United Methodist Church Way Forward Part 6: My concerns about the One Church Plan

"Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD..."  Isaiah 1:18 (ESV)

For the rest of this series, I wanted to share my concerns about the Way Forward process, the decisions facing the General Conference (GC) of 2019, as the GC attempts to discern if and how we can move forward together given our significant differences not only over the morality of homosexuality and the definition of marriage, but also the nature of Biblical authority, Biblical hermeneutics (especially the role of church tradition in interpreting the Bible), the extent of ecclesiastical authority, church discipline and the keeping of ordination vows.

Because the Council of Bishops has chosen to promote the 'One Church Plan', my attention in this piece will be devoted to it, though I'll say a bit about the others as well (in a later post).

I have friends and colleagues whom I respect that believe that the One Church Plan really is the best hope, the best way forward for the church.  I invite anyone who reads this post to consider the reasons for the critiques I offer; come reason with me.  I am looking at the evidence provided by the experience of our own and other denominations to support my points below.  There may be good reasons to think I am wrong on some of these points.  This post is not 'aimed at' any person or group in particular, just my own assessment of the One Church Plan's problems and the probable fallout were it adopted.

While I have concerns about all three of the plans that may be considered by General Conference as a 'Way Forward' for us in our division (see Post 1 in this series for a description of the plans), the One Church Plan is, in my view, the worst.  Why?


I do not believe the One Church Plan (OCP) will actually serve the Unity and Mission of the Church as proponents hope

1) The ugly fight that now happens once every 4 years at General Conference will become an ugly fight that happens always and everywhere

a. Divisiveness will grow at the Annual Conference Level:

This is the biggest practical problem with the One Church Plan.  The most likely outcome if the General Conference were to adopt the One Church plan is that an ugly, shrill, and rancorous debate that now happens once every four years, far away at General Conference, would get passed down to the local level and would become an ugly, shrill and rancorous debate every year at the Annual Conference level.

We have all seen General Conferences get bogged down, devoting ever more time to debating the issues mentioned above.  Protesters from the left wing of the church have made a regular habit of interrupting the proceedings at General Conference, further slowing the work, and at each General Conference ever more work simply goes unfinished as the Conference ends and delegates must leave. 
Is there any reason at all to expect that we would not see the exact same thing repeating itself over and over again at Annual Conferences all over the nation each and every year?  And what would be the toll on our relationships if it did?

If, as most agree, General Conference's ability to "focus on the mission" has been severely hampered by this debate, surely multiplying the debate many times over would have a paralyzing effect on the system. 

I can see the beginnings already in my own Conference as more and more delegates (including myself) have for the first time ever chosen to attend the meetings of the Traditionalist and Liberal caucus groups over the last two years.  Events that used to be rather small affairs in tucked away locations have grown tremendously in just a couple of years as more and more of us feel the need to "band together" in preparation for what may be coming to the Annual Conference floor very soon as a result of the Way Forward process.    

Passage of the One Church Plan will certainly exacerbate this growing division as “battle lines are drawn” at the Annual Conference level and our collegial relationships, upon which our connectional system depends, will suffer.

b. The divisive debate will also be passed down to the local church level with disastrous results:

Not only will the work of the Annual Conference become more deeply mired in the sexuality/authority debate, so too will the meetings of increasing numbers of local churches.  The authors of the One Church Plan suggest that most United Methodist churches will not even need to make a decision on these issues, but I cannot see how that will be the case.  As time goes on, and more and more congregations “choose a side”, there will be increasing pressure for others to do so as well.

Imagine a local church with one or two prominent families pushing the church council to adopt a more liberal approach to the definition of marriage; imagine that the same church has one or two families with a very strong and traditional view of Biblical authority.  Imagine that all of these families are big givers and volunteer contributors to the ministry of the church.  Church members who, up till now, have paid little if any attention to the sexuality debate, will suddenly be forced to take a stand against people that they've worshiped with for years, even generations.

Far from being passionately debated once every 4 years, this debate could happen every month!

Up till now these decisions were made by General Conference so there was not much reason for local church members to debate them.  We are all committed to do what The Book of Discipline says, regardless of our own views, so why get in a fuss fighting about it?  Under the OCP, that "shield" protecting the unity of our congregations will be removed.

