By Keith Boyette
The moment of decision is drawing closer for The United Methodist Church. For many months, we have awaited the plan(s) the Council of Bishops (the “COB”) will recommend to the special called General Conference to resolve the irreconcilable differences that divide the UM Church. Our Book of Discipline has been clear about our sexual ethics, definition of marriage and ordination standards for 46 years. Repeated attempts have been made by some to change these clear provisions. While other Protestant churches wholly based in the United States have made changes, the UM Church has not done so in part because of our international membership. The most recent efforts to change our church’s positions in 2016 were defeated in legislative committee. Essentially the same delegates will be present at the special called General Conference to be held from February 23-26, 2019.
The current crisis in the UM Church is not a result of a lack of clarity in our church’s position. The current crisis is the result of the failure of some of our bishops to administer the clear provisions of our Discipline and the blatant defiance and disobedience of segments of the UM Church, particularly in the United States. Those bishops who have abdicated their responsibilities and those clergy who are engaged in disobedience have engaged in schismatic actions that have resulted in chaos in our church. As significant as our disagreements within the church are with respect to our sexual ethics, definition of marriage and ordination standards, such disagreements, however, are only presenting symptoms of deep theological divisions within the church.
In this environment, the Commission on a Way Forward (the “COWF”) has held seven meetings. They have submitted a preliminary report to the COB and soon will submit their final report. The COB has held two meetings devoted to receiving the preliminary or interim report from the COWF and interacting with the COWF. The COB has announced that it will issue its final recommendation on how it proposes that the church resolve this crisis when it concludes its spring meeting to be held from April 29 to May 4. Legislation to implement this final recommendation must be in the hands of the Secretary of General Conference not later than July 8, 2018. Presumably legislation with alternative proposals on how to structure the UM Church as we move forward will be submitted by others as well. The Wesleyan Covenant Association (the “WCA”) is involved in the development of such alternative proposals to affirm the historic, orthodox positions of the church, and in preparing for other possible outcomes.
The most recent meeting of the COB concluded on February 28. Not surprisingly, the COB is focused on preserving the UM Church as an institution. That is their charge and it would be astonishing for them to act contrary to that charge, even if such a response was prudent. The COWF has offered the COB three sketches – 1) maintaining the current provisions of our Discipline with enhanced accountability, 2) a local option that would allow annual conferences to develop their own sexual ethics, definition of marriage and ordination standards, and 3) a multi-branch model which would divide the church into theologically distinct branches operating under an overarching umbrella.
The COB has indicated it is no longer considering sketch one. This sketch reaffirms the UM Church’s sexual ethics, definition of marriage, and ordination standards – teachings grounded in Scripture, consistent with two thousand years of church history, and held in common with nearly all Christians worldwide. Our teachings are rooted in statements adopted by the 1972 General Conference, and have been reaffirmed at thirteen subsequent conferences. Sketch one would preserve the unity of the church by uniting the denomination around its established sexual ethics, definition of marriage and ordination standards. For the sake of church unity, it also adds additional accountability standards so clergy and bishops who violate them are held liable for their defiance. In short, sketch one calls the church to a unity grounded in Scripture, the orthodox teachings of the faith, and our Wesleyan expression of it. But apparently, the majority of our bishops think otherwise.
To date, they have not explained why they have removed this option from the table. They have not demonstrated how our sexual ethics, definition of marriage, and ordination standards are unbiblical, nor have they explained how they arrived at their new understanding. They have not provided any reason why the UM Church should deviate from two thousand years of Christian history and why it should launch forth in a new, uncharted direction. And they have not articulated why the UM Church should align with dying denominations that have adopted teachings at odds with the vast majority of Christians worldwide.
What they have done is demonstrate to the church why we are at this crossroads – a failure of leadership by many of those selected by the church to administer its teachings and polity.
The WCA is committed to upholding our sexual ethics, definitions of marriage and ordination standards for the simple reason that they are grounded in Scripture and the historic teachings of the faith. Regardless of the recommendation of the COB, we will contend for this position through legislation submitted to the special called 2019 General Conference. Should the UM Church abandon its current sexual ethic, definition of marriage and ordination standards, the WCA will provide a home for laity, clergy and churches committed to what has been historically taught and believed by Christians in all times and in all places.
In three forthcoming articles, we will address the two options which the COB is currently considering and share about our vision for the coming months.
Now is not a time for anxiousness, hand-wringing, resignation or defeat. Now is the time for us to redouble our efforts to contend for the faith entrusted to us by the saints. The WCA will continue to work tirelessly for the historic Christian faith in the Wesleyan tradition. We welcome those of like commitment.
Keith Boyette is president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and an elder in the Virginia Conference of The United Methodist Church.