, that’s the identity of the whole church: one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Ephesians 4:5). Bishop and friend, Tom Bickerton, recently wrote a book that he has shared with General Conference delegates and the whole church, What Are We Fighting For? Its subtitle says a lot: “Coming Together Around What Matters Most.” He uses stories and anecdotes in a winsome way that promotes a win-win outcome for the UMC.

Tom and I might arrive at different positions. I honestly don’t know. One thing I do know is that his question is a good one: what are we fighting for? To some his question is about much more than a peripheral issue. It connects to bedrock non-negotiable tenets of the faith. To others, human sexuality debates are about the nature of God and God’s love for all humankind, and that’s also non-negotiable. These positions beg the question: Can we stick together?

Many people have already given up hope for a peaceful resolution for our church. They’re coming to Portland “loaded for bear.” Many want to collaborate and find ways to move forward as a church. Others are holding fast to their positions because they feel certain that some issues are already decided in God’s mind and theirs, and don’t even want to be civil toward those who differ. Many want to disrupt and hold the conference hostage. I think most of us want the Holy Spirit to envelope the convention center and light the fire of revival that will move us past this extremely personal and heart-wrenching issue.

I am reminded of the late Dr. Scott Peck whose book The Road Less Traveled begins with the line, “Life is difficult.” He was right about that, especially concerning our denominational struggles. His best book, however, is titled, A Different Drum: Community Making and Peace. He says that the first stage in achieving real community is “pseudo-community” where everyone gathers together and glad-hands each other in superficial ways at Christmas, family reunions, or General Conference. There is an air of “How’ve you been?” or “Wow, it’s so good to see you.” He says that this huggy stage can last a short time or forever. I think that the UMC is way past a shallow pseudo-community unless we don’t know which side another person is on. If we don’t know, we sort of “fake it” and smile and steer clear of any conflict. Pseudo-community is the story of much of Christendom’s intra-familial and interpersonal squabbles.

The second stage can last a short or long time, too. Peck appropriately calls it “chaos.” Some groups, denominations, and families stay in chaos. How long has the UMC been in the chaos stage? It’s been a long time, at least since 1972. How much longer can we stand it? There are folks, however, who feel this is one of those subjects that is worth the chaos, no matter how long it takes. To follow Scott Peck’s advice, we must let chaos run its complete painful course or we’ll never appreciate or arrive at the next place on the journey to true community.

The third stage is called “emptiness.” It can also last forever or not. It is a place where persons still have their differing opinions, but they are able to survive the tension because they care more about the other person(s) than they care about the presenting problem or themselves. Many are at that point in the UMC. It is a place of valuing, not demeaning, a place where “sacred worth” is a reality. It is rare to see such “emptiness” around human sexuality debates. Our words sometimes slide over the “sacred worth” language of The Discipline and we accent the “incompatible” part of the sentence. Both sides need to tread carefully and allow a holy emptiness to settle upon us. But we need to move on. Staying in emptiness seems laudable, but it can also be a depression-filled place of inertia.

Of course, the last stage is “community.” Scott Peck doesn’t describe it as a homogenous place where everyone thinks alike. Instead it is a place and space where there are distinctions or diversity of opinion, but there is also a unity. Unity is hard to define because it is seldom seen. We talk about it. We promote it. I’m oft to say, “I believe in the unity of the church,” but what does that really mean or entail. What is that going to look like or make me do? My personal biggest fear is that some who assume they have arrived at “community” have actually slipped back into “pseudo-community.” If there’s no honest dialogue and valuing then it’s a sham which by definition is pseudo.

So, what do you think? We can choose to move up and down, and back again on these stages of community. We can stay in places along the way too long or not long enough. Is there hope to reach emptiness, or are we stuck in chaos? I daresay most of us would prefer to go back to the superficial stage of pseudo-community than accept what’s happening now. But, maybe we can count all this contention and process as a holy gift. We have a real chance to have a significant movement of the Holy Spirit in Portland if we actually try to move through these stages.

You can’t legislate “community.” It has to be experienced. I long for the day when we reach it, and pray we’ll stay there for a real long time!

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