Since the special 2019 General Conference of the United Methodist Church, much of the commentary by liberal caucus activists and U.S. bishops (a distinction that has become increasingly blurred in the last couple of years) has emphasized that how the vote to adopt a partial version of the Traditional Plan was so “narrow.”
It seems that there is some intent to raise doubts and at least partially undermine the perceived legitimacy of the decisions made by General Conference to reject the One Church Plan (to liberalize the church’s definition of marriage and roll back longstanding prohibitions on same-sex unions and non-celibate gay clergy) and adopt the Traditional Plan (to maintain our standards with enhanced accountability).
There can be confusion around references to “the vote,” as there were really several votes. First, delegates in a committee of the whole, voted by 461-359 (56.2 to 43.8 percent) to support the Traditional Plan. After some further debate that day, there was a slight drop in traditionalist voting strength, with delegates voting by 436-386 (53 to 47 percent) to reject the liberal “One Church Plan” (OCP). By the end of the next day, the divide was virtually unchanged (technically a miniscule shift back in a traditionalist direction), with delegates voting by 438-384 (53.3 to 46.7 percent) to adopt the Traditional Plan. An earlier vote on that fateful final day also saw a slight drop of support for the OCP, with delegates voting by 449-374 (54.6 to 45.4 percent) to reject a parliamentary move by liberal delegates to substitute the OCP for the Traditional Plan as the main plan to be considered.
Talk of the absolute numbers of these vote spreads (ranging from 50 to 102) is largely unhelpful, as that is more a reflection on the overall size of General Conference than on the divide of its members.
Depending on which vote we are talking about, between 45.4 and 47 percent of delegates supported the OCP while between 53 and 56.2 percent supported the Traditional Plan. Doubtless a few supported neither.
As a supporter of the Traditional Plan, I admit that this was closer than I would have liked to have seen.
But before rushing to conclusions about the how “narrow” these votes were, there are several points worth considering.
When people say these margins are “narrow,” it is worth asking, “Compared to what?”
Compared to the more recent votes cited above, some specific sexuality votes at previous General Conferences had significantly larger margins. But others did not, such as the vote in 2012 to reject Adam Hamilton’s proposal to partially liberalize the Social Principles by 53.5 to 46.5 percent, or the vote in 2004 to add heterosexual as well as homosexual immorality to the list of chargeable offenses for clergy (which had previously been more implicit) by 50.6 to 49.4 percent.
In the 2019 votes, one side prevailed by margins ranging from 6 to 12.4 percentage points. As O. Wesley Allen, Jr., a liberal United Methodist seminary professor and Traditional Plan opponent notes: “In today’s cultural climate, any politician would love to have the kind of margin we saw at General Conference (especially given that a number of international delegates were denied visas and likely would have added to the margin of victory).”
Allen’s parenthetical aside highlights a major problem. While the 2019 General Conference should have been a voting body of 864 delegates, it was actually one of 833 delegates, due to 31 non-American delegates being unable to attend or be replaced “primarily because they were unable to gain visas.”
From preliminary checking with sources in the Philippines and different parts of Europe, it appears that those regions were fully represented. So it would seem that the 31 missing delegate slots ALL were losses of African voices and votes.
There is a great need to examine the systemic racial and economic injustices of how our system involves meetings which selectively impose unique burdens upon certain non-American delegates while we do too little to help them meet these burdens.
But for our present purposes, it is reasonable to expect that had Africa been fully represented at the 2019 General Conference, at least 25 of these 31 missing delegates would have been traditionalist voters. If we add this to the votes noted at the top of this article, the Traditional Plan would have been supported, at its peak, by a vote of 486 to 365 (57.1 to 42.9 percent), while the OCP would have been supported, at most, by 392 in favor to 461 opposed (46 to 54 percent).
So the true margin of the 2019 General Conference’s traditionalist majority, if there had been full representation, would have likely ranged from 8 to 14.2 percentage points. Not quite a landslide, but not the narrowest of margins, either.
