The One Church Plan and the Rise of “Global South”

By Luther Oconer

In May 2018, a majority of United Methodist bishops agreed to endorse the One Church Plan (OCP). This plan entails the removal of restrictive language in the United Methodist Book of Discipline pertaining to the practice of homosexuality. If these changes are approved at the 2019 General Conference, congregations will then be able to decide whether to allow same-sex weddings in their sanctuaries. This will also grant annual conferences power to decide whether to ordain LGBTQ clergy. In other words, the OCP, if approved, has the potential of putting an end to the long-standing acrimonious debate on human sexuality in the General Conference by transferring decisions on the matter to the hands of local congregations and annual conferences.


So, with great enthusiasm, supporters of the OCP hail it as the plan that will “unite” us all since they believe that it will allow for the coexistence of both traditional and progressive views on sexuality in the UM Church. Accordingly, they also argue that the Traditional Plan (TP) is the only plan that will divide the church. The truth is, either one of the two plans, OCP or TP, will lead to division. If the OCP is approved, traditionalists will leave. In the same way, if the TP plan (in its modified form) prevails, we will see an exodus of progressives out of the UM Church. But not all. Some progressives plan to continue fighting for change in the denomination even if the TP is passed. This indicates that the TP will lead to less formal division than OCP promoters would like us to believe.


To entice the majority of non-U.S. United Methodists who hold traditional views on marriage, supporters of the OCP are guaranteeing them that nothing will change in the central conferences. They also claim that central conference churches and annual conferences won’t be able to decide on the matter anyway due to legal restrictions to same-sex marriage in the countries where they are situated. However, what OCP advocates fail to acknowledge is that not all central conferences are monolithic or homogenous – there are central conferences that have traditionalists and progressives within their fold. The Philippines is a good example. While the majority of Filipino United Methodists hold traditional views on marriage, there is a substantial number of progressives among them. A review of ongoing discussions on several Filipino United Methodist Facebook pages reveals increased polarization around the issue. This growing rift will widen if, for example, the General Conference decides in favor of the OCP. Contrary to what is being spread by promoters of the OCP, the Philippines Central Conference will be deeply affected if the OCP passes.

Dr. Luther Oconor

If the OCP is approved, central conferences that are not monolithic will have to clarify their interpretation of the OCP revisions in the Book of Discipline to both their traditional and progressive constituents. Are they going to take a position that will satisfy traditionalists only or will they take the side of progressives? This process will only lead to bitter disputes and deeper divisions. In another scenario, the OCP might embolden progressive clergy in central conferences to bless same-sex unions even if they are not legally recognized. The need for central conferences to provide clarity on the matter will be even more necessary in such a case. Even conservative central conferences are not exempt from this. They too will eventually have to clarify their position to distinguish themselves from the U.S. church. They will also have to go through all the trouble and expenses of composing their own version of the Book of Discipline to retain traditional language on human sexuality. Simply put, if the OCP is approved, it will not be business as usual for the central conferences, monolithic or not.


Much of what is claimed by OCP promoters regarding central conferences must, therefore, be carefully scrutinized by all central conference delegates who still hold traditional views of marriage but are being asked to be “generous” to the impulses of progressive United Methodists in the U.S. They cannot vote for approval of the OCP based solely on claims that it will not affect them. That is simply untrue. They must, like every delegate, vote their consciences according to the leading of the Holy Spirit.


As a United Methodist clergy belonging to a central conference, I am compelled to shed light on a much broader issue. The OCP, if approved, will effectively eliminate the influence of generally more conservative central conference United Methodists on the future of our global denomination. Efforts to silence the rising voice of central conference delegates are not new. Progressives in the past decade, most likely alarmed by the ever-increasing African delegations to the General Conference, began advocating for a more regionalized form of legislative process under the guise of giving central conferences more autonomy. In reality, these efforts to regionalize were primarily meant to disentangle U.S. conferences from the growing influence of the more evangelical central conferences whose growth has enabled the UM Church to maintain biblical standards on human sexuality. Providentially, these regionalizing attempts have been repeatedly rejected by previous General Conferences.


