By Rob Renfroe –
In six months, the General Conference of The United Methodist Church will meet once again. And once again the business of the conference will be consumed with our differences regarding sexual ethics.
Various groups have filed their plans for a way forward. What these plans reveal is that, after a special General Conference was held to determine The United Methodist Church’s position regarding marriage and ordination, nothing has been resolved. The church’s traditional, biblical sexual ethic was reaffirmed; but many progressives and many of those who call themselves “centrists” have been unwilling to live by the church’s position and are gearing up to defeat it in Minneapolis.
The preference of Good News and our partners in the Reform and Renewal Coalition is a fair and respectful separation that ends the fighting. Before and after the special Conference in St. Louis, we have been in many conversations, looking for “centrist” and progressive leaders who agree that we need a solution that has no winners or losers and that allows all of us to pursue ministry to the world as we believe God has called us to do.
Thankfully, we have found some nontraditionalists who have been willing to work with us. Some even helped to craft The Indianapolis Plan. While not a perfect plan, it achieves a form of separation we can gladly support. The “centrist” and progressive leaders within the church who have chosen to work with us in this endeavor are sincere pastors and laypersons who believe that continued fighting will harm their local churches and The United Methodist Church’s witness to the world. They have concluded, as we have, that a fair and respectful separation honors Christ and does the least harm to his body.
Sadly, however, most high-profile “centrist” leaders reject such a solution. It’s hard to understand why. At General Conference 2016 in Portland, the Rev. Adam Hamilton publicly stated the only solution he could envision for ending our stalemate regarding sexuality was to create three new churches. He made this statement to a group of seminarians who were observing the Conference after he attended four lengthy meetings with traditional, progressive, and other centrist leaders.
I participated in those meetings, and I can report that with the exception of the bishops who did not share their personal views, everyone in those meetings agreed that it was time for separation. Of course, the Rev. Hamilton and some of the other centrist leaders in those meetings, led the charge to defeat plans for amicable separation less than three years later when we met in St. Louis.
Other centrist leaders in closed-door meetings since St. Louis have stated to me that it’s time for a respectful parting of the ways. But, publicly they are opposing every plan that resolves our differences without winners and losers. Their amicable separation is: “Centrists win. Traditionalists leave.”
At the Church of the Resurrection’s annual Leadership Institute, the Rev. Hamilton told those gathered, “We are going to remove from the Book of Discipline the language that is harmful to human beings, the policies that are continuing to to bring harm to the LGBTQ community….” In other words, the “centrist” plan is to put us through the ugliness and the pain of St. Louis, once more, with the hope that this time they will win. And when the church’s traditional sexual ethics have been reversed to embrace same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing gay persons, Hamilton believes conservatives will depart. In the same speech he estimated that between 3,400 and 6,800 traditional churches would leave the denomination.
Regrettably, the strategy behind the plan that most well-known “centrist” leaders support is: “We win. Y’all leave.” Their plan is not a separation of equals but an exodus of those who hold to the church’s historic teaching on marriage and sexuality.
I had hoped we were beyond this point. Good News has for years argued that it is time to create a solution that stops our dysfunction and that has no winners or losers. It is time – past time – to conclude that a “winner-take-all” or a “winner-take-most” approach is beneath us and is unhelpful in resolving our differences.
Those behind the “centrist” strategy have been persons who in the past we looked to as voices of reason. We disagreed with them on sexual ethics, but we found we could have honest dialogue with them and we believed we all had the good of the church in mind. But when offered a way forward that is fair, amicable, and respectful, their preferred approach appears to be an abrasive and harmful fight they believe they can win. And at that point, they are sure, they will not have to offer traditionalists much to leave.
Who will prevail in Minneapolis? A coalition of traditionalists and lesser-known progressives and “centrists” who want to end the fighting and separate? Or high-profile “centrist” leaders who promised their followers a victory in St. Louis and who are willing to fight the same ugly battle again because, “trust us, this time we really can win”?
If amicable separation is defeated, the Reform and Renewal Coalition has also filed legislation that will complete and strengthen the Traditional Plan. It is not our preferred solution because it will not resolve our differences, stop the fighting, or bring unity to the church. St. Louis proved that. But it will be on the table in Minneapolis.
I am reminded of lines from a Robert Frost poem: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” We have traveled the same path for many years, really decades. It has led to acrimony, disobedience, dysfunction, and decline. It’s time to choose a path that will make all the difference.