The first article in this series addressed the present state of The United Methodist Church. Internal and irreconcilable differences, particularly in the U.S., have sapped the church’s energies leading to declining membership and worship attendance. The rate of decline is only accelerating. Well over half of the approximately 32,000 local UM churches in the U.S. average less than 50 people in worship each Sunday. The denomination is an increasingly self-absorbed institution focused on survival. Even if the current divide in the church could be bridged, the church still faces existential challenges.
Our Council of Bishops (COB), tasked with making recommendations to a special called General Conference to be held February 23-25, 2019 in St. Louis, recently indicated it is no longer committed to the UM Church’s sexual ethics, definition of marriage, and ordination standards. Departing from clear biblical principles, two thousand years of Christian teaching and experience, and the position of the overwhelming majority of Christians worldwide, the COB is no longer considering a plan for unity based on an affirmation of our current Book of Discipline with enhanced accountability for those who defy those standards.
Instead, the COB indicated its desire for unity based upon two other sketches the special Commission on a Way Forward (CWOF) has drafted. Sketch two proposes the church liberalize its sexual ethics, definition of marriage, and its ordination standards. Sketch three recommends the permitting of three different ways for addressing these issues – essentially having United Methodists sort themselves into living in separate rooms, but still in the same house. This article focuses on sketch two.
Following its recent meeting to discuss the work of the COWF, the COB stated it is continuing to perfect a sketch two or what it calls the “One Church Model.” In its recent press release, the COB defined it as follows: “The One Church Model gives churches the room they need to maximize the presence of United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible. The One Church Model provides a generous unity that gives conferences, churches and pastors the flexibility to uniquely reach their missional context in relation to human sexuality without changing the connectional nature of The United Methodist Church.”
We trust the COB will have much more to say about a plan calling for such a radical break with the church’s orthodox teachings on these matters. Based on COWF reports and remarks from some bishops, it appears sketch two is little more than a re-branding of The Way Forward Plan proposed by Revs. Adam Hamilton and Michael Slaughter in 2014. And the proposal seems almost identical to the Connectional Table plan called A Third Way. The latter plan was submitted to the 2016 General Conference where it failed to gain majority support in legislative committees. Only the narrow and dramatic vote to table all petitions having to do with the church’s sexual ethics saved it from wider defeat.
In its preliminary report to the COB, the COWF stated sketch two “removes restrictive language.” In short, it would redefine our church’s sexual ethics, definition of marriage, and ordination standards. Marriage would no longer be defined in the Discipline as the “union of one man and one woman.” Annual conferences would decide how inclusive they would be in their ordination standards potentially permitting the ordination of persons who are practicing homosexuals and permitting them to be appointed to serve as pastors of churches. United Methodist clergy would be permitted to preside at same-sex weddings and such marriages would be permitted to occur in our churches. According to the COWF, the sketch would protect “clergy who could not, as a matter of conscience, perform a same-sex union or support ordination of openly gay clergy.”
As is readily apparent, sketch two would not resolve the irreconcilable conflict within the UM Church; the conflict would surely persist. Because annual conferences would decide how inclusive they would be, the debate on ordination standards will be moved from General Conference to each annual conference. If the annual conference decided to ordain practicing homosexuals, such individuals could be appointed to any local church, potentially bringing the conflict into such churches. Our ordination standards would no longer be uniform across the church as individual annual conferences reach different determinations on how inclusive they will be.
Instead of maximizing our witness, sketch two would undermine it. It would sow confusion for those looking to our church for clarity regarding our church’s sexual ethics, its definition of marriage and its ordination standards. Essentially, across the connection, each person would be permitted to do what is right in their own eyes – a practice which has ill-served the church historically. Such an approach would undermine the UM Church’s long held belief in the authority of Scripture, and consequently it would lose its right to speak with authority on other critical theological and ethical issues.
A confused church on matters of such import would not lead to a “generous unity.” Divided over its sexual ethics and its understanding of the institution of marriage, it would not long remain unified. Adopting sketch two would hasten the already rapid decline of the denomination as members holding to orthodox teachings headed elsewhere, and scores of local UM churches departed en masse.
The apparent purpose of sketch two is expressed in the phrase that it “permits contextualization without changing our connectional nature.” Hence, it appears more interested in preserving institutional unity than in recommitting the church to theological and ethical standards rooted in Scripture and 2,000 years of Christian teaching. To adopt such a plan would connect us in name only, sow confusion within the church, and undermine our witness to people who need to hear the life giving teachings of the church.
In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, Paul affirms the value of contextualization when it serves the presentation of the truth. But for Paul contextualization is not an end, it is a means. Sketch two does just the opposite; it prioritizes contextualization over matters that require clarity because they are rooted in God’s word and the historical teachings of the church.
In the end, the characterization of sketch two as the “One Church Model” is devoid of meaning. It will result in chaos across the church and accelerate its decline as we undermine our once coherent message regarding our sexual ethics, teachings on marriage, and our ordination standards.
The Wesleyan Covenant Association has been unwavering in its opposition to sketch two, and it will work to defeat any plan based on the principles expressed in it. The WCA will ensure laity, clergy and churches have other options if sketch two is adopted by the called 2019 General Conference.
In the next article in this series, we will examine sketch three which the COB describes as a “Multi-branch, One Church Model.”
Keith Boyette is president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and an elder in the Virginia Conference of The United Methodist Church.