At long last, the United Methodist Church has posted detailed proposals (.pdfs here) from its emergency “Commission on a Way Forward” to address what it calls the “deepening impasse” over whether to approve actively gay clergy and same-sex weddings.
Leaders of America’s second-largest Protestant denomination hope to end this 46-year conflict and avoid schism by uniting around one of three plans from the commission at an extraordinary General Conference, next Feb. 23-26 in St. Louis.
An added news peg: The Council of Bishops is asking the Oct. 23-26 meeting of the UMC’s highest court (Judicial Council) to rule on whether each concept is constitutional. Consider that headline: If the jurists reject one, or two, or all three of the plans, could the General Conference legislate an outlawed proposal anyway?
Watch for reactions to the three plans from this weekend’s (July 26-29) meeting at the St. Louis Airport Hilton of the Love Your Neighbor Coalition. Its 12-member caucuses want “full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people.” Speakers include the UMC’s first married lesbian bishop, Colorado-based Karen Oliveto (email@example.com, 303-733-0083). A key coalition source will be Jan Lawrence (firstname.lastname@example.org, 773-736-5526), executive director of the Reconciling Ministries Network.
Here are salient aspects of the study commission’s proposals.
* One Church Plan -- The majority of bishops and commission members favor what amounts to “local option” across the U.S. Regional units (“annual conferences”), congregations, bishops and pastors would be free to decide whether to uphold or reject the UMC’s existing stance against homosexual relationships. Conservative congregations could still avoid gay clergy. Pastors and clergy candidates on either side could switch from annual conferences or congregations they disagree with. Proponents say this will end church trials and other tumult, and honor consciences on both sides. This also changes, of course, the church's commitment to centuries of Christian doctrine.
* Traditionalist Plan -- Just before the commission concluded its business in May, nine of the 32 members insisted on this sort of option alongside the other two plans. Oddly, with no time to craft such a proposal the commission offers a mere “sketch” as sent to the bishops last November. Basically, it retains traditional Christian (and current UMC) doctrines but would clarify definitions and toughen disciplinary procedures against Methodists who defy church teachings on sexuality.
* Connectional Conference Plan -- This remarkable concept, favored by 12 study commission members, is said to express “the reality of the UMC as it is now” though it questions whether “United” in the denomination’s name remains fitting. Existing U.S. structures would dissolve and Methodists would reshuffle themselves into three overlapping entities based on theology instead of geography: the Traditional Connectional Conference (operating like the above plan), the Unity Connectional Conference (like the “One Church” plan), and the Progressive Connectional Conference (following new liberal policies across the board). There'd be major changes for UMC agencies and structures.
Names to note: Three commission members filed 48 related petitions with the Judicial Council. The One Church advocate is the Rev. Thomas Berlin of Floris UMC in Herndon, Va. (email@example.com, 703-793-0026), a onetime conservative who moved left. The Traditionalist supporter is the Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, number-two man with conservative Good News Magazine (firstname.lastname@example.org, 920-475-6000). The Connectional Conference filings come from Patricia Miller, a veteran Indiana state senator and executive director of the conservative Confessing Movement (email@example.com, 317-695-5641).
Do the Lambrecht and Miller filings mean conservatives are divided on strategy? And will this aid the liberal cause?
Conservatives gain from the fact that, unlike other U.S. “mainline” denominations that have changed doctrines on sexuality, the UMC encompasses a sizable foreign constituency -- especially in Africa and the Philippines. The conservative churches overseas have grown over the past half-century as the U.S. flock steadily declined, and now claim 42 percent of UMC members.
Then there’s this massive question. Pastors who quit the UMC are guaranteed accrued pension benefits, but what happens to congregations that reject the new UMC policy? For instance, Good News publisher the Rev. Rob Renfroe (firstname.lastname@example.org, 832-813-8327) on July 10 said it’s “ludicrous” to let Methodists select what sexual ethic they prefer, and such a setup “will force us to leave the church.” Other “mainline” denominations have waged costly legal fights to seize dropouts’ buildings and assets.
The bishops decided that next February’s legislation will sidestep “exit possibilities.”
Perhaps due to brain freeze after slogging through 231 pages of texts, The Religion Guy remains unclear how the three plans would treat walkouts. Reporters should note details of the UMC’s “trust clause” that is currently in force and pursue this topic with experts.