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UMC Next Plan: Liberalize Church, Protect Abusive Clergy, Crush Out Traditionalists



November 15, 2019

Talk about overkill!

The ultra-liberal UMC Next caucus has released its “Next Generation UMC” proposal for the 2020 General Conference, consisting of 23 petitions across 33 pages.

UMC Next’s Convening Team includes celebrity pastor Adam Hamilton, Tom Berlin (lead submitter of the misleadingly named “One Church Plan” to the 2019 General Conference), Jasmine Smothers (another Commission on a Way Forward member and “One Church Plan” sponsor), Jan Lawrence (CEO of the LGBTQ liberationist Reconciling Ministries Network), Randall Miller (former head of RMN), Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson of North Georgia, Bishop Mike McKee of North Texas, Junius Dotson (CEO of our denomination’s official “Discipleship Ministries” agency), and key deputies of Chicago Bishop Sally Dyck and Florida Bishop Ken Carter.

This group largely consists of some of the most prominent advocates of the so-called “One Church Plan” (OCP). There seemed to be a lot of hubris among many liberals of being confident that their OCP would pass, because they evidently had not bothered to listen much to its traditionalist and genuine-centrist critics.

In response to our denomination’s highest representative body making clear that the OCP was a bridge too far, the UMC Next proposal represents leading OCP supporters refusing to make any compromises, but instead asking for something even more radical.

Here are key component of UMC Next’s “Next Generation UMC” proposal:

  1. Dramatically liberalize church standards on sexual morality while stifling any room for dissent.

  2. Dramatically erode accountability for clergy misconduct on all other standards.

  3. Have traditionalist believers leave.

  4. Repeat the “Way Forward” process.Potentially dramatically change core doctrine.

  5. Dramatically liberalize church standards on sexual morality while stifling any room for dissent.

As I have explained earlier, the OCP would have effectively purged theologically traditionalist believers from key denominational leadership positions.

But at the local level, the OCP paid lip service, however limited, to including and respecting us. For United Methodists who follow Scripture and 2,000 years of consistent global church teaching on sexual morality, the OCP would have at least:

  • Affirmed “that their conscience should be protected in the Church and throughout society under basic principles of religious liberty”;

  • Established a right in church law so that no minister would “at any time be required or compelled to perform…any marriage, union, or blessing of same-sex couples” and that district superintendents would not be allowed to “coerce, threaten, or retaliate against any pastor who exercises his or her conscience to perform or refuse to perform a same-sex marriage”;

  • Provided at least a partial mechanism for a pastor who performs same-sex unions or engages in homosexual activity to be moved away from traditionalist congregations in which this was disruptive; and

  • Only allowed same-sex union ceremonies in a church sanctuary if a majority of local church members had voted to approve having them.

1. Dramatically liberalize church standards on sexual morality while stifling any room for dissent.

In the UMC Next plan, leading OCP promoters have now dropped all of the above protections.  These omissions would seem to convey a strong message about what UMC Next truly believes and wants for our denomination:

  • They do not believe that the consciences of traditional Christian believers should be protected in either the church or the wider society.

  • They would not object if there were some situations in which United Methodist pastors were commanded to officiate at same-sex unions, and faced coercion, threats, and retaliation if they refused.

  • They do not want any of our congregations tens of thousands of congregations to be allowed to decline to celebrate same-sex unions.

Before February, several questioned how sincerely the OCP’s sponsors truly believed in even the OCP’s very incomplete conscience protections, and how long it would have been before they would seek to repeal such protections at a future General Conference.

By now dropping any pretense, Hamilton, Berlin, and other UMC Next leaders appear to be offering an answer.

Anyone remaining in the UMC would be required to pay a heavy price at the altar of LGBTQ liberationist ideology. Annual conferences could not refuse to submit to a partnered gay bishop, and would not have the same right as under the OCP to even temporarily continue orthodox ordination standards. Congregations could expect official repression if they attempted to resist their bishop’s efforts to impose a partnered gay pastor or have same-sex union celebrations in their sanctuary. Petitions #12 and #13 would effectively require all UMC congregations to pay, through their annual conference and denomination-wide apportionments taken from their offering plates, for efforts “to promote the acceptance of homosexuality.”

