The United Methodist Judicial Council (JC) has issued their ruling on the proposed plans going to General Conference 2019. They have done us a big favor. They help us to realize the fundamental rift running through the denomination.
First, a couple of admissions: (1) For the sake of full transparency, I am a traditionalist in theology and morality. (2) It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, I am no policy wonk. I therefore gladly take the work of Judicial Council at face value and will not second-guess their conclusions. We owe them a debt of thanks.
To set the context for what I think needs saying, here is a quick summary of the JC decisions. They refused to rule on the Connectional Conference Plan to avoid pre-empting legitimate legislative processes associated with that plan’s constitutional amendments. They did rule on the One Church Plan and the Traditional Plan. Both need some modification, but, if you’re of a mind to keep score, I’d say that the Traditional Plan fared worse, though by no means fatally. The “enhanced accountability” parts of the Traditional Plan received particular criticism for very important reasons. Those parts, the Council ruled, unconstitutionally single out specific practices rather than making sure that all provisions of the Book of Discipline are applied equally to all members. We should take comfort in the stipulation that all of us be treated fairly and with due process in the face of church law, but it also raises the specter of how to carry out effective measures of accountability.
The One Church Plan also contains provisions deemed unconstitutional, but fewer than the Traditional Plan. (Keep in mind, the One Church Plan got the lion’s share of attention in preparation, the reasons for which are themselves troubling.) One aspect – significantly deemed constitutional – bears notice. One petition in the plan (#10) stipulates that, to protect religious liberty, a traditionalist bishop who refuses, for conscience’s sake, to ordain openly l/g/b/t/q/i/a ordinands, would have the prerogative to ask another bishop within the College to do so, with two important conditions. First, this action must be taken, according to the JC ruling, “with the implicit understanding that a bishop from outside the episcopal area will come and preside only if [italics in the original] the residential bishop (1) indicates his or her intention to exercise that right and (2) consents to such an arrangement.” (Emphasis added) In short, to fulfill these two conditions, a traditionalist bishop must at least tacitly agree that sexuality is a matter of adiaphora, that is, not essential to the faith of the church. But this is the very contested point between traditionalists and others.
From a traditionalist point of view, questions of sexuality bear directly upon the faith, because they involve basic understandings of human nature and condition (in technical language, anthropology and hamartiology) and the contours of the Christian life, or the life of salvation (soteriology). That is to say, we ask what aspects of human experience are part of God’s good creation and what are properly deemed sinful? What activities reflect faithful Christian life and what is not acceptable? These questions demand answers and traditionalists answer them differently than others. It may be appropriate to rank these doctrinal questions lower than, say, the Trinity or the atoning work of Christ (tragically and not unrelatedly, Methodists fight about these topics, too), but they are far from inconsequential. Traditionalists thus do not think that the local church option is a morally benign answer to important questions.
It thus looks to me that, for a traditionalist bishop to accept the aforementioned stipulations, the traditionalist bishop would have to stop being traditionalist.
I am deeply troubled by how the One Church Plan is being sold. We are told that, if this plan passes, local congregations really will have to do nothing. UM clergy will have their consciences protected. How? To stay with integrity in such a United Methodist Church, traditionalists will have to stop being traditionalist. (Yes, I do recognize that this problem is of exactly the same nature as progressive UM clergy have had for years. Effectively, they have had to support a position they find morally reprehensible.)
The Judicial Council response reveals furthermore the irreparable damage of deploying “not of one mind” language that has gotten us to this point. Let’s imagine that General Conference 2019 narrowly passes the One Church Plan. Let’s say the vote is 51% for and 49% against, an entirely reasonable prospect. Has General Conference spoken? Yes, it has. But wait! Are we now of one mind? Now, is it appropriate to exercise accountability? “Not of one mind” is a Pandora’s Box of difficulties and says much more about us than we apparently realize.
The Judicial Council’s work compellingly shows that our denomination is in schism and has been for some years and if we really want to heal this schism, then (dare I say it?) we have to back up and try our best to answer basic questions. What is it, actually, that unites United Methodists? The work of 1968 and 1972 and 1988 is not finished, which leaves us open and gives credibility to some bizarre views on what constitutes “church.” Consider this one, argued this month before the Judicial Council: “For us, the church is defined not by formal structures or doctrines or lines of authority. It’s defined by connections between people…We hold such interpersonal connections in so high a regard that we understand them as the essence of the church.” (Emphasis added)
With all due respect to the person who made this claim, it represents much that is wrong with United Methodism. Certainly connections with people are crucially important, but if doctrines and formal structures don’t count, then the connections don’t matter. If doctrines do not define church, then we don’t know our identity or mission. If we don’t know our identity and mission, we will never be able to agree on what constitutes appropriate or inappropriate behavior and we will never be able to exercise meaningful accountability. Which leaves us always open to fatal mission drift and loss of identity. We spin our wheels with all kinds of activity, but at the end of the day cannot really say for sure if any of it matters to anyone, especially to God.
Thank you, Judicial Council, for pressing us to recognize these problems. Now, may General Conference do its work. God help us.