As we move toward the 2020 General Conference we are facing gridlock. The problem is systemic. The Discipline never envisioned this situation and the Constitution is designed to be a self-perpetuating unity.
Various proposals for restructuring are too complicated and politically unviable. Different scenarios for creating three branches within the current denomination or other such reconfigurations are unlikely to succeed given the overwhelming rejection of the Connectional Conference Plan in St. Louis.
Proposals for separation are also very complicated. A formal division requires constitutional amendments that may be too difficult and take too long to ratify. And it is unclear whether many moderates and progressives are willing to leave, choosing instead to stay in and attempt to retake the denomination.
The biggest problem with separation is that there is currently no new denomination(s) with which moderates and progressives can join. One cannot expect a congregation or annual conference to decide based on such an ambiguous situation.
There are no great options. But can we avoid a worst-case scenario of mass trials, withdrawals, and involuntary leaves of absences?
Any viable solution that comes before General Conference must
- Be as streamlined as possible to navigate the legislative process and judicial review. The fewer constitutional amendments, the better. It must conform, as much as possible, to current procedures in the Discipline. Legislative simplicity is key.
- Be a transitional plan. Because there is no existing denomination(s) to which churches and pastors can transfer, there must be a timeline and process that sets the stage for later development. The elements of risk must be reduced while allowing for a period of experimentation.
- Engender trust on all sides.
A MECHANISM NOT A VISION
The following is NOT a vision for the future but merely the mechanism that could engineer a vision for a way forward.
There are three key places in the Discipline that could be used to avoid further gridlock: provisional annual conferences, covenant/concordats, and federated/union churches. These already existing features of the Discipline could be retooled with modest revisions to engineer transitional changes.
1. Provisional Conferences [¶ 580-583]
The Constitution gives General Conference the authority to “define and fix the powers and duties of” provisional annual conferences (Sec. I. Art. IV, ¶ 11 and Sec. II. Art. IV, ¶ 16). Paragraphs 580-583 describes provisional annual conferences which are created for missional purposes whose limited membership does not qualify them for annual conference status. They are located in jurisdictional and central conferences, which are defined geographically, and thus have geographical features.
The parameters of these provisional annual conferences could be specified by General Conference. There might be progressive annual conferences which are permitted to forego the prohibitions on homosexuality. There may be moderate annual conferences which are organized along the lines of the One Church Plan. If for some reason a moderate-progressive coalition succeeds in overthrowing the Traditional Plan, then such provisional annual conferences could be a vehicle for traditionalists to leave.
Regardless of the specific features, all provisional annual conferences would be temporary. They would exist for only one quadrennium and by 2024 would become a new denomination(s).
Unlike a constitutional amendment, it does not require ratification but only consultation with central conferences and jurisdictional conferences “in which it is geographically located.” This would necessitate consultation with all jurisdictions and central conferences in which they would potentially be present.
The definition of a provisional annual conference will need to be amended to remove the reference to its size. Currently, it defines a provisional annual conference as a body that “because of its limited membership, does not qualify for annual conference status. [¶ 580]” Size and missional aim are the two qualifying features for a conference to have provisional status. If the word “limited” is removed, then the reference to membership need only imply the conference’s missional aim. Currently, self-avowed practicing homosexuals cannot be members of an annual conference. If General Conference removes or modifies this restriction for these provisional conferences, then they would not qualify for “annual conference status” because an annual conference cannot admit such members. At the same time, it would allow for these specialized provisional conferences of all sizes to be created.
There is only one constitutional amendment that may be needed for this plan. Constitutional rules governing the transfer of local churches [¶ 41] would need to add “provisional conferences” after “annual conference” (in two places). The amendment may also need to delete “in which it is geographically located.”
However, depending on how the Judicial Council would see it, this may not be needed because the provisional conference would be geographically located in/adjacent to several annual conferences. It depends on how you define the provisional conferences. If the definitions include geographical boundaries in addition to the abovementioned ideological parameters, then it might not require such a change. (An acceptable practice is that you can add to the Discipline as long as it does not contradict the mandatory requirement.)
