by Ted A. Campbell
Christ, have mercy upon us.
What would a real “win” have looked like at the General Conference? Imagine:
- St. Louis, February 26, 2019: General Conference votes to adopt the One Church Plan. Traditionalists say, “Well, you know, we tried to make our case. Maybe someday we’ll come back to this, but for now, we’ll create committees focusing on LGBTQIA+ inclusion in our congregations and work on making these folks feel welcome.”
- St. Louis, February 26, 2019: General Conference votes to adopt a Modified Traditional Plan. Progressives say, “Well, you know, we tried to make our case, but didn’t quite succeed. Maybe some time in the future our grandkids or great-grandkids will bring this up, but for now our church has made up its mind and we’ll just work on holding more revivals and Bible teaching.”
Is that what a “win” would have looked like? No. Those are fictions. Surely no one felt like uncontested victors at the end of the slugfest that was the General Conference of 2019.
What would it take to convince you that this is a genuinely intractable situation?
If you didn’t see the concluding day of General Conference 2019, you can watch the re-runs, but for the sake of your spiritual walk, I would advise against it. Nothing could have convinced me more certainly that the present situation is one that doesn’t work and that’s harming our ability to carry out our mission “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” The current situation is intractable. It isn’t going to work. It’s hurting us.
So I hate to ask this, but:
Now that we recognize an intractable situation, do we take the default route of thorough denominational division, or is there a better way to divide?
I think that’s the question now. We are divided. The question is: What visible forms will our division take? That’s the question we need to think about long and hard and systematically and prayerfully. Right now.
It’s hard to envision a better way to divide, because there are few if any precedents. I can’t name one that actually went into effect, unless you include the “division” of Catholic religious orders. John Wesley didn’t intend to divide from the Church of England. He himself didn’t divide, although his actions, some of them contrary to the rules of his church, became a division in America within his lifetime. Division is in the DNA of Protestants and the model in our minds is of a thorough separation. Protestants like to quote, “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord” (II Corinthians 6:17).
Thorough denominational divisions have hindered Christian ministries in the past and do so in the present. The constitution of the UMC says:
“The Church of Jesus Christ exists in and for the world, and its very dividedness is a hindrance to its mission in the world.”
Please, I beg you, do not presume that thorough denominational division is the only possible form our division can take. And please, I pray to our Savior Jesus Christ, let us find a better way to divide.
It has been observed by Dr. Natalya Cherry and others that the Commission on a Way Forward did actually provide a good example of how we could think together about the issues that divide us. They did: the tragedy is that even that process was eventually politicized and the group shifted from favoring the Connectional Conference Plan to advocating either the Traditional Plan or the One Church Plan. And that obviously didn’t work.
I don’t accept the objection that the Connectional Conference Plan cannot succeed because it requires constitutional amendments. Surely everyone who viewed the tragic spectacle of the 2019 general conference knows that we need constitutional change. I don’t carry for creating a new structure called “connectional conferences.” But nothing could be clearer to me than this:
we need a degree of separation, and we need ways to remain connected.
The Connectional Conference Plan, however flawed, held out the possibility of a serious division within a church that nevertheless retained ways to remain connected to each other.
I’m not a polity expert. I have never been a delegate to a general conference. But I can suggest that the following four elements of constitutional change might bring us closer to a better way of remaining connected even with seriously divergent groups within our communion:
- We should collapse the disparity between jurisdictional and central conferences, establishing all of them as central conferences. Jurisdictions were born in the sin of regional and racial prejudice. Let’s be done with them. Central conferences were born out of a desire to empower people in particular regions and cultures to adapt their structures for their mission. Let’s take central conferences as the model. That’s a constitutional change we need.
- For the sake of mission in particular overlapping cultures, we should allow for overlapping central conferences in the USA and elsewhere. Geographical regions and cultures are not coterminous. We have in the past employed overlapping jurisdictions for evil in the case of the racially segregated Central Jurisdiction. But we have also in the past employed overlapping annual conferences for the sake of culture-specific missions, such as the Oklahoma Indian Mission Conference, the Rio Grande Annual Conference, and language-based conferences for speakers of Swedish, German, and Norwegian, and other languages. And we developed central conferences for a similar, mission-based reason, though we limited them to discrete geographic regions. This is a constitutional change we need.
- To implement this, we should allow general conferences to establish new central conferences apart from constitutional change. The global Discipline does not need to specify the central conferences. We can be more flexible, allowing general conferences to establish them or change their boundaries or dissolve them as necessary. That is (perhaps ironically) a constitutional change we need.
- Finally, we should allow central conferences (as described in the previous points) to establish their own standards for ministry, their own social principles, and their own liturgical traditions, within the bounds of the present restrictive rules in the Constitution. It might be that some elements of social principles and standards for ministry could be established at the global level, but different central conferences would in effect develop their own church cultures around social teachings, standards of ministry and forms of liturgy. The issue of what marriages could be performed by clergy would become a liturgical issue, as it arguably should be. That’s a big constitutional change, but one I think we we need.
These four changes would result in a smaller global Book of Discipline, but a much more flexible church structure that could address seriously diverging cultures in creative ways. Each central conference would need to adopt its own form of discipline, incorporating the global Discipline, and specifying their own social principles, standards for ministry, social principles, and liturgical consensus.
These changes might result in overlapping central conferences in the US along the lines of the current divisions, but I see no reason why we should presuppose that these particular divisions might be the only ones we would need. I can foresee that we will need the flexibility in the future to address new cultural situations.
What would remain for the global United Methodist Church after such changes? Please don’t say, “Nothing.” For one thing, the doctrine specified in the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith would remain. Another thing that would remain would be the ethos specified in the General Rules, which badly need a contemporary revival as both David Lowes Watson and Kevin Watson have argued. The use of the Wesleyan Standards (at least the Standard Sermons) as a grounds for distinctly Wesleyan teachings on the “way of salvation” should remain. And as suggested above, perhaps there are specific social teachings (like opposition to slavery and other forms of human trafficking) that should be specified at a global level.
It’s Ash Wednesday. I have ashes on my forehead, imposed by a Catholic priest on our campus at a united campus service. I love my church, and I don’t want to be thoroughly divided from sisters and brothers in it. And so on Ash Wednesday I pray: Christ, have mercy on us.