Play the religion-beat game: Trying to parse United Methodist Church's options for future

During my decades on the religion beat, it's safe to say that I have met very few preachers -- people whose work requires solid pulpit skills -- who were lousy when it came time to crafting one-liners and soundbites.

If you want good quotes, preachers are safe bets.

However, the leaders of major religious organizations -- like denominations -- are another matter. They tend to be hyper-cautious leaders of complex coalitions and they often hide their views in clouds of theological fog.

I remember a U.S. Catholic Bishops meeting long ago in which the men in black were debating the moral status of nuclear weapons and the strategic concept of deterrence. At one point, they released a draft document that was so unquotable that it could have been written in Latin. In a press conference, I asked a panel of bishops if their goal was to "launch a preemptive strike on American headline writers" -- preventing coverage.

The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin offered this oh-so-quotable response: "Yes."

This brings me (a) to this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), (b) my column this week for the Universal syndicate and (c) the latest strategic moves in the long, long, long war inside the United Methodist Church about biblical authority, marriage and sex.

The global UMC is less than a year away from a special General Conference that is supposed to make history. The goal is to approve a plan for church life in the post-Sexual Revolution world. Think of it this way: In terms of property laws, church agencies and pensions, they are trying to keep the "united" in United Methodism. Doctrine? Keep reading.

The bishops recently produced a press release that described two models that are under consideration. Pretend that you are a religion-beat professional who needs to parse this, as part of a religion-news game:

The One Church Model gives churches the room they need to maximize the presence of United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible. The One Church Model provides a generous unity that gives conferences, churches, and pastors the flexibility to uniquely reach their missional context in relation to human sexuality without changing the connectional nature of The United Methodist Church.
This model is grounded in a unified core that includes shared doctrine and services and one Council of Bishops, while also creating different branches that have clearly defined values such as accountability, contextualization and justice. The five U.S. jurisdictions would be replaced by three connectional conferences, each covering the whole country, based on theology and perspective on LGBTQ ministry (i.e. progressive, contextual, traditional branches). Annual conferences would decide which connectional conference to affiliate with; only local churches who choose a branch other than the one chosen by their annual conference would vote to join another conference.

Meanwhile, some UMC leaders say that another model remains on the table, one that leaves key parts of the denomination's current doctrines and Book of Discipline in place. It would affirm that marriage is between a husband and a wife, while also refusing to approve the ordination of noncelibate gays and lesbians.

It's pretty hard to find the soundbites, right? How would you sum that up, in language people in the pews could understand?

Here's a 2017 summary of the evolving models, care the church's official news service:

* Affirm the current Book of Discipline language and place a high value on accountability. The church policy book says the practice of homosexuality “is incompatible with Christian teaching” and lists officiating at a same-gender union or being a “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy member as chargeable offenses under church law.
* Remove restrictive language and place a high value on contextualization. This sketch also specifically protects the rights of those whose conscience will not allow them to perform same-gender weddings or ordain LGBTQ persons.
* Create multiple branches that have clearly defined values such as accountability, contextualization and justice. This model would maintain shared doctrine and services and one Council of Bishops.

Say what? That first one is pretty clear, but look at the second and third models and compare them with the press-release language from the bishops.

This raised all kinds of questions for me. You can see that in my column's take on the two primary plans described by the bishops. Here is a big chunk of that:

A recent statement from the United Methodist bishops noted that two -- maybe three -- plans are being considered.
The first is a “one-church model” allowing each of the 56 regional “annual conferences” in the United States -- there are another 75 annual conferences in Africa and overseas -- to make their own doctrinal decisions about same-sex marriages and the ordination of noncelibate LGBTQ clergy. Local congregations could decide how to handle these questions, as well.
This would, in effect, formalize the “local option” reality that has existed for decades, with many clergy in progressive regions rejecting the UMC Book Of Discipline requirement that clergy maintain “fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness.” Also, the global church has rejected same-sex marriage rites.
A second plan, said the bishops, would be a “multi-branch” model creating three parallel UMC conferences, each “covering the whole country, based on theology and perspective on LGBTQ ministry -- progressive, contextual and traditional branches.”
The bottom line: There would be liberal and traditional conferences, with a “local option” conference in the middle. Conferences in other parts of the world would get to choose, as well. This raises all kinds of questions about how bishops, clergy and congregations relate to one another at the local level. And what about church agencies, seminaries and budgets?
The bishops claimed that, under this “multi-branch” model, United Methodists would “share doctrine, services and one Council of Bishops” -- while somehow agreeing to disagree on doctrines and rites linked to marriage and ordination.

Oh yeah. And it has been confirmed that some people want a plan that affirms the traditional doctrines that the church -- in regular General Conferences -- has affirmed several times.

But the key in options No. 1 and 2 is that the bishops appear ready to proceed with a doctrinal approach similar to the "local option" reality that has, since the early 1980s, been tearing the church apart -- infuriating candid believers on both the theological left and right.

So what's going on? What's the point of this press strategy by the bishops? What's ahead, in terms of this important debate inside the largest of the "Seven Sisters" of oldline Protestantism?

Click here and you'll hear my take on that. Enjoy the podcast.

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