June 6, 2014

Why "A Way Forward" Isn't (#umc #umcschism)

These are difficult days in the United Methodist Church. The divide in our denomination between those who differ on the compatibility of homosexuality with Christian teaching is deeper than ever. Both sides are frustrated. Both sides are hurting. Both sides want a solution, though different people on each side have different ideas on what constitutes a solution. Many hope that conservatives and progressives will work out a compromise and remain together in a  united United Methodist Church. One recent proposal aimed at such unity comes from Adam Hamilton and has been endorsed by a number of others in the denomination. The proposal has already been analyzed by some and evaluated for its strengths and weaknesses, and more analysis will undoubtedly be forthcoming. This is good. Proposals like this have potential for a massive impact on the UMC, and they come with a variety of intended and unintended consequences. Shared dialogue is very important, especially since our future as United Methodists is at stake. 

Before I get to the proposal itself, let me say that I have a great deal of respect for Adam Hamilton. I've read his books, participated in his mentoring groups, used his materials, and implemented some of his strategies. Like many, I have benefited greatly from the resources that Adam has made available to the Church. I appreciate and have attempted to imitate his practice of looking for the helpful contributions and strengths of perspectives other than his own. So, the following evaluation comes in the context of years of appreciation. 

A Double Proposal
The heart of the proposal in "A Way Forward" is twofold:
  1. Local churches would have the authority to determine the nature and extent of their ministry with gay and lesbian people, including whether they will or will not allow same gender unions.
  2. Each Annual Conference would have the authority to determine whether or not it will allow self-avowed, practicing homosexuals to be ordained.
The goal of moving these decisions to local and regional levels is "to end the rancor, animosity and endless debate that divide our denomination every four years at General Conference." Those who have signed off on this document believe that it "would allow conservative, centrist and progressive churches to come to their own conclusions regarding this important issue and to focus on how best to minister in their own communities."

Compromise? 
The "A Way Forward" proposal is set forth as a compromise that would keep progressives and conservatives together in a single United Methodist Church. The idea is that if local groups get to make their own decisions, then everyone will be happy, or at least able to live together. But is this proposal really a compromise? I fear that it is not. If General Conference permitted those Annual Conferences that choose to ordain practicing homosexuals to do so, then that would amount to General Conference giving its blessing to the practice of homosexuality. Allowing the decision to be made locally does not amount to a neutral position on the part of the General Conference. If this proposal were implemented, it means that The United Methodist Church would affirm the compatibility of homosexual practice with Christian teaching, even if it did not require all Annual Conferences to ordain practicing homosexuals and local churches to bless homosexual unions. Implementing this proposal would necessitate the removal of the "incompatible" language from the Discipline and it would necessitate the removal of the language that forbids same sex unions in local United Methodist churches. This is not a compromise. This is a reversal of the denominational position. Allowing those who so desire to abstain from participation does not change the reality that this would be a win for progressives and a capitulation for conservatives. 

Forward or Apart?
Others will certainly have a different take on this plan, and I welcome some healthy and charitable dialogue on the matter. But as I see it, given that this proposal amounts to an affirmation by the General Church on homosexual practice, it is unacceptable for those who affirm the current stance of the United Methodist Church with regard to homosexuality. If implemented, many conservatives would find themselves unable to remain in the United Methodist Church and would feel forced to leave the denomination. As a result, the implementation of this plan would not help us avoid a split. Instead, it would lead us ever further down the path toward schism. I suspect that we would experience something similar to what has happened in The Episcopal Church. Conservatives churches (and perhaps whole Annual Conferences) would pull out of the denomination to go it alone, affiliate with another denomination, or form new associations. This plan is not a way forward; it would push us further apart. 

18 comments:

Bill Fitzgerrel said...

Thank you for this post. I agree with you that this proposal amounts to a reversal of the UMC position. What it also does is say, in effect, "Our denominational polity and theology is optional." I also think that this does not avoid the rancor it hopes to avoid. It shoves the divisions down to the local church and annual conference level. There will be some very bitter fights in congregations if this proposal goes forward. It also creates the possibility of a pastor with one view being appointed to a church with the opposite view or of a member moving to a small town where there is only one UMC and it has chosen the opposite local option to what the member is used to. Annual conferences will have long, stormy debates over ordination. How can all of this mess be a way forward? Bill Fitzgerrel, Retired Elder, Overland Park, Kansas

Unknown said...

I agree with you and thank you for your commentary. This changes the discipline but does not force everyone to follow the discipline. This is not a way forward. It seems to me that it is a way of seperation that will give those who support a redefinition of marriage an upperhand in the split. I think this is just a rehashing of the 2012 agree to disagree statement... It does not take us forward, it will seperate us....

Matt O'Reilly said...

Thanks to both for stopping by to read and respond.

Bill, I think you are right about the proposal's inability to end the rancor. It will simply relocate the debate from a quadrennial meeting to yearly meetings (Annual Conf.) and monthly meetings (local church councils). The potential for chaos and divisiveness is significant.

David said...

Biggest challenge to the whole would then be the question of appointment. How does a congregation which opposes or affirms marriage equality or ordained homosexual persons receive a pastor who is on the other side? What about the universal reception of Elders in good standing into other conferences? What about an Annual conference Can a congregation or Annual Conference change its position? By what means?

just the continued questions in my head.

Jonathan said...

Matt, with that critique how could there be any way forward that you find acceptable? It is certain where the denomination (obviously African growth means a different timetable), country, etc. are going, so moves like this are the best way to allow those against homosexuality to remain part of our denomination.

