Centrists Describe Future UMC —
By Thomas Lambrecht —
The last two Perspectives (here and here) extrapolated what the future United Methodist Church might look like on the basis of a foundational article from Mainstream UMC (a centrist advocacy group within The United Methodist Church). A new Mainstream article this week goes further in describing how many centrists see the future of the UM Church.
The article is entitled, “Next Steps (1 of 3): Honesty.” True to its title, the article is honest about where centrists see the church today and where they believe it will go in the near future. This honesty is commendable and helps United Methodists across the spectrum understand what is at stake, as they make decisions about their alignment with the church. It should be remembered that centrists purport to represent the “broad center” of the church and hold most of the power positions in the bureaucracy and the Council of Bishops. Therefore, centrists are a key power bloc in determining the decisions made by the church. Below are some quotes from the article that tell us what we need to know about its vision for the future of the UM Church.
Current U.S. Church Identity
• “Many US and Western European churches and annual conferences are already meeting the ministry needs of their mission field by openly, unapologetically ordaining and marrying LGBTQ persons. … We do not buy into black-and-white dualistic understandings of human sexuality.”
This statement points to the reality that many U.S. annual conferences have moved beyond living by the Book of Discipline. They are disregarding its teachings on marriage and human sexuality. They are ordaining persons regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or partnered status. Clergy who perform same-sex weddings are, for the most part, not experiencing any adverse consequences. Most U.S. and Western European annual conferences have adopted a theology that affirms LGBT relationships and practices.
“There is NO scenario where the US church changes this identity.” Regardless of what the Discipline says, much of the U.S. church has moved on in ignoring it. There will be no going back from this current situation in the U.S. church.
Centrists and the Bible
• “We believe in the primacy of Scriptures and prayerfully explore them through the lenses of Tradition, Reason, and Experience. We believe the Biblical views on slavery, women, polygamy, divorce, and homosexuality are descriptive Biblical truths, that describe what was true for others in another time and place. We believe in the prescriptive Biblical truths of justice, inclusion, and grace.”
Although stating a commitment to the primacy of Scripture, when it comes to issues of marriage and sexuality, many centrists in fact give primacy to experience and reason. There is no real doubt about the clear teaching of Scripture. But many have found a way to say Scriptural teachings don’t apply in this case. They would say, “Because our experience of sexuality and knowledge of sexuality is greater than and different from the biblical authors, we know better what God really wants us to do (namely, affirm same-sex relationships).”
Many centrists use a “canon within the canon” to determine what the Bible teaches. They focus on “justice, inclusion, and grace” (as they define them) to decide whether a particular biblical teaching is in or out. If a particular teaching is not just, inclusive, or gracious (again, as they define them), then that teaching is not applicable in today’s world. (In contrast, traditionalists believe we should strive to understand the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) with all its nuances, seeing the Bible as a whole and understanding how its various teachings and time periods fit together.)
The effect of this focus on justice and inclusion is a particular social-justice agenda for the church that may or may not reflect the actual teachings of Scripture. More significantly, it takes the church’s focus off of evangelism and discipleship and shifts it to the political sphere. Many centrists believe the church is accomplishing its mission when it advocates for particular political positions. While such advocacy may be needed at times, the overwhelmingly biblical emphasis is on evangelism, discipleship, and lovingly caring for others in practical ways. This has been the hallmark of evangelical and traditionalist Methodist churches for generations.
General Conference 2024
• “We, very likely, have the votes to remove the anti-gay language at General Conference 2024.”
This is a true statement. In the aftermath of the 2019 General Conference in St. Louis, delegate elections in the U.S. annual conference resulted in a more progressive delegation. By our calculations, the delegate count would have been very close in 2020, although still slightly favoring traditionalists. Since that time, however, almost 6,200 U.S. churches have disaffiliated, including a number of traditionalist delegates to General Conference. This year, many U.S. annual conferences elected replacement delegates for those who resigned or died since 2019, meaning the delegation will skew even more toward the progressive end. In addition, some annual conferences in Europe that would normally send traditionalist delegates have withdrawn from the UM Church.
• “If we do have a ‘compatibilist’ majority, there is NO scenario where, after suffering significant membership losses in the US, we do not vote to change the language at this upcoming General Conference.”
Many centrists view changing the church’s position on the marriage and ordination of gays and lesbians as an issue of the church’s survival. The allusion to “significant membership losses” indicates they believe that our current biblical stance on these issues is causing the membership losses. This makes centrists very motivated to change the church’s definition of marriage and allow ordination for partnered gays and lesbians. They think it is the only way the church will survive in the U.S.
This whole line of thinking is questionable. Not one of the other Mainline denominations saw their membership grow as a result of changing their position on marriage and sexuality. In fact, their membership losses (Episcopal, Presbyterian, Lutheran, northern Baptist, and United Church of Christ) only increased.
