The UMC “Traditional” Plan is a Fantasy

When the United Methodist Church’s Commission on a Way Forward and Council of Bishops presented their initial proposals for the upcoming called session of the Church’s General Conference in February, the “Traditional” Plan was not slated to actually go to discussion and vote before the Conference.

Through political maneuvering through the Judicial Council of the Church (the UMC’s version of a supreme court) by certain conservative leaders within the UMC, judgment was rendered that the Traditional Plan must be presented before the GC if a petition for it to be included is made. From the perspectives of jurisprudence and polity within the UMC, that is absolutely the right call. But it ignores the reason that the Commission on a Way Forward and the Bishops did not include it as potential legislation in their report–it isn’t a way forward.

To a certain extent, I understand the conservatives’ frustration with the Commission and the Bishops: the delay claimed for the need to translate the report before making it public–and the delay in even getting that process started–seems to indicate unhelpful politicking on all sides of the issue. Uncollaborative work only hurts the Church as a whole without benefitting either side at this point.

On the other hand, I vehemently disagree with the conservative complaint that the Commission and Bishops didn’t really provide a way forward, they just gave us the same plan that’s been offered and failed many times before. The conclusion of the Commission after deliberation and prayerful investigation is itself a message–the way forward must be one of compromise, and the fact that conservative elements within the Church have remained implacable in their position does not mean that they should get their way. The “same old thing” is the “same old thing” because nothing else has changed–the conservatives’ best offering for a “way forward” is that we do everything the way we’ve always done it, we just spend more time (and congregants’ money) prosecuting those clergy who disobey the Book of Discipline on moral grounds.

The cynical side of me sees the greater strategy here: conservatives have decided that they have two ways to win: (1) get the Traditional Plan passed at the called General Conference or (2) insure that nothing else gets passed. The fight to get the Traditional Plan included at General Conference is really an effort to avoid honestly coming to the table with progressives at all, not really a matter of what is fair and just. As a lawyer, I’m well familiar with the difference between legal and just.

Conservatives understand that, if nothing happens at the called GC, many progressives will give up on the UMC and leave–which is what the conservatives have wanted all along. See Woodlands UMC senior pastor Rob Renfroe’s book, Are We Really Better Together? An Evangelical Perspective on the Division in the UMC, for a clear example of this. If it is the progressives that leave, the case for conservatives to keep the United Methodist Church name–and perhaps the greater part of collective Church assets–will be stronger.

I’ll also note that, in my observation (for what that’s worth), it has been the conservatives who have been most concerned with ensuring in advance that “graceful exit” language is included in any proposed legislation before the GC. I do not believe that this is about the conservatives’ fear that they will have to sacrifice assets and property if things don’t go their way, it’s about trying to make it easier for the progressives to leave. The progressive–and even the majority at the Texas Annual Conference in May–response has been that “we’re not there yet, and that’s not how you start the conversation when you’re trying to keep everyone together.”

Also in my experience, some of the most conservative Methodists I know are also deeply concerned with reaching the unchurched and the younger generations. They should be, as all Christians should be, but I must note some irony when they want to simultaneously be attractive to younger seekers and maintain what those seekers see as at best an unjust position and at worst a hypocrisy.

As I’ve said before, the societal belief about whether homosexuality is morally wrong or not is not determinative of the objective position established by God. On the other hand, there is legitimate theological argument in favor of not viewing homosexuality as sin, and history gives us numerous examples of Christianity being used to support systems and ideas ultimately determined to be immoral (and thus un-Christian). Since neither side can determinatively prove its position, the statement of being unwilling to see that someone else–even another Christian–might be right about something with which you disagree plays right into the hands of stereotypes of Christians that should not be true (but often are). That’s not going to be enticing to seekers of younger generations, who–despite all the talk about their “relative morality”–tend to have a strong sense of right and wrong and a significant allergy to perceived hypocrisy (real or imagined).

So the split within the UMC, even if it leaves the conservatives holding most of the cards, does not mean a resurgence of conservativism among Methodists–it means a slow death lamenting the “way it used to be.” While there will always be conservative Christians and theologians, and there always should be for us to honestly and eagerly explore theological issues, the Methodist Church is not on the more conservative side of most issues (at least not within our Social Principles), making the conservative position on homosexuality stand out more than seem to be in line with the rest of Methodist positions. This regressivism matches a certain political movement in our country largely based in privilege and the fear of sharing with others.

The Judicial Council will decide this month on the constitutionality of all three plans to be sent to the called General Conference in February. With regard to the Traditional Plan, the only real question of constitutionality falls on the modifications proposed to the status quo–enhanced enforcement and prosecution. But the Council’s decision on this doesn’t really matter. Eight UMC Annual Conferences (Baltimore-Washington, California-Nevada, California-Pacific, Desert Southwest, New England, New York, Northern Illinois and Oregon-Idaho) have already passed resolutions collectively refusing to participate in trials of homosexual clergy or clergy who perform same-sex marriage ceremonies.

The Virginia Annual Conference voted in favor of full inclusion for LGBTQ members and to allow both LGBTQ clergy and same-gender marriages, despite the Book of Discipline, the Judicial Council or the General Conference.

In purposefully electing the first openly-gay bishop in the UMC (Bishop Karen Oliveto), the Western Jurisdictional Conference opted to ignore sexual orientation as an appropriate qualification for clergy.

With this intentional civil disobedience, the Traditional Plan could not be enforced across the US UMC jurisdictions. It’s dead on arrival, a guaranteed split in the church.

To be fair, there are plenty on the progressive side of the issue who have done much to make some form of compromise and reconciliation impossible. We, too (at least corporately), are responsible for the conference-stopping protests at recent General Conferences, the demonization of conservatives, and a refusal to make any compromise in place of “total victory” (which, let’s be honest, is not a thing here at all, regardless of result).

The Methodist doctrine expressed in the Book of Discipline prefers that decisions in the governance (of the local church at the committee level, at least) be made through discernment and consensus-building rather than through purely political democratic vote.

And perhaps that’s the real problem here. While the Book of Discipline does allow us to follow a “take a vote, majority wins” approach, it also understands that that approach is not the best way for the church to operate–without some consensus-building and compromise, the only option is winner-take-all politics. Even if you don’t find that ideologically troublesome in the church-context, the history of the question of human sexuality in The United Methodist Church since 1972 is ample evidence that a tyrannical rule of the majority can’t solve this problem.

A vote for the Traditional Plan in February will not end the issue, it will only force the issue by insisting that there is no place for progressive Christians within the UMC. The same is true of the “no result” strategy, as I’ve discussed above. So why aren’t we calling the Traditional Plan what it really is–the “No Compromise Doctrine”? It’s been clearly articulated outside of the “official” channels of the church, so why not be honest about it within the polity?

 

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