Does anyone still assert with a straight face the absence of irreconcilable differences in The United Methodist Church? The arguments advanced in support of each of the plans addressed in the report of the Commission on a Way Forward strain credulity in their effort to posit that we can be united in one enterprise. Each of the plans emphasize how we are not one church.
Our differences on sexual ethics, the definition of marriage, and ordination standards are not in the same league as conflicts over worship styles. Whether our services will feature traditional or contemporary music revolves around personal preference. The church’s teachings regarding human sexuality focus on issues of the Christian understanding of anthropology, the doctrine of creation, and the relationship between God (in the interrelationship of the Trinity) and those God is intent on saving.
The One Church Plan acknowledges that we are not united on matters of core doctrine as it strives to carve out autonomy for each annual conference, local church, and pastor to make independent decisions on sexual ethics, the definition of marriage, and ordination standards. Under its provisions, each annual conference potentially will have different standards for ordination. Laity will be excluded from the crucial decision of whether persons currently ineligible for ordination will now be ordained. The lack of unity is further underscored by the extent to which the One Church Plan goes to ensure that pastors, bishops, and churches that reject the new teachings it would adopt are not forced to violate their principles or conscious. Despite arguments advanced by its proponents, the One Church Plan will not insulate conferences outside the United States from the radical changes it makes in the teachings of the UM Church.
The Connectional Conference Plan by its very design demonstrates we are not united. It acknowledges our irreconcilable differences by creating three conferences which will hold different positions on sexual ethics, the definition of marriage, and ordination standards. Under the Connectional Conference Plan, we will be “united” in name only. Some find even that façade of unity to be unconscionable as it presents a divided witness to the world we seek to reach with the Gospel.
Neither the One Church Plan nor the Connectional Conference Plan provides a means by which individual congregations or groups of congregations can exit the UM Church apart from potentially contentious negotiations and/or litigation. Advocates for these two plans apparently believe unity can be forced upon others. While barriers may be erected to local churches responding with integrity to the very real differences that exist, individual members of local churches encounter no barriers to voting with their feet by withdrawing from attendance or membership, and by reducing or stopping their giving. Declines in average worship attendance and projections of significantly reduced giving demonstrate that unity cannot be forcibly imposed. The experience of other mainline Christian denominations illustrate the devastation to mission and witness that results from such an approach.
The Traditional Plan alone honestly engages the irreconcilable differences present in the UM Church. Unity can only be grounded in integrity to settled doctrine and teaching. The Traditional Plan clearly states and requires adherence to settled doctrine and teaching. Acknowledging there are those who are committed to contrary doctrine and teaching, the Traditional Plan provides a path for those who adhere to such contrary doctrine and teaching to exit the UM Church. They can do so without penalty and with all of their assets and liabilities intact so they can pursue their vision for a progressive church. Contentious negotiations and/or litigation are avoided because the terms of such an exit are clearly stated in advance.
One thing is certain as we approach the 2019 special General Conference. The UM Church will change. Even if there is no change to the current disciplinary provisions on our sexual ethics, definition of marriage, and ordination standards, and even if there is no provision made to address the outright defiance of our order and discipline by some bishops, annual conferences, pastors, and local churches, there will be churches – even groups of churches – that will depart.
The time has come for the UM Church to address the conflict which has contributed to the existential crisis it faces by facilitating a coalition of the willing and committed. Efforts to force individuals and churches to remain united will only escalate and deepen the crisis we are facing. The special General Conference has been tasked with making a definitive decision on the most divisive issues confronting our church. There is no middle ground that will please all in the midst of our irreconcilable differences. Making a definitive decision is essential for the future effectiveness of the church.
Why would an institution – the UM Church – want to force the unwilling to be part of that to which they are not passionately and freely committed? The only rationale for doing so is a mindset which exalts institution at the expense of mission.
At its inception, the Commission on a Way Forward announced that any plan(s) which it advanced would include a gracious exit path for those who could not live within a plan. The Council of Bishops, overstepping its role, directed the Commission to not provide such an exit path and so further consideration of exit paths by the Commission was abandoned.
The delegates to the special General Conference are not bound by the directions of the Council of Bishops and are not limited by the work of the Commission. The delegates should take up, as its first substantive action, the adoption of a fair and gracious exit path, which would be available to any church or group of churches that cannot commit to the ultimate decision made by the special General Conference. Can we not agree on how we should fairly and graciously treat one another in the midst of our irreconcilable differences?
For the sake of its continued existence and effectiveness, the UM Church needs to make a decisive decision on that which has divided us. We cannot afford to be double-minded any longer. Persons of integrity and sincere conviction inhabit conflicting positions on that which divides us. At a minimum, let us find a way to bless one another in the process of moving to decision. Abraham and Lot found such a way. Paul and Barnabas achieved such an outcome. In our own history, John Wesley and George Whitefield found such a path. May our story be added to theirs!
By Keith Boyette
Keith Boyette is president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, and an ordained elder in the Virginia Conference of The United Methodist Church.