If your position is we need to find a way forward that doesn't involve change on the current BOD position on human sexuality, how is that not a statement that we are going to dramatically decline as a denomination?

I realize the reality is difficult for those with your beliefs, but it is the reality. Progressives and centrists are trying to keep those with your beliefs a part of the church, despite their minority views. If something like Maxie's position is taken instead (the only other viable option), the new conservative denomination would be on a very painful course that would probably hurt the new centrist/progressive denomination as well. Large groups would feel pushed to go to another denomination.

Matt O'Reilly said...

Hi Jonathan, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I hear the concern in what you write.

This is why I think it will be exceedingly difficult to find a middle way. There is also the possibility that there is no middle way. I don't think pragmatism is a good basis for moral decisions. Many conservatives do not want to be a part of a UMC in which the current stance on same-sex practice is changed. This seems to be something that progressives have difficulty recognizing. This is also why Adam's plan is problematic. It may be pragmatic, but from the conservative perspective, it is immoral.

Honestly, it seems to me immoral from the progressive perspective as well. If progressives believe that justice requires full inclusion/ordination of LGBTQ persons, then isn't it immoral to sing off on a plan like this that stops short of such inclusion?

These are difficult and painful days, to be sure.

Jonathan said...

Well, from my progressive lens, a plan like Adam's is not ideal (or a final end), but rather a step in the right direction. A leap to what we feel is right today would mean so many conservatives feeling like they have to leave the denomination. An incremental step gives people time to accept the new reality (very pastoral). Of course, we hope, just like with race, we will continue to move forward, but the hope is we can continue to love people as we are all on different timelines and there will always be some differences.

I think the main reason so many can accept a plan like Adam's and view some conservative responses as extreme is that it is very unclear why this "error" is so "end-of-the-world." Surely, conservatives think we are wrong about many other things as a denomination and yet those receive very little attention and there isn't such a push to split over them (e.g. divorce, one baptism, lust, etc.)

Also, please delete my name from my previous deleted comment.

Matt O'Reilly said...

Jonathan, thanks for making explicit what I've seen as a worrisome implication of Adam's proposal, namely that it is only an incremental step in requiring all Annual Conferences and local churches to affirm and celebrate same-sex practices. Conservatives should oppose this plan on the principle that it is not really a compromise but a thinly veiled movement toward full rejection of the current UMC position and full adoption of the goals of progressives. I've seen this proposal as having that sort of slippery slope potential. I'm glad to see that the potential is visible to those on both sides.

Jonathan said...

Definitely. It's clear that the denomination is still split on this matter and until there is a much greater majority on one side (denominational clarity), incremental steps are appropriate. The Way Forward is clear that it is meant as an imperfect, short-term, approach. I take issue with phrases like "thinly veiled," which imply some masked agenda.

Matt O'Reilly said...

My apologies on the "thinly veiled" language. I've been trying to keep a civil tone. Sorry for the slip.

I do suspect that some will (rightly or wrongly) see a masked agenda behind the statement. The significant lack of trust in the UMC will make finding a way forward all the more challenging.

Thanks for engaging in dialogue on this very sensitive subject.

Jonathan said...

You too, Matt! And, yes, the lack of trust is a major challenge. I am tempted to make similar slips regarding the other side. But continued turns at compassionate, honest dialogue such as this, are crucial.

Elizabeth Turner said...

What surprises me about this proposal is that it ignores the itinerant system - that is to say, wouldn't this add a great deal of headache to the appointment process? Will a pastor who is unwilling to perform same sex marriages be sent to a local congregation that hosts them? What about vice versa? And so on.

This proposal feels more like a push to think about the matter differently than it does an actual organizational suggestion, surely...because in practice, with the itineracy system, I don't see how it would work.

Thanks for your thoughts.

Richard Fitzgerald said...

It destroys both the itinerant system (which is not really itinerant anymore anyway), and yes, will make appointments exceedingly difficult to set. It will further destroy the connectional nature of the church.

iptl4evr said...

There are several serious problems with the Hamilton/Slaughter proposal.
1. Getting it through a very conservative GC in 2016. The Central Conference will make up over 40% of the voting delegates. This is more radical than the proposal that went down in flames in 2012.
2. It would create a split church trying to pretend to be one. Pastors and churches would have to declare which side of the divide they fall on. This would greatly complicate the appointive process as would need to be appointed to churches in agreement with them and churches would need to vet potential pastors.
3.There would of necessity have to be two Books of Discipline created to accommodate the changes.
4. Apportionments would be an issue. Churches who do not want their funds used to promote the homosexual lifestyle would need a way to withhold without being punished by the system. Those who want to support that agenda will need a way to insure their funds go there.

rev.crum said...

Well done Matt, you have made some great points on the Hamilton/Slaughter proposal. I agree this is not an acceptable way forward but a path do deeper division and the continued disintegration of the UMC as a whole.

John Kay said...

Thanks for the helpful article.

John Kay
Elder
North Texas Conference

John Kay said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Geary Rowell said...

I don't know what part of the country Jonathon is in but his claim that the conservatives are a minority is laughable. In those areas where his so-called "centrist/progressive" views are the norm the denomination is already dying. There are annual conferences in the southeast with more members than whole jurisdictions in the west and northeast! I am grateful for the commentary of Hamilton's proposal. What we need is a leadership that will take the vow to live by the BOD seriously, whatever form that may take, and allow those who don't feel they can do so to find another place where their gifts will be more appreciated.