Within the last couple of years, we’ve heard much talk in the United Methodist Church about defending the UNITY of the church.
But if that word is going to be about something deeper than bumper-sticker-style slogans, we should be clear on what exactly we mean by “unity.”
As a tradition that, in contrast to other denominations, welcomes ALL seeking to follow Jesus at our communion tables, it should not be controversial for us to recognize that there are also many faithful followers of Jesus in other denominations.
A necessary result of this recognition is understanding that the New Testament passages about the unity of the body of Christ, some of which have been prominently talked about in the context of this upcoming General Conference, must be understood as not only applying to our denomination. They must have a much wider meaning for us. As my progressive friends are fond of reminding us, Scripture must be read with its original context in mind.
But every day that any of us choose to remain United Methodist, we are effectively choosing to continue the legacy of two denominational schisms—the Church of England splitting off from the Roman Catholic Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church later splitting off from the Church of England. When we stop and think about it, NO United Methodist, nor any other Protestant, can claim to have a principled opposition to ANY denominational split, no matter what. Unless they are in the process of becoming Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox (something in which I am personally not interested).
So really, the “unity” that is at stake here needs to be understood clearly as this: having the largest number of people who are currently in our denomination remain United Methodist, with the understanding that we can still have other forms of Christian unity with individuals in other denominations (including those who leave the UMC).
I happen to believe that this is no small thing.
It has been widely observed that whatever is decided (or not decided) in St. Louis, some people will get upset and leave.
But beyond the political rhetoric, which of the major plans would actually be most likely to keep the largest number of us who are currently United Methodists together in the UMC?
An argument can be made that the true “one church” plan is actually the Connectional Conference Plan (CCP), as it has something for everybody, really focuses on trying to avoid creating winners and losers, and would provide for a sort of unity while offering traditionalists as well as progressives CLEAR space and protections to practice ministry in different ways as they believe are best.
Speculation about such a new way of doing things is tricky. It is possible that the CCP could keep a large percentage of us together under one umbrella for a long time. But there are two key reasons to be skeptical. First, a great many traditionalist believers around the world feel that they could not in good conscience stay in a denomination that officially allows same-sex weddings and homosexually active clergy. The CCP would technically make this true of the UMC. The fundamental difference between the CCP vs. the One Church Plan or Simple Plan on this measure is that ONLY the CCP would do so in a way that creates a truly FIRM firewall of separations that would, for the most part, protect traditionalist pastors and congregations from having to directly pay for or submit to the authority of partnered gay bishops and other clergy. Secondly, if the CCP was passed and all of our congregations and annual conferences were sorted into semi-autonomous, more theologically like-minded groupings, this momentum could easily continue until the new connectional conferences began further splitting away to become their own denominations.
Despite its name, the so-called One Church Plan (OCP), along with the ideologically similar Simple Plan, would follow the already clear path of other large, U.S.-headquartered denominations that have changed their official teachings and standards to allow for same-sex weddings as well as partnered gay clergy, watched hundreds of traditionalist congregations quickly leave the denomination in protest, had other congregations lose significant numbers of members, chosen to spend millions of dollars suing departing congregations in secular courts, and never recovered their former numbers.
We delegates have not been given any good reason to believe the massive losses of people would be any different in our denomination. The differences between the Simple Plan and OCP should not be exaggerated here, given the weakness of the latter’s (temporary) conscience protections, as I have noted.
In fact, there is plenty of reason to believe that the OCP would provoke much GREATER losses in the UMC than similar plans did in other denominations. Unlike other denominations, because of the UMC’s unique system of bishops appointing pastors to congregations, theologically traditionalist congregations would have much less reason to trust that they could be left alone, as neither the OCP nor the Simple Plan would offer FIRM protections to allow traditionalist congregations to refuse to accept a pastor who was in a homosexual relationship or who was known to perform same-sex unions, if the bishop was determined to impose such a pastor on the congregation.
Last Spring, an official survey taken of the clergy and lay delegates of the North Georgia Conference—by far the largest U.S. annual conference, with more members than the entire Western Jurisdiction—found that if the UMC’s present official teaching that homosexual practice is “incompatible with Christian teaching” was kept in the UMC Book of Discipline (which the Traditional Plan would do), then only 5 percent would leave our denomination. But if this language was removed, then 25 percent would leave the UMC. In other words, we would stand to lose five times as many people by moving in the direction of the OCP or Simple Plan than in the direction of the Traditional Plan. The survey also found those who support our present teaching far more willing to leave our denomination, if necessary, than those who oppose it.
Within even just the USA, there are some indicators that American United Methodists may be notably more traditionalist-minded than the overall membership of the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), or the United Church of Christ (UCC) was before each of these denominations made its key decision within the last two decades to become more officially LGBTQ-affirming. (My website has previously reported some data related to fastest-growing large congregations, geographic shifts, and United Methodists’ views, respectively, here, here, and here.)
Contrary to the some of the heated rhetoric we’ve been hearing, the Traditional Plan would NOT “kick out” anyone who identified as LGBTQ or who had theologically liberal beliefs. Far from it!
This plan would provide some mechanisms to ensure that the accountability standards we have already had in place for many years would actually be followed. But only a relatively very small number of individual clergy would actually be removed by these judicial processes, and only if they made clear conscience choices to violate the standards they agreed to follow, and then chose to refuse opportunities for restorative justice.
The Traditional Plan also offers clear options for how theologically liberal clergy, congregations, and even annual conferences could potentially form their own denomination IF they desired and chose to do so. In sharp contrast to the new traditionalist denomination(s) that will be formed if the OCP or Simple Plan passes, these new liberal denominations would have assurances of being spared of the nasty, expensive property lawsuits we have seen in other “mainline” denominations, and would have clear ways of negotiating continued relationships with the UMC. Even so, it seems likely that not too many congregations would actually sign up for these exit ramps, based on both the North Georgia survey and the fact that liberal United Methodists, by definition, have already demonstrated their willingness to be part of a denomination with officially traditionalist teachings and standards on marriage and sexual morality. I would also expect that only a few annual conferences would actually choose to leave the UMC (as the Sweden Conference already did with little fanfare outside of that region), that these would be limited to those with relatively smaller numbers of members, and that in most or all cases, a remnant of United Methodists would remain in these areas and begin growing again.
On the other hand, the North Georgia survey, what evangelical United Methodist leaders have consistently declared, and a host of other factors make it clear that many more people can be expected to leave the UMC under the OCP or Simple Plan.
Currently, a great many theologically liberal congregations, clergy, and lay members have been welcome to join and remain in the UMC, within the context of our behavioral covenant that binds all United Methodists together. If the Modified Traditional Plan is adopted, this fundamental reality would remain.
So for keeping the largest number of current United Methodists together in the UMC, the Traditional Plan sounds like the safest bet, hands-down.
That is not to say that there are no other important factors to consider. But this is worth keeping in mind in continued discussions of United Methodist unity.