The Wesleyan Covenant Association’s (WCA) use of the word “covenant” in their name was no doubt strategic, as they frequently charge United Methodists who disobey church policy on homosexuality of breaking covenant. Yet conservatives have been breaching covenant for years by disregarding the stark division in the church on this issue, and forcing painful decisions on those who interpret scripture differently than they do, rather than considering the good of all, as a covenant requires.
An ecclesiastical covenant is defined as “a solemn agreement between the members of a church to act together in harmony with the precepts of the gospel,” and has roots in the terms covenir (Old French) and convenīre (Latin), meaning “to come together, agree” (dictionary.com). Covenants run throughout scripture and, for Christians, have their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. In religious covenants, promises are made for the mutual benefit and with the agreement of both parties.
The United Methodist covenant is spelled out in its Book of Discipline, and its policies are set by the General Conference using parliamentary procedure, which is “based on the consideration of the rights of the majority [and] the rights of the minority (especially a large minority greater than one-third).” (www.parlipro.org) Its goal is not, at heart, “winner take all,” but an orderly means of decision-making that considers all voices.
By any of these measures, conservative United Methodists have broken covenant by failing to provide for the significant minority that does not share their belief that homosexual practice is sinful and that has voted repeatedly against restrictive policies. Slight majorities have also voted down legislation that would admit the church’s deep division on this issue.
That disregard was especially evident following the razor-thin vote by which the 2019 General Conference approved the Traditional Plan (53%) and voted down the One Church Plan (45%). The narrow vote reflects increasing support for LGBTQ inclusion and wide rejection of the punitive measures included in the Traditional Plan – measures that conservatives claim are necessary because progressives continue to disobey terms of the church’s covenant relationship.
The work of the Commission on a Way Forward (COWF) was much more reflective of a covenant relationship than the actions of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. Representing the full diversity of the UMC, the COWF members were committed to finding a way to move forward together, even if it did not align with their personal beliefs. The COWF was prayerful in their deliberations, and the resulting plans (see previous blog post) were not anyone’s ideal, but included compromises that are sometimes necessary within a covenant relationship.
Hardline conservatives, on the other hand, refuse to compromise. The WCA rejected the OCP because it would have changed the church’s theology of marriage and standard for ordination and “expect(ed) United Methodists who, in good conscience disagree, to remain in the denomination or face the prospect of losing their local church’s property and assets” (emphasis in original). Yet they dismiss the fact that the Traditional Plan essentially forces 47% of the church into that very position.
Conservatives have been calling for a formal schism since 2004, and the absolute nature of their beliefs prevents them from remaining in relationship with those who do not share their reading of scripture on this issue, or even acknowledging that there is a different reading. Although biblical scholars are divided on interpretation of these passages, conservatives’ 6% majority allows them to claim that their interpretation aligns with God’s intentions for the church and force that perspective on the rest of the denomination. They have been clear that unless there is a plan of separation on the table going into General Conference 2020, they will have the time and the votes to further strengthen the Traditional Plan.
I seldom agree with Rob Renfroe, President and Publisher of Good News Magazine, but he points out in a recent column that any efforts at finding compromise at General Conference 2020 will fail, and sadly, I must agree. As much as I hope that centrists and progressives will succeed in electing more progressive General Conference delegates or proposing a restructuring plan that allows the church to remain united, conservatives will do all they can to block such actions.
The negotiation necessary to maintain unity can only succeed when both parties are open to compromise, and conservatives are not. It is time to quit pretending that this is a covenant relationship in which the good of all is considered, and name it for what it is – a hostile takeover, in which 53% of United Methodists impose on the remaining 47% what it knows is intolerable for them, with the explicit goal of forcing a formal separation.