First of two parts
“A respectful and responsible, yet pointed critique of the Indianapolis Plan”
Like many in the “center” of United Methodism I have been taken aback by some of the Mainstream UMC articles as being somewhat abrasive. These feelings have been more about style, than about questioning the “hard truth” the articles have uplifted. The last article exposed the tactics and strategies of the “conservative coalition” (WCA, Confessing Movement, Good News, and IRD), and sadly I vouch for the accuracy. All this aside, it is time those of us who are declared now to be Centrists (both center right and center left), thought to be the largest group of United Methodists, we “compatibilists” need to speak out and request a hearing.
I think most United Methodists are sadly resolved to the fact that there will be a split in our beloved denomination. Keeping the divide hopefully to a “split” and not a “splintering”, or “disintegration”, is our collective prayer. The preface to the Indianapolis Plan (Indy Plan) states well our collective desire to “move away from the vitriol and caustic atmosphere” in the United Methodist Church and “move into a new season where for the sake of Christ we strive to bless one another.” The bottom-line hope for all of us is to “send one another into our respective mission fields to multiply our witness for the sake of Christ.”
Respectfully and responsibly, one should ask, “Who represents the `we’ referred to in the Indy Plan?” Is there any good reason for those who put the Indy Plan together to not be formally identified? The names that are missing are the ones who perhaps are not as happy with the process, or the result. It should be general knowledge by now that there was not a consensus bringing the Indy Plan to the table. It is nearly admitted that the Indy Plan starting point is a fleshing out of the Jones/Bard Plan, which clearly is a “dissolution plan.” And just what does dissolution mean? A friend of mine said it well recently and as poignantly as I have heard, “I have heard dissolution used by people recently as, (1) removing or suspending the Trust Clause, so that individual churches (and annual conferences) can depart with their bank accounts and property intact; (2) separating from the Reform and Renewal Coalition; (3) dissolving the United Methodist Church and starting completely from scratch; (4) some combination of all of the above.”
Let us be clear about the reason the conservative coalition (those not desiring to stay connected to a church that changes the official stance on all matters regarding homosexuality) is pushing so hard for dissolution. It is because they are the main group wanting to leave but believe that they cannot afford to look like they want to leave. In fact, it has been clearly stated by even some of our more conservative pastors that they are not willing to (or don’t think they can) lead their congregations into an exit of the denomination to join another one. This necessitates the dissolving of the denomination in the minds of some, so the push is for “we all have to leave” whether we want to or not. The pressure for dissolution has only intensified with the US delegate elections (70+ percent of US delegates identify as centrist/progressive), saying loudly and clearly to the world and the “global church” the US church is at a different place than it had been postured by the leadership in the conservative coalition. Even the more traditional leaning “Compatibilists” (who, like myself are more theologically conservative but not willing to leave the denomination over matters regarding homosexuality) do not want to see the UMC dissolve. Also, many of our Central Conference leaders see the peril and chaos in the dissolution and consequent dismantling of the UMC.
It is regrettable to have to say that the Indy Plan’s pie-in-the-sky, nonchalant portrayal of dividing up assets, and how that could be done smoothly, is totally naïve. The legal wrangling of redistributing funds, especially those intended to be redirected from the clear purposes the funds were given for, would make our skirmishes of the past decades look like holding hands and eating ice cream. Make no mistake about it, the reason that a “clean exit” is being contemplated is that the US church leaders supporting the Traditional Plan, many of whom ironically have not supported much of what the funds were given for, do not want to leave the table without a financial share. Many believe this to be akin to a “money grab.” We all know what the Lord and the Bible says about money, and we can take those words “to the bank” as the process of seeking a way forward plays out. Let’s be clear, largely underlying the Indianapolis Plan and the drafters’ discussion has been and is about assets and the money.
It is general knowledge that a “plan to exit” was already in place on the part of conservative coalition, if the One Church Plan had been the decision of the General Conference in St. Louis. There are a few “progressives” who want to dissolve the denomination and have their own expression of United Methodism. This group needs to be clear that having “progressives leave” has been the hope, plan and prayer for the conservative coalition for at least two decades. The thought was that if the progressives, as small as they were thought to be, would simply leave, then all of the church’s “problems” regarding “homosexuality” would go away. The fallacy of this thinking was that the remaining United Methodists would somehow be of one mind, which we never have been. Sadly, but absolutely, there have been many questions on the part of conservatives as to whether “Progressives” in the UMC are really Christians. Talking points regarding isolated seminary professors’ actions and singled out pastors’ statements regarding “Christology” have been favorite go-to examples meriting the “non-Christian” label. As a Wesleyan Evangelical pastoring a theologically diverse congregation, I can say this negative characterization of our “progressive” brothers and sisters is hurtful and unfair.
