The new year is off to an exciting start within the United Methodist family. A year that was already expected to be fraught with nervousness regarding the church’s future and on-going discussions regarding human sexuality received a jolt of new energy, Friday, when a group of pastors and leaders in the church released a proposed settlement to separate the church at General Conference.
Almost immediately, the proposed settlement was picked up by religious and secular media as a done deal. Headlines were written to suggest that what was proposed was official. As a former reporter, the nature of who was around the table – bishops and leaders of various caucus groups – would lead those unfamiliar with the polity of the United Methodist Church to make that inaccurate assumption.
As we approach General Conference in May, the proposed settlement – which gives $25 million for a new traditionalist church – becomes one of several plans that will be up for consideration regarding the church’s future. It will be up to General Conference to determine the proposed settlement’s vitality and if it wants to approve it or another plan up for consideration.
While the proposed settlement offers an attempt to end the decades-long impasse within the church, there are more questions than answers within the document. Many of those questions will likely be answered during a press availability on January 13. Here are just some of the questions that need to be answered by the proposed settlement group prior to General Conference.
Who authorized this group to meet?
That might be the most important question for the group to answer. There has to be some group or committee within the church’s structure that both authorized the discussion and gave approval for those who were around the table. While there was an attempt to explain how some of the members were selected, the very basic question of where the authorization came from for this group to even meet has not been clearly answered.
Based on statements released from some active bishops, including West Virginia’s Bishop Sandra Steiner-Ball, it is likely that the Council of Bishops were not fully aware of what was going on. That would lead to a suggestion that the authorization did not come from the Council of Bishops.
Was the group acting upon 2016 General Conference guidance?
Delegates to the 2016 General Conference gave authorization for the Council of Bishops to find a “way forward” through the impasse on human sexuality. That led to the creation of a 32-member Commission on a Way Forward, which recommended the One Church Plan to the called 2019 General Conference. The One Church Plan, which was defeated by General Conference, would have removed language in the Book of Discipline about homosexuality being incompatible with Christian teaching and place those conversations, essentially, within annual conferences and the local church.
The decisions of the 2016 General Conference are still in effect until after the 2020 General Conference. Did authorization for the Council of Bishops to find a way through the impasse give guidance for the proposed settlement after the 2019 General Conference?
Can the proposed settlement be heard by 2020 General Conference delegates?
There is an assumption that the proposed settlement will make its way to the floor of General Conference. According to current rules in place, the proposed settlement failed to meet the initial deadline for legislation for the 2020 General Conference.
This is more of a technical question than anything else, because, essentially, there needs to be clarification on how it will officially be before delegates. There are two likely routes. One is for it to go through a legislative committee in the amendment process of one of the current plans. The most likely of the current plans that could be amended to include the proposed settlement would be the so-called Indianapolis Plan. The other likely route would be for a suspension of the rules and it to be brought up in plenary without going through the legislative process.
For the delegates and the larger church, there needs to be some guidance on how the proposed settlement will be received and heard in Minneapolis.
Where will the $25 million for a proposed traditionalist church come from?
One of the key points within the proposed settlement is the funding of $25 million for a new traditionalist church. There are other funding proposals within the settlement, such as funding to benefit historically oppressed groups due to racism within the church, but this funding line is the one that needs the most clarification.
These are just some of the questions that need answered before delegates assemble in Minneapolis. Because of the implications of the proposed settlement, transparency on these questions, and others, are necessary and needed to provide guidance to delegates and understanding to the larger United Methodist family waiting to see what comes next.