Future Prospects - Part 2
A four-part series by Darryl W. Stephens on how General Conference 2016 actions have reshaped The United Methodist Church through 2020.
A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose
Future Prospects Part 2
Delegates from Cote d'Ivoire consider legislation at the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Fla. The merger of the Methodist Church of Cote D'Ivoire with The United Methodist Church has set up problems of international union that must be solved, writes Darryl W. Stephens.
Parenthetical references to petition numbers may be tracked at http://www.umc.org/who-we-are/legislation-tracking.
Leadership. Leadership. Leadership. These are the three most important parts of any effort to maintain denominational unity in The United Methodist Church. Since 2008, General Conference has been ineffective in legislating a coherent way forward for this fledgling “worldwide” church. General Conferences in 2012 and 2016 have experienced train-wrecks, stalls, and pauses. Piecemeal legislation has proven unworkable. Needed is a comprehensive plan, and this requires bold leadership.
As the Council of Bishops proclaimed in “A Way Forward,” the unity of the UMC will require “new behaviors, a new way of being and new forms and structures.” This means—at the least—a new, global Book of Discipline, new worldwide agency structures, a new General Church Council, and newly articulated theologies of sexuality, marriage, ministry, and ecclesiology. I discussed a few of these needs in “A vision for the global UMC,” suggesting that the division over homosexuality is only the presenting issue, a symptom of much more complicated dysfunctions in this church.
To address systemic issues related to denominational (dis)unity and to move forward as a “worldwide” denomination, the Council of Bishops must develop a comprehensive Plan of Union, just as was done in preparation of the 1968 union of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church. The bishops have already committed to leading this effort of collaborative planning:
"Developing such new forms will require a concerted effort by all of us, and we your bishops commit ourselves to lead this effort. We ask you, as a General Conference, to affirm your own commitment to maintaining and strengthening the unity of the church. We will coordinate this work with the various efforts already underway to develop global structures and a new General Book of Discipline for our church. Strengthening the unity of the church is a responsibility for all of us." (“A Way Forward”)
General Conference 2016 has identified many pieces of this work, referring no less than nine pieces of legislation to various entities, both existing and yet-to-be. Each referral pertains to issues of denominational structure or policy. Many of these issues are related to the unfinished business of the 2008 merger of the UMC and the Methodist Protestant Church of Côte d'Ivoire, a tipping point in the denomination’s effort to become a “worldwide” denomination.
The success of each referral by General Conference depends on more than the ability of the appointed entity to form a reasonable response to its assigned issue and task. Denominational unity hinges on the ability of these groups to coordinate their efforts into a coherent plan for a global church. If the Council of Bishops is to provide effective leadership for unity, it must find ways to coordinate these disparate mandates.
A Plan of Union must include, at minimum, the following nine referrals by General Conference 2016. Each petition or set of petitions addresses some essential aspect of becoming a “worldwide” denomination.
Chart by Darryl W. Stephens
Future Prospects Chart
Taken as a whole, these referrals from General Conference 2016 involve at least seven existing entities of the UMC and the creation of at least four new entities. The following paragraphs explain each referral, in the order shown in the chart.
The Council of Bishops’ “special Commission” for “A Way Forward” is given the task “to develop a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph in our Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality,” yet the existing version of the Discipline (as legislated by General Conference) is quickly yielding to a General Book of Discipline being developed elsewhere.
The 2017-2020 Study of Ministry Commission is tasked with providing guidance for writing relevant portions of the proposed General Book of Discipline: “This includes considering questions related to the authority of licensed and ordained clergy to determine for whom they will perform marriage services, as well as the ordination of persons in committed same-sex relationships or marriages.” This Commission is also mandated to partner with the Council of Bishops, the Committee on Faith and Order, United Methodist seminaries, and Boards of Ordained Ministry as well as the writing committee for the General Book of Discipline.
