The Bible is the supreme arbiter of right and wrong when it comes to marriage and every other issue, states a 53-page first draft of a guidebook for a potential new denomination spun out of The United Methodist Church.
“The canonical books of the Old and New Testaments … are the primary rule and authority for faith, morals and service, against which all other authorities must be measured,” says the “Draft Book of Doctrines and Discipline for a New Methodist Church,” posted by the Wesleyan Covenant Association on Nov. 8.
The WCA formed in 2016, attracting United Methodists who hold to a traditionalist approach to Christian faith, including upholding the denomination’s bans on same-sex unions and ordination of openly gay clergy. The group supported the Traditional Plan that passed 438-384 at the rancorous 2019 General Conference in St. Louis. The plan strengthened church restrictions against ordination of gay clergy and same-sex unions.
Since then, the association has taken steps toward forming what it calls a new expression of Methodism, though its leaders continue to be in talks about the future of The United Methodist Church. The WCA’s legislative assembly endorsed the New Denominations of United Methodism Plan, better known as the Indianapolis Plan. That plan would divide The United Methodist Church into two or more denominations.
The draft Book of Doctrines was a main subject of discussion at the WCA’s recent meeting in Tulsa and is the latest step toward the possible creation of a new, traditionalist church.
The document is in the early stages of development and there will be changes and additions after feedback is evaluated, said the Rev. Tom Lambrecht, a member of the leadership council of the WCA and vice president and general manager of Good News, an unofficial traditionalist advocacy group.
The stance on sexuality and marriage is spelled out on page 26: “We believe that human sexuality is a gift of God that is to be affirmed as it is exercised within the legal and spiritual covenant of a loving and monogamous marriage between one man and one woman.”
That standard “is put into place and then everybody is expected to live by it,” Lambrecht said.
The WCA document makes “a point of describing Scripture as primary,” said the Rev. Laceye Warner, Royce and Jane Reynolds Associate Professor of the Practice of Evangelism and Methodist Studies at United Methodist Duke University Divinity School.
Warner, author of “The Method of Our Mission: United Methodist Polity and Organization,” was not involved in the creation of the WCA document but has reviewed it and offered comments based on her background in Methodist polity.
“Though Scripture is described as primary in the current United Methodist Discipline, there are different interpretations of what is informally called the quadrilateral — Scripture, tradition, reason, experience,” Warner said. “Placing Scripture as primary responds to an ongoing debate of how these function within ‘Our Theological Task’ included in the United Methodist Discipline.”
The WCA draft is clearer about its objections to homosexuality than the current United Methodist Book of Discipline, Warner said.
“The objection is stated explicitly,” she said. “From decades of legislative revisions, the United Methodist Discipline includes contrasting statements throughout.”
Important goals of the document include giving local churches more freedom and lessening the financial pressures of apportionments, Lambrecht said.
“It attempts to be less legalistic and less prescriptive and to give more freedom to local churches and annual conferences to structure themselves for effective ministry,” Lambrecht said. “I think that it seeks to be permission-giving rather than micromanaging.”
Apportionment giving from churches would continue, but Lambrecht said the amounts would be significantly less and “more expected than demanded.”
Congregations face too much pressure to pay full apportionments, delivering a message that “local churches are there to support the annual conference and to support the general church, rather than derive value from the general church and annual conference agencies to support the local church,” Lambrecht said.
“I think that we’re going to rely on the fact that the apportionments should be a lot lower than they currently are, as well as the local churches can trust that where their money is going is in agreement with their values and beliefs,” he said. “And so they’ll want to voluntarily support those things.”
The power of bishops in the new denomination could be reduced because of proposed 12-year term limits and other changes, Warner said.
There were no Africans on the team who wrote the WCA document, Lambrecht said.
“There were Africans consulted in the process, but they weren’t actually part of the team,” he said. “There are Africans on our WCA council, and they were part of the group that reviewed the things that were approved.”
There was also European and Filipino input, he said.
Also in the WCA document is a provision for the Council of Bishops to elect a connectional operating officer, who would administrate financial and other strategic decisions, Warner said. This would be a CEO-like church official who could insist on policy being implemented even if unpopular in a region, such as the current situation with some bishops who object to United Methodist polity against gay marriage and ordination of gay clergy.
Individual churches would be empowered in the new denomination to conduct their own searches for pastors.
“If a church wants to search for a pastor on their own, they can do that,” Lambrecht said. “But they do that in cooperation with the bishop, not independently. The bishop has to approve the people that they interview and has to approve the final appointment.
“The bishop has to make sure that at least one woman and one person ethnically different from the congregation’s ethnicity is interviewed.”
Asked if women and ethnically diverse pastors would have a more difficult time being hired under a system that could never impose such an appointment, Lambrecht said they were seeking to promote such appointments, but “without being heavy-handed about it.”
“There’s really, definitely a commitment within the new vision to promote women and ethnic minority persons as clergy,” he said.
The General Conference of the new denomination would meet every two years for three meetings, and after that every six years. The United Methodist Church’s General Conference meets every four years.
There is more work to be done before the document is complete, Lambrecht said.
“We’re looking for ideas and input from people,” he said. “And the final decision on what is enacted is going to be up to the first General Conference of a new denomination, if there is one.”