The historic, specially called February 23-26, 2019 session of the United Methodist Church’s governing General Conference in St. Louis is almost upon us.
There are a variety of core values that many have said that they want the 2019 General Conference to advance. These include:
- Church UNITY;
- Some sort of unity in diversity;
- Peace and a lower amount of internal conflict over sexual morality in our denomination;
- Our denomination moving into a position to better grow, bringing in new people in the future;
- Faithfulness to Scripture and to our denomination’s Wesleyan theological heritage.
We delegates will be voting on several competing plans and petitions. The official “Way Forward” report includes three alternatives —the so-called One Church Plan, the Traditional Plan, and the Connectional Conference Plan. A group called the United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus has submitted its own “Simple Plan,” which would move our denomination in a similarly liberal direction to that proposed by the One Church Plan, but with some differences.
It is also possible that our bishops may choose to allow outside protesters to take over our extremely limited time, or that our bishops may otherwise so mismanage the proceedings that we will leave St. Louis having actually passed nothing.
Another real possibility is that enough delegates become so frustrated, especially if provoked by such chaos and mismanagement, that they adopt the “Dissolution of UMC” Plan. This last plan is a pair of carefully written, duly submitted petitions that would actually lay out the steps to split our denomination into two or more entirely new ones. While this was ruled to be “not in harmony” with the limited scope of this special General Conference, Paragraph 14 of the Discipline gives General Conference the right to still consider and adopt this plan if two-thirds of delegates vote to do so.
Now I have been clear that I personally do NOT favor this last plan. But if we want to examine the implications of all the main plans, all are worth acknowledging.
Still, the OCP and Traditional Plan deserve the most attention, as they seem to have far more support than the others.
What follows is your handy one-stop summary of and links to previously written analyses of how these possibilities would compare on each of these core values, one measure at a time:
Unity of the UMC. In any talk of “church unity,” we must remember that as long as we remain in our Protestant denomination, we are continuing division of the body of Christ. So at most, talk of “unity” here can mean no more than having the largest number of people who are currently in our denomination remain United Methodist, with the understanding that some will leave our denomination in any scenario, and that we can still have other forms of Christian unity with Christians in other churches.
Central to the marketing of the One Church Plan (OCP), whose core proposals would allow same-sex weddings and partnered gay clergy, are dubious claims that it will somehow preserve United Methodist unity. But when other large, U.S.-based denominations have liberalized in similar ways, they split apart, with many congregations leaving and many others seeing an exodus of members. We could expect a much greater split in the UMC under the OCP, given our large non-American membership and evidence of the relative conservatism of our American membership. And the UMC’s unique system of bishops appointing pastors means that under the OCP, the only way congregations could ensure a bishop would never impose on them a pastor who was homosexually active or known to perform same-sex unions would be to leave the UMC.
In contrast, the Traditional Plan would keep a much larger portion of current United Methodists within the UMC.
A survey in our largest U.S. annual conference found that at least five times as many people would leave our denomination if we moved in the direction of the OCP than the number who would leave if we moved in the direction of the Traditional Plan.
Consistency vs. Differences in Marriage Practices. Clearly, the Connectional Conference Plan (CCP) goes furthest in allowing and supporting a variety of different practices and approaches to same-sex unions within our denomination.
The Traditional Plan would not allow contradictory marriage and ordination standards within our denomination. But it is worth remembering that the Traditional Plan would impose no fundamentally new moral standards beyond what our clergy have already vowed to uphold.
While the OCP pays lip service to allowing diversity of practices, it lacks the CCP’s firm protections for traditionalist congregations and pastors. Upon closer look, the OCP would trample upon the consciences of traditionalist United Methodists in several major ways. It would not give traditionalists freedom to dissent in several situations. If the OCP is passed, toleration of remaining traditionalists would become increasingly limited.
Unity in Diversity: Different Opinions on Sexual Morality. Both the OCP and Simple Plan would necessarily require a purging of traditionalist believers from key leadership positions, like boards of ordained ministry. In John Wesley’s famous “On Schism” sermon, while generally warning against church splits, Part II.7 teaches that if you cannot remain in a denomination without violating your understanding of Scripture, then “it would then become meet and right, and [your] bounden duty, to separate from it without delay.” Such a crisis of conscience is precisely what both the OCP and Simple Plan would impose on a great many traditionalist United Methodists.
Both of these plans would force those left in our denomination, especially in leadership roles, to become increasingly uniform in their opinions.