The Committee on Faith and Order has been instructed to study a petition proposing changes to ¶ 105 Section 4—Our Theological Task. This petition asserts the primacy of scripture: “tradition, experience, and reason—taken singly or in combination—cannot be interpreted to contravene Scripture as the primary source and criterion for doctrine.” (A topic addressed during two United Methodist consultations held in the late 1990’s: “In Search of Unity” and "The Consultation on Scriptural Authority and the Nature of God's Revelation.") This conversation about biblical authority and interpretation bears directly on issues facing the church today, such as the statement in the Social Principles that “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”
This statement and everything else in the Social Principles has ambiguous standing until the denomination adopts a “global” version of the document. The 2012 General Conference declared the Social Principles to be part of the “global Discipline” while acknowledging that the Social Principles document is not yet written for a global context. Thus, the 2016 General conference mandated that “The General Board of Church and Society will continue to give priority to developing Social Principles for a worldwide church.”
The global or General Book of Discipline, as it is now termed (60276), is designed to be binding on all conferences in the UMC worldwide and is a work in progress. The Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters submitted a draft of Part VI, chapters 1-4+6, to General Conference 2016. Additional sections will be drafted in preparation for General Conference 2020, in consultation with the Commission for the Study of Ministry and the Connectional Table. The creation of a new Book of Discipline is the linchpin to becoming a “worldwide” denomination.
Along with a new General Discipline come new general church structures, beginning with a replacement for the Connectional Table. During 2017-2020, members of the Connectional Table and Council of Bishops will form a “Missional Collaboration Group” to plan this work. “The Missional Collaboration Group will be tasked to… develop legislation to create a General Church Council replacing the Connectional Table in 2020 to accompany the General Book of Discipline legislation.” This effort is to be aligned with the work of the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters and the Committee on Faith and Order.
This brings us to “Plan UMC Revised”—yesterday’s solution for tomorrow’s church. In 2012, an effort to restructure and reorganize the general agencies (“Plan UMC”) was supported by General Conference delegates but ruled unconstitutional by Judicial Council. Delegates to the 2016 General Conference gave little attention to a revision penned by six white men from the U.S., referring or rejecting all of the proposals. The underlying problem? This plan for restructuring the agencies was not designed for a worldwide church. It was a U.S. solution to U.S. issues for a church that is no longer a U.S. denomination. Nevertheless, restructuring the general agencies must be part of any plan for a “worldwide” denomination, a task referred jointly to the Connectional Table, Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, and General Council on Finance and Administration.
General Conference entertained and rejected multiple proposals for restructuring episcopal areas, central conferences, and U.S. jurisdictions. At least one of these petitions was referred for further study. A Jurisdictional Study Committee created by the Council of Bishops will “examine the best number and boundaries of jurisdictions and episcopal areas in the United States.” Its success hinges on how well this work parallels the plan for increasing the number of episcopal areas in Africa (60274), deals with global financing and apportionments, and addresses the pressing need for a forum outside of General Conference for U.S. delegates to discuss U.S. issues.
Simultaneously, every annual conference in the denomination has been asked to contribute to a conversation about the nature and mission of the church. “Wonder, Love, and Praise” is a draft ecclesiology document from the Committee on Faith and Order designed to accompany the UMC’s two well-regarded statements on sacraments. Drawing connections between a United Methodist ecclesiology and all of the above studies of theology, polity, and structure could be a very fruitful task.
Seeking a Comprehensive Plan
There is much work involved in becoming a new denomination, with worldwide reach. The nine referrals above do not exhaust the range of work involved, but they represent many of the major pieces of the puzzle. These pieces of legislation were referred, in part, because they had not been developed in concert. For a church desiring unity, the work of revisioning and restructure requires a comprehensive Plan of Union.
General Conference has entrusted the Council of Bishops to coordinate this work. United Methodists are counting on them for visionary leadership. The denomination needs a comprehensive plan, not piecemeal legislation.
Furthermore, a Plan of Union must have widespread support if it is truly to be unifying. The proposals developed will constitute a new, worldwide denomination and should be voted upon with the same level of rigor as any constitutional amendment. This would mean a vote of every annual conference and a supermajority at General Conference. The unity of the denomination cannot hang on the vote of a simple majority of General Conference delegates. United Methodists must rally around a shared sense of what is essential to this church as a “worldwide” denomination in order to be unified in mission and ministry.
Coming next in Part 3: Amending the Old Social Principles While Awaiting the New.
The Rev. Dr. Darryl W. Stephens is Director of United Methodist Studies at Lancaster (Pa.) Theological Seminary and a clergy member of the Texas Annual Conference. He is author of Methodist Morals: Social Principles in the Public Church's Witness (University of Tennessee Press, April 2016).