The creation of these provisional conferences would allow churches and pastors who are ready to leave to pioneer the creation of a denomination(s) while still being connectional. Throughout the quadrennium local churches could be gradually taken into these conferences. The approval of pastors and churches to join this conference would be intentional and selected based on their capacity to carry out the task.
In short, the creation of provisional annual conferences would create a time of transition for the denomination and local churches to prepare for realignment.
2. Affiliated Autonomous, Covenanting and Concordat Denominations [¶ 570-574]
At the end of the quadrennium, these provisional annual conferences would be transferred into the denomination(s) that they had worked together to form [¶ 572.4]. The 2020 General Conference would create an inter-conference committee for these provisional annual conferences to do this work.
The new denomination(s) would be an affiliated autonomous Methodist church. This would require changing ¶ 570 to remove references to geography. These annual conferences would hold a convention(s) to found the denomination(s) simultaneously with the 2024 General Conference. The conclusion of both conferences would result in the signing of a covenant or a concordat [¶ 573, 574].
Afterward, for a specified time period, additional local churches and pastors would transfer into the new denomination.
Given the non-geographical nature of this new denomination, General Conference would have to amend ¶ 572 to permit the creation of such an affiliated autonomous church. The role of the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters [¶ 572.1,2,4; 2201] could be expanded to facilitate this work or a new standing committee would have to be created.
If no agreement is reached, the new denomination could become an autonomous Methodist church [¶ 570.1].
If the provisional annual conferences failed to form a denomination(s), they would be dissolved and their churches and pastors would be absorbed back into the United Methodist Church and subject to its rules.
In short, the creation of covenants/concordats would enable us to be connectional in new ways beyond a single denominational uniformity.
3. Federated/Union Local Churches [¶ 208 (a), (b); 2548]
After the creation of the new denomination(s), local churches that did not make the transition into the provisional annual conferences but find themselves in annual conferences with which they disagree could become federated or union churches. A federated church is a congregation that is “related to two or more denominations, with persons choosing to hold membership in one or the other of the denominations.” [¶ 208 (a)]. A union church is a congregation “with one unified membership roll [that] is related to two or more denominations.” [¶ 208 (b)] Moderate churches that feel affinity with both the United Methodist Church and the new denomination could choose to become a federated or union congregation with both denominations. This would enable a local church to express its diversity within the unity of their congregation. The covenant or concordat guarantees that the different standards of ordination and clergy membership be upheld and would specify the details of such appointments.
The process for deeding property to a federated church is straightforward and streamlined. It allows the local church to begin the process. There is no need to suspend the trust clause. This would not require an elaborate process, nor would it force annual conferences through a convoluted and contentious process of deciding their denominational affiliation. [¶ 2548]
This idea does not answer the question about the future of general church agencies and pensions. Nor does it address the future role of bishops. Those concerns would be addressed by a comprehensive vision. I am not offering a vision, only the mechanisms in the Discipline that could be used for any vision.
Perhaps the biggest legislative limitation may be the size. The Discipline assumes that provisional conferences are created because there are not enough pastors and congregations for such a missional endeavor to constitute an annual conference. However, there are several places in the United States where the majority of churches in an existing annual conference might want to be part of a such a provisional conference. Could an existing annual conference become a provisional annual conference? Practically speaking, what would happen to conservative congregations if a predominantly progressive annual conference sought provisional status? Would such an annual conference feel that “provisional” is a lesser status? If after four years it does not result in the formation of new denominations, does it become the incubator of a segregated denominational structure akin to the Central Jurisdiction?
Before any of these concerns can be addressed, moderates and progressives must make up their minds whether they want to leave. As long as there is a desire to stay in and resist the Traditional Plan, any legislative solution will be bogged down and a smooth transition will fail.
What I am proposing can meet the first two criterion but the last one, trust, is the most important. It remains to be seen whether there will be enough trust in Minneapolis to engineer any change.
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