In February, our congregation (along with every other United Methodist Church in the world) anxiously waited for General Conference delegates gathered in St. Louis to decide if our denomination would change its stance on LGBTQ ordination and same-sex marriage. It was widely assumed at the time that change was coming, either through legislation or the UMC splitting over those issues. The results of that gathering left almost everyone frustrated. No final decisions were reached. We are very much in the same place we were before the Conference began.
Since then, that deep frustration has led representatives of conservative, centrist, and progressive groups to hold unprecedented, non-legislative dialogue about how best to resolve this situation. Those dialogues have led to a few proposed plans that will be taken up by delegates at the next General Conference in May 2020. Interestingly, all the plans currently proposed have one thing in common. They assume some sort of split in the UMC is coming. Whether by forming mini-denominations under an UMC umbrella organization or splitting into entirely different Wesleyan denominations, expectations are that some form of legislation will pass in May that enables conservatives and centrist/progressives to go their separate ways.
We will know learn specifics about the various plans later this fall when the proposed legislation is finalized and made public, but this is what we currently know about the three most prominent plans:
THE BARD-JONES PLAN The first of the three proposed plans to emerge is the Bard-Jones Plan, named after Michigan Bishop David Bard and Texas Bishop Scott Jones who developed it. Under this plan, The United Methodist Church becomes an umbrella organization for new, self-governing church groups that would offer different approaches on ordination of gay clergy and same-sex unions.
Under Bard-Jones, annual conferences would choose to join one of three groups the bishops are tentatively calling 1) the Traditional Methodist Church (with restrictions on LGBTQ ordination and same-sex unions), 2) the Open Methodist Church (eliminating current restrictions based on sexuality, allowing annual conferences to decide who to ordain and congregations to decide who can be married in their building), and 3) the Progressive Methodist Church (affirming the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in marriage and ordination candidacy).
These “churches” under the UMC umbrella would share in governing the General Council of Finance and Administration, the Wespath pension organization, the United Methodist Publishing House, and the General Commission on Archives and History. The churches would be in full communion, and each could use the cross-and-flame logo of The United Methodist Church. Many of the details about the global nature of the UMC under this plan are still being worked out.
The Bard-Jones plan foresees churches that disagree with their annual conference’s affiliation decision having the right to transfer conferences with their assets, thereby joining a different church. If approved in May 2020, this plan would have annual conference choose their affiliation in 2021 and the first General Conferences of those new churches meet in 2022.
THE INDIANAPOLIS PLAN The second of three plans being discussed is called The Indianapolis Plan. Instead of churches remaining under a UMC umbrella, this plan calls for an amicable separation into different denominations. Created by a 12-person group of prominent centrists, traditionalists, and progressives, this plan would create a Traditionalist United Methodist Church that would maintain the denomination’s current restrictions on same-sex weddings and ordination of “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy. It would also create a separate Centrist/Progressive United Methodist Church which remove those restrictions, as well as church teaching that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. This plan holds out the possibility of a third denomination, a Progressive United Methodist Church that would practice immediate full inclusion of LGBTQ persons.
U.S. annual conferences would decide by majority vote which denomination to join. Those who don’t take a vote would by default be part of the Centrist/Progressive United Methodist Church. Local churches disagreeing with their annual conference’s decision could decide by majority vote to align elsewhere, retaining their property, assets and liabilities. Clergy would decide on a denomination to join, but by default would go with their annual conference’s decision. Bishops could also choose a denomination.
Each denomination would develop a new General Conference, as well as its own Book of Discipline, structures, polity and finances. Wespath (the pension agency) the United Methodist Committee on Relief, United Methodist Women and the United Methodist Publishing House would be independent 501(c)3 organizations positioned to serve the two or three denominations. All other agencies would be part of the Centrist/Progressive United Methodist Church. A process would be devised for dividing current general church assets, including creation of an arbitration board.
The Indianapolis Plan desires separation to happen quickly, realigning annual conferences in August 2020, with inaugural General Conferences for the different denominations occurring in fall 2021. Though similar in some ways to the Bard-Jones Plan, the Indianapolis Plan goes farther by creating real separation of denominations.
THE UMCNext PLAN The third major plan receiving attention is called the UMCNext Plan. Developed by a group of centrists and progressives, this plan would eliminate the UMC’s restrictions against LGBTQ ordination and same-sex weddings, while allowing local churches that disagree to depart and organize into new forms of Methodism. Though the plan is still being fleshed out in petition form, backers say it would keep The United Methodist Church intact, while also allowing greater regional autonomy and a gracious exit for churches who want to leave. The plan clearly anticipates the exodus of those churches which support restrictions on ordination and same-sex weddings.
The UMNext Proposal would have an immediate moratorium on charges against LGBTQ clergy, clergy performing same-sex weddings or other charges stemming from provisions of the Traditional Plan passed at 2019 General Conference. And it would remove from the United Methodist Book of Discipline language used to restrict pastors and churches from conducting same-sex weddings and annual conferences from licensing or ordaining “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” The plan would let local churches in annual conferences decide by a two-thirds vote to “enter a new life as a Wesleyan church.” That exit offer extends through 2024. Groups of departing churches that, in the plan’s language “form a viable denomination,” will be allocated resources to get started under a formula to be arrived at with the help of a professional mediator. Those departing churches in viable new denominations to contract for services with United Methodist agencies, including Wespath, the United Methodist Committee on Relief and the General Commission on Archives and History. As it is currently drafted, the plan does not call for allowing annual conferences to leave the denomination.
A timetable released by UMCNext calls for the moratorium on charges, complaints and trials to be approved at the May 2020 General Conference, as well as approving disaffiliation legislation for churches who desire to leave. A special called 2022 General Conference would, according to the plan, remove all church policy language related to LGBTQ persons and deal with regional conference legislation as well as adaptation of the Book of Discipline and new concordat or covenant agreements among Wesleyan groups.
SO WHICH ONE?
Nobody knows which of these plans (or some variation of them) will pass in May 2020. Until then, we continue to serve God, be the Body of Christ in the Oak Ridge community, and pray the Holy Spirit will guide us today and in the future.