The Way Forward
In February 2019, at a Special Session of the General Conference, United Methodist delegates from around the world will decide how to move forward as a denomination regarding human sexuality. A diverse, 32-member “Commission on a Way Forward” appointed by the Council of Bishops spent the past two years working to address the denomination’s differences on this topic.
The commission recently forwarded two detailed plans to the Council of Bishops for their consideration: the One-Church Plan and the Connectional Conferences Plan. A late-arriving third plan, the Traditionalist Plan, was also discussed and presented in the historical narrative of the commission’s work.
Below is a brief, objective look at each plan. Full detail is available at a link further down to the Commission’s report.
[recommended by the Council of Bishops & will be brought for legislative consideration in February 2019]
This plan would allow for contextualization in different parts of the world [adapting some non-essential practices to different mission fields to maximize our witness and success in each place]. It is based on the belief that we can be a church with a large enough tent for people to disagree about homosexuality and yet remain together as The United Methodist Church. It allows us to affirm that our unity and mission are more important than our disagreements.
Some of the key components of this plan:
It will neither affirm nor condemn LGBTQ persons. It would remove the controversial statement from the Book of Discipline that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching” which has been experienced as hurtful by gay persons and alienating by younger generations.
It relies on pastoral discretion. Clergy would decide which weddings to officiate or not officiate. Clergy—through their normal Board of Ordained Ministry process—would discern who is fit and fruitful for clergy service in their annual conference. This plan would remove the current prohibitions without creating new obligations or affirmation. This plan should put an end to clergy trials that are damaging to individuals and to our public witness.
It respects local church wishes. As for weddings, no local church would be forced to vote. However, the church property would not be used in same-sex weddings unless the local church updates its local church policy specifically to allow it. As for clergy assignment, bishops would consider local wishes concerning who is or is not a good fit for their appointment. So, practically speaking, there would be gay weddings and gay ordination in some parts of the United Methodist world, but it would not be forced on local churches.
It protects clergy rights to individual conscience. The Book of Discipline would protect clergy who do not want to officiate same-sex weddings. Likewise, all would be allowed to follow their conscience in matter of ordination.
Pros of this plan:
· Allows for contextualization in different parts of the U.S. [this already exists in Africa, Asia, and Europe].
· More coherent theology for unity because it no longer assumes that human sexuality is the defining theological issue for The UMC.
· No more clergy trials.
Cons of this plan:
· Does not completely satisfy the progressives because it does not bar some kinds of discrimination against married homosexuals in some parts of the UMC.
· Does not completely satisfy the traditionalists because allowing same-sex marriage in any form violates their particular interpretation of scripture.
Connectional Conferences Model
[considered but not recommended by Council of Bishops]
The Connectional Conferences Model is grounded in a unified core that includes shared doctrine and services, and one Council of Bishops, while creating different branches that would have clearly defined values such as accountability, contextualization, and justice.
In the U.S., the five geographically distinct jurisdictional conferences would be replaced by three overlapping conferences: one traditional conference, one progressive conference, and one centrist or “uniting” conference. Each annual conference would choose to be a member of one of the three connectional conferences based on their affinity to the conference’s theological stance on homosexuality. Any local church that disagrees with the annual conference decision could vote to join a different branch conference.
Pros of this plan:
· Makes a place for all three viewpoints within the UMC and yet creates enough separation that there is clarity for each position.
· Conferences and local churches could make a clear choice on human sexuality and yet enjoy some of the missional advantages of remaining a global church.
Cons of this plan:
· Creates a complex structure that is more congregational than connectional.
· It would take years of administrative work to put this in place — many constitutional amendments that would be difficult to ratify in annual conferences around the world.
· Churches may split as they try to determine which branch they will join.
· Some traditionalists would still be upset that LGBTQ people are being affirmed in some parts of the UMC.
· Some progressives would still be upset that LGBTQ people are being discriminated against in the UMC.
