By Walter Fenton
March 26, 2019
For the better part of two years United Methodist bishops in the U.S. told the church’s people to pray for the work of a select commission and a special called General Conference. The commission’s members (selected by the bishops) and the special conference (called by the bishops) were to present and pass a plan to resolve the church’s long, damaging debate over the church’s sexual ethics, teachings on marriage, and its ordination standards.
Now, not a week has gone by since the special General Conference without some U.S. bishop blasting, apologizing for, or stating his or her refusal to follow the will of the General Conference they convened and asked faithful United Methodists to pray for.
As is well known, the conference passed the Traditional Plan (TP) and rejected the bishops’ One Church Plan (OCP), so now some of them are throwing temper tantrums. They have called the TP harsh, punitive, unbiblical, un-Christian, mean-spirited, and any number of other things. It seems to have not dawned upon these bishops that rank and file United Methodists in their own episcopal areas and around the world are relieved the TP passed and the OCP failed. And therefore, their critique of the TP comes off as a condescending indictment of people who support biblical and ethical values that Christians have affirmed and promoted for 2000 years.
Rank and file United Methodists are right to ask, “Instead of pouncing on the Traditional Plan, shouldn’t our bishops be fairly assessing it and discerning how – as the church’s executives – they can faithfully implement it? Isn’t it their job to fulfill the will of the General Conference they asked us to be in prayer for?”
Since no such reflection seems to be forthcoming, it is time to briefly restate why orthodox evangelical United Methodists and General Conference delegates supported the legislation adopted by the General Conference.
After years of blatant and serial acts of defiance of the church’s Book of Discipline, the TP is the special General Conference’s laudable attempt to restore accountability and good order to the church. And it is not nearly as onerous as its detractors make it out to be.
The measures some bishops now decry as “harsh” were included in the plan because these very same bishops failed to uphold the church’s existing standards in the first place. The TP is the General Conference’s way of saying, “We are not going to allow a minority of clergy and bishops to accomplish their agenda via bullying tactics and acts of defiance. This is not the way we agreed to discern God’s will for the church.”
Second, the TP adopts and reinforces measures, like all denominations do, that clearly set forth theological and ethical standards it expects its members to embrace and defend. The plan does not force any one to do anything, since joining and continuing one’s membership in the church is a voluntary act. If some U.S. bishops and clergy regard the UM Church as benighted and un-Christian as they now claim it to be, they surely know they are free to part ways with people they evidently believe are provincial, punitive, and mean-spirited.
In fact, 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. Despite the overblown rhetoric, it is neither punitive nor harsh.
The vast majority of United Methodists sincerely believe the church’s sexual ethics, teachings on marriage, and its ordination standards are grounded in Scripture and 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. Our bishops and clergy 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.
Had the One Church Plan passed, no one doubts that that elusive “vast majority” of U.S. bishops would now be singing the General Conference’s praises and lecturing rank and file United Methodists on the importance of doing its will. But now that things have not gone their way, many of them are in a peevish and truculent mood. Instead of reflecting on their shortcoming and mistakes, they are busy taking comfort in the approximately two-thirds of U.S. delegates (largely progressive clergy like themselves) who supported the OCP, or fondly hoping the Judicial Council rules the TP unconstitutional.
Wise bishop would do well not to nurse their frustrations with the special General Conference they convened. They will look beyond the number of delegates who supported the OCP, and carefully consider the recent UM Communications survey that reveals United Methodists in the U.S. are far more conservative than many of the individuals who typically get elected to General Conference. They will note that the progressive Western and Northeastern Jurisdictions are hemorrhaging regular worship attendees leading to forced district and annual conference mergers. They will see decline in worship attendance is now broad based across the U.S., and realize it is naïve to believe the dramatic losses are because the church is not as progressive as they think it should be. And finally, they will be taking stock of where the church is growing and determining if they can, as good faith partners, walk forward with a globally diverse UM church that is increasingly orthodox and evangelical.
At a minimum, rank and file United Methodists are right to hope the U.S. bishops will never again rally behind a failed “winner-take-all” plan like the OCP. Their plan failed to include good faith compromises (e.g., gracious exit provisions for all United Methodist clergy and local churches), ran counter to the will of the vast majority in the global UM Church, and resulted in a divisive and very expensive special General Conference.
Many United Methodists are now recognizing a negotiated plan of separation is the only sensible way forward. We hope the vast majority of our U.S. bishops do so as well.
The Rev. Walter Fenton is a retired clergy member of the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference and vice-president for strategic engagement at the Wesleyan Covenant Association.