So many United Methodists across the theological spectrum are wearied by our denomination’s continued infighting over sexual morality, and we want greater peace.
We should cautiously guard against unrealistically high expectations of how much any legislative solution in St. Louis can bring a definitive resolution, once and for all, to all past, present, and future United Methodist Church sexuality debates.
But which of the plans before us delegates would do the most to bring greater peace?
I do not personally favor either the Connectional Conference Plan or the “Dissolution of the United Methodist Church” plan, and they should not be conflated. But both are options that could be potentially adopted (by difficult paths). And these two plans share common elements of (1) “front-loading” the most difficult conversations and decisions to all happen at the General Conference, regional, and congregational levels within the near future, (2) sorting United Methodists into new groupings (with differing degrees of connection) based on these decisions, and (3) these new groupings enjoying perhaps the least potential for future internal conflict over human sexuality, after each got settled in its new identity.
Some may see the promise of long-term peace within such different groupings as worth the costs. Others will balk at how either plan would require so many tough choices within a limited time.
What of the other possibilities?
We could expect the one option that would BY FAR do the most to worsen our conflict and internal divisions, and be the absolute worse for the cause of peace, would be if in St. Louis our bishops choose to allow outside protesters to take over our extremely limited time, or if our bishops otherwise mismanage things, or if the conference otherwise becomes so dysfunctional, so that after all this time and all these millions of church dollars wasted, we leave St. Louis after literally passing nothing.
If this happens, we can expect the worst of our current conflicts to continue, but now with a whole new level of intensity, magnified by ever-deeper pain and frustration on all sides and by the shattering of remaining bonds of trust. We could expect to see an increasingly confusing mix of open covenant breaking in some areas and punishments elsewhere, while others began withholding apportionments, and other congregations left our denomination and became embroiled in ugly, very expensive lawsuits with their annual conferences.
What of the other plans?
Far from ending our conflicts over human sexuality, the One Church Plan (OCP) would instead move these conflicts into a new stage, in which our infighting would be expanded to multiple new “battle fronts.”
Some of the OCP’s most prominent promoters have been clear that they do NOT see this plan as a final resolution, but rather as a mere “step” towards “full inclusion,” and that they are committed to later push for further steps. In other words, if we pass the OCP, we can expect future General Conferences to feature continued emotional battles over human sexuality, as some kept pushing our denomination to take more and more liberalizing steps.
In the meantime, the OCP would bring the most bitter, divisive, and theatrical debates of General Conference to areas and places that had been previously spared from such divisiveness.
The OCP would impose an unfunded mandate on our central conferences, so that all would be forced to decide their own policies. And if any central conference wanted to simply (temporarily) keep the standards we currently have, they would be forced to to spend significant time, energy, and money to do so, and in some cases this could have a negative impact on their limited budgets.
Then at least in the USA, every annual conference clergy session would find the buck passed to them for having divisive debates over homosexuality and ordination standards. The tensions would be worsened by the frustration that laity would feel at being disenfranchised (for the most part).
Then eventually, over time, every single local church will face the question of if it is willing to host a same-sex union, and then the local church’s entire membership will have to meet for a divisive debate and vote. While one pro-OCP video talks about this merely respecting a congregation’s “consensus,” the OCP Petition #9’s actual language is a winner-take-all system based on a simple-majority vote. Where members are divided on such questions (which in my experience describes most United Methodist congregations), such debates and winner-take-all votes would be extremely hurtful and divisive. In many cases, these would strain long-time friendships and provoke members of whichever side “lost” to leave the church.
While the OCP includes some language about (likely temporary) conscience protections to protect traditionalist pastors and congregations from coercion or punishment if they do not want to participate in same-sex weddings, we can expect many of the same bishops and district superintendents who are now refusing to uphold our present standards on sexuality to also refuse to uphold these new provisions. So then the OCP would bring us a new category of disobedience, for which accountability would seem unlikely.
Then the OCP (as well as the Simple Plan) would introduce a whole new category of conflict that would be imposed on the local level. Suddenly, a major percentage of United Methodist pastors would perform same-sex weddings (and no, the number already breaking the rules to do this is NOT a major percentage) while others would not. Staff-parish relations committees would often get into conflict with their bishops or district superintendents over fighting to be sent a pastor in their preferred of these two categories. But because of how it has been widely observed that there are more liberal pastors than there are liberal congregations to go around in our appointment system in the USA, and also (as my friend Tom Lambrecht has astutely noted) it can often be difficult enough to find a good pastor-congregation match based on other factors without adding in this additional new criterion, this would guarantee that there would be many mismatched pastors and congregations, bringing unpleasant conflict between the two.