Contrary to some heated misinformation, the Traditional Plan would NOT “kick out” anyone from our church solely on the basis of their liberal beliefs. As long as liberal clergy do not in practice violate the standards they have already promised to follow, the Traditional Plan would not bar them from continuing as clergy or in leadership.
Unity in Diversity: Ethnic and Global Diversity. Within the US, we cannot afford to ignore the testimony that moving in the direction of the OCP or Simple Plan would drive some of our Hispanic congregations to leave, or the evidence that this would result in our denomination including fewer African Americans and Asian Americans.
In other countries, I have seen no one seriously dispute that either the OCP or Simple Plan would provoke massive defections in many regions. The decisions in St. Louis will make a big difference in how much we maintain our unique character as a global denomination.
Bringing Peace and Lessening Conflict over Sexual Morality. By far the worse possibility for increasing conflict with a new level of bitterness, frustration, and mistrust all around would be if we left St. Louis without passing anything.
Both the CCP and “Dissolution of UMC” plans would force all the difficult conversations and decisions to happen at the local, regional, and denomination-wide levels within a relatively short period of time, sort United Methodists into different groupings, and then offer some hope for a minimum of continued conflict over the same issues within each of these new groups.
The OCP would ensure continued fighting at General Conference while also moving the most bitter and divisive of our conflicts into new “battle fronts”: central conferences, annual conferences, secular courtrooms, and local churches. Far more than any other plan, the OCP would ensure that over the long term, every congregation would have to take a potentially divisive and explosive membership-wide vote on same-sex weddings. And a little-noticed quirk in this plan may actually make it combine the worst of both worlds in terms of congregational voting.
The Traditional Plan requires no votes by congregations or central conferences. It requires each annual conference to take a one-time vote on whether or not they will commit to our denomination and our processes for communal decision making, but this should be easy for most conferences, as it is NOT the same as voting on if they agree with any particular General Conference decision. And the Traditional Plan would establish a realistic trajectory for our General Conference plenary sessions to no longer feature the same emotional, theatrical debates over reconsidering our stance on homosexuality, potentially as early as 2024.
Future GROWTH of Our Denomination. Both the OCP and Simple Plan would greatly hurt our currently global denomination’s reputation in Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and the Philippines, so that we would lose a lot of people and also cripple our ability to later grow again in these regions.
In Western Europe as well as the United States, some claim that these plans could attract more people by better conforming to the surrounding culture.
But the evidence points overwhelmingly in the opposite direction. In both of these regions, we see growth among more evangelical churches, including among young adults. Such evangelical churches appear to be helped by not having the same problems with disobedience we have in our denomination. Every major U.S. denomination that has, within the last two decades, moved in the direction of the OCP has not only lost many members and congregations, but has continued bleeding people, year after year. Not one has turned around and started growing again.
By keeping a greater number of us together, the Traditional Plan would best protect continued funding for growth, through support of new church plants and mission endeavors.
Biblical and Wesleyan Faithfulness. Liberal and conservative biblical scholars now agree that yes indeed, the Old and New Testament consistently teach that homosexual practice is sinful, every time the practice is mentioned. For a more detailed rebuttal of attempts to claim that relevant Bible verses mean something other than their plain-sense meaning, you can see this extended article by probably our denomination’s most prolific New Testament scholar.
Our United Methodist Discipline lists four documents under the heading of our denomination’s Doctrinal Standards: The Methodist Articles of Religion, the Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren Church, the Standard Sermons of John Wesley, and Wesley’s Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament. When the main “way forward” plans came before the Judicial Council last fall, I and others highlighted how in these last two documents, the father of Methodism clearly disapproves of homosexual practice and only describes marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman, points which the leading defenders of the OCP were forced to effectively concede. The allowances in both the OCP and Simple Plan for blessing same-sex unions and allowing clergy to engage in homosexual practice also cannot be reconciled with the high view of biblical authority in the first two documents of our Doctrinal Standards, particularly in what they teach about Old Testament moral law.
Attempts by some OCP supporters to cite the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 are rather bizarre, as this shows the early church making a particular point of denouncing “sexual immorality,” which in that context was understood according to Old Testament moral law.
Both the One Church Plan and Simple Plan would radically divorce our denomination from the doctrine and theological heritage we have as United Methodists.
Meanwhile, the Traditional Plan is the ONLY major plan which would have our denomination’s official policies and teachings remain consistently aligned with relevant biblical and Wesleyan teaching.