July 19, 2018
by Keith Boyette
In a recent article, I shared about The Long and Winding Road to St. Louis. Well, we have now journeyed further along that road. A lot is happening and we want to keep you informed.
As required, petitions for the special General Conference, which will meet in St. Louis, Missouri, February 23-26, 2019, were filed by July 8. Members of the Commission on a Way Forward (COWF) filed petitions in support of three plans – the One Church Plan, the Connectional Conference Plan, and the Traditional Plan. In addition, the COWF finalized its narrative report providing additional information about each of them. After some delay, the petitions proposing the implementation for each plan and the COWF’s narrative report are now available for review. The Council of Bishops (COB) has requested a declaratory decision from the Judicial Council (JC) on the constitutionality of each of them. The JC has placed this request on its docket for its Fall 2018 session, which will be held from October 23-26 in Zurich, Switzerland.
Working with other partners, the Wesleyan Covenant Association supported the filing of petitions to further strengthen the accountability provisions of the Traditional Plan. The Traditional Plan reaffirms The United Methodist Church’s present teachings on sexual ethics, the definition of marriage, and ordination standards. The plan also contains enhanced provisions to hold bishops, annual conferences, and clergy accountable to our teachings. Finally, the Traditional Plan provides a means for those who cannot comply with the provisions of the Book of Discipline to move out of the UM Church into other bodies where they can set their own rules. Petitions, filed by Maxie Dunnam, seek to improve on the Traditional Plan in the COWF report. The WCA supports the adoption of the Traditional Plan with these enhancements.
As the COWF met and prepared a preliminary report in 2017, it stated that an exit path out of the denomination would be provided for local churches in each of the plans under consideration. However, the petitions filed by members of the COWF in support of the One Church and the Connectional Conference Plans contain no exit ramp. This is unfortunate. The failure to provide such a pathway for local churches to leave the UM Church with all their property and assets will only intensify the conflict and lead to the kind of expensive legal battles we have witnessed in other denominations. Compelling local churches to remain in the denomination through expensive and time-consuming litigation will not help the UM Church move beyond its existential crisis.
The WCA believes a generous exit path is essential for the health and viability of the denomination and local churches. With justification, some traditionalist congregations believe the church has become so dysfunctional that it can no longer fulfill its God-ordained mission. They have also, for good reasons, lost confidence in some of our bishops’ commitment to defend and maintain the good order of the church. Likewise, some progressive congregations have decided they can no longer live according to the Book of Discipline. Other denominations that have navigated waters similar to those being traversed by the UM Church have expended significant sums of money and time in secular courts contesting the ownership of local church properties and assets. In accordance with the Apostle Paul’s teachings, we should do all we can to avoid such a costly and public spectacle.
Going forward, we believe the UM Church should be composed of those who are fully committed to its theology, mission, and ministry. In the current environment, forcing local churches to be affiliated with an entity they can no longer support is bad for everyone. The UM Church should be composed of the willing, not the constrained. The WCA has consistently urged the adoption of a generous exit path for local churches regardless of the plan chosen by General Conference for the future of the UM Church.
A petition has been filed to provide such an exit path. It would allow local churches to leave the denomination with all their property and assets, and their liabilities. And of course, such churches would agree to satisfy their proportionate share of the UM Church’s unfunded liabilities (largely related to pre-1982 pension benefits). All churches and the denomination will benefit from the provision of a generous exit path. Such a provision enables us to do unto others as we would have done to us. Additionally, providing such an exit ramp will permit the UM Church to move forward focused on its mission without the crippling distraction of further conflict over the church’s sexual ethics, teachings on marriage, and its ordination standards. It would be far better off moving ahead with the willing, not the constrained.
Perhaps the best way forward for the UM Church is a straightforward parting of ways. Our differences are irreconcilable; we must now acknowledge that reality. And encouragingly more people are coming to just such a realization. The UM Church is one part of the church universal. Preserving it simply for the sake of the institution is not missional, especially if it continues to be mired in an acrimonious and self-destructive debate. Dissolving the UM Church has the potential to release diverse parts of it that genuinely believe they should be permitted to pursue their own understandings on the nature and mission of the church. We have an opportunity to show grace and mercy to one another as we bless each other in our parting. Believing that the delegates to the special General Conference should have such a mechanism available as an alternative, a petition has been filed providing for dissolution of the UM Church as a gracious and reasonable way forward.
Much will be written in the coming weeks analyzing all of the legislative proposals that will be before the special General Conference. The WCA continues its preparations to birth a vibrant, vital new Methodist expression if necessary following the conclusion of the 2019 special General Conference. Now is the time to become familiar with all the options before us. Now is the time for local churches to begin discussing the alternatives so we are prepared to act wisely. Now is the time for each of us to fervently seek God and cry out for His intervention on behalf of His church.
Rev. Keith Boyette is president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and an elder in the Virginia Conference of The United Methodist Church.