In recent United Methodist discussions about what we really mean by the word “unity,” we often hear some version or sense of the phrase, “unity in diversity.”
So how do the main plans compare in how much they would preserve or limit our ability to have unity in diversity?
This can be looked at in three key ways.
For now, I’ll focus on the first. Analyses of the other two will come shortly.
- Diversity of Practice
The Connectional Conference Plan (CCP) would, hands-down, do the most for having diversity of practices with regard to marriage and ordination standards. Some United Methodist annual conferences would have same-sex marriages and partnered gay clergy, other United Methodist conferences would forbid them, both would have strong, non-temporary protections to pursue ministry in these different ways (unlike in the “One Church Plan”), and congregations could affiliate with the nearest annual conferences whose values they shared. This could lead to different UMC conferences then having mutually contradictory official doctrines and moral teachings related to many other concerns, such as abortion or pre-marital sex.
Separate questions are whether or not it would be a good thing, or sustainable in the long run, to have this level of official mutual contradiction within one denomination.
Unlike the other plans, Traditional Plan has no provision for officially affirming and authorizing directly contradictory marriage and ordination standards, and underlying theologies, within the same denomination. This plan does not impose any fundamentally new values, but rather re-affirms and ensures that we actually follow the standards we have already had in place for many years, which our bishops and other clergy have already vowed to uphold.
It is also worth noting that while ALL of the major plans with notable support would clearly result in at least a few people leaving the United Methodist Church to form new denominations, only the Traditional Plan (see its Petition #17 and Sections 4 and 19 of Petition #10) has any explicit provisions for how the UMC could potentially maintain some relatively amicable ecumenical relationships and ongoing ministry cooperation with such new denominations.
The Traditional Plan would still allow for a wide diversity of practice on many other matters, including maintaining the current range of allowable options pastors have for how they may respond when asked to perform a same-sex wedding (refer to a pastor in another denomination, find a sensitive and pastoral way to explain our denomination’s traditionalist values, etc.).
For a time, there would be some limited and temporary allowances under the “One Church Plan” (OCP) for some traditionalist United Methodists to continue some traditionalist practices. But the claim of some OCP supporters that this plan would continue “business as usual” for traditionalist congregations and annual conferences is simply false.
In contrast to the liberal policies that split the Episcopal Church, the OCP gives traditionalist-leaning annual conferences in the U.S. no right to continue prohibiting same-sex unions. If clergy in a traditionalist annual conference “came out” as having gay partners, there would no longer be the same clear basis in church law for disciplining them. Despite claims to the contrary, the OCP forces traditionalists to pay into the Episcopal Fund to support partnered gay bishops in other annual conferences. Hardly “business as usual”!
If a traditionalist congregation cannot in good conscience accept the authority of a pastor or bishop who is homosexually active or who is known to perform same-sex unions, or if a traditionalist pastor cannot in good conscience submit to the authority of a bishop who engages in sexual relationships they believe are sinful, then the OCP (after the recent Judicial Council ruling) offers one, and only one option to such traditionalist United Methodists: LEAVE the denomination.
Several of the OCP’s most prominent backers have not been shy about making clear how toleration of traditionalists would be rather narrow and time-limited if it passed. One recently declared “Antigay theology and practice has consequences” in apparent support of the Episcopal Church punishing one of its few remaining traditionalist bishops for refusing, as a matter of conscience, to support same-sex weddings. The chief leader and spokesman for the UM “Centrist Movement,” a pro-OCP caucus, recently tweeted that, in his own words “The WCA [Wesleyan Covenant Association] is no better than slave owning Methodists who considered God’s children as less than human,” and further indicated that this view was “widely” held by people in his faction of OCP supporters. Other prominent OCP supporters have used less harsh wording to also link traditionalist values on homosexuality to earlier defenses of slavery.
The point here is not to debate our opinions about my friends in the WCA. Rather, the fact is that passing either the OCP or the Simple Plan would empower the faction who championed either plan to enjoy a new level of dominance in the UMC after 2019. It is worth asking how other United Methodists outside of this faction would be treated under their leadership. If the OCP or Simple Plan was adopted and those who held onto traditional beliefs and related approaches to ministry were committing evil “no better” than the brutalities of American chattel slavery, then how realistic is it to expect much toleration for long of such evil?
The OCP includes language about how congregations cannot be forced to host and clergy cannot be forced to perform same-sex wedding services. But how much could this really, actually be enforced? A liberal bishop could easily yank traditionalist pastors from large congregations that wanted to keep them into more difficult appointments that would involve massive salary cuts for these pastors, in ways that would be clearly understood to be punishment for their refusal to do same-sex weddings.
Under the OCP, inclusion of traditionalist believers would eventually expire. Eventually, a bishop would insist on imposing on that isolated traditionalist congregation a pastor who was homosexually active or known to do same-sex unions. Eventually, the denomination’s few remaining traditionalist clergy would retire, while gifted new clergy would either not bother pursuing ordination on our denomination or would find themselves discriminated against by overwhelmingly liberal boards of ordained ministry. Eventually, someone in every theologically mixed congregation would request a same-sex union in the sanctuary, and the most divisive debates of General Conference would come to that local church, perhaps with pressures from conference leaders and caucus activists outside of the church.
And all of this is before even noting how prominent OCP supporters have made clear that the talk of conscience protections for traditionalist believers is a temporary concession to help pass the plan in 2019, but that at future General Conferences, they would push for more uniformly required LGBTQ affirmations, as a justice imperative.
Upon closer look, despite the promises of letting everyone do what is right in their own eyes, the OCP is actually a roadmap to a new reality for our denomination that would become increasingly intolerant and exclusive of the shrinking number of people outside of the liberal faction who remained.