Furthermore, Petition #2 in UMC Next’s plan would change our denomination’s governing Discipline to establish a new, official value for our denomination of viewing disapproval of homosexual practice as an evil to be combatted alongside racism, sexism, and xenophobia. Notably, this change would come in a section of the Discipline to which, per Discipline ¶101, all United Methodists around the globe must submit, with no allowance for regional variation. Combined with Discipline ¶336, all future ordination candidates would be screened on whether or not they “approve” and agree to “support and maintain” these new liberal values and policies. Not even earlier Simple Plan of the “Queer Clergy Caucus” went that far!

(Quick tip: there is no honesty in attaching the word “centrist” to any caucus or leader whose agenda is to the left of the Simple Plan.)

Two petitions in this plan (#9 and #19) would establish an indefinite moratorium on the processing of all complaints for clergy accused of violating any of our denomination’s current homosexuality-related standards, to take effect immediately in May 2020. This goes further than simply liberalizing church standards for the future.  UMC Next reveals a great deal about its attitude towards clergy’s covenantal obligations to the church when they try to make all clergy who knowingly violated the church standards they vowed to uphold become entitled to a no-questions-asked free pass, regardless of how harmful and disruptive their unforced covenant-breaking behavior has been.

Furthermore, while it is a bit unclear, these two UMC Next petitions could arguably prevent clergy from being held accountable for engaging in homosexual practice even if they did so outside of the context of a monogamous, civilly affirmed same-sex marriage. Both petitions explicitly grant protection not only to clergy living in same-sex marriages, but also, “without limitation” those living in homosexual civil unions or domestic partnerships. And what if a minister’s homosexual practice, for which s/he faces a complaint, was pursued outside of any such committed relationship, or as a form of adultery? UMC Next’s plan says that their broad ban on accountability for LGBTQ clergy “applies not merely to charges that are explicitly based on ¶ 2702.1(b), but also to any charge that the same alleged conduct constitutes a chargeable offense under any other provision of the Discipline, including (without limitation) ‘immorality’ under ¶ 2702.1(a). For readers without a copy of the Discipline handy, ¶ 2702.1(a) is the precise provision making it a chargeable offense for clergy to be sexually active outside the boundaries of being celibate in singleness or faithful in marriage.

Leading up to February 2019, the OCP’s leading promoters assured us that they could be trusted to keep non-celibate gay clergy accountable to the same celibacy-in-singleness-and-faithfulness-in-marriage standard expected of heterosexuals. Yet between this and the fact that over five out of six OCP-supporting delegates also supported the pro-adultery Simple Plan, it would seem that the long-term revision of the church’s sexual ethics would end up being much more ambitious.

2. Dramatically erode accountability for clergy misconduct on all other standards.

But apparently, the above does not go far enough for the UMC Next crowd.

Obviously, the 2019 General Conference was shaped by our disagreements about sexual morality and underlying theologies. But it was also shaped just as much by concerns about denominational governance, namely, the degree to which our clergy should be held firmly accountable to the church’s moral standards (in line with our Wesleyan tradition), and how much we should have constitutional checks and balances to protect against bishops acting dictatorially.

Apparently, UMC Next wants much less of both, even aside from homosexuality matters.

UMC Next’s plan would rather recklessly, in multiple different petitions, remove standards and policies from the Discipline that are key for ensuring accountability to ALL clergy standards. Other “chargeable offenses” for which UMC clergy may currently be disciplined include adultery, pre-marital sex, crime, spreading heretically false teachings, undermining the ministry of other pastors, child abuse, sexual abuse, using pornography, sexual harassment, racial discrimination, and embezzling. Apparently, UMC Next leaders are willing to sacrifice victims of these other forms of clergy misconduct under the banner of LGBTQ liberation.

In other words, UMC Next’s plan would make it much easier for bishops and others to dismiss and cover-up the complaints and further hurt of victims of all forms of clergy misconduct.  And taking the UMC Next plan at face value, even if they succeeded in passing their other petitions to remove all disapproval of homosexual practice from the UMC Discipline, UMC Next would still want to dramatically weaken accountability for clergy who commit adultery, abuse people, or commit other non-homosexuality-related offenses.

UMC Next’s Petition #17 would even go as far as repealing one part of our church law, in apparent knee-jerk reaction to the fact that it was enacted as part of the Traditional Plan, even though this particular standard now in our church law was first proposed at the 2016 General Conference and was actually endorsed by the liberal Love Your Neighbor (LYN) coalition.

