Late last year in a gathering of "Centrists" and people investigating us "Centrists" who formed the United Methodist Centrist Movement, we welcomed Chris Ritter - an Elder from the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference - to share with us a possible "way forward" for the United Methodist Church. For those who don't know, our denomination is heading toward a possible (some say "probable") schism over the issue of homosexuality. While the Book of Discipline is clear in regarding homosexuality to be sin, prohibiting the ordination of "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" (that's the actual Discipline language), and also prohibiting ordained and licensed pastors from conducting same-sex marriage and covenantal unions, these matters are creating great consternation in the denomination as clergy and laity alike.
You see, we United Methodists are not of one mind on the issue. Some believe the Bible and the Book of Discipline are clear. Others believe a grave injustice has been via misunderstanding of the Bible, translated into the Book of Discipline. And still others, mostly us Centrists, are still working their way through the question, understanding that there is a lot at stake.
In any event, we invited Ritter into our conversation on the strength of a "reorganization plan" he had authored called The Jurisdictional Solution. This proposal essentially split the denomination into new "jurisdictions" that aren't drawn geographically like our current jurisdictions. Instead, two jurisdictions are created and split via theological orientation. Essentially, one jurisdiction would exist for conservatives and moderate conservatives, and another for progressives and moderate progressives. The details for this plan are too numerous to go into here (hence the link above). Since Maxie Dunnam and Rob Renfroe of Good News - who had only been beating the drum for schism - had unexpectedly expressed interest in the TJS as a possible way forward, we gave folks the opportunity to interact with the TJS author as possible "way forward" to keep our denomination together.
After talking with Ritter, on the whole the UMCM thought The Jurisdictional Solution was worth further discussion, as do also a number of others possible plans laid out (and not yet laid out) to restructure the UMC do also. But nobody thought in its current form it was workable as it's fraught with problems for a place like our conference (West Ohio).
Geographically, the South and the coasts match up well in this proposal. Given the fact we are "sent" by our bishop and cabinet to our church, and these appointments are generally made within conferences that have geographic boundaries, given the theological affinity within churches and pastors both in the South and on the coasts, not much would change. A church and pastor, here and there, would stick out like lonely a cactus in the middle of the wilderness (say, a progressive church in Atlanta, or a conservative church in Orange County), but on the whole not much else would change.
For us, however, in a state where we decide presidential elections, the lines are not as clearly drawn. In TJS, each church has to vote on which jurisdiction to join. Church by church in West Ohio, we're not sure we could draw these lines clearly within almost all of our larger and midsize congregations. This aspect - the individual church votes - is a potential disaster in our part of the country. It will split churches wide open. And who knows, maybe there's more theological diversity among United Methodists in the South and on the coasts than we realize.
Conservative UM's don't like to hear this, but the truth is that we're starting to see shifts in our local congregations in regards to their attitudes toward homosexuality. In what was a decade ago - shoot, maybe five years ago - a taboo subject few dared to address, now is something we now talk about in Bible Studies, sermon discussions, ad board meetings, and in the parking lot after worship. The combination of people having familial or personal relationships with LGBTQ persons, coupled with the growing belief that everyone should be protected equally under the law (or at least not discriminated under it) is slowly breaking down age-old stigmas and stereotypes.
This is even true out here in the soybean fields. As a pastor in a small city in Northwestern Ohio, I've counted more than 40 families in our congregation who have a family member who is "out of the closet". A grandmother in her 90's regularly shows me pictures of her grand-daughter with her wife and their children. A sizable percentage of our members and attenders have a friend or colleague they work with who are LGBTQ. Gay and lesbian couples sit together with their friends in our pews. People who were once considered "exotic" and "unknown" are now just neighbors. And while certainly not everyone feels comfortable with LGBTQ people here in Allen County and in our congregation, on the whole people have become a lot more affirming, and more willing to "let and let live". And this in a community that's voted Republican in virtually every election since Abraham Lincoln was president (Roosevelt might have stolen an election or two here, but that's probably it).
So, The Jurisdictional Solution, which counts on churches "voting" and pastors making choices about which jurisdiction to affiliate with is a complicated matter in a state like ours. As a chair of the UMCM Steering Committee, I'd be happy to table questions relating of homosexuality for our 2016 General Conference, and commission a seriously talented and faithful group of laity and clergy to study TJS, among other suggested plans as a possible pathway for the United Methodist Church to be introduced in 2020. And I'm for a proposed time limit (General Conference in 2020) where if we can't find a "way forward" together, or sense we could do so with a little more time, we could an amicable split. Maybe we can't go forward as one. It's sad to me, but it is possible.
