By Walter Fenton
January 11, 2019
Of the several plans before the special United Methodist Church General Conference (February 23-26) in St. Louis, Missouri, the modified traditional plan is the most faithful, fair, and gracious one.
Chiefly, the plan calls the church to reaffirm its sexual ethics, its teachings on marriage, and its ordination standards. These ethics, teachings and standards have been included in the UM Church’s Book of Discipline over the past fifty years as the church has thoughtfully and prayerfully codified its long-held beliefs and practices on these matters.
For centuries, Christianity has taught that God’s good design for the expression of sexual intimacy is in the context of a marriage covenant between a man and a woman. To be sure, there are examples of polygamous marriages in Scripture, but these are seldom if ever commended as the norm for ancient Israel and definitely not for the early church. There are no passages in the Bible commending same sex or bi-sexual intimacy, or same-sex or bi-sexual marriages. The arc of Scripture clearly bends to sexual intimacy being expressed in the context of a monogamous, heterosexual marriage. This has been taught by the church catholic in all times and in all places, and continues to be affirmed by the vast majority of faith communities and denominations throughout global Christianity. Therefore, the modified traditional plan is faithful to Scripture, the traditions of the church catholic, and to global Christianity.
The modified traditional plan is also fair. During its implementation the plan allows individuals, congregations, and annual conferences ample time to consider its ramifications and determine whether they want to go forward with the church. For clergy, local congregations, and annual conferences that cannot support the plan it provides them with fair ways to exit the UM Church with all their property and assets. For annual conferences opposed to the plan and wishing to exit, it grants $200,000 to help with transitional costs. For those individuals who insist on remaining in the church only to foment division through acts defiance, they can expect to be treated fairly during any complaint and judicial process.
Finally, the plan is gracious. It acknowledges the deep divisions within the church that have contributed to declining membership, a precipitous drop in average worship attendance, and impending financial challenges. Therefore, it seeks to end the long, acrimonious years of defiance and dysfunction, by offering congregations – whether they identify as traditionalist, centrist, or progressive – a gracious exit from the denomination with all their property and assets intact. In this way, the plan creates a church of the willing rather than one of the coerced.
To be sure, proponents of the traditional plan know it is not perfect, and are well aware tensions will remain in the church as some progressives and ardent LGBTQ advocates continue to defy its teachings. It will take time for the church to demonstrate, through trials if necessary, that it is serious about clamping down on high profile acts of defiance that attempt to force the minority’s will on that of the majority. Most importantly, the plan includes new accountability measures for general and annual conference leaders who are entrusted with maintaining the good order of the church.
Contrary to claims, the modified traditional plan is not about wielding power or maintaining good order simply for the sake of good order. Rather, the plan seeks to arrest defiance, dysfunction and decline so the church can rededicate itself to its missional objectives of sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ and growing healthy and vibrant local churches that live it out in both word and deed.
It is popular in some quarters to believe the UM Church can move forward as a united body if we simply allow clergy, congregations, and annual conferences to teach and practice diametrically opposite beliefs regarding our sexual ethics, teachings on marriage and our ordination standards. With all due respect, we continue to disagree on principal and practical grounds. As stated above, our present teachings and standards are faithful to Scripture and the teachings of the church catholic in all times and all places. And practically speaking, sister denominations in the U.S. have amply demonstrated the dire circumstances inflicted on a general church when it officially adopts a laissez affaire approach to matters as important as it sexual ethics, marriage, and ordination standards.
It is obvious that routine acts of defiance, judicial complaints, church trials, and now even threats of civil cases over church property and assets all serve to undermine any foundation for moving forward as a united church. The modified traditional plan seeks to faithfully, fairly, and graciously restore good order to the church for the sake of its future health and vitality. We heartily commend its passage at the special General Conference.