In this third of four articles addressing efforts by The United Methodist Church’s Council of Bishops (COB) to resolve our denomination’s irreconcilable differences, we examine the final option still under study by the church’s leadership — the “Multi-Branch, One Church Model.” The multi-branch approach is an attempt to permit United Methodists to sort themselves out around where they stand on the presenting issues – our sexual ethics, definition of marriage, and ordination standards – while still claiming to be one church. One has to commend the COWF and the COB for ingenuity if nothing else. But the effort has serious flaws.
The COB described this model as follows: “[It] is grounded in a unified core that includes shared doctrine and services and one Council of Bishops, while also creating different branches that have clearly defined values such as accountability, contextualization and justice. The five U.S. jurisdictions would be replaced by three connectional conferences, each covering the whole country, based on theology and perspective on LGBTQ ministry (i.e. progressive, contextual, traditional branches). Annual conferences would decide which connectional conference to affiliate with; only local churches who choose a branch other than the one chosen by their annual conference would vote to join another conference.”
Both the Commission on a Way Forward (COWF) and the COB have referred to this model as sketch three. As with sketch two (addressed in our last article in this series) the legislation to implement a multi-branch model has yet to be released, but what we do know about it so far makes it problematic for a number of reasons. At its heart, the multi-branch model seeks to hold the institution of the UM Church together in name only while we live separate and apart in the same house.
First, sketch three will require structural changes in the UM Church and thus will necessitate numerous amendments to the church’s constitution. This means for sketch three to be implemented it would have to garner two-thirds of the votes of the delegates at the special called General Conference and two-thirds of the votes of all the delegates voting at all the annual conferences. This creates the very real possibility that a majority of delegates would support adoption of the multi-branch model but not enough to secure the two-thirds vote required. It should be noted that there are versions of a multi-branch plan being discussed which would not require constitutional changes and therefore could be adopted by a majority vote. Unfortunately, the COB has not advanced such plans to date.
Second, the multi-branch approach is premised on a belief that, but for our disagreements over our sexual ethics, definition of marriage and ordination standards, the UM Church shares a “unified core that includes shared doctrine and services.” As many have noted over the years, the assumption that there is unity around “shared doctrine” is not true. The COWF’s mission statement acknowledges the theological differences that exist in the UM Church: “Serious matters of human sexuality and unity are the presenting issues for a deeper conversation that surfaces different ways of interpreting Scripture and theological tradition.”
The Wesleyan Covenant Association has consistently maintained that there exist in the UM Church very different understandings of the authority and interpretation of Scripture, of who Jesus is and what it means to be his disciple, of the nature of sin, the way of salvation, and the meaning of sanctification. Despite claims to the contrary, we do not share a doctrinal core. Or, put another way, there are such disparate understandings regarding the role and authority of our doctrinal core that any unity we purportedly have is undermined.
Furthermore, significant constituencies within the UM Church, including the WCA, question the need for and effectiveness of many of our general church boards and agencies. We do not want monies we tithe to the church to be used to advance agendas that do not reflect our theological and missional commitments.
Third, the multi-branch model’s continuation of a single Council of Bishops over the various branches is unacceptable. As currently constituted, the Council of Bishops is not representative of the various branches of the church. If a multi-branch model is pursued, many orthodox, evangelical clergy, laity, and congregations could not accept bishops who advance or countenance teachings that run counter to our church’s biblically rooted sexual ethics, definition of marriage, and ordination standards. Furthermore, a conservative, evangelical branch will not accept as a bishop one who lives in defiance of these teachings, and who, in fact, could not be ordained according to the standards it would continue to promote, defend, and require of its clergy.
Fourth, the multi-branch model would not resolve the conflict present in the UM Church. We would experience conflict as annual conferences go through the sorting process and further conflict as local churches determine whether they are going to remain with their current annual conference or align with another annual conference in a different branch. The three branches would be at odds with one another. Conflict would be institutionalized in the proposed COB.
Fifth, our witness would be ambiguous. On matters of great import to both church and society a multi-branch model UM Church would send a very confusing message regarding boundaries for sexual expression and the institution of marriage. In one branch, marriage would be taught as being between one man and one woman; in another branch, marriage would be taught as being between two persons; and in still another branch, a laissez faire or mixed approach would be adopted. The idea that our church could continue using the term United in its name under such a scheme is simply unrealistic. This is not a debate over the color of a church’s carpet or it worship styles; it’s about God’s intended design for human sexuality and the sacred institution of marriage. The WCA has consistently maintained that the differences within the UM Church are irreconcilable. We do not expect others to compromise on their deeply held beliefs and commitments regarding these matters, and we trust the same consideration is extended to us as well.
The COWF and the COB are to be commended for their ingenuity, but lacking substantial modifications, the multi-branch model is unlikely to engender the broad support necessary for passage. One is left with the impression that this model is the equivalent of a Hail Mary desperation pass. It’s appears to be so committed to preserving institutional unity that it is willing to institutionalize the divisions in the church as long as they function under the institution. This is not a plan for a healthy and vibrant church built around core doctrine and core mission, and therefore it would fail to reenergize United Methodists for the challenging days ahead.
Finally, the COWF has consistently stated that an exit ramp should be incorporated into whatever legislative proposal the COB places before the special called General Conference. An exit ramp would allow local churches to leave the denomination with all their property and assets if the plan adopted by the called General Conference is objectionable to them. We note that the COB does not make reference to an exit ramp in discussing sketches two or three. The WCA believes the inclusion of an exit ramp is essential. Following the special called General Conference the UM Church must be freed from this conflict and empowered to move forward with as much unity as possible. We urge the COB to make explicit its commitment to the inclusion of an exit ramp in any legislation proposed. Forcing local congregations to accept whatever plan is adopted would undermine unity and only perpetuate a conflict that has gone on for far too long.
In our next and final article, we will address the work of the WCA in the coming months.
Keith Boyette is president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and an elder in the Virginia Conference of The United Methodist Church.