But why bring this up today?
Well, a friend of mine texted me a new proposal Ritter has put together. The Restore and Release Plan is one Ritter has - I'm guessing - put together as a response to the situation regarding Bishop Talbert.
For those who don't know the story, Talbert is a retired bishop who officiated a same-sex ceremony over the objection of the presiding bishop in the conference where the service was held. He was brought up on charges by that bishop, and his case was heard by a member of the College of Bishops which is how it's outline in our denomination's rules. The end result of that case was something the UM Book of Discipline calls "A Just Resolution".
"A Just Resolution" is established when the person who made a complaint, the person they made a complaint about, and the presiding Bishop hearing the case mutually agree on a course of action, or actions, short of some punitive punishment, that all can agree settles the difference between the parties. I am very much generalizing here, but in the case of Talbert, he admitted that he had "caused pain" in this situation but did what he believed justice demanded, the bishop presiding felt the Discipline had been maintained by hearing Talbert's case and reaching a just resolution, and the other bishop who made the complaint (Wallace-Padgett) felt too that her complaint had been dealt with adequately in the terms reached by all parties in the Just Resolution. The terms of which stated that all parties agreed that taking away a pastor's orders for violating the Discipline in regard to LGBTQ inclusion as the ONLY means of outcome isn't really adequate, and new possibilities need to be discussed within the College of Bishops and introduced to the denomination as a whole in the future. They all promised to work together to further this effort.
As you might imagine, conservatives are outraged. Break the Book of Discipline as blatantly as Talbert did, and the punishment should be swift and clear. Of course, given what the Discipline has to say about baptizing infants, empowering women in ministry, and paying our apportionment - all matters some of these same conservative evangelicals have no problem ignoring in their congregational settings - it seems that attitudes toward enforcement of Discipline in that tribe is a little "uneven". But, I digress....
As a Centrist, speaking only for myself, I agree with The Just Resolution in the Talbert case. There's got to be a better way to find our way through these important questions.
Further, I am mindful we have allowed ourselves to be on the wrong side of history as it relates to the inclusion of women, culture and race. As someone in the "middle" I don't want heavy-handed discipline as the only pathway available in the matters involving LGBTQ inclusion. At least for the next five years, why not pause, pray, and let the Holy Spirit guide us as we conference together, before we go forward, business as usual? While Centrists aren't unanimous for full-inclusion OR the current status quo, I think there is a growing understanding that the Holy Spirit MAY be very well doing something new in our midst. As those who don't just embrace "tradition", but also continue to weigh equally "experience" and "reason" in our understanding of scripture. There's enough evidence of the Spirit working to give things a hard, hard look.
Which is why the Restore and Release Plan is for me, a non-starter. Unlike the Jurisdictional Solution, which gives everyone in all jurisdictions a say and vote in denominational matters, the R&R Plan sets up a jurisdiction for progressives which marginalizes them in terms of representation in the denomination. While progressives are still able to participate in the pension program, the reality is that they have no voice, vote, or presence in denominational matters. There's no opportunity to conference together on these issues in an R&R Plan world because all the voices wouldn't be at the table.
Ritter says in a recent post he's concerned that some would view this new separate jurisdiction which would have no voice, vote, or representation of progressives in the denomination as something akin to a 21st Century Central Jurisdiction. He claims this is unfair because membership in it would be voluntary, as opposed to the old Central Jurisdiction which forced persons of color and the churches they served into a separate entity, apart from the rest of the denomination.
But, from where I'm sitting that's pretty close to what Ritter has proposed. Without voice, vote, or presence, it's just a matter of time before the progressive wing is cut off, left to float out to sea. And with conservatives firmly in place, organized around caucuses like Good News and IRD, how long will it take before orthodoxy and orthopraxy are narrowed to the point that moderates get the same treatment now as they did in the Southern Baptist Church back in the 1980's (a denomination that isn't doing too well now I might add)?
Chris Ritter is a good man, devoted follower of Jesus, and someone who has worked very hard looking to do the same thing we're looking to do in the UMCM (keep us together) I appreciate his work, and I think his is a valuable voice in helping us find a way forward. But the R&R Plan just isn't the right idea. It just isn't.