Friday, August 10, 2018

What's Wrong with the "Traditionalist" Plan - Part 3

The last two posts have hit on ten different issues with the seventeen petitions that make up the traditionalist plan. None of those are tied to where a person may stand on LGBT inclusion. They are all about the language the petitions use and larger implications for the denomination. They are all also specific to individual or groups of petitions. In this post I address additional concerns that come from the overall plan. Quotes are from Appendix 3 of the document released by the Judicial Council titled "A Conversation within the Council of Bishops: A Traditional Plan." Numbering picks up where we left off:

11. The section of this document titled "Theological and Biblical Foundations" lets the cat out of the bag. The purpose of the plan is to divide. The first paragraph finishes with, "it is appropriate for there to be two different Wesleyan bodies who teach differently on the question of Christian marriage between same gender persons" and goes on to say, "We should see the formation of a new Wesleyan denomination as an opportunity for a different type of unity..." We have repeatedly been told that this is the plan that will hold the denomination together. Let's be clear - the Traditionalist Plan is the ONLY plan (other than a plan to dissolve the denomination entirely) that specifically says one of its purpose is to divide. It's no secret that no matter what happens at General Conference in 2019 some United Methodists will leave the denomination. Heck, that's old news by this point. We've been declining in size for decades. But there is a difference, both theologically and practically, when a group actually announces that this is part of their purpose.

There is an important second piece here, too. Recall that the traditionalists say it would be good to have two denominations so that "different Wesleyan bodies" will teach differently on same-sex marriage. OK. Let's do that. Adopt the One Church Plan or the Simple Plan. While the traditionalist authors appear to be thinking broadly about a Wesleyan witness they are forgetting all of our sister denominations. Among the denominations in the Wesleyan family tree are the Free Methodist, Wesleyan, Church of the Nazarene, AME, CME, AMEZ, Salvation Army, and Assemblies of God. To the best of my knowledge none of these denominations allow gay clergy or marriage. As a person who supports inclusion, I've been asked why I haven't already left the United Methodist Church for another denomination before now. The simplest answer is this: I'm a Wesleyan Christian. I would need to give up so much more of my theology to leave for a different denomination. When the church I serve was discussing becoming a Reconciling Congregation someone asked me about whether taking that designation would exclude someone who is not reconciling from attending. My answer was something like this: "My understanding is that to be reconciling means everyone is truly welcome. I wouldn't want anyone to leave. I also know that if someone needs to be in a church where LGBT people are not fully included there are many to choose from. So if I have to make a choice between being a pastor for someone who is gay or someone who does not welcome full inclusion it's an easy choice. There aren't other options for our LGBT members." That's true for us as denominations, also. The simplest way to allow for the stated goal of having "different Wesleyan bodies who teach differently" is to vote for change in the UMC.

12. This is a related point. Regarding the effects of adopting the Traditionalist Plan, the group states "All general boards and agencies remain the same..." Officially this is true. In reality it won't be. We know this because some of our boards and agencies have been regularly attacked by Good News and other right-leaning caucuses. There is no question that a theological shift to the right that would happen in this plan would result in changes to the support in general boards and agencies. Indeed, some would welcome this.

13. The plan also states that there would be no change for clergy. "Clergy would continue to be subject to the Discipline of the church as they agreed in their ordination vows." Not exactly. The Discipline changes every four years. Our statements on inclusion and practice have changed significantly in the twenty years that I've been ordained and we have active pastors who were ordained forty years ago. In fact, this plan has the most change in the Discipline of any viable plan proposed. 

14. The traditionalist plan is supposedly the only plan that "provides assurances that traditional UM can continue to make disciples among people who value traditional teaching on marriage and sexual behavior." This ignores repeated guarantees in the One Church Plan that provide the same assurances to traditionalists. This is the only plan that forces the denominations will on all pastors, conferences, and local churches.

15. Finally, particularly for those who are more conservative, this plan does not end the debate. Let me give you one very clear example. The biggest "scandal" that has arisen recently in the denomination is over the commissioning of M. Barclay as a Deacon. M is transgender. Transgender is not the same thing as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. The traditionalist plan does not directly impact M's commissioning or ordination at all. So when will that plan hit the floor?

It would be so nice to have this all over. It would be so nice if we could just be a big happy church family like in Acts 2. That's the kind of purity and simplicity that the Traditionalist Plan aspires to. But the reality is that only four chapters later in Acts 6 the church has a big fight. Church is messy. Family is messy. Church family is messy. I hope that we can resolve this debate sometime soon. But ending one debate is also just prelude to another debate. We will never have the church that each of us believes is the perfect church. It just won't happen. Instead, God asks us to live with our mutual imperfections, including our imperfect theologies, and work together for the common good. I hope we can do that together in the UMC.


  1. Having spent 4 long disheartening years cruising the internet, listening to every voice I could find, I sincerely doubt that there is any agreement as to what "common good" we are supposedly working towards! My listening started shortly before GC2012 and ended shortly after GC2016. By the time GC2012 was over my understanding of the church was that it was a gianourmous square raft with umpteen oars lining each side each paddling the best they each knew how. Somewhere between GC2012 and Gc2016 my view of the church was as water spilled on the floor going multiple directions at one time making effective leadership from the Bishops impossible beyond trying to keep all the theological balls in play. By the time we rolled into GC2016 the church had become cats with their tails tied together. I am apalled to discover that I am part of a denomination that collectively has no clue who it is and what it is it is supposed to be doing. Even the local church where I have been a long time member has started chasing down whatever rabbit trail of relevancy the current pastor deems acceptable. My support of the church has dwindled down to minimum pledge and Sunday morning worship attendance because I am no longer sure what it is I am supporting and I want to see what the other side of GC2019 and possibly GC2020 look like. One thing I do know for sure if the One Church Plan gets past General Conference I am done because all that will do is enshrine the conflict that is the result of the theological plurality that is behind this sexuality debacle at all levels of the church. No thank you! I am intrigued that you feel like you have some sort of Wesleyan theology to work from because as a rank and file adult lay person who was involved in the life of the church for 20 years I had no concrete understanding until the local church chased down its first rabbit trail of relevancy. That is when I wandered off and discovered a Wesleyan understanding of a triune God who is most definitely worth worshiping. For the first time in my life I finally found myself standing in the wide open space of God's amazing grace wondering why I had not been taught these things before. I am no longer surprised at the 50 years of uninterrupted numerical decline.

  2. 'So if I have to make a choice between being a pastor for someone who is gay or someone who does not welcome full inclusion it's an easy choice.'

    Your statement highlights one problem with progressive thinking. Why in the world would a pastor have to choose who to minister to? There is only one Gospel. We have come to this point because progressives have denied deci Gospel and begun to teach something else. Instead of surrendering our desires to Jesus, progressives expect Jesus to surrender His desires to them so they can live however they want to. You seem to feel entitled to change our denomination into whatever you want it to be.

    1. Hi Sean,

      Let me clarify. My desire is to be a pastor for all people. In the instance I referenced, an individual made it clear that was not an option. Either this person would leave the church or we would have to change our approach to ministry. This was not a problem with progressive thinking. It was the choice of another person.

      I agree there is only one Gospel. I'm doing my best to live it out as best as I understand it.