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.
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.