A Modest Way Forward

By Walter Fenton

January 18, 2019

Despite fundamental disagreements over sexual ethics, teachings on marriage, and ordination standards, many United Methodists do agree on some things related to the debate.

First, many acknowledge differences on these matters are irreconcilable. Despite nearly a half-century of roundtable discussions, major studies, debates, and votes at scores of annual, jurisdictional, central, and General Conferences, no resolution has been reached. And regrettably, it is unlikely any genuine resolution will be reached at the special General Conference in late February. No one will be able to claim a mandate for the future direction of the denomination if the votes are as close as many anticipate.

Second, many United Methodists are also willing to agree the debate has sometimes become so shrill and divisive that it has attracted the unwanted attention of local and national media outlets. No matter where United Methodists stand on the issues, they regret the wider culture’s perception of their church as one that is fractious and dysfunctional.

And finally, many United Methodists in the U.S. acknowledge the debate has contributed to a steady decline in membership, an alarming drop in average worship attendance (approximately 900,000 since the turn of the century), and significant financial challenges for annual conferences and the general church (a proposed 18 percent cut in the general church budget).

Building on agreement around these observations, the 864 delegates set to meet at the special called General Conference in St. Louis should, at a minimum, reach consensus around one modest proposal: pass a petition allowing local churches to exit the denomination with their property and assets less any liabilities they owe to their annual conference (e.g., unfunded pension obligations, outstanding loan payments). Such a path would allow churches most committed to a specific perspective and most invested in a particular resolution to withdraw from the conflict in order to follow their own deeply held convictions.

For instance, staunchly traditionalist congregations in predominantly centrist to progressive U.S. annual conferences would entertain the option. It is typically in these annual conferences where a handful of progressive clergy defy the church’s teachings, where traditionalists respond by filing complaints, and where a bishop has been either unwilling or unable to hold the defiant accountable. Since the lack of accountability does not actually change the church’s teachings, progressives’ ultimate goals remain unfulfilled, and traditionalists feel betrayed by the lack of accountability to what they regard as some of the church’s core teachings and ethical standards. And of course everyone regrets the distraction of handling complaints, holding church trials, and all the expense and negative publicity that come with them. It is no wonder these annual conferences are experiencing the largest rates of decline in average worship attendance; to both insiders and outsiders they appear, like the general church, perpetually locked in conflict. Were these centrist and progressive annual conferences willing to offer fair exit terms to traditionalist local churches, it would diminish a good deal of the divisiveness not only in their conferences, but also across the entire connection. The same would be true for progressive congregations in traditional annual conferences that assert they are restricted in their mission by the church’s teachings. Exits in these circumstances would go a long way to eliminating the conflict that has roiled the denomination for decades.

This is actually a reasonable and tested way forward for the whole church. In the past few years some annual conferences and local churches have reached accommodations allowing local churches to exit. By and large, these negotiated exits were as amicable as one could expect given the volatility of our present circumstances. Fair-minded bishops, pastors, and lay leaders have reached agreements where the exiting congregation departed with all its property and assets, and paid an exit fee that allowed the annual conference time to adjust to the loss of the local church’s annual apportionment payments. These negotiated departures have avoided the expense and negative publicity of litigation in civil courts.

Admittedly, the passage of an exit provision alone would not immediately solve the long and acrimonious debate over the church’s sexual ethics, teachings on marriage, and ordination standards, but it would be a step in the right direction. Its passage would augment the stated goals of each of the major plans coming before the special General Conference. To its credit, the modified traditional plan acknowledges this by including a gracious exit provision. For one church plan proponents, who want peace and comity, an exit provision would actually go a long way to achieving their goal. The exit provision is a modest proposal that does not undermine any of the plans, and in fact would aid in the implementation of which ever one passed.

Thankfully, the Commission on General Conference’s Committee on Reference has ruled that a number of exit petitions are properly before the special General Conference. Therefore, delegates will have several options to choose from. Most are straightforward, require only a majority of delegates to pass them, and are fairly easy to implement.

A courageous group of clergy and laity in the West Ohio Conference addressed the need for an exit provision this past September. They acknowledged significant differences of opinions with one another, and yet they managed to agree that after nearly 50 years of debate, divisiveness, and decline, it is time for the UM Church to give local congregations the freedom to exit. Some of the original signers are earnest advocates for the one church plan, or the modified traditional plan, or other proposals, but they all agree that no matter what plan is adopted the General Conference delegates should pass a fair exit provision. Nearly two thousand people have added their names to this call for an exit path; it is still open for additional signatures.

The special General Conference gives the UM Church the opportunity to act with some modesty and humility. It can acknowledge that it is not the church, and therefore allowing some of its local congregations to depart is hardly on par with the great schism between East and West in the Middle Ages. The delegates can help us admit Christian denominations sometimes have irreconcilable differences, and sometimes the best way to acknowledge them is to allow some local churches to exit as fairly as possible.

To be sure, departures would be regrettable, but they need not be fatal to the UM Church, and they certainly would not be to the church universal. However, as things now stand, the UM Church’s internal conflicts are not only undermining its own health and vitality, they are also contributing to the diminishment of the greater church in the U.S. and Europe at a time when it can ill afford it. The UM Church’s fractional and fictional unity is doing more harm to the church catholic than any self-sorting among its local congregations would do. A modest exit would allow like-minded local churches of whatever stripe to band together and be about their missional aims as they discern them.

Contact your delegates to the General Conference and graciously note your support for a fair exit. It is time, in a spirit of grace and peace, to bring our long and weary debate to an end.

The Rev. Walter Fenton is an elder in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference and is the WCA’s vice-president for strategic engagement.

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