Envisioning a church “sharing a common heritage from the roots of Methodism, unbound from the conflict that decimated the UM Church,”was the underlying hope of the One Church Plan supporters, and the Connectional Conference Plan supporters. The late Dr. William H. Hinson at the General Conference in Pittsburgh first stated, “Releasing one another for joyful obedience to Christ’s call on our lives,” clearly and publicly in 2004. However, the statement was in hopes of finding a way for the Progressives to exit.
Let all be informed that the Indy Plan was primarily brought to the table by official members of the conservative coalition and is a version of the Jones/Bard Plan that is absolutely and unapologetically a “dissolution plan.” Following are the points uplifted by the Indy Plan that will be critiqued and pointedly questioned to test the claim of not being a dissolution plan. It’s been my experience that when persons or groups go out of their way to say what something “is not” it usually IS at least a version of what is being denied.
1. The 2020 General Conference of the United Methodist Church would birth a Traditionalist United Methodist Church and a Centrist/Progressive United Methodist Church. (Names are placeholders; each new denomination would choose their own name. Both can use “The United Methodist Church” with a modifier to distinguish the two if they so desire) If the Indy Plan is NOT a move to dissolve the denomination, then why could not the United Methodist Church General Conference 2020 simply birth a new expression—a Traditionalist United Methodist Church. This is what, prior to St. Louis, the leadership of the conservative coalition had wanted and had worked diligently on. This group claims to have already drafted most of their new Book of Discipline. With as many paid staff members employed by Good News, Confessing Movement, IRD and other groups who are part of this coalition, thorough planning around the “what if we lose” was absolutely done. Winning the day in St. Louis through strategies that worked masterfully makes even their once-thought-to-be “good exit plans” look like leaving power and money on the table. However, this necessitating ALL of us leaving smacks of “saving face” and not anything for “Jesus’ sake.”
2. The United Methodist Church would not be dissolved but would have its legal continuation through the Centrist/Progressive United Methodist Church. If this is NOT dissolution, then why cannot the Centrist/Progressive branch that would be the “legal” continuation and be responsible for the boards and agencies be The United Methodist Church? What if those of us as the Centrists right, Centrists left, Progressives and most in the Central Conferences like the name United Methodist Church? Why couldn’t we have the name? The answer is obvious, allowing such a sensible retaining of the name would mean we didn’t really dissolve and that which is “United Methodist” branded would not be up for grabs and division. Remember that it is a perceived “negative” for those who really want to dissolve being seen as the only ones leaving and believe they cannot afford to be seen as the group that left. As we know, the “United” part of our denomination’s name speaks primarily to our historic uniting with the Evangelical United Brethren and the Methodist Church. The United Methodist Church name speaks to this 1968 union not necessarily the state of “unity”. Our name should not be lost or changed without serious consideration given to its origin.
3. The Traditionalist UMC would be a global denomination that would maintain the current stance of the Discipline regarding the practice of homosexuality. So be it.
4. The Centrist/Progressive UMC would be a global denomination that would remove the “incompatibility” language, prohibitions against same-sex weddings and the ordination and appointment of self-avowed practicing homosexuals, and the funding restrictions on the promotion of the acceptance of homosexuality for its US-based annual conferences. Of course, this is clearly a matter that primarily impacts the US annual conferences. Why would not the US be its own Central Conference or Regional Conference? The United Methodist Church would continue to function as a global church of Regional Conferences coming together in a General Conference and in the mission field for the purpose of making Disciples of Jesus Christ and transforming the world through our collaborative and cooperative ministry.
Who among us does not know that the United Methodist Church as we have known it will never be again as it has been in the past? There is a need for many good and positive changes to be made to further our missional outreach. We can also be big and broad enough to bless those who cannot continue in a connection with those United Methodists who desire and insist on more inclusion and justice for LGBTQ persons. Both changes and blessing of exits can be done without dissolving a denomination that desires to continue the work of Disciple making and ministries of justice and mercy in our quest to transform the world for Jesus’ sake.
The Rev. Dr. Stan Copeland serves as senior pastor of Lovers Lane United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas. This post is republished with permission from his blog, Joy Comes.