This is the second of three articles briefly describing and analyzing 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. See Exhibit C, pages 82 through 130 of the whole document to review The Traditional Plan.
In January 1999 the Rev. Don Fado of St. Mark’s UM Church in Sacramento, California, presided at a same-sex union. An additional 67 UM clergy claimed they co-officiated at the faux wedding – same-sex marriage being neither recognized by the church nor the state at the time. Formal complaints were lodged against the clergy participants, but the charges were dropped and no one involved was held accountable.
In October 2013, retired Bishop, Melvin Talbert presided at a same-sex wedding in Birmingham, Alabama, in violation of The UM Church’s Book of Discipline. He did so despite the request of his colleague, Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, not to disrupt the good work of local churches in her episcopal area with such a provocative act of defiance. He refused and presided anyway. Talbert was never held accountable.
In July 2016 the Western Jurisdictional Conference elected the Rev. Karen Oliveto as a bishop of the whole church. It was widely know that Oliveto had presided at numerous same-sex weddings, and was herself married to a deaconess in the UM Church, all in violation of the Discipline. The next day the Western Jurisdiction bishops consecrated her and in short order she was assigned to lead the Mt. Sky Episcopal Area. Complaints have been filed against Oliveto, but to date she has not been held accountable.
These are just some of the more noteworthy examples of the blatant defiance of the Discipline over the past couple of decades. And yet, some UM centrists and progressives now profess to be alarmed that one of the plans coming before the special 2019 General Conference calls for enhanced accountability. The Traditional Plan (TP) does, among other things, just that. However, it is not nearly as onerous as its detractors make it out to be. Briefly, here are the main features of the TP.
First, it does require annual conferences and bishops to categorically state they will abide by the church’s teachings regarding its sexual ethics, definition of marriage, and ordination standards, or face stiff penalties for violating them. Again, given the serial acts of defiance and lack of accountability, this should surprise no one.
Second, for those individuals who cannot, in good conscience follow the denomination’s teachings on these matters, the TP offers a fair and even gracious way for them to step away from the UM Church.
And finally, unlike the One Church Plan, the TP provides a gracious way for any local church and any annual conference to leave the denomination without having to worry about the possibility of losing or having to litigate for their property and assets.
In short, the TP is a sincere attempt to restore good order to the church, and to refocus the denomination’s attention on its mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
United Methodists understand every church must have a form of governance that provides a way for it to discern God’s will when it comes to defining its core theological and ethical beliefs. (And yes, unlike supporters of the One Church Plan, proponents of the TP believe our sexual ethics, teachings on marriage, and our ordination standards are core convictions that derive from Scripture and nearly 2,000 years of Christian teaching. These are not novel or esoteric claims; they are ones the vast majority of Christian faith communities ascribe to.) It is widely known that the important task of discernment in the UM Church is the purview of the General Conference – a body composed of duly elected clergy and lay delegates from around the world that speaks authoritatively for the whole church.
For over 45 years the UM Church has engaged in a debate over its sexual ethics, teachings on marriage, and its ordination standards. For many years that debate was a healthy and helpful one as one General Conference after another thoughtfully, prayerfully, and graciously engaged these matters. Blue ribbon panels were formed, studies were commissioned, and reports were widely shared. General Conference delegates, with civility, candor, and grace, debated the key issues repeatedly. And the results have always been a re-affirmation of not only the UM Church’s teachings on these matters, but what the vast majority of Christians world-wide have practiced and taught, in all times and all places, for the past 2,000 years.
Unfortunately, some progressives, particularly in the past six years, have decided to reject the UM Church’s time-honored way of discerning God’s will. Even though General Conferences have reaffirmed the church’s sexual ethics, teachings on marriage, and its ordination standards, they have embarked on a strategy of ecclesial defiance. And some of our bishops have abetted their defiance, and others have even joined in it.
Therefore, it is no surprise a proposal like the TP has been submitted to the special General Conference, and that it might actually pass. Laity and clergy want local churches where all people are warmly welcomed and the Gospel of Jesus Christ is passionately proclaimed. They also want a church where clergy and bishops promote and defend its standards. They want a church where good order is maintained. And they want a church that is growing, healthy and vibrant. Proponents of the TP want nothing more and expect nothing less.
So reactionaries can make their hyperbolic claims – the TP ushers in an “inquisition” or it is only interested in “enforcing the rules”– but the fact of the matter is the vast majority of United Methodists world-wide sincerely believe the church’s sexual ethics, teachings on marriage, and its ordination standards are grounded in Scripture and 2,000 years of Christian teaching. They believe the church has openly and fairly arrived at these teachings, reaffirmed them – repeatedly – and now rightly expect its clergy and bishops to abide by and embrace them. Current and prospective clergy members are not entitled to violate UM Church standards with impunity. And a church that prizes unity, health, and vitality cannot endlessly tolerate those who would brazenly undermine its core theological and ethical convictions.
Simply put, after years of defiance, the TP calls for the reaffirmation of the church’s sexual ethics, teachings on marriage and its ordination standards. It calls for accountability for those who refuse to abide by them. And it offers a generous and gracious pathway for those who want or need to part ways with the UM Church.
By Walter Fenton
Walter Fenton is an elder in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference and the WCA’s vice-president for strategic engagement.