Here we are
The United Methodist Church has reached the apex point of its future. While one might think that moment is reserved for the Special General Conference in 2019, the truth is that the tenacity of United Methodism rests on the integrity of the plan that comes from the Bishops as they meet this week in Chicago, Illinois, USA.
Without a strong plan that successfully navigates the tensions in United Methodism and blurs the fault-lines between the factions, plans will gain prominence that benefit those factions. In a vacuum of credible leadership, the most incredible/uncredible of plans will rise. In the interregnum, morbid systems arise. This is the last shot to deny other agendas a foothold, even the ones I personally agree with and support.
But a good plan can quiet the rumblings of the moderates and the average Methodist, laying bare the self-serving tendencies of the conservative megachurches just looking to escape accountability with their property, and encourage progressives to grudgingly accept evolution over revolution.
Will it happen? We don’t know. But here’s what I think will happen as we wait with bated breath.
1. The UMC will continue to discriminate
These conversations are solely about one thing: how can The United Methodist Church better discriminate against LGBTQ people? We’ve previously outlined how our Methodist history reveals what happened when the Church was confronted with unjust policies to its social groups:
- The debate over women’s ordination led to a structural solution to license women to serve an agreeable local congregation, while denying connectional authority to them. This was the case from 1924 until full clergy rights in 1956.
- The debate over African-American clergy led to a structural solution to have African-Americans serve only in the Central Jurisdiction, a non-regional jurisdiction consisting of only African-American churches and pastors. This was the case from unification in 1939 until the merger with the Evangelical United Brethren denomination in 1968.
Informed by our history, I predict some United Methodists will still be able to discriminate against LGBTQ people, either at the General Conference, Jurisdictional, Annual Conference, or Charge Conference structural level. At the very least, pastors will continue to have sole authority over marriage services—they can deny marriages to LGBTQ couples if they so wish. I personally hope that’s where the freedom to discriminate stops, and I can live in that church if it does.
The question on the table is what will be a new configuration of authority and flexibility that will allow some pockets of United Methodism to continue to discriminate against LGBTQ persons—and whether that will be palatable enough to gain conservative and moderate support (while obviously opposed by progressives who rightly oppose injustice anywhere, but we are a minority voice at this table).
2. It will be a moderate Course Correction
I was recently at a meeting where a UM Bishop relayed their belief that The United Methodist Church has no appetite for change. Our votes on LGBTQ inclusion have been in the same 55/45 range for decades. And only a couple dozen people changed their votes to approve the A Way Forward commission.
That aversion to change impacts the scope of the Bishops’ work. The Multiple Branches model floated by A Way Forward would require over 20 Constitutional Amendments that would require a higher threshold of support (2/3rds) and voting at the Annual Conference level who successfully defeated previous structural changes passed by General Conference. While there’s elements of the branches model that are intriguing, the politics and structure stand in the way of it being a viable option.
For this reason, the One Church model is more likely to be the basis for conversation because it doesn’t require Constitutional Amendments. With a low appetite for change, incremental decisions with far-reaching consequences are far more likely. What will be interesting is the constellation of the plan: what aspects does it address and how do they fit together?
I doubt the result will look like either plan. But I do think it will be more heavy on passable legislation (ie. not reliant on Constitutional Amendments, though they may be needed for some clarity) than on “fruit basket turnover” polity proposals.
3. The impetus for change will be Global, not US-only.
Ever since Christianity traveled on the trade routes through Asia, Christianity has followed economics. The global realities are moving the center of economic, cultural, and religious influence away from the West and Western-centric churches. Economics and trade are moving to the East towards China and India, and Christianity’s adherents and power struggles are increasingly coming from the Global South (Africa).
The United Methodist Church wants to be part of these economic and religious shifts as global church, not like the limited American-only denominations that many of the Seven Sisters of Protestantism became. But we can only do so if the global church sees value in remaining united with American entities that they may not be in alignment with over cultural values.
We are obligated to act now to remedy centuries of colonialism and majority rule. Since Christianity exported homophobia and persecution of LGBTQ persons to Africa, it only makes sense that we eradicate it from our United Methodist polity before it becomes enshrined in the rising power structure. By removing the language prohibiting LGBTQ persons from fully participating in the life of the church, we offer a globally connected church that cares about all human rights violations inside the church and outside in culture. It sets us against some cultural forces now, yes, but it positions us as the moral center to speak with authority against all injustices.
I can see the argument that flexibility with authority will allow the Church to be eased into full inclusion in a way that keeps us at the table as the balance shifts to the South and East away from the Western church. I lament it as MLK said “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” but I see why it could be supported by our leadership.
In short, a united Church has been derided as a lukewarm church. But if we do it right, we can have enough fuel for justice to keep up the heat on whatever the Empire is doing in whatever country it has infected. There’s always a Rebel church to support, and it needs a more just denomination to stand behind it for everyone’s sake.
I’m still standin’
I have 35 years until mandatory retirement, and I have served as a clergyperson in the UMC for 12 years. I’m invested in the church’s present and future, and I hope for a prophetic plan to transform the world. I am not blinded by dreams, but I’m informed by our history.
With my local church, I remind them that it took 30 years for women’s ordination and African-American leadership to move from incremental to full status in the UMC–and eventoday50ish years later, many congregations _still_reject women pastors and persons of color. But connectionalism has taken its toll and the vast majority of congregations now accept persons of difference as their pastors that would have been inconceivable a generation prior.
I wish for a revolutionary moment for the Church, one that captures the imagination and propels us forward through the divided culture and toxic politics. But I know evolutionary processes are more in the DNA of the people called Methodists, and we will see if nurture overcomes our nature, or if we truly do have a bold prophetic leadership that we have yearned for until this moment.
May we move forward together, better together, and leave no one sacrificed on the unjust alters of unity, for the sake of our mission to transform the world through disciples of Jesus Christ.
Thanks for reading, commenting, and sharing on social media, particularly with your Bishops at the Council this week.
This blog will have reporting and reliable commentary on the results when they are made known.
And remember: Flint still doesn’t have clean water.