The OCP would also result in most annual conferences across the USA becoming embroiled in lawsuits in secular courts as traditionalist congregations left. Just look at what has happened in other denominations.
Furthermore, it is worth noting that when the Queer Clergy Caucus submitted its “Simple Plan,” this amounts to a group of a few clergy in the western and northern United States saying not only that they do not want to be held accountable to the expectation that they abstain from homosexual practice, but that they ALSO do not want to be held accountable to the expectation of celibacy in singleness or faithfulness in marriage. I really don’t see how else to read their Petition #8. So would this be a new front for future United Methodist conflicts on human sexuality? When there is an outspoken group of clergy opposed to this standard, is it sustainable to have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on our clergy engaging in pre-marital sex and adultery?
In short, the OCP would ensure continued conflict over human sexuality at future General Conferences, while also bringing the worst of the conflict to central conferences, annual conferences, and congregations around the connection, as well as secular courts.
So what about the Modified Traditional Plan (MTP)?
It is worth recalling a couple things from the last General Conference. First of all, we adopted a petition submitted by my own Indiana Conference requiring that from now on, General Conference plenary sessions must be more focused on petitions that actually passed in their legislative committee, with less time available for any petitions rejected in committee. Secondly, at the 2016 General Conference, a plan similar in many ways to the OCP was divided into different petitions sent to different legislative committees, and all were voted down in committee.
This means that we could be very close to coming to a point in which the plenary sessions of our General Conferences will no longer feature any more of the same old arguments and protests over whether or not to change our stance on sexual morality. All that time and energy would be freed up for other business.
Can you imagine that?
If we pass the MTP, this could be a reality as soon as 2024.
Under the MTP, we could still expect some related General Conference debates, particularly related to sanctions of annual conferences who have decided to refuse to abide by our denomination’s commonly decided standards. But such measures could be relatively limited and would likely fade with time. And many of these matters could be handled between the annual conference and the Global Episcopacy Committee, with no need for General Conference to get involved.
The MTP would require every annual conference to make a one-time decision on whether or not it will follow our Discipline. But it is essential to understand that this is NOT the same as asking anyone whether or not they personally agree with any particular part of our Discipline. Rather, it is simply asking if, regardless of people’s personal views, they want to be an interdependent part of the United Methodist Church, which includes our communal covenant, which people can always challenge through the proper, lawful channels.
In most cases, I would expect it to be easy for a strong majority to vote YES on this question. After that, there would no necessity, under the MTP, for any annual conference to have further debates related to homosexuality.
Beyond that, under the MTP, any continued conflict and divisive debates would be concentrated among those who knowingly choose to violate our standards. In response to the wave of disobedience we have seen concentrated in some regions of the USA, other plans would spread out resultant conflict and divisive debates on annual conferences and congregations around the connection. In contrast, under the MTP, regions in which clergy are consistently staying within the Discipline’s present boundaries on human sexuality (regardless of their personal opinions) would be minimally affected.
Much of the sheer amount of disobedience of our Discipline’s can be traced to the present lack of any deterrence in much of the USA. When people see that there are no consequences for openly breaking the rules, they are more likely to follow others’ examples of violating our standards. But the MTP would prevent some liberal bishops from effectively giving free rein to clergy to break the Discipline all they want. So when people see that disobedience actually brings consequences, then we can expect to see less disobedience.
The MTP does NOT force any congregation to have divisive votes. Contrary to some misinformation out there, the “gracious exits” I and others support (like the gracious exit proposals submitted by some OCP supporters) do not allow any congregation to leave the UMC for just ANY reason, but rather only under a narrow set of circumstances directly related to principled dissent over human sexuality. For the few congregations who chose this option, this could be much less painful than the alternative of being forced, against their will, to stay within a denomination whose theology and moral standards they feel they cannot in good conscience support.
No plan is perfect.
But the Modified Traditional Plan stands out for offering the most realistic path for lessening and eventually moving past our present conflicts over human sexuality.