I would like to thank David Watson, the greatest administrative mind of this century, and Bill Arnold for offering yet another proposal for how to move forward in the midst of the current trials in the United Methodist Church. I have no question that they offer their proposal in good faith and with the best interests of the United Methodist Church as they conceive of it in mind.
On the positive side, their proposal would, I suspect temporarily end the dispute over the ethics of homosexuality in the United Methodist Church. However, I am not won over by the means of ending the dispute, which is basically by creating a context for creation of a more purely conservative United Methodist Church. The mechanism for achieving this purification of United Methodism is basically twofold: first, suspend the trust clause and allow liberal churches and clergy to leave, second, make changes that lead to stricter enforcement of the established conservative language in the Discipline. Below, I suggest more specifically some of the problems I see here.
First, Watson and Arnold suggest that they are only interested in “modest proposals.” Then propose move to temporarily suspend the trust clause. The problem is that the trust clause is, pragmatically, probably the most important piece of legislation in the United Methodist Church. This is hardly a modest proposal.
Second, this proposal continues practically to make homosexuality THE defining issue for the Church today. (Why only allow churches to leave for this issue? Why make this issue the issue that is worth breaking the Church?) I find this to be a principled mistake. We have allowed arguments about a non-essential issue to monopolize our attention and undercut our witness to the gospel. The solution to such a situation is a reassertion of unity in essentials, and not a plan that breaks our unity due to the non-essential issue.
Third, the proposal is fundamentally another version of the “all or nothing” options that exclusively favor conservatives in a Church that is deeply divided. The proposal is basically what I have called the “enforced conservative option” but with an option for exile for progressives. The alternatives given, then are (1) agree with the conservatives or (2) leave. We might call this the “my way or the highway” proposal for this reason.
Fourth, there is a deep irony in that both Watson and Arnold have criticized the “A Way Forward” proposal for “congregationalism” and Arnold has even critiqued it by suggesting that it might have the detrimental effect of weakening the trust clause! Their proposal now suspends the trust clause and leaves an opening for individual congregations to leave the denomination entirely so long as they vote to do so. This is far more power given to congregations than is imagined in the A Way Forward proposal.
Fifth, the proposal suggests that the Discipline be changed to include the “complaintant” as one of the parties that needs to be satisfied by a “just resolution” process. Such a mechanism would be contrary to the interests of justice. There are reasons in trial settings that we don’t make complaintants judges or jurors. The idea of an impartial judiciary is a central idea in all civilized societies.
Sixth, like all proposals that require individual churches to vote individually on these issues, this proposal would lead to massive strife in a deeply divided Church. Families that have lived together in the same church for years would find themselves pitted in a power political struggle for their own congregation’s identities. Not only would people leave the Church feeling hurt and excluded, and not only would membership take a significant hit, but such a plan makes brings the Church ever closer to reflecting the political divisions of our World rather than witnessing to an alternative.
Seventh, the solution offered here would only really be a temporary fix. As anyone who watches demographics knows, moral positions on homosexuality are not fixed. A onetime amnesty (or really exile) for progressive congregations will only address congregations that currently lean progressive. If demographic trends continue, however, there will be more over time. There is little reason, then to think that this the massive disruption proposed by Watson and Arnold would not need to be re-done, perhaps several times.
Again, I take seriously that Watson and Arnold are looking for realistic and responsible ways to deal with our current situation. The more I see of these proposals, however, the more I am drawn to the conclusion that the “Don’t Do Anything” plan is the way to go.