The One Church Plan: Calm and Rational?

According to the Rev Mark Holland, Executive Director of Mainstream UMC, the One Church Plan coming before the special General Conference of the United Methodist Church is the “calm,” “rational,” and “well thought out” plan. In contrast, he claims, “chaos and crisis [is] being ginned up… to divide the church” by people like the Rev. Chris Ritter who supports other proposals. It is sad, but indicative of our church’s current situation when one pastor finds it necessary to ascribe, without evidence, base motives to a colleague with whom he disagrees. (By the way, anyone who knows Ritter, a respected General Conference delegate from the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference, knows he is one of the most genial, thoughtful, and effective pastors in our denomination. The only thing Ritter has ever “ginned-up” is a dynamic, healthy, and growing United Methodist Church in Geneseo, Illinois.)

Given Holland’s charge it is probably a good time to calmly and rationally review some facts about chaos and crisis in the UM Church.

Although he was well aware the UM Church had repeatedly reaffirmed its sexual ethics, its teachings on marriage, and its ordination standards, retired Bishop Melvin Talbert presided at a same-sex wedding in Birmingham, Alabama on October 26, 2013. He did so even though his colleague, Bishop Debbie Wallace-Padgett, kindly requested he not enter her episcopal area to engage in an act clearly in defiance of our church’s teachings. Nevertheless, Talbert deliberately created chaos and crisis for her and for United Methodists all across our global connection. He did so because he decided he was right and delegates representing the global church were wrong. In light of his defiance, the Council of Bishops convened extraordinary executive session meetings to consider his actions. Given the crisis he created, his colleagues instructed the president of the council and Bishop Wallace Padgett to jointly file a complaint against him. They did so, but unfortunately bishops in the Western Jurisdiction were unwilling to hold him accountable in any serious way. Their failure simply green lighted further acts of defiance and so more chaos and crises across the denomination.

At the 2016 General Conference a plan almost identical to the one Holland is flogging today came before the delegates. As pieces of it were voted upon in various legislative sections, it became clear the plan (called “A Third Way”) had no chance of being approved by the larger body. Had it reached the conference floor it would have lost by a substantial margin. And upon its defeat, it was widely expected LGBTQIA advocates would have plunged the church into chaos and crisis by disrupting the conference as they had done at previous conferences. Chaos and crisis was averted only because the traditionalist delegates who opposed the plan were willing to create space for the formulation of a fresh one they hoped would restore unity and good order. Failing to recognize the will of the church and evidently lacking imagination, the majority of our U.S. bishops have essentially slapped a happy name on a failed plan in the forlorn hope the 2019 delegates will pass it. This is neither a good nor a viable way forward.

Not long after the 2016 General Conference delegates at the Western Jurisdictional Conference elected the Rev. Karen Oliveto, senior pastor of Glide Memorial UM Church in San Francisco, California, as a bishop of the whole church. Oliveto had openly acknowledged presiding at approximately 50 same sex weddings during her tenure and that she herself was married to another woman. These facts were all well known by the delegates and bishops of the jurisdiction. Her election, consecration and assignment created chaos and crisis across our global connection. And by the way, Bishop Minerva Carcano, a supporter of the One Church Plan, is now engaged in a legal dispute with Glide Memorial UM Church over its property and assets. Apparently, even she finds Bishop Oliveto’s former congregation far too progressive for her taste.

These are just a few of the more pronounced examples of clergy and bishops sowing real chaos and crisis across the UM connection (we could go on). They have obviously decided they should not have to abide by work of our General Conferences – our holy and time honored way of faithfully attempting to discern God’s will for the church. And yet, for Holland, it is the traditionalists who are sowing chaos and crisis.

All the while, other crises have been growing in our beloved church. Since the turn of the 21st century average worship attendance has plummeted. Nearly 1,000,000 fewer people worship in local UM churches in the U.S. than did so at the turn of the century. The average rate of attendance loss continues to accelerate. More local churches close, and more districts and annual conferences are forced to merge with others. The church’s financial agency is recommending a whopping 18 percent reduction in the general church budget for 2021-2024, and when adjusted for inflation the cut will be more like 25 percent. All this will result in cuts to general church programs and staff reductions at nearly all of our general boards and agencies. But again, for Holland, it is traditionalists who are sowing chaos and crisis. Perhaps accepting we are already in the midst of crisis and chaos would be a more rational approach.

