A Conservative Proposal with a Progressive Soul [3of3]

This is the third (and possibly final) entry in the series on Adam Hamilton and Michael Slaughter’s A Way Forward, which is a proposal to transform the LGBT debate in the United Methodist Church. Part One focused on its role against the anonymous schismatic 80. Part Two focused on its possibly congregationalist tendencies. And now…Part Three.

A Conservative Proposal…

Contrary to the detractors who call it woefully progressive, I would argue this is a conservative proposal.

In Andrew Sullivan’s The Conservative Soul, he writes:

All conservatism begins with loss...human beings live by a narrative and we get saddened when a familiar character disappears from a soap opera, or an acquaintance moves, or an institution becomes unrecognizable from what it once was. These little griefs are what build a conservative temperament. They interrupt our story; and our story is what makes sense of our lives. So we resist the interruption; and when we resist it, we are conservatives. (Page 10)

The proposal, as written, allows conservatives to retain their story while just changing the chapters a bit. Conservatives lose very little. Conservative pastors would not be forced to do weddings, and conservative churches would be highly unlikely to get openly gay clergy. There is no loss to the local congregation or pastor from this proposal. The only loss they have is the ability to throw charges at the pastor/church down the street that is doing something they don’t like. They might lose their view of the Church as a uniform entity, but that doesn’t affect the majority of pew-sitters who know the reality is that unity in diversity is already the Methodist way.

Over time, however, they would experience loss. Just as more churches every year accept female clergy, more churches every year would sign on to allow same-gender weddings, and more and more annual conferences would allow LGBT clergy. But by then, their sense of loss would have ebbed, as the younger conservatives didn’t really lose that Church at all: they grew up without it as the dominant voice.

In summary, because conservatives lose very little in their congregational life, this proposal allows them to navigate loss and interruption in a far easier way than a radical reorientation.

…With a Progressive Soul.

However, the proposal also has a progressive soul.

If conservatives begin with loss, progressives begin with a sense of justice. To seek a just framework for God, Church, Society, and Family is to be a progressive. To live beyond our Traditional understandings of humanity, God, and Creation in order to effect that more just framework.

To these values, the Hamilton/Slaughter proposal evokes two sense of justice:

  1. It is more just in that it allows certain areas of Methodism to practice full LGBT inclusion.
  2. It is less just in that some areas that are not progressive will feel more isolated because their freedom is no longer tied to the areas of the country that have more progressive privilege.

And yet at its core is a sense that our current ecclesiology is not just. It’s not just! It’s unjust. With this at the heart of any proposal, letter, or legislation, then the Progressive should give it more than a passing glance.

Additionally, a core understanding of progressivism is that we slowly evolve into a humanity that more reflects the image of God than we began with–and in reflecting that God, we more embody some elements of Scripture and less embody other elements (hence evolving understandings on women’s ordination and LGBT inclusion, for example). However,  the reality is that we embrace progressivism at different rates on some aspects of the human condition, based on our geographic location, family of origin, media, educational slant, and many other factors. These differences are evident across United Methodism. I’ve pastored churches in three jurisdictions, and American Methodism is already radically diverse–let alone Global Methodism.

What this proposal does is give authority and connectional accountability to the churches and conferences that have progressed more rapidly than others on the issue of LGBT inclusion. It allows them to be in ministry with their context and forces areas who are not progressive to have the conversation.

While to many “justice deferred is justice denied,” (which is valid), are we not also denying justice to the ones who could make their churches more just now rather than waiting for 51% of the body to come around later?

In summary, because this proposal assumes that the UMC is currently unjust, it is a progressive vision that seeks an incremental way towards a more just church than the one we created 42 years ago.

A Call for a Pragmatic, Missional Church

In short, this Proposal is an appeal to pragmatic conservatives who know they’ve lost the culture war and pragmatic progressives who feel the church is not ready yet for revolutionary change in its polity. If those two groups can unite around an incremental change like this to “stop the bleeding” then they could get bandaged up and see what’s ahead.

