By Thomas Lambrecht
A recent newsletter published by Mainstream UMC argues that, just as the church changed its understanding and teaching about slavery, the role of women in the church, and divorced clergy, the church can change its understanding and teaching about marriage and homosexuality. The church got it “wrong” in the past, and now the church can get it “right.” Leaving aside the validity of comparing the past historical issues of slavery, the role of women, and divorce with the contemporary controversies surrounding marriage and homosexuality, I do not think this argument supports the One Church Plan.
To me, this is an argument for the Simple Plan, which removes all prohibitions against same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. If the church’s interpretation of Scripture is wrong on marriage and sexuality, then we ought to mandate a change in our interpretation.
The One Church Plan, however, envisions staying united in “one church” but having two different understandings and two different teachings about marriage and homosexuality that will supposedly be equally valid and affirmed by the church. That is not what the church did with regard to slavery, the role of women, or with divorce.
Essentially, the Methodist Episcopal Church in the early 1800s operated under a “One Church Plan” approach to the issue of slavery. Southern annual conferences condoned (and some even defended) slavery, while many northern annual conferences became increasingly opposed to slavery. The church stayed “united” in this way until the crisis of 1844, when the northern delegates outnumbered the southern delegates and voted to suspend a slave-holding bishop. That action precipitated a month-long General Conference that culminated in the North-South split in the Methodist Episcopal Church that foreshadowed the Civil War 17 years later.
In the example of slavery, the moral imperative to end the practice overwhelmed the desire to preserve church unity, and the church split. A “One Church Plan” approach proved untenable in the long term (it lasted less than 50 years).
When the Methodist Church removed the prohibition against ordaining women in 1956, it did not make provision for some annual conferences to ordain women while allowing other annual conferences not to ordain women. Instead, it removed the prohibition and expected that every annual conference would ordain women. There were central conferences outside the United States that would have preferred not to ordain women because of their cultural situation. The Judicial Council ruled that they did not have that option (see Decision 155).
When the church changed its understanding and teaching regarding women’s ordination, it mandated that all annual conferences follow the new interpretation. It did not adopt a “One Church Plan” approach to women’s ordination.
It is more difficult to pinpoint the timeline of how divorced clergy became accepted in The United Methodist Church. The bishop who ordained me, Bishop Marjorie Matthews, was the first divorced person elected bishop (she was also the first woman elected bishop). Nevertheless, divorce per se is not a barrier to ordained ministry today, whereas a generation ago, there was such a thing as a “divorce review committee” whose purpose was to determine if a clergy person’s divorce was biblically justified. (See Judicial Council Decision 497).
Here again, the idea of having two different standards regarding divorced clergy in the church at the same time has not proven to be tenable. A 2016 attempt by the Liberia Annual Conference to bar divorced clergy from being nominated for election as bishop of Liberia was not approved by the West Africa Central Conference.
All these historical examples demonstrate a change in the church’s position on an issue. However, none of them shows the viability of a “One Church Plan” or “local option” approach to the issue. Rather, the church came to a united understanding of a new position that was then enforced throughout the church.
But that may be what supporters of the One Church Plan intend. Many of them have said that they favor complete affirmation of same-sex relationships but regard the OCP as an interim step on the way to such full affirmation. History would tend to support the idea that the move toward a One Church Plan would ultimately result in a change of teaching and practice for the whole church, without exception.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. He is a member of the Commission on a Way Forward.