We already have a local option

One of the things that rang most true to me in reading Adam Hamilton’s explanation of the document he helped draft, A Way Forward, was his observation that we already do many of the things the document calls for.

Cabinets already make appointments to churches based on the fit between congregations and pastors on theological issues. We already ordain clergy regardless of whether they observe the standards of sexual practice we set for them. We already have clergy conducting wedding services that violate the language of the Book of Discipline. Depending on who you are, where you live, and who your cabinet is we have different sets of rules, norms, and practices that more and more turn a blind eye to the words of our Discipline.

This truth was underscored for me this week when I read of the appointment of Amy DeLong to a church in Wisconsin and the upcoming celebration at the church to welcome Rev. DeLong and her partner Val Zellmer to their new parsonage home.

We already have a local option.

The question is whether we want to endorse and ratify it as Hamilton suggests or try to roll it back. Given those to options, I understand why some are talking about leaving.



15 thoughts on “We already have a local option

  1. You can have a “local option” if we also admit that we aren’t a connectional denomination. The Episcopal Fund would only be used for retirees and central conference bishops. Each US episcopal area would be responsible for providing the required level of support. Apportionments would be “askings.” Otherwise, we are going to have a bunch of people put in the position of subsidizing activities that are unacceptable to them.

    I wonder what is happening to Rev. Koehr who is at River Falls. currently.

  2. Just to be clear… talking about leaving The UMC is a different matter than talking about dividing the denomination through a formal plan of separation so that those who may wish to “leave” (from any theological angle) would be able to do so taking more assets with them than in they simply left.

    A plan of separation might therefore appear desirable for those who actually do find the current situation so intolerable they’d prefer to leave than stay. For those who wish to stay, even with the messiness that may entail on some points, I’m not sure what case can be made to support the wholesale transfer of so many resources to those who don’t want to be here.

    Anyone, lay or clergy, even congregations, can leave The UMC at any time. It’s just that if they do, they take nothing with them– no credentials, no appointment, no property, no ability to use the UMC brand, no further participation in the pension program or health insurance for themselves or their clergy, no conference provided property insurance, no claims on World Service dollars or denominational grants directly underwriting any part of their work, etc.

  3. Thank you for clarifying the ramifications, Taylor. Those who follow Jesus are indeed called to leave ALL behind to follow Him. If some folks cannot live with integrity in The United Methodist Church, they should indeed be willing to give it all up to follow Jesus faithfully. I believe many folks have arrived at that decision point due to our bishop’s inability or unwillingness to uphold the teaching of the church. Fortunately, God promises that those who seek first the kingdom of God, will have their needs supplied–and I can offer my personal testimony that this promise is trustworthy.

  4. Not sure what the question means, John. Could you say more?

    The Episcopal Church has a very different polity than ours. For one thing, Episcopal bishops and therefore dioceses (through the bishop– not necessarily on their own) are given far more individual discretion on many things than our polity allows, or perhaps is likely ever to allow in our “episcopal-suspicious” approach to things. So I’m not sure there are many if any direct applications between with happened there and what may happen with The UMC.

    Further, there was nothing “legal” about any of the Episcopal “splits,” as the vast majority of court cases involving both dioceses and congregations seeking to keep their property after “seceding” from The Episcopal Church have confirmed time and again. There is a legal term for what those trying to leave and keep such assets have done: grand theft. So far, however, The Episcopal Church has pursued these cases on civil, rather than criminal grounds.

    So if that’s what you mean by “The Episcopal split,” I don’t really know what there is to endorse in that, except, perhaps, the rights of TEC (or any person or organization) to pursue through judicial means, when other means fail, the recovery of at least some of their unlawfully taken assets.

    1. Sorry my reference was cryptic. I should never respond to questions on my phone.

      I was making reference to the legal battles that have soaked up vast sums of money to retain the ownership of buildings. The Episcopal Church wins the fight, sure, but is that really the best way forward?

      I suppose one significant difference in our case is the people who are talking about departing at the moment are those who want to uphold our General Conference and Book of Discipline, as opposed to the Episcopal Church where it was a departure in reaction to changes that they did not support.

      Your language about thieves and suggestions of criminal charges does underscore my sense that there will not be a way to split in an amicable way.

      1. Ask any divorce lawyer about the realities of “amicable separations.” There was an excellent divorce attorney in a congregation I served, whose spouse was a trained (and also excellent) professional mediator. They did everything they could to make the divorces they handled as good for everyone involved as they could. And they’d be the first to tell you it was almost never a pretty picture.