[not recommended by Council of Bishops]
The Traditionalist Model would affirm the current Book of Discipline statement that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Boards of Ordained Ministry would still be prohibited from recommending LGBTQ candidates for ordination. Officiating same-sex marriages would still be a chargeable offense, and being a self-avowed and practicing gay clergy would continue to be a chargeable offense.
The Traditionalist Model would demand increased accountability to the Book of Discipline—not only for individual pastors but also for churches, bishops, and even annual conferences, all of which could face punishment.
Pros of this plan:
· Essentially preserves the status quo, which some want.
· Requires no changes to our structure.
Cons of this plan:
· It is a plan for keeping the status quo; fighting will continue and it will compromise our mission with costly trials.
· Plan is not a plan for unity; it tells the progressives to leave.
· We would likely lose most of our millennials and the next generations.
The UMC occupies a unique place, generally at the intersection between evangelical and mainline denominations. I believe this is why people from diverse backgrounds find compatibility in the UMC. On the global stage, the UMC has a unique composition: progressive and conservative people together under a global democratic representative polity with episcopal governance.
The Methodist tradition, which began in the 18th century, has gone through many schisms, reunions, branches, and offshoots before 1968, when the Methodist Church and the Evangelical Brethren Church merged to form the present day United Methodist Church. Through our conferencing system, people called Methodists advanced the rights of women to become clergy  and to fully include African American congregations and pastors . These two advancements made United Methodism the most inclusive denomination in America; and, it is still the largest denomination affirming women’s ordination.
The only body that can set official policy and speak for the denomination is the General Conference, which is as an international body of nearly 1,000 delegates that meets every four years. The delegates are elected by annual conferences [like our North Georgia Annual Conference], and represent those annual conferences from around the world. Half of the delegates are laity and half are clergy.
During General Conference, delegates discuss and vote on petitions and resolutions proposed by individuals, agencies, annual conferences, and other groups. These actions may result in revisions of the Book of Discipline, the UMC’s book of law, and the Book of Resolutions, policies of the UMC on current social issues.
It is at General Conference where delegates wrestle with today's issues in light of scriptural teachings and the church's understanding of that teaching. Here is where the church's official positions are made regarding such issues as human sexuality, war and peace, environmental concerns, as well as determination of ministries and funding. Regular General Conferences are held every four years: 2008, 2012, 2016, etc.
In 1972, the present language regarding prohibitions against LGBTQ persons was added to our Book of Discipline. Increasing tension, hurting, and a deepening gridlock related to human sexuality and unity of the church led to a Special Session of the General Conference being called for in February 2019. Amid the gridlocked debate at the 2016 General Conference, the “A Way Forward” process was put forth by the UMC bishops. The plan included establishing a Commission of a diverse group of UM laity, clergy, and bishops, tasked with discerning a plan for a way forward for the denomination.
So what is happening now?
For two years, the Commission worked in the development of a proposal to the Council of Bishops called the “One Church Plan.” The plan and other work of the commission are available in their full report, at this link:
Local churches are sharing information in articles such as this and with discussion sessions, as we plan to have. Our Atlanta-Marietta District Superintendent is hosting sessions to help pastors and lay-leadership be more effective in sharing and facilitating thought, as we begin to near General Conference in 2019. One session was held at Hillside UMC in September and one will be hosted in October at Mt. Zion.
The important thing to keep in mind at present, is that no decision has been made regarding the proposal or change in language in the Book of Discipline. The “One Church” proposal will be presented for discussion and considered for vote by the delegation. But, we must wait for the outcome of the session in February 2019 to see if it was adopted, a variation was adopted, or the status quo was maintained.
The North Georgia delegation to General Conference may be found at the link below. They were our delegates for the regular session in 2016, and remain as such until the next regular session in 2020:
These persons will be voting at the special General Conference in 2019; therefore, if you would like to make your position known, we can help you make contact. I will also be glad to answer questions on the process and share information as it is available. As we approach the Special Called General Conference, United Methodists around the world are asked to pray each day from 2:23-2:26, numbers that correspond to the dates of February 23-26, 2019.