Responding to a Constitutional Crisis

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Responding to a Constitutional Crisis

A Faltering Polity

In my previous post, I tried to make the case that what General Conference 2019 is facing is nothing less than a constitutional crisis–for quite some time, our legislation has been at odds with our practice. Those who disagree with the legislation have been unable to secure the votes to change it; the legislation has proven to be impotent in altering practice.  

For traditionalists, the breakdown in our polity is obvious: pastors and bishops are openly rejecting the discipline that is supposed to order our connectional life. For progressives, the rejection of our polity is less obvious, but equally strong: General Conference has consistently implemented policies that are discriminatory and harmful and the resultant legislation should be transgressed in the name of more foundational baptismal vows “to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” Performing a same-sex wedding for reasons of conscience is not only a violation of church law, it is a rejection of the church’s discernment on the matter and an undermining of the structures that have done that discernment.  

In other words, even though traditionalists and progressives would define the problem(s) very differently, both are recognizing, participating in, and perpetuating a fundamental failure of our church’s governance, a failure that amounts to a constitutional crisis.  

Rejecting the Cheap Fix

Over the past several months, it has become largely accepted (with Chris Ritter as a notable exception) that a plan requiring constitutional amendments is dead on arrival. The supermajority will be too hard to build at General Conference and in Annual Conferences and the implementation will be too slow.  As a result, the Connectional Conference Plan has been summarily dismissed while attention has gone to debating the relative merits and demerits of the plans that are more easily passed, and therefore viewed as more practical. One need only look at the paltry support the CCP received in yesterday’s up-down vote to see the effect of the pessimism.

If, however, what the church faces is not simply a matter of disagreement, but a breakdown of our polity that creates a constitutional crisis, it is a fool’s errand to try to find a quick and cheap fix.  Putty and paint will not shore up a crumbling foundation, even if it will temporarily make things look nice from the inside.  

The plans that do not require constitutional amendments provide only temporary fixes to long standing problems. The plans that dissolve our connection too quickly throw away the legitimate goods that come through our shared ministry.  

A Case for Amending the Constitution: General Thoughts

A constitutional crisis requires constitutional repair. The votes needed to pass a constitutional amendment—a supermajority of GC delegates and a supermajority of the aggregate votes of annual conference delegates–-has been roundly rejected as a bar too high to clear. To shamelessly riff on G.K. Chesterton, amending the constitution to solve this issue has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried. If our connection is worth saving, it is worth the effort of correcting the problem at its source—in the constitution.  

An Appeal to Supporters of the Traditional Plan(s)

As sundry iterations of accountability measures in Traditional Plans have been struck down by the Judicial Council, there has been some murmurs of embracing constitutional amendments. One wonders whether a Traditional Plan that fails to provides functional accountability measures would be sufficient to keep many traditionalists from departing the connection.  Adding one or more constitutional amendments to a/the Traditional Plan would provide more durable change than other types of legislation, and would also enable less siloed accountability. 

But if constitutional amendments are in play, maybe the Connectional Conference Plan deserves more attention than it has received to date (apart from the wilderness cries of Chris Ritter).  

The Connectional Conference Plan

From my reading and conversations about the CCP, most have written it off because of the time and effort required—it’s seen as too hard. Beyond this previously addressed concern, however, lies another: Can traditionalists in good faith and with a clear conscience remain connected to progressives? Would doing so be an endorsement of the other’s views on sexuality or, at least, a concession that different answers can be faithful in varied contexts? 

Identity, Discipline, and Shared Mission

To frame the question in this manner assumes that continued institutional connection includes personal endorsement, and proves to be its own slippery slope–in a church full of sinful humans, from which contemptible behaviors and beliefs must I sever myself? This way of thinking is the worst impulse of Protestantism and leads to infinite division, forsaking the way of peace and the ministry of reconciliation begun by Jesus who ate with sinners and washed the feet of Judas on the night Judas betrayed him.

Instead, it might be more fruitful to ask, “How can we continue to be connected to, and even share ministry with, brothers and sisters with whom we vehemently disagree?” This question makes space for real, painful divisions to exist without having to declare one another apostate. It’s this kind of principled division in the midst of connection that is modeled for us by Paul and Barnabas in the middle of Acts.

It’s in thinking about our connection this way that the Connectional Conference plan emerges in ways that bring together the strengths of the One Church Plan and the Traditional Plan(s), avoids some of their major shortcomings, and adds some benefits of its own.

If, in the midst of our disagreement––disagreement that does touch on central tenets of our faith and which might have only one right answer—we can still identify one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, then we are, by necessity already connected as members of the same body. Though they may be wrong; though we may be wrong, we remain connected. Until or unless we are willing to deny that those who disagree with us are in Christ, we must be concerned with how we can faithfully embody the connection and join together in Christ’s mission.

