As the United Methodist Church prepares for its specially called February 23-26, 2019 General Conference to decide the denomination’s future direction, many members have suggested in various ways that promoting some sort of “unity in diversity” as a value the 864 delegates from around the world should seek to advance.
In this three-part series, I have noted that “unity in diversity” for our denomination can be looked at in three ways:
You can follow the links above to see my earlier analyses on the implication of the main submitted proposals for diversity of practice and diversity of opinion with regard to same-sex unions.
But what about other kinds of “unity in diversity”? Which plan best advances a unity in our church that is more inclusive of people of diverse ethnicities, nationalities, tribes, and cultures around the world? This brings us to the third sort of diversity.
- Global and Ethnic Diversity
As United Methodists, we currently have a somewhat unique diversity, as a global denomination with a firmly established presence on four continents. But we are not guaranteed that this will continue, no matter what.
The reality we face is that the Traditional Plan would maintain or even potentially strengthen our global diversity, while the One Church Plan (OCP) or Simple Plan would end much of our global diversity.
If we passed either of the two plans to liberalize our standards on marriage and ordination, we can expect to see a number of entire annual conferences outside of the USA leaving our denomination (as they can already do under our Discipline). Of those who remained, many would lose a lot of people, and their reputation would suffer in their context in ways that would hurt their ability to grow. Other major U.S.-based denominations who adopted plans similar to the OCP found this to result in denominationally related churches in other countries cutting off ties with them.
So we can expect adoption of either the OCP or Simple Plan to result in a PERMANENT withdrawal of our denomination from many parts of the globe.
It is true that if the Traditional Plan passed, a few of the most liberal-leaning U.S. annual conferences would leave, while the majority would stay. One of the likeliest candidates is currently contributing nothing to support central conference bishops but is instead receiving subsidies from the rest of the USA to support its own bishop.
But even in those conferences, we could expect a remnant of United Methodists committed to our denominational covenant to remain, continuing a UMC presence in those places. And after that, I know that there would great eagerness among a number of evangelical American United Methodists to begin planting, growing, and multiplying new United Methodist congregations in those regions.
So any withdrawal of United Methodism from certain U.S. regions under the traditional plan would be limited and temporary, while the withdrawal of United Methodism from non-American regions under the OCP or Simple Plan would in at least some cases be comprehensive and likely permanent.
And what about racial, ethnic, and multi-cultural diversity of the United Methodist Church within the USA?
It is widely agreed that our American churches, overall, are not nearly as racially and ethnically diverse as we would like them to be.
Obviously no demographic group is a monolith. But if we are looking at the big picture, there are plenty of indications that liberalizing our sexuality standards through the OCP or Simple Plan would result in our church becoming whiter and less diverse in the United States.
After the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) changed its policies to allow partnered gay clergy and same-sex unions, participation in that denomination by African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans all declined by significantly FASTER rates than the ELCA’s overall membership decline.
Within our denomination, I have reported how the North Central Jurisdiction Hispanic Caucus recently overwhelming voted to endorse the Traditional Plan, with some there observing that if something like the OCP is passed, a number of our Hispanic American congregations around the USA will leave our denomination. This Caucus’s chair, Rev. Rosita Mayorga, noted that most United Methodist Hispanic congregations are charismatic, and “The situation is painful, because it has taken a lot to build congregations, which could leave the denomination if this model [the OCP] is adopted at the special General Conference in 2019.”
I have seen no similar warnings of any Hispanic congregations leaving the UMC if the Traditional Plan was passed.
Rev. Sungho Lee, president of the National Association of Korean American United Methodist Pastors Serving Cross Racial Appointments and a pastor in the California-Nevada Conference, takes a much more permissive view towards violating our standards than I do. But in a recent op-ed for United Methodist News Service, even he warned that removing our traditionalist standards from our Social Principles (as both the OCP and Simple Plan would do) “would be a major blow to Korean United Methodist churches,” and leave them newly vulnerable to efforts of those “tr[ying] to convince the Korean immigrant community not to attend United Methodist churches.”
Rev. Lee also called for this General Conference to “Add a graceful exit clause to the Book of Discipline….”
Recently, the National Black Church Initiative, a coalition of 34,000 predominantly African-American congregations from many denominations, formally severed ties with the Presbyterian Church (USA) in response to that denomination adopting a policy similar to the OCP.
There is also anecdotal evidence of the United Methodist Church’s liberal reputation on matters related to homosexuality in some regions of the USA really hurting our ability to grow among some new immigrant communities.
So if we are focusing on the value of maintaining and hopefully increasing our racial, ethnic, and multi-cultural diversity within and beyond the United States, the Traditional Plan seems a much better bet.