Last week, we published a guest blog post outlining the reasons why those seeking LGBTQ inclusion in The United Methodist Church should “Leave” and start their own denomination. You can read it here.
This week we look at the other side of the coin: the “Remain” movement that encourages United Methodists to stay in the Church and continue to resist the unjust laws, seeking to save the sinsick denomination from itself.
Read on for a possible path forward with integrity and numerical viability.
By the numbers, hope seems dim
The 2019 General Conference and forecasted demographic changes for 2020 and beyond indicate that the General Conference majority may be irrevocably opposed to directly support LGBTQ inclusion.
In 2019, it is believed that a minority of 2019 delegates from The United States (somewhere between 25-33%) combined with nearly the totality of delegates from the African Central Conferences and some Eastern European conferences to create a 53-55% majority vote on matters before the 2019 General Conference. While we do not know how delegates voted exactly, this conclusion is supported by correlating delegations’ presumed support of the Traditional Plan with the reported voting aggregates against constitutional amendments 1 and 2 in 2017.
Continued distribution of votes in this way will mean that even if only 20% of United States delegates in 2020 oppose LGBTQ inclusion, that will be enough to combine with the conservative votes in the Central Conferences to defeat any efforts toward LGBTQ inclusion. In 2020, only 100 U.S. delegates would be needed to oppose any efforts towards LGBTQ inclusion. For reference, the Southern Jurisdictions (though not uniformly conservative) have 284 votes combined in 2020.
The math is sobering. One can see how the culturally conservative regions have reached the tipping point as far as controlling a widening majority of votes at General Conference regarding LGBTQ inclusion.
So if LGBTQ inclusion is not achievable at General Conference, if the blanket ban on partnered LGBTQ clergy and celebrations of those marriages will be indefinitely upheld, what hope is there for progressives in The United Methodist Church?
In the secular world of public policy, when something threatens people’s lives and stopping it is almost impossible, public policy shifts from eradication of harm to reduction of harm.
- Seat belts do not stop auto accidents from claiming lives, but requiring their use does reduce the rates of fatalities from auto accidents.
- Filters on cigarettes do not stop cancer, but requiring their use does reduce the rate of carcinogens being inhaled.
- Condoms do not stop all sexually-transmitted diseases but encouraging their use does reduce the transmission rate of some, leading to more chances for people to make better choices.
- Safe injection sites do not stop people from using opioids, but encouraging their use does reduce the harm from dirty needles and overdoses, leading to more chances to come clean.
In all these cases of public health emergencies, the efforts towards harm reduction have saved lives and enabled people to live longer so that they can better overcome their affliction later in life.
Likewise, Homophobia is an epidemic in The United Methodist Church that drives people to suicide and death, and renders teens homeless. While the ideal is to stop people from using this harmful theology and to vote it out of our polity, the math in the previous section turns this spiritual health emergency into a somewhat unwinnable scenario.
While much of the rhetoric is that we must Exit, the following essay shows that those who seek to Remain can shift their strategy effectively to harm reduction. Resistance to the Traditional Plan’s promulgation and further institutionalization of homophobia can take the form of safe harbor conferences and jurisdictions, which are able to band together to nullify the most egregious aspects of United Methodist polity.
Meet Enhanced Accountability With Enhanced Biblical Obedience
In our present situation, while advocates for LGBTQ inclusion do not appear likely to have a voting majority again, our greatest point of leverage is the disruption and devastation that would be caused by an open and widespread revolt in The United Methodist Church. Pastors, churches, conferences, and jurisdictions have been declaring they will not abide by the current disciplinary restrictions. While many letters seem to be in the “separate” milieu, there’s tremendous value in sustaining the open revolt as part of a “remain” campaign.
Turning open letters into actual practices would require the actions of more than just our LGBTQ siblings and their closest allies to be effective. It would take all of us.
If enough of United Methodism created sufficient tension, the financial and public image concerns by those who care about the Institution could merit either a more equitable governance structure (such as a US Central Conference) or more lenient exit ramps for local churches and annual conferences to create a new form of Methodism. For example, if the western and northern jurisdictions pledged together, instantly 2.5 million United Methodists would live into Methodism without the Traditional Plan.
The implications for persons, churches, and connectional entities would vary widely, and it is uncertain the degree to which they could or would be punished for their activities. Some inclusive Methodists will find themselves trapped in traditionalist strongholds and vice versa. We will see clergy kicked out of their appointments and parsonages, church doors possibly chained shut, and incalculable harm
Widespread acts of biblical obedience would need to be taken to the next level by securing written commitments by episcopal leadership to not enforce disciplinary prohibitions and provisions against LGBTQ inclusion. Where such commitments could be secured outside safe zones like the West by bishops equally troubled to find themselves in Traditionalist denomination, they should be. This would provide the necessary pressure to continue the 2012 campaign of biblical obedience inaugurated by retired Western Jurisdiction Bishop Melvin Talbert.