Eventually families on the 'losing side' would likely leave their congregations, and the schism that we congratulate ourselves for having avoided at the General Conference level would (continue to) take place at the local level.

2) The OCP would increase the stress on our itinerant system and hurt recruitment

Can you imagine the complicating factors if the hypothetical congregation I've just described was assigned a new pastor who had views contrary to that of the previous pastor?  Or suppose that a new pastor who passionately disagreed with the stand taken by the church wanted to revisit the issue with church leaders?

It is very easy for me to imagine, when I look at some of the pastoral changes that have happened in my Conference.  There is not an unlimited supply of pastors, of liberal pastors or of conservative pastors, and a local option will add a destabilizing ingredient to our already stressed itinerant system.

This will also add a significant new source of stress to our pastors themselves, who already have high rates of burnout, and will surely hurt recruitment of new pastors. 

3) The OCP will not prevent schism, and may well trigger one:

Since the Commission on a Way Forward began its work in 2016, some Methodist pastors and congregations have chosen to align themselves with advocacy groups in support of or opposition to certain plans.  By far the largest and best-organized of these groups is the traditionalist group called the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) which includes several bishops and pastors of some of our largest and fastest growing congregations (and many smaller ones).  Long before the Way Forward Commission published its recommendations, the WCA has been on record for some 2 years now saying that a "local option" was not an acceptable option for their members, and that WCA churches and leaders could potentially leave the denomination en masse if such a local option were adopted.  Based on the experiences of other denominations, there is no reason at all to believe that this is a bluff.

This point is not really a fault with the One Church Plan itself, but a political reality attached to it.  Knowing (surely?) that this is the case - and knowing that the conservative wing of the church is both larger and faster-growing than the liberal wing - it seems strange, to say the least, that of the three possible plans the bishops chose the endorse the one most likely to "run the conservatives off."  This does not seem to be a good way to support the long-term vitality of the denomination.

If churches and pastors do attempt to leave en masse this will, in turn, trigger costly legal battles as the denomination attempts to retain possession of local church properties (just as we have seen in recent years with Episcopal and Anglican Churches), which will certainly not serve our unity.  Or, if legal battles are avoided and congregations simply give up their claim to properties, then Conference Boards of Trustees will be overwhelmed by the financial burdens of huge backlogs of now empty church buildings.  Either scenario will drain further resources away from the Conference's budget for mission and ministry.  
This scenario could be avoided if the GC includes a "gracious exit" procedure in passing the plan. 

The loss of apportionment dollars from large conservative churches, however, will be the most devastating blow to the mission budgets across the whole connection.  To say nothing about the effects on the sustainability of health insurance or pension plans.

4) The OCP does not go far enough for committed progressives, so the same fight will continue in a new form:

If conservatives are likely to reject the local option, many even leaving the church over it, experience shows that progressives will not, in the long run, be satisfied with a local option either.  

In churches around the world that have so far adopted some form of ‘local option’ on the morality of homosexuality, we have seen that progressive members of those churches, having successfully pushed a local option to allow gay weddings, then begin pushing to remove the local option for churches and clergy to refuse them. 
The logic of their position is both clear and consistent: if indeed a refusal to perform gay ceremonies or ordain 'self-avowed practicing homosexuals' is a form of discrimination that is sinful and contrary to the will of God, why then should it be permitted as a perpetual feature of the life of the church?  It should not.  That logic is sound.

That is precisely why The Episcopal Church's recent 2018 General Convention voted on a rule that would effectively end the ability for bishops to forbid same-gender unions within their dioceses. There had been a local option for the bishops of each diocese, as the chief pastor, to determine whether such rites would be used.  Now the rites are required in every diocese and every church, with some allowances for bishops and priests to be un-involved who personally object, but it is clear that the "local option" was only a step along the way to a new standard for all dioceses.

We can also see the example of the Lutheran Church of Iceland.  After deciding to allow gay union ceremonies in the church, priests were initially given the option to refuse to officiate such ceremonies for reasons of conscience.  But within only a few years, that "local option" was taken away, and now all priests are compelled to officiate gay unions, based on the logic of the liberals' interpretation of the Gospel, the will of God, and the meaning of marriage.  So we have the experience of other churches to indicate to us that local option would only be a temporary stop on the way to liberals’ vision of "full inclusion" (conservatives have a quite different understanding of what this phrase should mean).  A mass exodus of conservatives (#3 above) would also make this scenario more plausible.