We have categories for how to do this with other denominations. With some, we are able to worship and pray together. With others, we are able to share sacraments and even pastors across denominational lines. The things that divide us from other denominations are significant and reach to the heart of our faith, but we know that we have some responsibility to think about our connection and shared witness.

The things that separate us about sexuality should not be minimized. If ordaining persons in same-sex intimate relationships is a promotion of sin and an endorsement of those whose behavior disqualifies them for ministry, can I remain in covenant relationship with them and the annual conferences that elect to ordain them? If refusal to preside at same-sex weddings is unjust and an act of oppression, can I be in a clergy covenant with them without without seeking some kind of accountability? The answers to these questions might painfully be “no.” 

But, what if our connection (which we presently acknowledge as members of the body of Christ) could extend beyond communion sharing agreements or ecumenical statements? What if we could join in accountable, covenantal ministry with those that share our understanding of faithfulness and begin (re)building relationships of trust by conferencing with them, while continuing to share mission and theological witness with others inasmuch as it is possible?

Despite our differences on sexuality, the United Methodist Church’s shared work throughout the globe has eternal impact. Our efforts in evangelism, in disaster relief, in education, in publishing, and in advocacy are all strengthened by the resources that we share and deploy; resources that enable us to participate in and testify to the kingdom of God in the world. Nearly all of us believe in UMCOR.

Conclusion

If we are facing a consitutional crisis, we need a constitutional solution. If we’re going to go to the effort of changing the constitution, the Connectional Conference Plan needs more robust consideration. It is an effort to discern and embody the real connection that remains despite our significant disagreements while also separating us enough to create space that allows for the kind of accountable, disciplined relationships that are essential to our Wesleyan witness.  It allows for the freedom of conscience and shared mission championed by the One Church Plan and for the appropriate differentiation and discipline that is longed for by traditionalists. And beyond the effort and time it will take to implement, it does significantly less harm than either.  

Appendix I: Splitting the Inheritance (An Analogy)

Imagine a wealthy family with three children who all work for the family business. Each of the children has dramatically different personalities, values, and preferences. But when the parents die, they leave all of their real property to all three—the family business, the lake house, the mountain house, the private jet, and the yacht. 

The three children could try to fully integrate their lives, living by the same rules, vacationing at the same time, living in the same house.  Or they could do their best to split the property and the business equally three ways and go their separate ways with no need to ever speak to one another again.  

But there is a third option. They could maintain their separate households, with their separate rules and preferences while also sharing the business and the other assets, working together in the ways that they can but without having to go on vacation at the same time to the same places every time.

Such a solution might not work forever—at some point, they might reach irreconcilable differences over remodeling the lake house or dispute who broke the china on the jet. If they’re successful, they benefit from the rich variety of their family assets and are able to work together to help the family business grow. If it doesn’t work, it was worth the effort because the risk was minimal. It might not work, but if it does, it is worth the extra effort.  

If this is the tough row that we must hoe, let’s do it in a way that maximizes our ability to pursue our mission together and maintains connection in all of the ways that we can.  

Appendix II: Additional Strengths of the CCP

(a) Availability for appointment across connectional conferences: In my native Mississippi, it’s nearly a certainty that annual conference (and most of its churches) would affiliate with the most conservative of the Connectional Conferences. Not all of our clergy, however, are as conservative as our churches. Rather than creating an impermeable division between the progressives and the traditionalists, the CCP would allow for a pastor to align themselves with the most fitting conference, but make themselves available for appointment in other conferences provided the pastor is willing to abide by the conference’s standards.

(b) Ongoing opportunity to effect change in hearts and lives of others: Traditionalists need to listen to the faithful pastoral concerns of progressives, and reckon with the profound pain that has been endured by the LGBT community. Progressives need to reckon with both traditionalists’ insistence that Christian identity stands at odds with the self-determination of the (post)modern moment and their deep biblical and theological reservations about the increasing sexual permissiveness of our culture. If we separate from one another, we greatly diminish our ability to learn from one another and to allow the Holy Spirit to perfect us as we discern together.

(c) Benefits the church even if it isn’t a long term success: Such an effort at shared mission might not work long term for any number of reasons; there might be less overlap in missional work than has been assumed.  Even if that is the case, pastors, churches, and conferences will have aligned (without high stakes property disputes) in a way that allows for a more orderly separation down the road in a manner that is much less likely to devolve into congregationalism.  

One thought on “Responding to a Constitutional Crisis

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