        Or look at what actually happened, despite the “longest General Conference in history” in 1844 where the last “plan of separation” was worked out diligently among Methodists in the US, and then just how well those terms were actually received and followed on the ground. There continued to be “congregation grabs” North and South, with claims and counterclaims about the legitimacy of these efforts. And then let’s talk about the fact that the armies, North and South, were filled with Methodists who felt no compunction about killing each other now that they were in (legitimately) separate churches, not just (illegitimately) separate nations. In many ways, despite formal reunion in 1939, that rift is still playing out in UM politics 170 years later.

        Not everyone who has stated a preference for “plan of separation” or a “just division of assets” is on the side of the current UM policy statements. I know folks at every position along that spectrum who have at times wondered whether that may be the preferable outcome, and not just because of the most recurrently presenting set of concerns and people.

        I, for one, can think of few less helpful or more damaging outcomes than such separations or divisions for our witness and the witness of whatever inescapably mangled bodies may perhaps emerge from them.

        Jesus did not pray that we may be happy with each other in all things or even a majority of things. He prayed we may be one.

        1. You seem to be assuming separation can be avoided. I am asking how it can best be managed. When the prodigal son asked for his inheritance, his father did not fight him over it. Even if you view those leaving as ill-informed prodigals, what is gained by going tooth-and-nail with them in the courthouse? Didn’t Jesus say something about taking each other to court, too?

        2. Under the current Discipline, and in fact as a matter of our constitution and bylaws (the trust clause) any real property that a departing congregation held (in trust) reverts automatically to the annual conference. Where this has been challenged by departing congregations, in every case but one so far (sort of an outlier because of the peculiarities of California law in that particular case), the congregations have lost their challenge. Note– it wasn’t the UMC suing to retain property, but the congregation suing to keep it– against the plain provisions of the Discipline.

          Do I think lawsuits are preferable? No. But I do find it ironic that some who leave because of claimed infractions of other parts of the Discipline would choose to violate this basic feature of our polity and constitution (that congregations are creatures of the annual conference) and expect that to be an acceptable thing to do.

          On the basis of the recent independent research released by UMCom showing 90% oppose a plan of separation, I don’t see a likelihood of a separation to be managed other than by some minority percentage of congregations choosing to leave– without their property under our existing provisions, unless perhaps a different settlement were negotiated with the annual conference.

          We hear the most in the news about those congregations in other denominations that left, tried to take their property, and lost in courts of law when the denominations legally ordered the property returned. But in ELCA, TEC and in a prominent recent case in PCUSA (a church where John Ortberg is pastor) many more cases exist where congregations either left everything or, if they wished to keep the real property, reached a settlement with the denomination deemed fair to all parties. Indeed, this has been the case for the vast majority of those who have left to form ACNA, NALC and the new Presbyterian related body, ECO. In principle, there’s no reason a plan like that couldn’t be followed as is sometimes currently is in the UMC as well– one where both the congregation and the judicatory recognize the legitimacy of the judicatory’s claim to the property and agree on an appropriate recompense for the departing congregation to assume ownership.

          It’s typically only when the congregation refuses to recognize that prior claim that the lawsuits (from either side) tend to begin.

          On Mon, Jun 9, 2014 at 8:18 PM, John Meunier wrote:

          > John Meunier commented: “You seem to be assuming separation can be > avoided. I am asking how it can best be managed. When the prodigal son > asked for his inheritance, his father did not fight him over it. Even if > you view those leaving as ill-informed prodigals, what is gained by g” >

  5. Okay. Then we agree more than I assumed based on your labeling people thieves. We both say there should be a process that would allow departing congregations to retain the buildings they built. It sounds like we likely disagree about the terms. My reading of the proposal by the 80 was that it was a request to formalize a process of separation. I did not read anything there that suggested breaking the discipline. I agree with you that the discipline should be upheld. It would be ironic, indeed, if those who have been making defiance of the discipline and polity of the church a point of righteousness now became zealots for the rule of law.

    1. It is not only those who have not complied with the Discipline on some matters who would want to ensure the annual conference retains a stake in its property and ministry locations, or requires of the departing congregation a reasonable sum to offset the loss of the same.

      I have complied with the Discipline on the “presenting” matters and will continue to do so. I’d say that’s probably the case for the vast majority of UM clergy. General Conference does not credential me to do certain things, so I don’t do them.

      So if for some reason I tried to lead a congregation to leave the denomination, I’d also comply with the terms the Discipline lays out for what happens next. I’d recognize the property is thereby transferred to the annual conference. I might (or might not, depending on the situation or location or condition of the property) then choose to seek whether the conference may be willing to negotiate a way for the congregation to continue to use the property, assuming some significant payment to the conference may be due to allow that, just as if I were relocating the congregation to any other property owned by someone else. And I would recognize that property owners retain the right to determine whether and under what conditions any such negotiations may proceed.

