By Walter Fenton
In the coming days we will briefly describe and analyze the various plans that are slated to come before the special, called General Conference in St. Louis, Missouri, February 23-26, 2019. Readers wanting to read the official reports, plans, and enabling legislation can click HERE.
The One Church Plan (OCP) is predicated on two straightforward assumptions. Flowing from these assumptions proponents are asking the 2019 General Conference delegates to make a few changes to The United Methodist Church’s The Book of Discipline.
The assumptions are as follows. Differences among United Methodists over sexual ethics, the institution of marriage, and ordination standards for clergy are not essential matters for the whole church. Therefore, it is acceptable for annual conferences, local churches, and pastors to hold different opinions about them and still remain in a united church.
The changes proponents are asking for essentially boil down to the following. First, strike from the UM Church’s “Social Principles” the statement that says, “[T]he practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Among other things, this would allow each annual conference to decide whether or not to commission and ordain openly gay, practicing persons as clergy. Second, redefine marriage in such a way that allows for church sanctioned weddings between people of the same gender, and remove the prohibition against UM clergy presiding as same sex weddings. This would allow each UM pastor to decide for him or herself whether to preside at same sex weddings.
Advocates of the OCP are at pains to assure laity and clergy of the following guarantees. No annual conference would be required to commission or ordain an openly gay, practicing individual as a clergy member. No UM pastor would be required to preside at a same sex wedding if he or she believed such a wedding would violate Christian teaching grounded in Scripture. And finally, no local church would be required to open its sanctuary to a same sex wedding, even if its pastor approved of such a union.
The aims of the OCP are laudable – to bring peace and unity to a church that has experienced decades of conflict, and has watched its average worship attendance plummet by over 25 percent in less than 20 years. Unfortunately, the plan will bring neither peace nor unity. And even more importantly, it would place the UM Church at odds with the church universal’s biblically grounded teachings regarding sexual ethics and the institution of marriage. The plan would have the denomination follow the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church-USA, and the United Church of Christ down a path that departs from the convictions and beliefs of the majority of Christian denominations here in the U.S. and around the world.
A number of noted UM scholars and clergy have already written essays critiquing the OCP and found it wanting. Some of the best are as follows, and each is well worth reading.
Dr. Kevin Watson says the OCP would have the church adopt “an incoherent theology and practice of marriage” that would be “even worse” than our present state of affairs. Watson, a professor at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, believes allowing annual conferences, local churches, and pastors to adopt different theological and ethical views on sexuality, marriage, and ordination would confuse and harm people. He concludes, “Relativizing United Methodism’s understanding of Christian marriage… will not produce unity and it will result in unacceptable pastoral care for all people created in the image of God.”
The Rev. Chris Ritter, lead pastor at Geneseo First UM Church (Geneseo, Illinois), has written extensively about the church’s impasse, analyzed numerous proposals for solving it, and offered several of his own plans. Ritter believes passage of the OCP would bring the hard debates, difficult votes, and disruptive protests of General Conferences into annual conferences and even local churches.
“The unique feature of the One Church Plan,” writes Ritter, “is that it deliberately passes a radioactive hot potato down from our quadrennial policy-making body to our primary settings for ministry: the annual conference and the local church. This is not a gift.”
And Dr. Scott Kisker, professor of the History of Christianity at United Theological Seminary, fears the plan would only exacerbate present divisions in the church. For Kisker, the General Conference is our “instrument of unity” and the body that defines “what to teach, how to teach, and what do” when it comes to the church’s core theological and ethical teachings. The rites of marriage and the ordination of clergy have required, and still require, the church to teach with one voice on such weighty matters for both its people and its witness to society in general.
“We hear a lot about contextuality [in the OCP], as though it were an unquestionable good,” Kisker writes. “This rhetoric tickles contemporary ears, but it has a mixed track record in history. There are legions of examples in the modern era alone where churches have accommodated to the evils of their times and cultures, deforming the gospel. ‘Contextualization’ of the Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church allowed for slave holding in the American South beginning in 1808, as well as the acceptance of racist segregation in the name of ‘unity’ for the formation of The Methodist Church in 1939.”
And finally, even though the Commission on a Way Forward originally said any plan should include a gracious exit ramp for local churches to leave with their property and assets, the OCP offers no such thing. It calls for liberalizing the UM Church’s sexual ethics, teachings on marriage, and its ordination standards, and expects United Methodists who, in good conscience disagree, to remain in the denomination or face the prospect of losing their local church’s property and assets.
The Commission on a Way Forward and the Council of Bishops certainly deserve credit for trying to find ways to deliver the church from its present impasse. Unfortunately, the OCP would have the General Conference abdicate its responsibility to speak with one voice on core theological and ethical issues for the sake of church and society. Such an approach would not only perpetuate the discord, it would drive it deeper into the body of the church.