Regardless of whether centrist theories of church growth are correct, their statements indicate it is a near certainty that the definition of marriage and ordination standards will be changed at the 2024 General Conference in a progressive direction.
• “We do not yet have 2/3 for regionalization.”
This statement recognizes that the African delegates hold the key to whether regionalization takes place. African delegates make up about one-third of the delegates, so they could potentially block regionalization at the General Conference if they are not convinced it is the right thing to do. Even more importantly, African annual conferences make up over half of the annual conference members that need to vote by two-thirds to approve the regionalization constitutional amendments. Even if only two-thirds of African annual conference members vote against regionalization, they can defeat it.
The regionalization proposal is being marketed as coming from the central conferences outside the U.S. because some of the leaders behind the proposal are from the central conferences. However, the grass roots membership of the central conferences is not yet convinced to support regionalization. Therefore, its adoption at the 2024 General Conference (and subsequent ratification by the annual conferences) is questionable.
• “There is NO scenario where Africa would ordain LGBTQ pastors, even if the General Conference told them to. There is NO scenario where the United States will go back to trials and exclusion, even if the General Conference told them to.”
This statement points out the basic irrelevance of the General Conference. No matter what the General Conference decides, people will do what they think is right, even if it contradicts the General Conference.
Some U.S. bishops have been pushing to marginalize the power of the General Conference and weaken its authority. They believe the General Conference is inefficient and causes division in the church. They would rather the Council of Bishops and the general boards and agencies would run the church. Of course, this would disempower the voices of the grass roots of the church who elect the delegates and empower a favored elite to govern the church. It would also turn United Methodist governance on its head, as the General Conference has been given supreme authority over the church by the Book of Discipline. But again, no matter what the Discipline says, certain leaders think they know better how the church should be run than the voice of the people.
This quote also shows how committed to the LGBTQ agenda centrists are. As we saw in the aftermath of the 2019 General Conference, no matter what the General Conference decides, centrists and progressives will persist in their defiant actions. The possibility of any kind of Traditional Plan or maintaining accountability to a traditional, biblical view of marriage and sexuality is out of the question for the U.S. part of the UM Church.
Centrists and Africa
• “We are committed to remaining in relationship with Africa and the Philippines but recognize that they are much more traditional than even the US traditionalists. They may not be willing to stay in relationship with a church that is openly, unapologetically ordaining LGBTQ pastors … We need to be prepared to live with that … The US is ‘compatibilist’ and willing to live with regions that are much more conservative. The most traditional regions, Africa and the Philippines, then get to decide if they are willing to live with the US church. We cannot, however, live together under false pretenses.”
Although centrists say they are willing to live with regions that are much more conservative, there will continue to be efforts to persuade United Methodists outside the U.S. to support the LGBTQ agenda. Just as the U.S. government often lobbies African governments to change their laws about marriage and homosexuality, UM progressives and centrists will continue to lobby the central conferences to accept and eventually affirm LGBTQ persons and relationships.
Centrists represented by Mainstream UMC are prepared to acknowledge that more traditional parts of the church outside the U.S. may decide to separate. That is a significant acknowledgement. Let us hope that, rather than throw up roadblocks to traditionalists outside the U.S., centrists are prepared to allow them to make informed, prayerful discernment and will honor their decisions.
Currently, the Council of Bishops is saying that Par. 2553 does not apply outside the U.S., even though the language adopted by the 2019 General Conference plainly says, “This new paragraph became effective at the close of the 2019 General Conference.” The only other way for churches outside the U.S. to disaffiliate is through becoming an autonomous Methodist Church, a laborious process that requires General Conference and central conference approval.
Some bishops and other leaders have been advocating for churches to postpone their decision about disaffiliation until after the 2024 General Conference. They are saying that one never knows what the General Conference will decide until the votes are taken. While these leaders are technically correct, the Mainstream articles have given us a clearer understanding of what will happen at the General Conference and what the future UM Church will look like. We can predict the outcome with near certainty.
There will be proposals at the 2024 General Conference to allow local churches and annual conferences outside the U.S., as well as local churches in areas where U.S. annual conferences have imposed significant additional costs, to disaffiliate from the UM Church. Centrists can help facilitate their vision of the future UM Church by adopting these new exit paths. Let us put an end to the fighting and allow mature Christian adults to make their own prayerful discernment about their participation in the future UM Church. Mainstream UMC has given us a much clearer picture of what that future church will look like.
Thomas Lambrecht is United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News. Image: Delegates and bishops join in prayer at the front of the stage before a key vote on church policies about homosexuality during the 2019 United Methodist General Conference in St. Louis. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.