The 2018 breakup of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (“Mormons” or “LDS Church”) with the Boy Scouts of America (“Scouts USA”) ends a 100-year relationship and serves as an example of two faith-based American institutions reaching the breaking point of irreconcilable differences.
Is this breakup a portent for the United Methodist Church in 2019?
The Straw and the Camel’s Back
Noah Feldman, writing about the LDS Church/Scouts USA breakup for Bloomberg on May 13th 2018, notes that relationships between any two institutions persist only “when both sides have more to gain than to lose by staying together.”
By May 2018, the LDS Church decided they had gained enough from Scouts USA:
- The LDS Church embraced Scouting 100 years ago when they were yearning for legitimacy and recognition beyond their safe state of Utah. Today they believe they have met that need, having celebrated the “Mormon Moment” of Mitt Romney’s Republican nomination for President in 2012.
- The Scouts, facing obstacles to cultural acceptance due to some of their restrictive rules, chose to embrace LGBTQ and gender equality—even if they stood to lose the LDS Church which constitutes 1/5th of their membership.
While the above is between two separate organizations, a fascinating parallel can be made to the current struggles within The United Methodist Church. United Methodism’s “Big Tent” has persisted over the decades, allowing the largest gender-inclusive denomination in Christendom to proclaim Christ, promote social policies, and embrace massive projects (UMCOR and Imagine No Malaria come to mind) on a large scale.
However, the cultural changes over the past few decades that drove a wedge between the Scouts and the LDS Church have had a strikingly similar effect on the two warring factions of The United Methodist Church.
Mormons and Traditionalists
The “traditionalist” wing of The United Methodist Church has a lot in common with the Mormons. Both are dominated by socially conservative leadership, and both hold very tightly to traditional understandings of gender and identity that are untouched by society’s movements toward equality and inclusion (though many United Methodist traditionalists support women clergy, whereas women cannot serve in the priesthood in the LDS church).
When Scouts USA became more inclusive of gender and sexual orientation, the LDS church chose to remove thousands of boys from the troops rather than move away from their traditional stances. Likewise, Traditionalist perspectives oppose any changes that relax or relativize United Methodist opposition to LGBTQ inclusion. While many Traditionalists have come around on inclusion of women since 1956, they have refused any changes on LGBTQ inclusion since 1972.
Both the LDS Church and the traditionalist wing of United Methodism, in the words of the musical Oklahoma, have “gone about as far as they can go” and don’t believe in being more inclusive than they currently are.
Scouts and Middle Methodists
Since winning a Supreme Court case to be able to exclude gay scoutmasters in 2000, the Scouting program has reversed course and increasingly chosen to be more in harmony with cultural acceptance of women and LGBTQ persons. While Scouts USA falls far short of the equity and justice drive of the Girl Scouts of America, it is a significant cultural shift in only the past ten years.
Likewise, the middle Methodists (often moderate-to-progressive) have taken steps to be more inclusive in recent years. While the progressives have taken the lead through biblical obedience (officiating weddings for LGBTQ persons) and Board of Ordained Ministry inclusion efforts, moderates have come out in force as more and more Methodists have openly LGBTQ family members or friends.
Both Scouts and middle Methodists have suffered numerical losses in recent years, the former perhaps because of society’s shift away from institutions, and the latter perhaps because of a disconnect between local expressions and global standards–it’s hard to be inclusive and accepting of LGBTQ persons in a progressive local church when your global polity is explicitly not.
The Scouts USA controversy reveals that the cost of deciding to be inclusive on institutions that have a large section of their membership that doesn’t desire to be inclusive. Such a decision weighs heavily on middle Methodists as, leading up to GC 2019, they see growing potential for division.
As Go the Mormons…
The LDS Church and the Scouts USA tried, they really did. And in their struggles, there are some parallels to United Methodism as well.
- The Scouting plan of allowing de facto local control (each scouting region selects their own leadership, so a heavily LDS church region would not likely elect a gay scoutmaster) has strong parallels to the One Church Plan (“OCP”) supported by middle Methodists, which also allows for regional autonomy on church leadership. Just as the Scouting plan failed to persuade LDS leaders, the OCP may not persuade traditionalists who prefer hegemonic exclusion to a unity in diversity approach.
- The LDS Church preference (continued exclusion of LGBTQ persons and women) has a strong parallel to the Traditionalist Plan, which also continues the exclusion of LGBTQ persons in the full life of the church and increases the enforcement against those who seek it (including the first-ever punishments of entire annual conferences, not just individuals). Such action risks the Church, in Noah Feldman’s words in Bloomberg, “relegating itself to a slow process of becoming a cultural backwater,” though that is worn like a badge of honor by some.
We will only know in February 2019 whether the Methodists will follow the Mormons in their footsteps.
…May Not Go The Methodists?
In closing, Noah Feldman’s (Bloomberg) writeup of the Mormon-Scouts USA breakup said their relationship used to work because it was a “federalism” between two private organizations:
“federal solutions work when both sides have more to gain than to lose by staying together, and when both sides display the creative capacity to reimagine what it means to belong and share values”
For two voluntary organizations side by side (LDS church and Scouts USA), they reached a point where their imagination ran out on how to be together. While Scouts USA imagined “what if boys and girls were a part of an egalitarian scouting program together?”, the LDS Church had drawn a line in the sand and refused to budge.
For United Methodists, the Commission on A Way Forward and the Council of Bishops were charged to reimagine what it meant to belong together, and to recreate a federal solution exhibiting how much more we have to gain from living together. Both of the proposals written by the Commission exhibit that creativity: The One Church Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan, while flawed, are both creative reimaginations of how to live together. On the other hand, the Traditionalist Plan (written by a small group of bishops) imagines a future where Middle Methodists and Progressives are relegated to affiliated conferences, without a voice or vote in United Methodism going forward.
So it is up to the General Conference 2019 delegates:
- Will they embrace the Traditionalist Plan, essentially the LDS Church’s plan that rejection of LGBTQ persons is worth the expulsion of entire regions of the church?
- Or will they embrace the One Church Plan, ala the Scouts USA hope that regional differences can still come together in an effective unity?
We will know at the end of February 2019 whether the Methodist tradition of a creative, tenacious unity for the sake of mission lives on, or whether cultural forces have rendered it asunder.
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