At United Methodism’s special General Conference in February 2019, focused exclusively on the church’s teachings about sex, traditionalists from America and globally naturally will support the Traditional Plan. It will reaffirm the church’s orthodox stance about marriage as union of male and female. But self-identified moderates and even moderate progressives should consider it too.
Presumably progressives and most moderates plan to support the so-called One Church Plan. Despite its name, by overturning the church’s teaching in favor of local option, this plan guarantees multiple schisms. Nearly all other Mainline Protestant denominations, when officially liberalizing on sex, initially adopted a similar local option. In each case, hundreds of congregations quit their denomination, accompanied by years of still ongoing litigation, and still mounting membership losses totaling into hundreds of thousands. And of course, optional doesn’t remain optional, as liberals tighten the screws against remaining traditionalists.
For United Methodists, the schism would be larger because our membership is global. There’d be schism within the USA, and between the USA and Africa, plus parts of Asia and Europe. There’d also be schism within local congregations, ultimately forced to confront sexuality issues previously left to the General Conference every four years. Nearly every United Methodist local church is a mix of conservatives, liberals and moderates. Having specifically to choose sides over same sex marriage and actively gay clergy would divide thousands of congregations, crippling or killing many of them. So the end result would hardly be One Church.
Not all progressives support the One Church Plan. Some fault it for not immediately imposing liberal sexuality on the whole church. Some moderates also oppose it for, among other reasons, promoting congregationalism in what’s supposed to be a connectional church.
There’s also the Connectional Church Plan, creating essentially three different churches, each with different sexuality standards, under one denominational umbrella. Because it requires constitutional amendments needing two thirds votes both at General Conference and at annual conferences globally, it has almost no chance of passage. If passed, it would, like the One Church Plan, create division and chaos in local churches, forced suddenly to choose sides. It also would be inherently unstable, as nearly all would understand this plan as merely a transition to a full split into three or more denominations. There would be decades of fighting and uncertainty.
Only the Traditional Plan would avoid most of this chaos by preserving most of the status quo, leaving current sexuality standards in place, and not forcing local churches into potentially lethal divisions. Adamant dissidents from the church’s teaching would be permitted to leave with their church property. The actual number who would leave is probably not large. Less than two percent of USA congregations identify as Reconciling i.e. opposing the church’s official stance. About one third of them are in the Western Jurisdiction, which has only four percent of USA church membership and about two percent of global membership.
The Traditional Plan is the real One Church Plan, by preserving the global church and keeping most of the USA church intact. It protects the vast majority of congregations from divisive debates. It allows dissidents to leave, from the shrinking parts of the church. But most of the church is untouched, and the global membership’s growth can continue, with hopefully an eventual impact on the declining USA church.
Here’s what moderates and moderate liberals should consider. Even if they disagree with United Methodism’s official stance on sexuality, they are better off in an intact, growing global church than in a fragmenting, shrinking USA church aligned exclusively with dying Mainline Protestantism.
Moderates and moderate liberals should also consider that for better or worse United Methodism allows a great deal of freedom. For most of the twentieth century, evangelicals survived as a besieged minority in Methodism, creating their own subculture, largely avoiding the often hostile general church bureaucracy. Likely they can do the same.
Traditionalists likely have sufficient votes to pass the Traditional Plan on their own. But others who recognize the advantages of avoiding mass schism and years of local church conflict should join them. The Traditional Plan like orthodoxy itself offers the only shelter under which there can be relative cohesion, vitality and growth for United Methodism, to the benefit of all.