However, all such accolades and frustrations miss an important point. Like the Schismatics who are using spectacle to manipulate the Bishops, the A&W Plan has a sleight-of-hand/unintended consequence of possibly destroying two of the best parts of the United Methodist Church.
Sleight of Hand
A magic trick is all about managing audience attention. While they are looking at the hand out front, the hand in the back or the side is preparing the trick: A “randomly chosen” card is switched with a pre-chosen one, a button is pressed on a shadowbox, etc. As an audience, we can’t help it: we are seeking something new so we focus on what is in front of us, waiting to see what happens.
The A&W Plan proposes a seemingly flashy-and-simple-and-achievable solution. It has been venerated by some of the Via Media Methodists as the “dream solution” to our problems because it all-but-forces progressives to exit.
However, like a magic trick, there is more going on here in the other hand. I missed it the first time through (I was focused on how many of the points lined up with the failed achievement list of the Good News Movement in 2008/2012), but eventually we see that all is not what it seems.
Give a mouse a cookie…
The first three proposed points in the A&W plan are seemingly a compassionate way to allow progressive churches to leave the United Methodist Church. They allow a local church to leave with their property (which is owned by the global United Methodist Church due to a “trust clause” in every local church deed) and clergy to leave with their pensions. For a brief window, it would allow the following types of people to leave consequence-free from the United Methodist Church:
…for reasons of conscience related specifically and exclusively to the Social Principle on human sexuality (¶161F) and the Qualifications for Ordination (¶304.3)
On the surface, it would allow people who disagree with the UMC’s beliefs about homosexuality to leave the UMC. This is why it is appealing to staunch Traditionalists because it expunges the “problem” from our church. You see, while progressives see the problem as discrimination, Traditionalists see the problem as rule-breaking clergy and uppity gay folks. If they were given an ability to leave, then that would solve the problem. Done!
However, the vagueness of the language is the sleight of hand: it is only people who disagree with any aspect whatsoever of several full paragraphs of the Book of Discipline. Such a requirement could easily be relaxed at General Conference to allow more people who disagree to leave the UMC. But even if it was kept as-is, it is still vague enough that anyone (any church) in this brief window could choose to leave from the United Methodist Church.
But why would anyone other than progressives want to leave the United Methodist Church?
…and he’ll want some milk…
We’ve discussed previously the incredible wealth of those megachurches that seek to separate from the United Methodist Church. Here’s what we had to say about the financial clout of 9 identified members of the Schismatic 80:
These 9 white men (3 from Texas, 2 from North Georgia, 2 from Western North Carolina, 1 Oklahoman, 1 Floridian) are at churches that pay a total of $4,217,547 in apportionments.
Let’s be charitable and imagine that the rest of the 80 are smaller churches that hypothetically give 25% of these folks. If you take the 9 churches who give $4.2 million and add 71 churches that all give 25% of that amount, you end up with $12.5 million dollars in budgeted but suddenly undesignated money.
By offering an escape route, it would become easily possible for those 80 churches and pastors to leave the United Methodist Church scot-free and take a combined dollar amount equal to a mid-size annual conference (Oklahoma Annual Conference is a bit bigger than mid-size and its apportioned amount from churches was $16.6 million in 2013).
Who would benefit from this newly undesignated wealth?
- The money could create their own conference with that money and shared resources,
- The money could stay in the local church, or be given to many conservative/evangelical causes.
- But more interestingly, a chunk of $12.5 million dollars could be sent to train pastors who fit the schismatic profile and thus could easily flow to two already favored institutions: Asbury Theological Seminary and United Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. And who are at these institutions? None other than United Dean Dr. David Watson and former Asbury VP Dr. Bill Arnold.
Sounds like a win/win for A&W, even if such a scenario is not their expressed intent.
EDIT: Per David Watson below in the comments, he states that indeed financial benefits have not been discussed. I take him at his word. I will only say it is telling that I got 6 private messages, 2 emails, and 10 comments below that defend these two men and none take issue with the argument or scenario that I outlined here. Like a magic trick with one hand pointing at an overreach, I continue to focus on the other hand that is hiding a dangerous scenario for the entire UMC.
…and everything in the Church.
As I’ve written before, the reality is that the Schismatic 80 pastors are essentially triaged: they have already forsaken the connectional UMC. The nine identified pastors have an average tenure at their church of 18 years, including one pastor who has been at his church for 32 years. They do not represent connectional Methodism so much as congregational Methodism, and use the power of their purse to withhold funding from connectional work. If any door is left open for a consequence-free exit (with $12.5 million dollars waiting), it would be easy to embrace en masse.
The predictable response to this post will be the usual “aw shucks, what a lacking conspiracy theory. Of course we just want the progressives to leave, not the big churches!” However, make no mistake: the A&W proposal would make it incredibly easier for any number of churches and an incredible amount of money to exit the United Methodist Church.
And when the bell tolls, what would be left in the UMC? With the loss of evangelical resources due to this escape hatch, and the loss of progressive clergy and churches who can’t stand it anymore, the United Methodist Church would lose two of its most important and historically powerful aspects. The result? A timid lukewarm Methodist church which satisfies only the Institute on Religion and Democracy, who can rest easy in a job well done.
I reject this future, I reject this A&W plan, and I reject this self-serving and destructive action towards the church and perspective that I find to be the most authentic and transformative in our world today. May it not be so.