Nevertheless, this effort to regionalize legislation in the UM Church has made a comeback in the guise of the OCP, and it is distressing that the majority of our leaders support it. Like previous attempts at regionalization, the OCP, I’m afraid, seems to perpetuate the age-old imperialist assumption that Westerners are superior and more educated (or should I say, more “civilized”). Therefore, those in central conferences must keep to themselves because they have nothing to teach, certainly not about human sexuality.
Additionally, the OCP attempts to reverse the inevitable trend that has been happening in the past decade or two – Christianity’s center of gravity has shifted from the “global north” (North America and Europe) to the “global south” (Africa, Asia, and Latin America). We have seen the same shift in the UM Church. Today all of its growth and much of its vitality can be found in the central conferences, most particularly in Africa. Meanwhile, we see decline in the U.S. and Europe. The General Conference testifies to this shift. By 2020, roughly 43 percent of the delegates will be from the central conferences (32 percent from Africa and 6 percent from the Philippines). By 2028, central conference delegates will likely outnumber their U.S. counterparts. This scenario worries progressives in the denomination, whose “every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14) version of the faith has never produced large numbers of converts for the church but instead accounts for much of its decline.


Most global south Christians firmly believe that the Bible is the word of God and the primary authority on Christian practice. They unabashedly preach repentance and salvation in Jesus only, and the power of the Holy Spirit to transform lives. They unapologetically view miracles and the supernatural as normative for the Christian life. I am grateful that such a witness persists in the UM Church. The voices of our global south sisters and brothers are, by definition, necessary to our global church and are our best hope for the future. Many Western supporters of the OCP seek to suppress that witness or define (even impose) what that witness should look like. Why? Because they see the very values, which I have outlined above, as a threat to their vision of Christianity. Some would rather dismiss global south Methodists as Bible-thumping fundamentalists, rather than humbly learn from them. Truth be told, our global south sisters and brothers have preserved for us the “faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3:3). If we want to understand the Methodism that once spread scriptural holiness over the British Isles and the American continent, we don’t need to look farther because we will find it in Africa and, to some extent, in the Philippines.


In their desire to disengage from what the global south offers, many supporters of the OCP appear to inadvertently end up complicit in the unfortunate legacy of colonial missions by pursuing a relationship with non-U.S. United Methodists mainly on paternalistic lines. Instead of embracing the blessings of the global south, many would rather create a separate subculture that sadly bears the hallmarks of western individualism. Rather than seeing their global south central conference counterparts as equals, they would rather limit their influence. If the OCP prevails, the American Church will get to do what it wants (as has always been the case in the past) without being accountable to their sisters and brothers in Africa and other parts of the global south. More tragically, the UM Church will have missed an opportunity to be a truly connectional global church.


Luther Oconor is Associate Professor of United Methodist Studies at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He is an ordained elder in the Pampango Philippines Annual Conference. 

Comments

  1. Luther Oconor speaks a truth that flies in the face of far too many of his United Methodist progressive brethren in the Western church and exposes an egregious hypocrisy in the progressive wing of our denomination. Progressives repeatedly yell bigotry, racism, and intolerance towards the traditionalists in the church while practicing the same with cunning skill. Asking the central conferences for their vote on the ‘one’ church plan in order to be “generous” to the progressives while “guaranteeing” that this plan will not impact them is beyond reprehensible. As Rev. Oconor points out, it looks to be a form of modern day colonialism and imperialism. And, as he further points out, the ‘one’ church appears to also be a step towards the original progressive goal of regionalizing the church in order to keep the colonists in their place and out of power. The growing list of deceitful tactics being employed by the supporters of the ‘one’ church plan are straight from the playbook of the Great Deceiver”.

  2. I stand by what the Bible says. I will not compromise just becuase of the LGBTQ. We can love them withouth compromising what God says in the Bible about homosexuality and sexual immorality. Stand in the TRUTH. DO NOT COMPROMISE.

  3. Gary Bebop says:

    I’m sure every academic professional advocating for the Traditional Plan knows that “the fat is in the fire” (to use an old analogy). They have been marked by taking a stand. They have put service within United Methodist institutions on the line (every clergy person knows what that means). I am encouraged by this boldness because, as game time narrows to a 4th quarter decision (in February), even more conspicuous and saltier witness will be required of those with academic credentials.