All too often the Church is a tail light in its surrounding culture. Women would get full voting abilities in America a full 36 years before they received the same consideration in the Methodist Church. Segregation was outlawed in 1954, 14 years before the Central Jurisdiction would be abolished in the Methodist Church. Will we do the same in United Methodism regarding LGBT inclusion? As marriage equality sweeps across the land to a majority of Americans in 11 short years, how long will we be unable to fully celebrate this equality?

  • To Hamilton/Slaughter, it depends on whether conservatives can live with the bare minimum of loss and whether progressives can shed the “justice for all or justice for none” approach.
  • To us at Hacking Christianity? We’ve got 23 months and there will be many more proposals, some of which will take this Proposal as a baseline and change it. We’ll be reserving endorsement until we get closer to GC16 (who knows…we may just write our own…)

Until then: let the games begin on creative ways to live together in a unity rather than separating into two ghettoized factions like the Powers and Principalities want us to. We are better together, and something tells me, God is not through with a United Methodist Church, if we keep more good ideas like this coming.


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  1. says

    Very interesting. Allowing — but not requiring — UMs to affirm same sex relationships seems like a path whereby the Church could avoid schism.

    But let me offer an observation from Southern Baptist and evangelical life: The argument they are giving is that there is no “third way.” To “agree to disagree” is to “let the liberals win,” “abandon the authority of Scripture,” “capitulate to modernist revisions on the Christian sexual ethic,” etc. Oftentimes I find “our” conservatives to be a lot more reasonable than “their” conservatives. But I would expect UM conservatives to perceive a lot more loss than what you are implying they would experience.

    Yet this proposal is sensible in many ways. This debate is consuming so much energy. If it can be put to rest, maybe the UMC connection can devote more energy to issues and challenges that the Church faces.

    Good point about 50% + 1. Christianity is older than democracy and it’s debatable how the two are related. No one quite agrees with ‘vox populi vox Dei est’ (“the voice of the people [majority] is the voice of God,” but functionally it seems to work that way sometimes. We should not be surprised that when we model our church governance after the U.S. government that factions and interest groups form and seek to influence the church much as they form and seek to influence the government. IRD and RMN have roles to play, but they do not, in the end, speak for very many people.

    We are a long way from getting a GC majority to do what RMN wants it to do. But the survey released this week was heartening: It showed that 90% of UMs do not want to split the church. The masses are polarized on this issue, too, but not nearly to the extent of what we see with elite polarization. I know a lot about Congress, but I don’t know as much about GC delegates. I suspect, however, that a growing number of SEJ and SCJ delegates will be amenable to “agree to disagree.”

    I wonder if we might actually see a compromise solution that both RMN and IRD opposed.

    Hamilton needs to get some center-right people on board with this to give it added credibility

    Good work in this series, particularly regarding connectionalism & congregationalism.

  2. Drew Meyer says

    It is interesting to watch all of this from the point of an outsider…whether the UMC decides to drop the United or not is irrelevant to me. As a conservative who supports full inclusion it does; however, smack of over-simplification when I see conservative and progressive defined as is done here.

    I am glad that I have moved to a post-church position. This is nothing but corporate in-fighting. Corporate does not equal church.

  3. John Thomas says

    How would the current outline of a proposal work with current language on “blamelessness in lives and ministry” at each Annual Conference?
    For partnered LGBTQ clergy in an affirming conference this would be “Yes”, at an anti-LGBTQ conference, it would be “No”– a connectional problem.
    Similarly, while few bishops and district superintendents would appoint a conservative to a progressive church, or a woman to a ultra-right churches, these are unwritten rules, and this would be codified.

    I hope the proposers of “A Way Forward”, or even HX’s own proposal will ask the Judicial Council and consult with the legal minds of the church before submitting for GC consideration.

