The Way Forward – My Two Cents on Current Models

I’m sure every blogger in the UMC is probably going to end up posting something about which of the Way Forward Commission’s current proposed options they like and why. So, I might as well put in my two cents.

Let me start with a couple of disclaimers and statements of fact. I’m an Elder in Full Connection in the UMC. I’m only representing my personal opinion. One of my opinions, that I’ve worked hard to be clear about with everyone including my own congregation, is that I support same sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ persons and changes to the Book of Discipline that will allow for both. I support the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church. (In fact I said so just this Sunday in a “Way Forward Conversation” at my church.) I’ve said this before on my blog. But, again, now is not a time to be wishy washy or dodge being clear about what we believe. (And yes, I do find support for my views in Holy Scripture. And, I’d be happy to talk about that in another post or with you personally, as long as we can do so civilly.)

As the Way Forward is now progressing the Council of Bishops is working on two options. The original first option of leaving everything the same, but with greater enforcement of the rules, has been laid aside at least for the time being. So I won’t spend a lot of time on that option now other than to say it is a terrible idea as it isn’t a fix at all. I would amount to us all collectively sticking our heads in the sand and pretending nothing is happening.

The two remaining options now are:

1. The One Church Model – which largely involves removing the language form the Book of Discipline regarding homosexuality and then allowing clergy, conference, Boards of Ordained Ministry and local churches to make their own choices as to if same sex marriages are performed, LGBTQ clergy ordained, or local church facilities used for same sex weddings. This model could be directly adopted by the General Conference without change to the constitution of the UMC.

2. Multi-Branch One Church Model – Briefly, the US would lose its current jurisdictional structure and replace that with three overlapping jurisdictions over the entire US. Then each annual conference would choose if they join the Progressive, Moderate, or Traditionalist Jurisdiction. After such votes local churches could choose to affiliate with a different jurisdiction than their annual conference, presumably joining a different conference as well. But I’m fuzzy about that. Also clergy would make themselves available in one (or more) of the jurisdictions they feel compatible with. One of the realities of this model is that it would require 28 amendments to the UMC constitution to be implement. (That is very very difficult as it requires an aggregate 2/3rd majority of all voting members of all annual conference world wide, twenty-eight times no less!)

There is a great deal more to these options than I’ve written. For a fuller discussion check here. (Way Forward Article)

As I’ve looked at the two models what I notice immediately is how much simpler the “One Church Model” is. It allows for a great deal of flexibility and matching of your context. It is not a perfect solution. Many progressives will remind you that, like other denominations that have a congregational solution to sexuality issues, not every church will be “reconciling” (welcoming of all people no matter what their sexuality.) But, the truth is, that was never going to happen. There is not a denomination out there of any size where every pastor and every congregation holds a reconciling viewpoint. There are not, and probably have never been, the votes at General Conference to make that happen now.

If you are someone who holds traditional views of marriage it means you will have to live with a UM church down the road whose ministry and beliefs vary about sexuality from yours. But the truth is that has always been true. There have always been local variations in theology, ministry, and mission from one UM congregation to another.

The multi-branch model might appear to give greater justice for progressives and greater upholding of traditional values for traditionalists. But, that is largely an illusion created by an organizational separation. Birds of a feather can flock together and, while they can pretend they are 100% reconciling (or traditional) that “other” jurisdiction and and churches in those other jurisdictions will be around. We will just kind of pretend they are not there to enjoy the value of our flocking together with like UMCers.

The multi-branch model does have some advantages. LGBTQ persons seeking ordination might have a clearer path in their current local if their current annual conference is one which might vote not to ordained them because of their identity. But it may not be much different if they are in an Annual Conference where few churches choose to affiliate with the progressive jurisdiction. Traditionalists can be together feel that they’ve maintain their theological integrity.

The multi-branch model adds a lot of polity complications to our structure. My experience is that the more complicated a proposal and more you have to change you current model of ministry the more difficult it is to actually implement the plan. Yes, big changes can cause big shifts and make a big difference. But the Church often does better with incremental change. Good change has to be planned, it has a timing, it has a pace and it has to be done with great care to avoid just sinking the ship rather than turning it.

Again, neither plan is fully inclusive, fully progressive, fully traditional, etc. For some people that is a deal breaker. But for me, as someone who has been pastoring more years of my life than I’ve not pastored, (30 years soon) I know that church is messy. The decisions we make are messy. They are not perfect but always in need of perfecting. Either of the above plans would be more just than what we have now. And, better is a good thing!

So right now, I believe that a “Way Forward” (though not a way to immediate perfection of course) would best be served by the simpler plan “One Church Model.” It is not all many of us hope for.It is not a final answer, as we will still have a General Conference every four years when we always change the Discipline. But it would be a solid step to allowing pastors to follow their consciences, local churches to follow their own and Boards of Ordained Ministry to be able to clearly vote to be more inclusive.

As these plans develop further, I might change my mind if the details change significantly. And I know still that many of you not only disagree with me about human sexuality but, also about how the UMC should be organized. But, would we really be United Methodists if we all had to agree with each other on everything?

What plan do you believe would be the best for our General Conference to adopt? I’d love to hear your views?

Tim Bonney