      I would not propose that a breach by some of some provisions of the Book of Discipline warrants a breach by me or a congregation to which I had been appointed in others, particularly not something so fundamental to our connectional polity as the trust clause.

  6. The use of a “local option” for issues regarded by many as fundamental in the area of morality (e.g. non-discrimination or sexual ethics) appear to be unstable. If recent experience is any guide, acceptance of “A Way Forward” will rapidly lead to all churches / conferences mandating ordination of practicing homosexuals and the performance of same sex marriages. The “homophobic bigots” who oppose such things will not be tolerated any more than the “sexist bigots” who opposed ordination of women (based merely on ~2,000 years of Christian tradition and some “clearly antiquated” scriptures) have been tolerated. Those who consider the current position of the Discipline to be be correct should be aware of this inevitable evolution, when they consider “A Way Forward.” See http://www.firstthings.com/article/2009/03/the-unhappy-fate-of-optional-orthodoxy

    1. It seems a bit hard to sustain such an “evolution” is “inevitable” in and of itself. The example of Anglo-Catholicism in England is too fraught with all sorts of other confounding variables to be considered a helpful one. The ordination of women in England remains actually still a non-completely-settled matter, with local options still very much being exercised as such. Both Anglo-Catholicism and the ordination of women are also not matters of orthodoxy, per se, but of order or discipline. And it was not a “local option” per se that led to full clergy rights for ordained women in The Methodist Church (US). There weren’t some conferences that allowed full clergy rights to ordained women and others that did not. None did. It was General Conference action in 1956, not a patchwork of local options, that led to this mandated change.

      Are there “identity politics” folks making “identity politics” arguments out there? Sure. But that they exist, and that they do what they do does not finally determine any particular outcome. It simply means this is part of the mix of things in the discourse all of us are engaging in any number of ways at this time. We may or may not be persuaded by their arguments or tactics, any more than we might or might not be persuaded by the arguments or tactics of others who press their case with unwavering persistence, for whatever purposes. That some may seek to force the hand in any particular direction or toward any particular action does not require the hand to be forced as the “forcers” may prefer, or at all.

      So rather than be persuaded by an argument using cherry-picked examples from England to make some sort of universal case about the inevitability that a local option leads to universal mandates or proscriptions, I’d rather look at a wider array of facts on the ground both historically (there have in fact been all sorts of local options on all sorts of things, officially or unofficially, only a relative few of them representing a serious threat to church unity) and in more contemporary times (local or judicatory options, not mandates, exist regarding a variety of things in PCUSA, ELCA, TEC, and even, if you think about it, in the UMC with our allowance of Central Conferences to develop their own policies on many things, including some matters of what we or they might call morality, and even AC BOOMs to add requirements to the ordination process more or less as they see fit). When I take that wider survey, I don’t find a sufficiently high correlation between local options and ultimate universal mandates or proscriptions to support the argument for causation it seems the First Things article had attempted to make.

      Let me be clear– I’m not endorsing the Hamilton/Slaughter proposal as THE way forward. What I am saying is the allegation that a local option (or local/regional option in this case, depending on the kind of question) leads inevitably to universal mandates or proscriptions may not be quite as much a “law” as the First Things article wishes to portray. Instead, it’s one way the church, historically, particularly in the West, has allowed for a diversity of opinion and practice on some matters while still recognizing each other as the body of Christ.

      1. The present UMC is itself less original and more the outcome of the permutations of history (its upsets, divagations, and amendments), so we are talking here about one more such moment of transformation. Indeed, “transformation” has (at least) the sheen of moral authority in UMC echo chambers. So discussing the possibilities is worthy work. But to be clear, trying to predetermine the course of history (and its judgment) is a “fool’s errand”…

      2. I am intrigued by your statement that “Anglo-Catholicism and the ordination of women are also not matters of orthodoxy, per se, but of order or discipline.” It seems to me that the delineation of orthodoxy versus “order or discipline” is at best fuzzy and perhaps in the eye of the beholder. (Were it not the ecumenical movement would have been much more successful.) These distinctions in the Western church typically lead to the formation of distinct denominations, via schisms like those the Hamilton/Slaughter proposal attempts to eliminate. Although you cite the local option for Anglo-Catholicism and the ordination of women in the Church of England as an example, I would note that the Anglican bishops in their recent vote on women bishops removed the last vestiges of the local option for ordination of women. I certainly have no crystal ball to predict the future should such a local option be voted in. However, as Timothy Tennet points out in his posts, the intellectual coherence of such a local option must be based upon a conclusion that the Biblical teaching on homosexual practice is not a matter of the moral law (or orthodoxy), but rather as you have put it a matter of “order and discipline.” I am not certain that a majority in either camp would agree to draw the lines of orthodoxy in that manner.

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