5) The OCP will not help the United Methodist Church to reach new people, but will certainly result in further decline

We have the recent history of other, rather similar, denominations in the US to look at to help us understand what would surely happen if we accepted actively gay clergy and same-gender unions.  We have for evidence the developments within the Presbyterian Church USA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and The Episcopal Church among others.  Every one of these "mainline" Protestant denominations was in decline before it decided to liberalize its teaching (or eliminate its teaching in favor of a local option) on marriage and sexual morality.  After making this decision, in hopes of reaching new people and younger people, every single one of these churches saw their decline accelerate. 
Every single one. 

As it turns out, there is no crowd of progressives waiting at the door to rush in and join our churches if only we would change our teachings on sexuality.  But there are plenty of traditionalists for whom the move to redefine holy matrimony is 'the last straw.'

It is folly to assume, based on no evidence at all, that The United Methodist Church's experience would be dramatically better than these other churches.  Most of the parts of our denomination that are actually growing are in culturally conservative areas, many of them overseas.  Indeed, because the UMC has far more conservative overseas constituents than any of these other denominations we are uniquely poised, of all the ‘mainline’ churches, to suffer far more decline, and far faster, than any of these other denominations has experienced.   

We have the experience of history to show us what 'local option' does to denominations, because we've seen it play out already in other churches. 


6) The OCP represents a failure of the church's prophetic voice on a culturally relevant issue

If The UMC rejects our own traditional teaching on marriage and sexuality it will represent a loss of nerve, and a loss of our prophetic voice to speak on an issue that is relevant in our sex-obsessed (American) culture. 

Based on what we are told by media and pollsters (though, as the 2016 Presidential election revealed, they are not always accurate and may be prone to confirmation bias) many Christians have the sense that our American culture is increasingly hostile to the church's teachings on marriage and sexuality.  Though only a slim majority of United Methodists actually live in ‘our American culture’, this perception has been a major reason why many within the church now advocate changing our position in order to remain relevant to ‘our culture’.  This is called "contextualization" and is a key feature of the OCP.

But we've been here before.  History teaches us that there was a time when early Methodism was profoundly opposed to the institution of slavery.  But as the church grew it came more and more to reflect the broader culture: in those places where the culture was broadly supportive of the institution of slavery, so too were the Methodists.  That is Contextualization at work.  But as the example of slavery shows, adapting to our cultural context does not mean we are necessarily following God's will (compare Romans 12:1-2), which brings us to the biggest problem of all:

7) Moral and theological relativism undermines the firm foundation upon which the Church stands:

The issue of the meaning of Christian marriage touches every single family in the church.  This is a big issue, and our differences are not 'hair-splitting' theological minutiae, but quite significant.  One side says that a sexual relationship between persons of the same gender should receive the blessing of the church, while the other side says it is clearly revealed in Scripture to be a sin, and contrary to God's purposes for sexuality.

The local option essentially gives up on answering the question.  We have no word from the Lord on this issue.  The local option allows a situation where "all people did what was right in their own eyes" (Judges 21:25).  That is Moral relativism at work.  But if you read the Book of Judges you see that this is emphatically not a good thing.  The situation had degenerated into moral chaos.  Everyone did what was right in his own eyes precisely because "In those days there was no King in Israel." 

What about us: Do we have a King, or don't we?  Do we have a word of the Lord, and a way of discerning his will for us, or don't we?  Do we have a message that we can lift up in a culture of relativism and moral chaos and say 'THIS is TRUE', or don't we? 

If we surrender to the spirit of our age, so characterized by isolated individualism and moral relativism, how can we ever say "Thus saith the Lord" with confidence about anything?  
And what is the use of a church (especially a Protestant Church) that has no ‘word of the Lord’; that cannot discern what God wants for his world in the midst of confusing times?

