Via Media Methodists Respond to the “A&W” Proposals: Part 1.

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In a recent twitter conversation, Stephen, Drew, and I were asked for a Via Media Methodists response to the recent proposals from Dr. Bill Arnold and Dr. David Watson; these proposals have been dubbed the “A&W proposals.” We are honored that the via media is asked to be a conversation partner. Having followed Dr. Arnold and Dr. Watson for some time on social media, it is clear to us that they exemplify the ethos of the via media, a way that is so beautifully summed up by John Wesley in his sermon “Catholic Spirit”: “rooted in the faith once delivered to the saints and grounded in love, in true, catholic love…” “A&W” love God and they love The United Methodist Church, and they desire from her nothing but the strongest witness and the deepest commitment to Christ.

This will be a 3-part response, released over the next couple of days. This is for two reasons: Evan, Drew, and Stephen all have different takes on the “A&W” proposals, and this is a good opportunity to highlight the diversity of thought coming from the middle. We hope that our contributions enable healthy, Spirit-filled conversation. Evan starts us off.

Dr. Bill Arnold and Dr. David Watson have offered some proposals for The United Methodist Church that are thought-provoking and worthy of consideration. I have some concerns with a couple of their proposals, and there are a few that I whole-heartedly endorse. I hope that my comments are conveyed with the same “catholic love” from which “A&W” developed these proposals.

Dr. Arnold wrote a response to the proposal “A Way Forward,” in which he rightly pointed out the congregationalism and loss of core Methodist/Wesleyan principles upon abandonment of the Trust Clause. He very clearly stated, near the end of his post: “…nor do I support removing the Trust Clause.” Yet, the first “A&W” proposal is to suspend (yes, I realize suspending is different than permanently removing) the Trust Clause for a quadrennia to allow churches who cannot abide the UMC’s teaching on human sexuality to leave with their property. Given the snail’s pace at which our top-heavy bureaucratic denomination moves (see GC 2012 for evidence), it is highly unlikely that all the necessary logistics of an exodus of local congregations with their properties would be accomplished in four years. It seems it would take at least two quadrennia. But more than that: is it somehow more tolerable to allow the local option for just one or two quadrennia? I see some overlap between this proposal and the local option of “A Way Forward,” the key difference being the time frame. Both sacrifice connectionalism on the altar of pragmatism in a way that continues to make human sexuality THE defining issue for United Methodists. Also, this feels like it is rewarding bad behavior, and that troubles me. Isn’t this proposal saying, in effect, “Well, if you don’t agree with the collective discernment of the denomination on this issue, that’s ok. Here, take everything that never belonged to you in the first place.”

That leads me to proposal #2. This proposal, as I understand it, would allow for the convening of a church conference to allow for departure from the denomination for “reasons of conscience” regarding par. 161.f. of the Book of Discipline. Through said process, the church could, among other things, be released from the Trust Clause. I suppose my objection here echoes Maxie Dunnam’s problem with the “Agree to Disagree” legislation presented by Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter to the 2012 General Conference. We United Methodists disagree on everything from human sexuality to abortion to war to climate change. Why allow a church to leave the denomination, all property in tow, over this one particular social principle? Shouldn’t we also allow churches that might disagree on the denomination’s teaching on Israel/Palestine to leave as well? Or what about progressive churches that deny, for example, the virgin birth and literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ? These tenets clearly violate our doctrinal standards as set forth in par. 104 of the Book of Discipline. Or conservative churches that re-baptize? (Believe me, I know of some)! This practice is also a violation of our church’s doctrine. What does it say to allow such freedom to leave the connection over something that isn’t even church law?