Even if all 31 missing African delegates had been seated, the 2019 General Conference’s representation would still have been skewed in ways that effectively lower traditionalist voting strength. I have written elsewhere about how the U.S. delegates, as a whole, are significantly more liberal than American United Methodists as a whole. And the allotment of delegates structurally ensured that Africans would be under-represented relative to combined clergy and lay membership, with Sub-Saharan Africans constituting over 38 percent of the world’s United Methodists but no more than 30.1 percent of the 2016-2019 General Conference delegates. (You can read the statistics for yourself here.)
Furthermore, at this last General Conference, it was striking to see the degree to which so much of our official, apportionment-funded denominational establishment threw their weight into heavily promoting the OCP and undermining alternatives, in both public campaigns and private lobbying.
Bishops Bruce Ough of Dakotas-Minnesota and Ken Carter of Florida chose to largely run Council of Bishops as if it was a liberal caucus group, with little evidence of them caring how many bridges they and other liberal bishops burned or how much trust they shattered in their heavy-handed push for victory at all costs.
The denominational establishment’s all-out campaign to adopt the OCP repeatedly involved striking misrepresentations of the truth.
In a slick video advertisement for the OCP he made as Council of Bishops President, Bishop Carter made some rather misleading statements. He described the OCP as “provid[ing] religious freedom, freedom of conscience, to traditional persons,” conveniently whitewashing the severe ways in which it would trample on the consciences of any traditional believers in the UMC. (In a similar vein, Bishop Robert Schnase falsely claimed that under the OCP, “no annual conferences, bishops, congregations, or pastors are compelled to act contrary to their convictions,” while similar claims were echoed on a controversial pro-OCP website supported by several leading liberal bishops.) Carter portrayed the OCP as uniquely allowing for a diversity of beliefs related to homosexuality, when in fact the OCP would greatly restrict the diversity of opinion in what would be left in the UMC, while the Traditional Plan was ultimately far more tolerant of members and leaders with different opinions.
It would take a whole article to list other examples of pro-OCP bishops making misleading statements in their win-at-all-costs crusade.
But it seems that other OCP supporters learned from the example set from the top by “their” pro-OCP bishops.
For example, as I have explained, it is a rather objective fact that the OCP would have a major impact on United Methodism outside of the United States by:
- Liberalizing the church definition of marriage in ways that no non-American central conference could contradict;
- Making a major change in the public witness and reputation of our denomination overseas on matters of marriage and sexual morality;
- Splitting apart the denomination in ways that would cause the UMC to lose significant chunks of both its U.S. financial support base and its overseas presence;
- Imposing significant unfunded mandates on any central conference in which some United Methodists wished to retain traditional standards; and
- Leaving the door wide open for liberalized future General Conferences, by simple-majority vote, to force non-American central conferences to dramatically liberalize their sexuality standards.
However, Mark Holland’s “Mainstream UMC” caucus repeatedly (again, and again, and again, and again, and again) spread the false claim that the OCP “has no effect on Central Conferences outside the United States.”
Traditional Plan supporters tried to set the record straight with as many delegates as we could about as many of the misrepresentations of the truth as we could. But we could not keep up with all of them, including some of the misleading statements made by some delegates from the General Conference floor in seeking to pass the OCP and defeat the Traditional Plan.
Strikingly, I have not seen a single example of any bishop who supported the OCP or any leader or advisory board member of any liberal caucus publicly retract, apologize for, or challenge their allies’ misrepresenting the truth in such ways.
Nor have I seen any example any bishops or caucus leaders who supported the Traditional Plan engaging in such deceptive tactics.
So to be clear, some of the strength of support for the OCP and the relative “narrowness” of votes at the 2019 General Conference was driven by widespread disenfranchisement of poorer black people, skewed representation of parts of General Conference, the transformation of apportionment-funded ministry structures for the whole church into partisan advocates for one narrow faction, and some blatant deception.
Do my more liberal United Methodist friends really wish to keep pursuing such a path?