Back in May, I first wrote a blog post explaining our current impasse as a denomination and the work being done to try and reconcile those differences without creating division. I also created a website to keep us up to date with the various details of this “Way Forward” sought by our denomination’s bishops, clergy, and laity. As I explain developments below, it may be helpful to reference either page.
I write today because we now have more detail on each of the plans than we had before. Below, after a few explanatory comments, I outline what each plan will mean for us as a church to the best of my current understanding. I feel comfortable doing that now because we have additional detail which has proven clarifying and resourceful. That said, we must note that this process is fluid and changes will continue to come. I will keep us abreast of those changes as I am aware.
Please continue to seek me out to ask questions, share fears and worries, offer comments, or process this more. One way or the other, something will impact us after February, 2019. I’ll continue to do my best to guide us through these turbulent waters to our safe harbor, for God has prepared a way for us and will, in the end, calm the storm.
A few weeks ago, the Council of Bishops (the executive branch of our denomination) asked the Judicial Council (our Supreme Court) to review each of the three plans presented by the Commission on a Way Forward. These are the plans outlined as “sketches” back in May: the traditionalist plan, the one church model, and the connectional conference plan. The Judicial Council released its October docket yesterday, including the full details of all three plans. I have included a link to the full document on the Way Forward webpage.
Before delving into details, the bishops asked the Judicial Council to review these plans to ensure that the plans do not violate our Constitution. Just like the federal government, our denomination has a constitution that sets the basic governance structure. This action by the bishops is proactive, wanting to ensure that any plan passed by General Conference (our legislature) in February, 2019, would not be later ruled by the Judicial Council as unconstitutional and thus void. The council will hear oral arguments in October of this year and issue its ruling, probably, the same month. This grants time for any plans found unconstitutional, in total or in part, to be revised based on the Judicial Council’s ruling prior to being considered by our legislature.
How would each affect Eastman First?
The One Church Model
The One Church model would more than likely have little effect on this congregation. Each church currently maintains the authority to determine a policy on weddings. The One Church Model would allow churches to extend that authority to include gay weddings in their sanctuaries. The default position of the denomination, however, would be to disallow gay weddings in sanctuaries unless congregations specifically opt in.
Clergy, like myself, currently maintain authority to determine if they will marry a couple and can deny officiating a wedding for any reason or no reason at all. This plan would extend that authority to include gay couples. Clergy would be free to do what weddings they pleased offsite but would be restricted in the kinds of weddings they could do at the church by their congregation’s wedding policy.
Annual Conferences currently maintain the authority to determine who will be ordained. Like churches and clergy under this plan, each Annual Conference could opt in to ordaining LGBT individuals. Churches would communicate to their District Superintendent during a pastoral transition of their willingness, or unwillingness, to accept an LGBT clergy person.
The Connectional Conference Model
This plan creates significant change to our structure as a denomination and would impact our church by likely requiring choices, by votes, regarding denominational affiliation.
Jurisdictional and Central Conferences would be replaced by three “Connectional Conferences,” defined by their stance on LGBT inclusion. A traditional connectional conference would maintain our current stance and include additional means of accountability for violations of policy. A unity connectional conference would grant individual freedom to congregations and clergy persons, much like the One Church Model. A progressive connectional conference would allow for full inclusion of LGBT individuals as clergy and in weddings, without question, across all of its churches and Annual Conferences.
Local churches could have to vote to change affiliation should their Annual Conference go in a different direction than the church desires. For example, if South Georgia decided to be a part of the Traditional Connectional Conference, but this church desired to be part of the Unity Connectional Conference, we would vote on moving our church to that different Connectional Conference.
Clergy persons, likewise, would have to decide about affiliation with a particular connectional conference. This could create separation of clergy from their current appointments, but the plan allows for clergy from, say, the traditional connectional conference to serve a church in the progressive connectional conference, provided that pastor is willing to abide by the rules and regulations of the connectional conference to which the church belongs.
This plan, broadly, allows for churches, clergy, and laity of different convictions to exist under one roof, sharing central services like the Board of Missions and the Board of Pensions, but have much governance moved to the connectional conference that matches their conviction about LGBT inclusion. It is also the least likely to pass because it requires many constitutional amendments. Rather than the General Conference (our legislature) simply approving the plan (as with the other two), enactment would require two-thirds of all voting Annual Conference delegates from around the world to approve all of the constitutional amendments. Should that not occur, the plan would fail and we would be, after a couple of years of voting, largely unchanged from our current impasse.
The Traditionalist Plan
This plan likely would initiate significant change to the denomination by forcing a split. It maintains the current stance of The United Methodist Church, which is exclusive of gay weddings and LGBT ordination, and adds measures to ensure accountability for those who violate these standards.
The Traditionalist Plan stands in contrast to the other two plans by tightening restrictions and language rather than loosening to allow greater flexibility and freedom of expression of conscience. The plan instead asks for conformity to present standards across the denomination. As such, the authors expect it to cause division and a split in the church, which leads them to offer the most concrete and specific means by which those who disagree could leave the denomination, whether churches or clergy.
That is how this church would most likely be impacted. Even should this congregation be supportive of the traditionalist plan, enough churches across the denomination would disagree, whether of progressive or even moderate persuasion, and would take the exit offered. This would lead to a realignment of annual conferences and a redistribution of clergy, creating a temporary, but large, disruption, and resulting in a smaller United Methodist Church.
It should be noted that all the plans offer a means by which clergy and churches who, by conscience, disagree with the decision of the General Conference in 2019, may leave the denomination with pension and property respectively. That means that, if the General Conference approved a plan this church found objectionable, there would be means by which the church could leave The United Methodist Church and keep our property. The same holds true for me, or for any clergy person, who would, as a matter of conscience, need to leave the denomination. We would be able to take the full value of our pensions with us.
I hope this has proven helpful. Again, please contact me with questions, concerns, and thoughts.