So Now What?

March 22, 2018

By Keith Boyette

As United Methodists, we are methodical. We are a people bound together by order and discipline. We benefit from one of the fairest systems of church government that exists. Any United Methodist can petition our church’s supreme legislative body, the General Conference, to change our church’s order and discipline.

Our church is global. Our General Conference is broadly representative of the worldwide membership of The United Methodist Church. A proportional number of delegates equally composed of laity and clergy, represent every annual conference.

The provisions of our Book of Discipline govern our life together. Our Council of Bishops (COB), among its other responsibilities, is charged with administering the church in accordance with the Discipline. And our Judicial Council ensures its provisions are properly interpreted and applied. When it all works, our polity has great strength.

Nevertheless, for some time, our church has been in crisis. Some churches, clergy and laity have not followed our order and discipline. Instead, they have acted as a law unto themselves, ignoring the actions of our General Conference. Some bishops have not fulfilled their responsibilities to administer the life of our church in accordance with our Discipline. Our Judicial Council has repeatedly called to account those in defiance of it, but too often its ruling are ignored and violated. Our crisis is constitutional. Our church is anything but united.

At least two competing visions are advanced. One accords with our Discipline. One operates in defiance of it and seeks to change it. As James declares, “A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways.” (James 1:8) And so it is with our church. A double-minded church is unstable in all its ways. Jesus observed that a house divided cannot stand.

Recognizing our crisis, the 2016 General Conference empowered the Council of Bishops to engage in an unprecedented process utilizing the Commission of the Way Forward (COWF) to study and make recommendations to move us beyond our impasse – and to call a special General Conference. Now we wait for that special General Conference to meet from February 23-26, 2019, and to act. All that the COWF, the COB and others in this process do are but prelude to its decision. There will be brief stops along the way: shortly, the COWF will issue its final report to the COB, the COB will meet from April 29 to May 4 in an effort to reach some consensus around a proposal, and by July 8, it will openly file, in full legislative form, a plan (or plans) for the whole church’s consideration. However, what really matters is the decision of the delegates to the special called General Conference.

The members of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) are committed to the vision of the church expressed in our existing Discipline. We believe the so-called One Church Model (sketch two) and the Multi-Branch, One Church Model (sketch three) advance a different vision of the church.

Between now and February 2019, the delegates to the special called General Conference will discern which of these conflicting visions they will adopt. They will do so in an effort to find unity. Every member of the UM Church will have to determine whether the vision that emerges is something to which they can subscribe.

In the coming months, the WCA will work with others in the UM Church to uphold the historic Christian faith in the Wesleyan tradition as it is expressed in our current Discipline. We will work to strengthen our historic expression of faith and the way it is to be lived out. We will work for provisions that hold our churches, annual and jurisdictional conferences, and clergy and bishops accountable to what our Discipline says. We recognize that others, because of deeply held convictions, have and will continue to choose not to live in accordance with such a Discipline. We will work to provide a generous path for them to exit the denomination to pursue their vision should they choose to do so. If a different vision prevails, we ask that a generous path be provided for those who do not subscribe to that different vision which will be a radical departure from our existing Discipline.

Jesus was full of truth and grace. We desire that same spirit. We will speak the truth in love to all. We urge those who are committed to the historic Christian faith in the Wesleyan tradition to join us in contending for that faith. God has not released us from this effort. We are committed to using all God has entrusted to us for that purpose.

We recognize, however, that the delegates to the special called General Conference might choose a different path – one that would be irreconcilable with our deeply held convictions. Therefore, we are keeping every option on the table as we prepare for the future. It would be irresponsible for us to do otherwise.

So we are diligently preparing for what will be next should the special called General Conference chart a new course for the UM Church, one that would adopt what we would regard as unorthodox teachings. That is not a threat. It is reality. We are not interested in taking over the church, as some have asserted. We are committed to preserving the church with its current vision. We are not interested in dividing the church as others maintain, but we will not be part of a church that no longer advances the historic Christian faith in the Wesleyan tradition.

Many are tired of this journey and conflict. They want what will be next now. They do not understand why we are engaged in the process as it develops. Others feel called to remain and fight for what God has laid on their hearts. We seek to work with everyone along that continuum. We are engaged in the process of the special called 2019 General Conference to submit and advocate for legislation to implement our settled commitments. And whether we like it or not, we must prepare for the possibility that the special called General Conference will adopt a plan that abandons our church’s historic commitments. Therefore, we are actively working on a plan, should it be necessary, for a new Methodist denomination committed to the historic Christian faith in the Wesleyan tradition. Some will call our contingency planning “schismatic;” we simply call it prudence. We value unity and connectionalism and so will continue to strive for them, but even more, we will champion fidelity to the life giving teachings of the Christian faith.

We long for and are working for a church that:

  • Has a deep passion and commitment to reaching all who are far from God with the life-changing gospel of Jesus Christ;
  • Is a vibrant, soul-saving, world changing, Kingdom advancing movement of God;
  • Is led by persons called of God to be risk takers grounded in the authoritative revelation of Scripture under the Lordship of Jesus Christ;
  • Leads those who invite Jesus into their lives into ever deepening relationship with Him as they become His fully devoted disciples;
  • Enables its members to watch over one another in love and grace with the goal of helping us be conformed to the image of Christ;
  • Empowers, equips and deploys its laity for making disciples of Jesus Christ;
  • Is global, understanding that the world is our parish; and
  • Recognizes that the mission in which we are engaged has eternal consequences

We will continue to pray for the members of the COWF, the COB, the delegates to the special called 2019 General Conference, and for the churches, clergy, and laity of the UM Church. We are eleven months from a defining moment for the UM Church. Pray! Fast! Persevere! Prepare!

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Keith Boyette is president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and an elder in the Virginia Conference of The United Methodist Church.