But in fact, Holland’s favored and purported calm and rational One Church Plan is likely to exacerbate our crises. We know this because institutionalists and progressive leaders in the United Church of Christ, The Episcopal Church, and the Presbyterian Church-USA have already gone down the path Holland and a majority of our U.S. bishops are proposing. All three of these churches passed plans similar to a One Church Plan, and all have watched membership, average worship attendance, and financial support plummet.

Traditionalist leaders in these denominations calmly and sincerely explained they could not remain in churches that adopted a sexual ethic contrary to scripture, blessed same sex marriages, and liberalized ordination standards. But unfortunately, proponents of laissez affaire approaches to these matters convinced others that traditionalists only represented small splinter groups that would cause no real damage to their denominations. They have since learned otherwise. (By the way if, as Holland contends, the opponents of the One Church Plan are just “splinter groups,” why not offer the little band of malcontents a gracious exit provision? Is Holland afraid there are far more traditionalists in the denomination than he is willing to admit?)

Unlike these other denominations the UM Church is formally connected to its brothers and sisters in Africa, the Philippines, and Eurasia (we are truly a global church). Holland and other proponents of the One Church Plan surely know the majority of the delegates from these regions will not support their plan. Representatives from these regions have calmly and reasonably tried to explain they cannot be part of a church that adopts a sexual ethic contrary to scripture, blesses same sex marriages, and liberalizes its ordination standards. They are not assuaged by assurances the changes will not impact their ministries. But unfortunately, the majority of U.S. bishops and proponents of the One Church Plan cannot understand people who say, “I know, under your plan, I personally won’t have to preside at same sex marriages or teach that the practice of homosexuality is acceptable, but please hear me when I tell you I cannot be part of a church that says it is fine for others to do so, and to act contrary to Scripture and the teachings of the church catholic in all times and all places.” To these rebuttals, Holland and others might cry “fear-mongering,” but the simple truth is the One Church Plan will eventually undermine the UM Church’s global connection.

Our church’s sexual ethics, teachings on marriage, and its ordination standards are very similar to issues like infant baptism, slavery, and women’s ordination. United Methodists believe infant baptism is so core to who we are that we require candidates for ordained ministry to affirm our understanding of the sacrament. Likewise, despite all the chaos and crisis created when the Methodist Episcopal Church, South left the Methodist Episcopal Church over slavery, no one today thinks the latter should have adopted a “One Church Plan” on the matter as a way of preserving church unity. And today we do not say some annual conferences can ordain women, while others are free to say, “Well, we’re not ok with that, so we won’t be ordaining women.” No, if you’re going to be a United Methodists you need to celebrate and embrace women as pastors, leaders, and bishops in our church – everywhere. As in these cases, the UM Church firmly believes its sexual ethics, teachings on marriage, and its ordination standards are in accord with the teachings of the church catholic in all times and all places, and finds no compelling reasons to adopt a latitudinarian approach. None of our bishops have offered a sustained, biblical, theological argument for changing our teachings. Even at this late date it would be helpful if one of them attempted to write a calm and rational refutation of Dr. Tim Tennent’s recent learned and careful defense of the church’s teachings on these matters, but with all due respect, we won’t be holding our breaths.

In sum, Holland’s attempt to score points by accusing traditionalists of ginning up chaos and crisis widely misses the mark, especially when he fails to acknowledge how all the chaos and crisis got started in the first place. In our present environment, it is not surprising that a large coalition of progressives, traditionalists and centrists have called on the special General Conference to adopt a gracious exit provision for local churches that are simply tired of this dead end fight. This coalition recognizes that a 21st century church will only be successful if it is composed of the willing and not the constrained. Calm and rational United Methodists know spending ten of millions of dollars of church funds litigating over local church property and assets in secular courts is not a healthy witness to the larger world. Again, they have watched other denominations adopt proposals like the One Church Plan only to see them descend into decline, and yes, crisis and chaos.

Unlike ardent progressives, some loyal UM traditionalists in annual conferences where the church’s teachings are at best neglected or at worst mocked, are willing, for the sake of peace and comity, to create a new denomination if allowed to exit the denomination with their property and assets. But apparently even that is not good enough for people like Holland, who are bent on propping up a dated institutional infrastructure at all costs. He and others counsel taking up an exit provision at the next General Conference. But of course traditionalists have been around the church long enough to know all about settling things at the next General Conference. It’s called kicking the can down the road.

Traditionalists have justifiably lost patience with those who are promoting a failed plan and who then turn around and accuse them of ginning up chaos and crisis. Holland’s mischaracterization of his many traditionalist colleagues, who do effective ministry across our global connection, does not bode well for passing a plan claiming to want one church.

By Walter Fenton

February 12, 2019