Proposal #4 needs some further development. As I read it, A&W clump together Administrative Proceedings (par. 362-364 of the BoD) and Judicial Proceedings (par. 2701-2719 of the BoD). Administrative Proceedings and Judicial Proceedings often overlap in approach; there is a process, there is a strong preference for a just resolution. An administrative proceeding is more “informal,” in that it seeks a resolution “in house.” If that fails, it can move to a more formal judicial proceeding, a more serious inquiry, and, possibly a trial (I encourage those who are interested in the nuances between the two consult the Book of Discipline, especially par. 363.1, a.-g. and par. 2701). Lest I read between the lines too much, this proposal seems to be a reaction against Bishop McLee’s handling of the Ogletree case in the NY Annual Conference. Charges against Ogletree were filed under par. 2702.1 of the Book of Discipline, which deals with Judicial Proceedings, not Administrative Proceedings. The terms of just resolution under Judicial Proceedings is found under par. 2702.5. The paragraph there does not require the involvement of the complainant in reaching a just resolution; Bishop McLee, under par. 2702.5, handled the just resolution process appropriately. I agree with A&W that there needs to be some clarification and consistency needed on the just resolution process in par. 363.1 c and 2701.5. However, I think there also needs to be some pastoral care given for the complainant; perhaps the complaint does not want to be involved, and their wishes should be respected. Someone recently told me that the vast majority of complaints levied against clergy persons deal with harassment and sexual misconduct; that being the case, the care of and for the complainant must be of utmost importance. So, I agree with the heart of this proposal; I’d like to simply see more conversation around it and development of it.

I heartily affirm proposals 5-7. In my opinion, the answer to much of our current malaise is found in a strengthened episcopacy. We need our bishops to affirm the Order of the church. I would like to hear more about proposal 5 in particular. What are the checks and balances in place to ensure that the “set-aside” bishop responsible for enforcing and implementing the Discipline does so faithfully? What might prevent this position from becoming a highly political or ineffective office? How exactly would this “set-aside” bishop be able to tangibly and effectively enforce Order? I see this as a hard sell at General Conference, especially given the way the “set-aside” bishop idea was received in 2012; but, if this office were established and carried out practically and faithfully, it could be a real way forward.

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4 thoughts on “Via Media Methodists Respond to the “A&W” Proposals: Part 1.

  1. What defines our connectionalism? I’ve heard a lot of talk about how “A Way Forward” will “destroy” it, but then all the discussion focuses on the Trust Clause and episcopacy? If the Trust Clause and episcopacy are all that defines our connectional structure, then I’m not that afraid of a polity that becomes more congregational.

  2. I find the A& W proposal to be the one I am most comfortable with so far. For the past ten years I have put forth that we should have a suspension of the a Trust Clause for a period in order to allow churches who no longer agree with UMC polity and doctrines to leave and take the property associated with their ministry with them. I say this with full understanding that local property is held in trust for the greater UMC and while technically “it never belonged to [them] in the first place” we do ask for local churches to have a sense of ownership and responsibility for the property. This is one of those areas where our connectionalism runs up toward the GC but rarely from the GC toward local churches. While it may have happened, I have never encountered a situation where the GC stepped in to rebuild, remodel, upgrade, or restore a local church property. The reality is that for many churches a lot of prayers, sweat, and tears have gone into the property.
    I realized, at my Annual Conference this year, that I see the UMC differently. I don’t see us as a “Book of Discipline”, I see us as a group of people who come together, of our own free will, to celebrate and Worship God through our gathering and our ministries. We do this in our local communities, rarely gathering in any greater sense with the exception of a few elite. I think we clergy fail to realize that for many of our members belonging the United Methodist Church means belonging to the local church,with Districts, Conferences, Jurisdictions and GC being alien entities that draw away resources while offering very little in return. If the UMC changes rules of the game in the middle of the game then I don’t see how we can be upset that some of the participants want to withdraw from the game and take the equipment they purchased to participate in the game with them.
    I believe we should have a period where we suspend the trust clause and allow churches to leave the UMC and take the property associated with there ministry with them for what ever reason they decide to leave. I do not want to see this happen, but sometimes the vine must be pruned in order to see fresh growth. Those who stay may experience renewed energy with new ministry blossoming due to a renewed sense of shared community. We may also see those pruned churches grow new, strong roots, blossoming into wondrous and fragrant images of Christ as well.
    Thank you for allowing me to share my humble thoughts.
    Tony Moreau

  3. Thanks for this in-depth and thoughtful response, Evan. It sounds like you and Drew agree we should strengthen the episcopacy, though you disagree that we should suspend the trust clause. I see your points…. I just think there has to be a way of releasing congregations that will not abide by our shared covenant.

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