The truth is that sexual morality is not the only serious issue about which our clergy (and seminary professors who train our clergy) disagree.  Despite the fact that we have clear teachings about these issues in our Doctrinal Standards I can guarantee you that there is sharp disagreement, even mutually-exclusive positions held, among our clergy and seminary professors about the reality of original sin, and about whether the cross is actually redemptive.  There is profound disagreement about the importance of the bodily resurrection of Christ (and of his church at the end of this age), there is serious disagreement about how salvation works and who will be saved (and who may not be).  There is disagreement surrounding Trinitarian theology, and what 'holiness' and 'justice' even mean.  
These are not peripheral issues.

Here is the question that really faces United Methodism: Will the church return to our classical doctrinal foundations and confidently reassert them as life-giving truth for a world drowning in relativism and confusion...or will we embrace relativism in order to 'get along'?    

How can the church teach with confident authority on any of these issues if we are willing to embrace moral relativism as our way of 'resolving' our deepest disagreements?  The rock of solid teaching will have been replaced by shifting sands (see Mt. 7:24-27). 
We will indeed end up with the pastoraly confusing, and theologically untenable, situation where two Methodist congregations in the same town proclaim contradictory teachings about “God’s plan for marriage and family and sexual holiness;” they would have contradictory teachings about what it means to live a righteous and holy life, and yet both would the official blessing of the denomination.

How could this not be a continuous stumbling block for both members and future seekers (especially if successive pastors with divergent views get assigned to the same churches)?  

The word of God revealed in Scripture tells us that is not a God of confusion and disorder, but a God of peace (see 1 Cor. 14:33).  The word also says "Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you" (Phil. 3:15).  God clearly promises that he will lead us to unity and agreement, if only we are willing to submissively listen.  So also, Romans 12:1-2 tells us that when we present ourselves - our bodies even - in reverent submission to God, when we refuse to conform ourselves to the surrounding culture, it is then that our minds will be renewed so that we will be able to discern the will of God.

God clearly does not view gay unions as both a sin and simultaneously as holy matrimony.  This is contrary to logic and reason.  One position or the other is false and wrong.  To endorse the "local option" means we know that we, as a church, are officially condoning falsehood.  And yet in this case we will be shrugging and saying, "We know one of the positions we are endorsing is wrong, but that is the best we can do."

But, when we consider the promises of a Living God, is it really?  

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Anonymous Lynn Malone said...

Very well thought out explanation of your current situation as United Methodists. I agree with your assessment of what WILL happen should the OCP pass. Thanks for your willingness to share your thoughts, Daniel.

12:42 PM, December 12, 2018  
Anonymous Lynn Malone said...

Sorry! My previous comment should read "our current situation" in the first sentence. LOL!

12:44 PM, December 12, 2018  
Blogger Unknown said...

Reasoned insights like these belong at the forefront. One can only hope your voice is heard, but it isn't looking promising. I will try to make time to read more of your thoughts. Your clarity here is very helpful.

8:23 PM, December 12, 2018  
Blogger Rev. Daniel McLain Hixon said...

As I've read more about the OCP, one new concern has arisen for me:

As I note, under the OCP each annual conference would make its own determination as to whether or not to ordain "self-avowed practicing homosexuals." However, I am now reading that this decision would not be made by the annual conference as a whole but, in keeping with tradition when it comes to ordination standards, would be made by the executive clergy session of the conference meaning that only ordained clergy (and a handful of laity who actually serve on the Board or Ordained Ministry) would vote. The hundreds of local pastors and lay delegates sent to any given Annual Conference would have no say in the decision.

If that is correct, I have to say that this is alarming. It is, I note, consistent with previous practice regarding making adjustments to ordination standards. However, surely everyone recognizes that this is such a momentous and even potentially church-dividing issue that we want maximum "buy-in" and maximum representation involved in making the decision.
Not only is excluding the laity from the decision bad in principle, there is a practical side effect, my more cynical side cannot help but notice. People who have "been around" can attest to the fact that Seminary trained ordained clergy are more likely to be liberal and progressive and laity and licensed local pastors are more likely to be traditionalist and evangelical. So restricting this decision to the executive clergy session not only excludes the laity, but it also "stacks the deck" in favor of a more liberal outcome. Once people recognize this fact, it almost ensures that the validity of such an outcome will be called into question.

11:51 AM, January 16, 2019  

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