(Quick tip: if you proposals are actually to the left of what LYN groups like the Methodist Federation for Social Action, the Reconciling Ministries Network, or the Queer Clergy Caucus, then you don’t get to call yourself a “centrist.”)

I suppose a more charitable read is that the UMC Next folk primarily submitted their plan as an angry emotional reaction, seeking to broadly repeal almost anything that has been used in calls to hold accountable clergy who violate our denomination’s homosexuality-related standards, and that they simply did not think through the collateral damage. But if this plan is more a matter of angry venting than careful, responsible thinking, then why should General Conference delegates like me take it more seriously than its own writers may have taken it?

3. Have traditionalist believers leave.

In the late-nineteenth century, members of our predecessor denominations involved in the Holiness movement (which was deeply rooted in Wesleyan theology) complained that denominational officials of similar prominence to UMC Next’s leaders were “crushing out” believers like themselves.

In some ways, UMC Next’s “Next Generation UMC” plan would seem to follow that same ignoble tradition.

UMC Next realizes that a great many theologically traditionalist United Methodists could not in good conscience remain in such a radically reinvented denomination. So UMC Next’s plan offers provisions for individual congregations, on either side of our divides, to have the option of leaving and paying for their properties, and potentially banding with other departing congregations to form new denominations that may have some ecumenical relationship with the UMC. In some ways, I suppose that allowing for congregational exits represents some progress on the part of UMC Next.

However, the exit terms offered are much less generous than what traditionalists have been willing to offer liberals considering leaving. Among other things, UMC Next makes no provision for an entire dissenting annual conference to leave. One UMC Next petition provides for how if a bunch of congregations left to form a new denomination, they might receive a start-up grant of an unspecified amount.  But not even this UMC Next petition guarantees that this “parting gift” would be any larger than five U.S. dollars. In contrast, the Modified Traditional Plan supported by UMAction and other renewal groups at the February 2019 General Conference would have offered a definite sum of $200,000 as a start-up grant to departing liberal conferences.

Furthermore, over the centuries, our denomination and annual conferences have accumulated a vast amount of property, assets, and reserves – all given to a denomination that was officially loyal to traditionalist, biblical, Wesleyan doctrine.  The UMC Next Plan would dramatically change our denomination’s official, operative theology into something very different from the church to which these generations of gifts were given. But then it would effectively seize 100 percent of this for a reinvented liberal denomination, refusing to share these assets with those now in the UMC who actually continued to hold onto historic United Methodist doctrine.

4. Repeat the “Way Forward” process.

To sort out remaining details, UMC Next proposes a remarkably similar process to the three-year, multi-million-dollar “Way Forward” process our denomination has just been through.

The parallels are rather striking.  Their plan would again create a new special commission, again named by the Council of Bishops, with a suggested limit of 32 members (again), to submit legislation to be considered at yet another specially called General Conference session.

Ironically, in urging the 2016 General Conference to adopt the first “Way Forward” process, one leading “centrist” delegate made the argument that “if you continue to do the same thing, you will continue to get the same results.”

5. Potentially dramatically change core doctrine.

UMC Next’s petition for a new commission and special General Conference session includes calling for drafting a new denominational constitution that would include the Methodist Articles of Religion—but oddly makes no explicit mention of the Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren Church. Currently, both are equally protected in our church law as core Doctrinal Standards. The latter includes some clearer teaching than the former on such matters as the coming judgment day and calling both the Old and New Testaments “the true rule and guide for faith and practice.”

But theological liberals are obviously uncomfortable with such historic, orthodox Christian doctrine on we view core questions about salvation and Scripture.

Leading up to the February 2019 General Conference, the OCP’s supposedly “centrist” supporters spared no breath in repeatedly claiming that they were loyal to our denomination’s historic, constitutionally protected Doctrinal Standards. Will they keep making such claims, now that they at least appeal to be publicly flirting with the idea of repealing the entire EUB Confession of Faith from our Doctrinal Standards?

There are lots of serious problems and troubling implications in UMC Next’s plan. But I see no firm evidence for believing that all of the above is anything other than a fair and accurate representation of the true values and hopes of UMC Next’s Convening Team, bishops aligned with this caucus, and other liberal caucuses.

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