  4. Andreas says

    This is what I am thinking.

    This proposal is the beginning of the end of the UMC. It is beyond me what possible value there is in a UMC that is not united in its theology/beliefs. As a church we have ONE voice on a host of different questions, including homoseuxality and its cousins in the LBGTXYZ culture. We are ONE united church and every pastor has vowed to preach and teach ONE faith and not to break the rules out of conviction. What is left if we open up the church to a congregational structure? How can this NOT be the “pandora’s box” of subjectivism?

    The bottom line is that our individual faith is subject to our corporate faith. A UMC doesn’t first of all say “I believe” but “We believe”…and this is who we are. This proposal is a stubborn and arrogant (although it sounds like the opposite) of the few to radically alter a church because they can’t submit to its statement of faith. Further, no one believes that this issue is the key issue at hand. It all comes from how we view the Bible (as A.Hamilton’s latest book Making sense of the Bible, makes clear), thus this proposal will only, as I have argued, snowball into a individualistic mess of local churches and annual conferences doing “what was right in their own eyes”. That never holds up.

    • says

      The problem is that this argument leaves no room for change in the Church. The UMC cannot be a static organization; no institution truly is. The Church has changed on women’s ordination and many other issues. So, for those of us who see full LGBT inclusion in the UMC as a matter of justice, the status quo is unacceptable. To us, the Church is simply wrong on this issue, and must change course to be aligned again with the Gospel. The Church is simply not united right now, but agreeing to disagree and allowing room for each side to breathe will help ease the division and allow constructive dialog. Otherwise, each side is warring for control of the whole institution instead of being able to channel energy into work on the local level.

      And I’m telling you, neither side is going to give in if this continues to be a battle for the whole UMC. I don’t think the Reconciling movement is willing to accept a Church that perpetuates global injustice against its LGBT members. I do, however, think that progressive folks can accept compromise and see change happen at the local level as each congregation discerns its calling. That will help us avoid schism as we make room for constructive engagement rather than conflict.

  5. Roy Jacobsen says

    Does anyone believe that anyone who is active in the LGBT group would truly accept the Hamilton proposal as it would work out in reality? I can see a church that has decided to stay with the Discipline’s ban on gay marriage coming under pressure by the pro-homosex group/bishop/ds to change their position – sound familiar? Hamilton’s proposal is a desperate and institutionally driven attempt to “save” the UMC by providing a 3rd way out of the current painful situation we are in. It will not work. I believe creeping schism is already taking place. The schism of 1844 in Methodism was at work long before it happened. People who are committed on both sides of this debate will not compromise.

  6. says


    I’m not quite sure how I missed this entry months ago when you posted it…but thanks for posting it. As usual, you are able to cut right to the heart of the issues.

    I would consider myself a pragmatic progressive, and so I am very enthusiastic about the possibility of the “way forward” being a WAY forward…not a destination…a WAY.

    It allows for several things:
    1) It allows for genuine “live and let live” big-tent Methodism….which is what many people erroneously believe we already have. And,
    2) It trusts that the Holy Spirit will continue to work on people in various geographies long after it passes.

    You say, “the reality is that we embrace progressivism at different rates.” This is absolutely true, and failure to acknowledge this is what would lead disaster. I would say “the Holy Spirit works on people” at different rates too. And this proposal allows for a progressive approach…toward a future UMC that is ever more open and inclusive.

    I think opponent of TWF assume that it creates permanent, Balkanized lines in our denomination….perhaps a permanent “separate but equal” situation.

    I think this fails to account for where the culture is headed, and where the Holy Spirit will lead us in the years to come. Especially when (not if) same sex marriage is legalized in every state, congregations and Annual Conferences who have never considered being open to the issue…will absolutely *become* open to same sex marriage. It will almost seem like magic.
    But…we must have a polity, when that happens, that allows for this progressive movement.

    TWF is a very good possible vehicle for this to happen.


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