Amid various proposals to split the denomination, a group of Filipino United Methodists has submitted legislation to the 2020 General Conference that aims to preserve church unity.
The plan for the denomination’s future is the first such legislation to be unveiled that does not originate in the United States.
It will be among multiple petitions heading to The United Methodist Church’s top lawmaking assembly that seek to address longtime divisions over the status of LGBTQ people.
According to this plan, separation is not the solution.
“Any plan to dismember or dissolve the church is harmful to the Body of Christ through whom people of faith seek to connect and live in gracious relationships,” asserts the petition titled “Oppose Dissolution and Preserve the Unity of The United Methodist Church.”
The legislation instead asks General Conference to allow further study with the goal of developing a new form of church organization that allows for different cultural contexts.
Specifically, the legislation calls on two church leadership bodies — the Connectional Table and Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters — to collaborate on this effort.
The Connectional Table acts as sort of a denominational church council coordinating the work of ministry and money. The standing committee works on issues of concern to central conferences — church regions in Africa, Europe and the Philippines. Both groups have members from around the globe.
“The legislation we submitted points to our church’s constitution, its preamble and sections that affirm unity over dissolution or separation,” said the Rev. Jonathan Rioja Ulanday, the General Conference delegate who submitted the plan on behalf of a group of Filipino clergy and lay people. Only one person can be listed as a petition submitter.
“It also lifts up the contextual ministry already practiced across the connection, especially in the central conferences.”
The church in the United States — with rules governed by General Conference as a whole — does not have this contextual authority, he said.
For that reason, he said, his group’s proposal also supports legislation already submitted by the Connectional Table that would create a U.S. Regional Conference to deal with matters that only affect the U.S. The Connectional Table consulted with the standing committee in developing its legislation.
However, Ulanday said his group sees the Connectional Table proposal as just the beginning.
Ultimately, he said, the group seeks a denominational restructuring “along the lines of unity in mission that allows for contextual ministry in matters that divide us, including ministry with and the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons.”
Any proposed new regional structure would need General Conference approval.
Ulanday, the pastor of Polomolok United Methodist Church in South Cotabato, Philippines, worked on the legislation with Filipino bishops as well leaders of the group Pagkakaisa: Movement for Unity in Mission and Service.
The group, whose name is the Tagalog word for unity, formed last year to advocate for keeping the church together even as the denomination prepared to address differences about homosexuality at the special 2019 General Conference.
By a 438-384 vote, the special General Conference adopted the Traditional Plan — legislation that maintains the policy that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching” and strengthens enforcement of bans on same-gender weddings and “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy.
In the months since, some United Methodists have expressed relief at the outcome while others have announced plans to resist. Meanwhile, the drumbeat to divide the church along theological lines has only grown louder.
However, so far, the publicized plans to divide The United Methodist Church into multiple denominations were all developed in the United States.
The plan titled “Oppose Dissolution and Preserve the Unity of The United Methodist Church” has three principles for any restructuring.
1. Any form of structure and relationship that defines and treats one part of the church as a mere extension of another is colonial in nature and unjust.
2. Contextualization is a missional, structural and connectional endeavor that is an expression of our historical unity and core heritage, church order and discipline.
3. The diversity of our ministry and cultural contexts is real, but unity rooted in fulfilling the mission of the church can be maintained by identifying such differences and allowing for contextual authority to be exercised equitably by both central and jurisdictional conferences, or any regional structure formed by General Conference.
This summer, both the African bishops and the Filipino bishops issued separate statements opposing plans of church separation.
The Filipino bishops’ resolution specifically recommended restructuring that would allow for regional autonomy to deal with divisive issues like homosexuality. The legislation Ulanday submitted supports the Philippines bishops’ resolution.
“The Philippines is quite traditional, but we don’t want the option to divide the church. We just want to maintain our situation in the Philippines of doing the mission,” said Manila Area Bishop Ciriaco Q. Francisco, who worked on the bishops’ resolution and supports the legislation.
Francisco, who is also president of the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, said he sees room for people to do ministry in different contexts while staying under one United Methodist Church.
Bishop Pedro Torio, who leads in the Baguio Area in the northern Philippines, was not able to attend the bishops’ meeting this summer. However, he too said he supports any petition that seeks unity.
“The Baguio Episcopal Area has a position and embodied in our position is our intent to stay in The United Methodist Church,” he said. “We have not discussed anything to move away and organize a new denomination.”
Bishops don’t have a vote at General Conference.
The Rev. Kennetha J. Bigham-Tsai, chief connectional ministries officer for the Connectional Table, will have a vote as an elected General Conference delegate from the Michigan Conference.
She said she thinks it’s “significant and positive” that the plan for unity and greater contextualization came from a central conference.
“It is a positive development to have central conference voices in these conversations about the future of the church,” she said. She also sees it as a positive that the legislation is directed to two bodies that have worked together before.
Samuel John Earl Canlas, who has served as the Philippines Central Conference secretary, is among the legislation’s backers. He now is chair of the committee on evangelism, mission and church planting in the Northwest Metro Manila District.
The legislation, he said, is rooted in United Methodist constitutional principles on which he bases his mission and evangelism ministry.
“Marriage and sexuality issues are not core doctrinal nor constitutional provisions of the wider and more vital nature of United Methodism,” he said.
The church in the Philippines, like the broader denomination, is polarized, Ulanday said.
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Online debate indicates a majority of Filipino United Methodists supports the Traditional Plan. However, he said, most of the nation’s bishops and almost half of the GC2019 delegation supported the One Church Plan, which was defeated. That plan would have left questions of ordination up to annual conferences and same-gender marriage up to individual pastors and local churches.
Ulanday added that many Filipino United Methodist leaders would be open to removing language from the denomination’s Book of Discipline “that discriminates against LGBTQ persons.”
The denomination is better together as United Methodists learn from their differences, he said.
“Our unity in mission — even as we are different in many ways — is our most powerful witness in a world that is mired in violence and hate.”
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for UM News. Mangiduyos is a communicator from the Philippines. Contact them at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.
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