Now that we have had a few days to read the Commission on a Way Forward’s (COWF’s) long-awaited report, it is clear that the workload for delegates to the 2019 General Conference has increased. The 93-page report (including appendices) was included as supporting material in the Council of Bishop’s request for a declaratory decision from the Judicial Council on the constitutionality of each of the three plans resulting from the work of the COWF.
The fact that all three plans, complete with petition language, rationale, and theological basis, are included in this report and associated appendices is disappointing. We all hoped for one clear recommendation resulting from the work of the COWF. When the Council of Bishops (COB) made the decision to include all three plans, the petition language for the Traditional Plan had not been developed and the COWF only had one remaining meeting. They chose not to rush through the development of a plan they had previously decided was unnecessary. The development of a minority Traditional Plan (Appendix 3) fell to a small group of bishops.
In addition to these plans, there may be as many as 100 additional petitions submitted by various parties. If ruled “in harmony” with the call of the General Conference, these will be eligible for consideration as well. Of note is that there is not one mention of LGBTQ families and their relationship to The United Methodist Church in the entire report.
A Global Church
John Wesley’s three simple rules keep repeating in my head:
1) Do no harm.
2) Do Good. and
3) Stay in Love with God.
None of the plans measure up to what Wesley meant. Neither do some of the other submitted petitions that have started to be circulated on social media. Personally, I want to call a timeout and push the reset button.
There are elements in the structure and governance of The UMC that are broken. You cannot have a global denomination modeled after something that sort of worked over a century ago in the US. Being a global church means that we aren’t only a U.S. church with some members on other continents. Instead, being a global church implies being in ministry with and for all of God’s children everywhere as we love our neighbors and make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We need to see an outcome from both 2019 and 2020 General Conferences that supports the reality of a global church. The report offered to us from the COWF has us stumbling at the starting block. Despite this imperfect launch, we can sustain a global church focused on justice, and heed Wesley’s call not to rashly tear asunder our church.
The One Church Plan (Recommended by COB with Majority Support of CoWF)
The One Church Plan (OCP) is the only plan with the potential to reduce harm in some places in the United Methodist connection. It is not lost on me that it is a tremendous step forward to remove the incompatible with Christian teaching language that has haunted us since 1972. But, while the OCP has the potential to reduce harm, it is far from the inclusive plan some claim it is. An inclusive plan would speak of and treat all of God’s children with equal dignity and worth. The OCP does value lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, and agender people as beloved children of God with gifts to share with the church and world.
Paragraph 161.G of the United Methodist Book of Discipline affirms that God’s grace is available to all and that we will be in ministry for and with all persons. That affirmation and intent are clearly missing in the OCP. Harm is continued in these ways:
- The added “agree to disagree” language continues harm as it gives those who do not know how to love LGBTQ people permission to discriminate;
- Same-gender marriage is still unequal to heterosexual marriage
- It continues the prohibition on funding, limiting ministry with and to LGBTQ people
- It allows continued discrimination in marriage in some locations;
- It allows continued discrimination in ordination in some locations;
- It allows continued discrimination by Bishops against married homosexual ordinands if a Bishop decides that they cannot affirm God’s calling them to ministry; and
- It continues harm to those who whose cultures are not welcoming of LGBTQ people.
The OCP has the potential to reduce harm, although not equally acrossf the connection. It removes the current harmful language except for the prohibition on funding, allowing those living in the privilege of a context where they live into gospel obedience to do so without fear.
It is clear that, in developing the (unnecessary) language of contextualization, the COWF did not prioritize LGBTQ lives. Instead, it gave priority to those who demand the status quo at threat of schism. The plan goes out of its way to accommodate: bishops who don’t want to ordain LGBTQ people, pastors who don’t want to officiate weddings, boards of ordained ministry and clergy sessions who don’t want to ordain LGBTQ people called by God in their conference, and laity of local churches who don’t want to allow LGBTQ weddings in the building. The OCP does not make any positive changes in those Central Conferences where LGBTQ people are persecuted under civil law or social prejudice. That omission is a missed opportunity to call on the church to stand up for the human rights of LGBTQ people world-wide.
The Connectional Conference Plan
The Connectional Conference Plan (the only plan requiring constitutional amendments) provides an alternative to contextual differentiation based on structural separation. It divides The UMC into three sub-denominations for traditionalists, centrists and progressives. The defining characteristic is their willingness or unwillingness to fully include LGBTQ persons. Each separate branch would ordain its clergy and elect its own bishops. Extensive voting at jurisdictional, annual conference and local church levels would be harmful to LGBTQ persons in their home contexts, and it results in a “pre-division” that could lead to full-blown schism.
Through development of this plan the US conservatives revealed their desire to opt out of financial support for many current connectional agencies, such as: General Board of Church and Society, Discipleship Ministries, the current form of General Board of Higher Education and Ministry and the justice organizations currently constituted as General Commission on Race and Religion and General Commission on the Status and Role of Women and others.
The Traditional Plan (Drafted by a Small Group of Bishops)
The “Traditional Plan” twists our historic polity and jurisprudence out of shape by elevating the non-affirming view of LGBTQ persons to the highest value and most visible identifier of the church. It globalizes enforcement provisions that previously played out at annual conference and jurisdictional levels. It requires loyalty oaths — specific only to the prohibitions against gay marriage and gay ordination — of bishops, boards of ordained ministry and full annual conference votes. It claims a form of so-called “gracious accountability” which is in no way gracious. It claims to “encourage” progressive conferences, churches and clergy to leave the UMC, but it does this with harsh enforcement mechanisms. It essentially attempts to force progressives out into a new denomination which is, by definition, schism. And it further splinters the UMC by allowing any annual conference to leave and start its own new self-governing Methodist Church and likewise allows any group(s) of 50 or more churches to leave and form new self-governing Methodist Churches. Paradoxically, this seems to give the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) the easy and low cost exit path they’ve been requesting.
The Simple Plan (From UMQCC)
There is a fourth plan, from outside of COWF, called by those who wrote it, “the Simple Plan,” written and submitted by LGBTQ persons. The United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus (UMQCC) submitted this plan to eliminate the harmful language against LGBTQ persons. It stands out from the OCP because it removes harmful language without adding new forms of continued discrimination with unnecessary contextual language. It is the most inclusive plan of those available and acts as a standard in perfecting any plan that will pass General Conference. RMN is committed to working with all groups to pass the plan that is the most beneficial to LGBTQ persons and their loved ones. Regardless of the outcomes of this called General Conference, RMN will continue to advocate with LGBTQ persons struggling for affirmation and full inclusion in the life, work, and ministry of The United Methodist Church.
I am reminded of the arguments between Peter and Paul about the best way to do ministry in their context. Neither said to the other, “You are not welcome into this house.” After much discord, they arrived at ministry within their context. For us to do anything less is not biblical obedience: it is unscriptural.
Please join us in praying for all of the delegates to General Conference 2019, all plans and petitions submitted, and for the Holy Spirit to infuse these old bones of The UMC with new life so that we can create disciples for the transformation of the world — the whole wide world.
In prayer with you,
Jan Lawrence, Executive Director
Reconciling Ministries Network