  4. Ellery P. Ortiz says:

    Our Quadrilateral belief in the tradition of John Wesley has been the strongest pronouncement of our faith as United Methodist. Reverend Oconer had presented the strongest most possible foundation of that QUADRILATERAL BELIEF. As of the other side of the fence they failed to make it…We as United Methodist be aware and critical to the insidious works of the enemy…

  5. I have some questions regarding February’s St. Louis meeting. 1) How long will it be before we know the results of this special called Conference? 2) Will members of each church know how their delegates going to the Conference voted? 3) The trust clause will prevent those wanting to leave from taking control of property local church’s have purchased and maintained for decades. If this arrangement with the UMC was reversed, wouldn’t it give local congregations more deliberative power in such future concerns?

    • Richard, you will probably be able to find the results of any voting and detailed commentary on this and any number of sites. I believe Confessing movement plans to livestream the GC on their website. I am not sure if you will know how a delegate from your church votes, unless they tell you so. I have never known any conference to record the names of who votes and how they voted. Resolutions regarding the trust clause have been accepted and will be voted on. If the trust clause is removed you may see a number of churches leave the denomination and the denomination will have to have a more palatable attitude towards the individual churches, making sure that they appoint pastors that match the personality of the churches and not taking as much in apportionment’s as they do now. I have never served a church that did not have a desire to leave the denomination if allowed to. The small churches (I am a local) generally see the overbearing masters who only care about large churches and the money that they can suck out of struggling small churches. The only thing conference provides is an appointment, which sometimes does not work out so well. Otherwise they see no benefit from the conference and if you mention another conference plan to fix their church (which is probably best suited for a large church) they roll their eyes and say no way! Quite frankly they are tired of the conference expense, paperwork, and lack of useful attention. They want to save their dying churches not support the people in the conference office. The best thing that can come out of GC is for an exit clause to be passed and for the leaving churches to help fund the pension plan. If the OCP plan passes or there is no resolution to our issues then hundreds of thousands of traditionalists will vote with their feet and leave. This is going to devastate the pension plan and the administrative budgets of the AC’s and GC.

      • Scott, I believe that if the 864 delegates are presented with the hard numbers, with the real facts — they’ll vote against the ‘one’ church plan and for the traditional plan just on that alone since that would obviously result in the fewest numbers leaving by far.

        As for the church structure you speak of, many small local churches with part-time local pastors pay into the pension and health insurance funds but NOT for the benefit of their own local pastors who are excluded. Sometimes they look at the paying of apportionments as sort of a shake down. They certainly get NO real feedback of how those funds are spent, especially with relation to the salaries and fringes of the elite, except vague references to “missions”. They’re expected to “trust us” from the district offices, conferences, and general church with no questions asked. UMC local pastors certainly have a huge story to tell, many of which would chill the spine. On the other hand, they are usually the ones actually answering their call by preaching the Good News Gospel and ministering directly to their congregations. The UMC has a number of serious issues and problems that desperately need addressing that are being overshadowed and pushed aside by this marriage and sexual ethics conflict. For example, the whole ordination process is fraught with politics, hidden agendas, favoritism, nepotism, and secrecy. Then throw in bishop appointments and accountability, plus the agencies set up, staffing, and accountability. And, the list goes on.

  6. How refreshing to read an article from someone teaching at United Theological Seminary in which the authority of Scripture and Biblical orthodoxy is upheld and the progressive myth is not promoted. I agree with what he has written and would further caution all United Methodists that if the One Church Plan is adopted there will be a large exodus of those who derive their theology from the Word of God rather than contemporary human wisdom. The future denomination in the U.S. for sure and perhaps elsewhere will move further away from tolerance toward those such as Luther Oconor and me and the promises of allowing church elders to not affirm same sex “marital” relations will only last as long as the time to the next general conference or perhaps the one after that.

    • Jim Bender says:

      Agree with the author and Scott S. I am on the side of the scripture and the Traditional plan. I was quite blindsided by this whole conference thing since we just came back to the Methodist church after many years astray. When the conference was mentioned by my pastor, I thought surely they would be on the side of scripture, God’s words on homosexuality. Boy was I wrong on that. Turns out this OCP progressive liberal thought permeates the NTC conference. Our pastor, the superintendant and the bishop for our NTC were all publicly and openly stating how saddened and disheartened they were at the outcome of the General Conference in Feb. 2019 that the OCP plan did not pass. So I began to see just how progressive they were. Having a tough decision to make, I chose for my family to leave the UMC. We cannot be led by a pastor who would agree with openly avowing sinful behavior again and again in the pulpit and would be fine with marrying anyone other than one man, with one woman. So we’re gone. Over and out.

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