But wouldn’t this effort be a flash in a pan? Surely 2020 would be able to further legislate harm, right? Well, no. It turns out that the Discipline has two safeguards built in, and they are currently beyond the power even of the current majority perspective to remove.
The 2/3 Majority Protection Against Global LGBTQ Exclusion
What the traditionalist majority at General Conference does not have is the ability to change the Constitution. A 67% threshold is out of reach of any majority or minority perspective at the moment, and even with demographic shifts, it will be protected for at least the next 12-20 years.
What that means is that advocates for LGBTQ inclusion are able to maintain the following bulwarks found in the Constitution against the rising tide of institutionalized homophobia for years to come.
- The Constitution protects the boundaries and powers of Jurisdictions. Regions control their own accountability structures and processes, and no matter how much the Traditional Plan tightens its grip, the more jurisdictions will slip through its fingers.
- For our episcopal leaders, to actively resist unjust laws comes with a price of complaints against their leadership. Typically, such complaints are handled by Jurisdictional structures, but one of the 2017 constitutional amendments allows the full Council of Bishops to overrule disciplinary proceedings against bishops by the colleges by a 2/3 vote. But the math is still on the progressive’s side as northern and western episcopal leaders can combine their “no” votes to prevent a 2/3 majority of the Council of Bishops from overruling their regional colleges of bishops.
Solidarity with one another will keep Wesleyan Accountability in the jurisdictions where they have resided since The UMC’s creation. It will take a long time for the Traditionalists to obtain a 2/3 majority in The United Methodist Church to violate this core principle. This means that the safe harbor jurisdictions are free to practice Methodism without the Traditional Plan for many years still to come. Who knows what changes might be wrought in the future that a quick exit would deny us the chance to grasp?
The outrage on the Traditionalist side has threatened to tear them apart because The United Methodist Church cannot ascribe top-down accountability that is not Wesleyan. By outlasting their patience, we can form a better future together…or apart.
But it comes with a cost, and not just to our LGBTQ siblings who continue to serve and live in an unjust church. While such a widespread action would allow the western and northern jurisdictions to nullify the Traditional Plan in their regions, it is unfortunate that there is currently no way to reduce harm to LGBTQ-inclusive churches and pastors in the southern jurisdictions and central conferences. Such churches would continue to be vulnerable until changes could be made at the 2020 General Conference. The only resolution that makes sense is for our Council of Bishops to pledge a moratorium on prosecution of LGBTQ inclusion until 2021.
It’s also unfortunate that the Resistance strategy depends on the Bishops and those that surround them. The Bishops have failed us many times. One could easily claim that their decision to not make the hard leadership choice in Chicago to send only one plan was the death knell of General Conference 2019. Because they refused to choose, the denomination was left unprotected against the spiritual emergency of homophobia and fear.
A previous writer on this blog referred to The UMC as Humpty Dumpty, stating “all the King’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again.” It struck me that our solution to our brokenness is not from the top-down (“the king’s men”) but from the bottom up. If we pledge as various regions, leaders, Cabinets, Pastors who would serve on trial courts, laity who give to local congregations, and all of us banded together to reduce harm, carve out named untouchable jurisdictions, and find ways to support inclusive churches in risky ministry contexts in 2020.
Endgame: Is It Worth It?
All of this will work only if you believe that United Methodism is worth
inan Age that celebrates the crumbling of institutions that our institutions of hospitals, seminaries, mission outposts, and over 35,000 churches are valuable.
- That cutting in thirds the largest American denomination that ordains women would be a step backward for half the sky.
- That reducing the mega-effective United Methodist Women’s ministries and circles would be devastating to our missional nature.
- That defunding the ethnic ministry and outreach efforts would be a step backward.
- That ceasing the church tithe (apportionment) to create shared mission goals, doing more together than we could apart, would be devastating to our worldwide church and our local ones.
- That walking away from a denomination where 47% could see a shared future together with LGBTQ inclusion…that might be too close and too many people to walk away from.
Then Remain. Outlast. Until this horror show is past.
My purpose in writing this article is to show that both Remain and Exit are legitimate positions for United Methodists to hold at this time. That we are not all in one camp, as this blogger himself waffles between them. Hacking Christianity will continue to be a resource for both paths as we discern our future together…or apart.
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Author’s Note: Some sections originally appeared in a jointly-crafted whitepaper presented to the Western Jurisdiction Leadership Team meeting in March 2019.