By Rob Renfroe –
It’s time. General Conference 2020 will convene in just over four months. It’s time for a definitive solution to our differences over the authority of Scripture, marriage, and sexual ethics.
It’s time for General Conference to admit we can no longer be one church. Fortunately, most of us are now willing to admit this sad truth. There are still a few – primarily bishops, bureaucrats, and institutionalists – who are unwilling to acknowledge what the rest of us know to be true. Like Rip Van Winkle, waking up from a twenty-year slumber during which he missed the American Revolution, they seem to have slept through nearly fifty years of debate and the destructive vitriol of St. Louis. So, they offer an outdated regional conference solution that leaders of all theological perspectives have said is a non-starter.
But most of us are willing to admit we are not one and no plan can keep us together. UM-Forward, a leading progressive caucus within the UM Church, has proposed legislation that would dissolve the denomination and create four new churches. The UMC Next Plan, the work of primarily centrist leaders, proposes liberalizing the denomination’s sexual ethics and allowing traditionalists to leave. What’s known as “The Indianapolis Plan,” put together by a coalition of progressives, centrists, and traditionalists, calls for a respectful and amicable separation and the fair distribution of the denomination’s assets.
It’s time to admit we are not one church. Instead of attempting to hold us together by coercion, trust clauses, or out-of-touch plans that deny the reality of our differences, it’s time to admit we cannot be true to ourselves and walk with each other. Most of us are now willing to acknowledge this reality.
It’s time to redefine “winning.” In the past a “win” for traditionalists was keeping the Book of Discipline true to Scripture and finding a way to make the bishops enforce it. A win for progressives was changing the church’s sexual ethics so that pastors could marry gay couples and practicing gay persons could be ordained and appointed to serve local churches. “Centrists,” I believe, thought of winning as making enough room for all views and practices – and to do so in such a way that their churches would not be disrupted by these issues or have to vote on which sexual ethic to adopt.
It’s time to admit the ways we have defined winning in the past has kept us embroiled in an ugly and destructive battle. Each group has believed their views are true to the will of God. So, they have reasoned, it is only right that they fight to control the future of the church and create a denomination that embraces their beliefs.
After fifty years of fighting to win the church, where are we? At a place where the church has lost. The UM Church in the U.S. has declined precipitously in membership, attendance, and finances throughout this debate, and even more rapidly since the special General Conference last February. St. Louis presented us in the worst light possible to lost people needing the love of God and the blessings of Wesleyan Christianity. Great work is being done by local congregations, but the UM Church is not winning.
As long ago as 2004, Dr. William Hinson called upon United Methodists to admit the truth that we would never be united and proposed that the best solution was amicable separation. Castigated, condemned, and misrepresented, Hinson believed United Methodists would win not by fighting the same battle over and over again (which is exactly what we have done) but by setting each other free to pursue ministry in the ways we believe God would have us do.
It’s time to admit that a win for United Methodists is not one side out-voting or excommunicating the other. This is what the UMC Next Plan would do. It creates winners and losers. Centrists win and stay. Progressives win and can stay. Together they keep the spoils – the name and the assets of the church. Traditionalists lose and must leave – on terms dictated by the “winners.”
But the UM Church wins only if there is a negotiated, respectful separation which allows annual conferences and local churches to choose what direction their ministry will follow. This is what the Indianapolis Plan proposes – an amicable solution agreed upon before General Conference that is fair to all. No repeat of St. Louis, no winners or losers, no side getting its way at the expense of others or forcing its will upon those with whom they disagree. Power politics is not a win for the UM Church, and it’s not the way of Jesus.
It’s time to admit reality. Actually, a couple of realities. One is that the vast majority of United Methodists are traditionalists. In a UMCOM survey of U.S. United Methodists nearly half of those responding identified themselves as traditionalists – many more than those who defined themselves as centrist or progressive. Today more than half of all United Methodists live outside of the United States. And no one disputes that the vast majority, probably 90 percent, of non-U.S. United Methodists are traditional.
But there is another reality we need to admit. Evangelicals have little chance of forcing U.S. bishops to enforce the church’s prohibitions on marrying and ordaining gay persons. In many geographical areas of the country so many evangelicals have left the denomination, that pastors and congregations – and the bishops they elect – are predominantly progressive. Bishops are held accountable for their actions primarily by other bishops in their particular jurisdiction. This means that liberal bishops are answerable to other liberal bishops who applaud their disobedience and often share in it. A glaring example is a Western Jurisdiction bishop who is married to another woman and boasted of performing more than 50 same-sex weddings. In spite of a Judicial Council ruling stating that it was unlawful to consecrate her, she remains in office.
It is frustrating for traditionalists to be in the majority and for our views and the laws of the church to be so easily disregarded. But that’s reality and so is the fact that despite our greatly outnumbering progressives and “centrists,” we will never have the votes to elect orthodox bishops in the more liberal jurisdictions. Consequently, the disobedience of pastors, annual conferences, and bishops in these areas will continue with no real consequences.
It’s time to admit that it’s time, past time, to move on. Fighting the same battle the same way will produce the same results – anger, dysfunction and a church that is focused on itself rather than its mission. It’s time to stop denying reality and devising plans that act as if we are not irrevocably divided. It’s time to admit that we are not one church. It’s time to stop trying to win by outvoting the other side.
It’s time to trust God. We should do all we can to negotiate a plan that gives each segment of the church a fair portion of the general church assets, particularly ensuring the continued crucial support for annual conferences and ministries in Africa, Europe, and the Philippines. But whatever happens, we will be stronger, more focused on our mission, and more effective in making disciples of Jesus Christ when this battle is over. We do not believe our future will be determined by getting all that is rightfully ours. We trust that God’s grace will be sufficient for those who seek him, honor his work, and commit themselves to doing his will. It’s time to trust God and step into a faithful future.