The Long and Winding Road to St. Louis

Will February 26, 2019 ever arrive? Yes, in due course, and God will still be sovereign over His creation and His church will still be a prevailing church. We can hope that The United Methodist Church will still be counted as a faithful part of the church universal. Much yet must occur before we will know how it weathers its current crisis.

Certain bishops have sought to control the process. Some still think that they are calling the shots. The Judicial Council has ruled otherwise.

Some bishops sought to micromanage what was unfolding. They declared that the Commission on a Way Forward (COWF) would make recommendations to the Council Of Bishops (COB). The COB alone, they maintained, would report to the special General Conference. These bishops sought to shape the work product of the COWF. When the COWF developed three sketches, the COB had the audacity to direct the COWF to abandon one of those sketches — the one that would have upheld the UM Church’s historic sexual ethics, definition of marriage, and ordination standards, all of which is consistent with the Bible and 2000 years of Christian teaching and practice. When the COWF delivered its “final” report to the COB, the majority of the COB decided that they would “help” the duly elected delegates to the General Conference by only bringing forward one plan — cleverly named the “One Church Plan.” These bishops then sought to limit any effort to resist their efforts by asking the Judicial Council to rule that the only legislative proposal which could be placed before the special General Conference in advance would be these bishops’ preferred plan.

The Judicial Council, in Decision 1360, held otherwise. The Judicial Council declared that any United Methodist clergy, laity, or organization might petition the special General Conference, enabling a multitude of proposals to be placed before the delegates for consideration. Importantly, the Judicial Council further declared that the report that is to come before the special General Conference should be the report of the COWF, not a report from the COB. In an instance, all of the scheming of certain bishops was rendered meaningless.

Based on recent statements made by some bishops and some members of the COWF, no report will come to the special General Conference from the COB. Rather, now the COWF will deliver its report, unfiltered by the COB, as it was directed to do by the 2016 General Conference. The COWF report that will be delivered will be supported by fully developed petitions to implement each of the proposals explored by the COWF — the One Church Plan, the Connectional Conference Plan, and the Traditional Plan. The Traditional Plan will uphold our existing sexual ethics, definition of marriage, and ordination standards, and will provide measures to ensure that our bishops, annual conferences, and clergy abide by what our General Conference decides. The special General Conference will have a full range of options from which to choose as it decides how the decades-long conflict in our church will be resolved.

The Wesleyan Covenant Association was instrumental in ensuring that the UM Church would not be hijacked by the liberalizing agenda of some bishops. The WCA permitted me to file a brief and present an oral argument before the Judicial Council to ensure that the delegates to the special General Conference would have the freedom to consider a number of possible resolutions to the crisis confronting our church. The Judicial Council’s decision was consistent with the arguments that I advanced together with Bishop Scott Jones and John Lomperis of UM Action.

–  What happens now? The WCA, working together with other organizations in the Reform & Renewal Coalition, will ensure that petitions are filed by July 8 to accomplish the following: Affirm and strengthen the UM Church’s current sexual ethics, definition of marriage, and ordination standards. Our current Book of Discipline sets forth compassionate, truthful, and orthodox doctrinal positions in this area, which ensure the UM Church will remain aligned with the stance of virtually the entirety of the rest of Christendom. In addition, significantly enhanced processes for ensuring accountability will be proposed which will require adherence by our bishops, annual conferences, and clergy with meaningful consequences for disobedience. Our constitutional crisis will be averted as order and discipline are restored to our church.

–  Provide a generous exit path for local churches that have determined they no longer have confidence that the denomination can fulfill its God-ordained mission. The UM Church should be composed of the willing, not the constrained. Regardless of the path chosen by the special General Conference, conflict will continue for years after adjournment. Departing local churches should be permitted to exit with their assets, including land and buildings, and their liabilities, after satisfying their proportionate share of UM Church unfunded liabilities (largely related to pre-1982 pension benefits).

–  Offer a means of amicably dissolving the UM Church. If no plan can resolve our differences, which we have maintained are irreconcilable, we believe it is time to bless one another and enable something new to emerge. When Abraham and Lot were faced with irreconcilable conflict, they parted ways blessing each other. When Paul and Barnabas found that they could not pursue the mission because of irreconcilable differences, they parted ways blessing each other. The delegates to the special General Conference should have a mechanism to make the same choice if led to do so by the Holy Spirit.

Finally, if needed, the WCA is continuing its preparations to birth a vibrant, vital new Methodist expression following the conclusion of the 2019 special General Conference. A number of task forces are actively at work developing such contingency plans. Elements of our plans will be considered by our Global Legislative Assembly on November 2 at Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church in Marietta, Ga. Should a new expression be necessary on March 1, 2019, the WCA will be ready.

The road to St. Louis is long and winding. Much is unknown at this time. The wise traveler will remain rooted and grounded in God’s word, committed to the spiritual disciplines to which God has called us, and confident in the sovereignty and faithfulness of God who has called us to this work. We remain confident in the future God has prepared for us.

By Keith Boyette

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