I don’t have a crystal ball. I’m not a prophet. And I’m not claiming to have “a word from God.” But I think I can see how the called General Conference may end next February.
The bishops have spoken predominantly about two options which they are likely to put forth. The first proposal is called “The One Church” Plan. Previously it was referred to as “the local option.” Each pastor would determine whether to marry gay couples and each annual conference would decide whether to ordain practicing homosexuals. We would be one church with two different sexual ethics, some of us teaching that marriage is between a man and a woman and others proclaiming that marriage is the sacred union of two persons. Some of us would teach that loving homosexual relations are a gift from God to be celebrated; others of us would refer to such relations as contrary to God’s will, even sinful.
This “one church” plan has been around for a good while. It was proposed at General Conference in 2016 and fared so poorly in committee that its rejection was a certainty and it was not even brought to the floor for a vote. This plan would require evangelicals and traditionalists to belong to a church that allows and promotes what they believe to be contrary to the clear teaching of God’s word. It’s hard to understand why the bishops think the same plan might pass when practically all of 2016’s delegates are returning to vote in 2019.
The “one church” model will be opposed in St. Louis by the same coalition that defeated it in the past – traditionalists in the U.S., delegates from Africa (almost unanimously), and most delegates from The Philippines and Eastern Europe. This coalition, or some form of it, has been the majority opinion on every significant sexual ethics vote that has come before General Conference for four decades. In fact, this alliance even defeated a less progressive proposal that United Methodists simply admit that we have differing opinions regarding homosexuality. I’m not a prophet but I don’t need to be to predict that “The One Church” Plan will fail again when it is proposed in St. Louis.
The second proposal has been referred to as “the Multi-Branch plan.” This proposal divides the church into three jurisdictions. One jurisdiction would be fully progressive with pastors required to marry gay couples. A second jurisdiction would be traditional in its beliefs and would not allow its pastor to marry same-gendered persons. A third jurisdiction would permit pastors to determine their own policies. Ordination of gay persons would likewise be required, forbidden, or allowed (but not required) of annual conferences, depending on the jurisdiction they joined.
For some evangelicals this plan is more palatable. The distance between the three branches is sufficient for some traditionalists to “live with” this model even if it’s not their first choice.
But can it pass? Probably not, because it requires constitutional amendments, meaning it must pass by a two-thirds margin at the called General Conference and by the same margin when it is considered later by annual and central conferences. Some progressives will not vote for this plan because they see it as an institutionalizing of injustice. Many evangelicals, both in the U.S and around the globe, will reject this plan because it also requires them to remain in a church that allows and promotes what the Scriptures forbid. Even if all of the progressives and one-third of the traditional delegates accept this plan, it will still fail to gain the two-thirds approval that it requires.
I’m not a prophet and I don’t have a crystal ball. But I can see a very unhappy ending for the special Conference that was called for the bishops to resolve our division over sexuality. If the only two options considered are the ones the bishops have been promoting in their press releases, chaos will be the result when they are defeated. The church will be demoralized. The bishops will have failed. Progressives will rampantly break the Book of Discipline. Conservatives will stop paying apportionments. Churches will leave the denomination. Members in huge numbers will depart to find non-Methodist churches to join. And there will be no one to look to for leadership. The bishops will have failed their trust and will have no moral authority to guide the church. The “centrist” leaders again will have lost their attempt to liberalize the church. Progressives will be seen for the true minority they are.
We will be in disarray and we will be leaderless.
In the meantime, the situation in the church is only getting worse. The decline in attendance is increasing. Bishops and annual conferences continue to disregard the Discipline by appointing self-avowed practicing homosexuals to leadership positions and by passing policies allowing the ordination of practicing LGBT persons (see page 6). More local churches are leaving the denomination. Mistrust and cynicism are growing. The morale of clergy in much of the U.S. is in the depths. Many are worried and anxious about the future of the church and its implications for their own personal situation. It is past time for the pain to end and this conflict to be resolved.
What’s our hope? That some other group will bring forth a plan that might resolve our dysfunction and our division. After all the time and expense that has been consumed in creating two plans that cannot pass, our hope is that a dissenting group of bishops, a global coalition, or some other group will create a plan that can pass. It will not be a plan that pleases everyone. It may not be a plan that “keeps us together” if that means having two or more positions regarding sexuality in one church. But it is time to resolve our differences and be done with the constant acrimony and fighting. That’s why the Conference was called. That’s what the bishops were asked to do. But if they won’t, then someone else must. Or I see a very unhappy ending for United Methodists.