It's one of the most familiar mantras in American journalism: "Follow the money." This is, of course, a cynical way to look at life on the religion beat, since many idealistic believers have been known to take doctrinal stands that clash with their own self interests.
However, things are different when you are covering the actions of big ecclesiastical fortresses -- like the United Methodist Church. This is especially true when reality begins to threaten the "way things are done around here" and the foundations of the fortress start moving.
Now, with the money mantra in mind, let's look at the "first the right said this," and then "the left said this" opening of a new Religion News Service feature about the denominational chess game that's being played ahead of a special General Conference slated for Feb. 23-26, 2019, in St. Louis. This historic showdown is supposed to bring some form of peace after decades of doctrinal debates about marriage, ordination and sexuality. Here we go:
(RNS) -- United Methodist Church activists who sharply disagree about whether to ordain LGBT clergy or officiate same-sex marriages do agree on one point: A plan recommended by the Council of Bishops isn’t satisfying to either side.
Socially conservative evangelicals say the plan, which aims to avert schism in the 12 million-member denomination, goes too far by permitting individual pastors and regional bodies to make their own decisions on whether to perform same-sex weddings and ordain LGBT people as clergy. ...
Meanwhile progressives aren’t happy either. Reconciling Ministries Network and the United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus, two groups committed to the full inclusion of LGBT people in the United Methodist Church, also expressed concerns that none of the three plans included in the bishops’ report would affirm ordination and marriage for all the denominations’ LGBT members.
In other words, there is no plan that clearly upholds 2,000 years of Christian doctrine on marriage and sex, but there is no plan that clearly overthrows small-o "orthodox" church tradition, either. Orthodoxy would be optional, and we all know what that means.
But, once again: Follow the money. My question for journalists to ponder is this: Does the cautious, entrenched progressive United Methodist establishment here in America (think denominational bureaucrats and seminary professors with tenure), actually want to hand the courageous doctrinal left a clear victory? What might that win lead to, in terms of membership numbers and denominational finances?
The church's bishops have recommended the approval of one of two plans, both of which attempt to cut in half the ecclesiastical baby. Both would keep dollars flowing into the coffers from the growing segments of the church in America and overseas, which are traditional on matters of moral theology, while also allowing bishops and pastors in liberal zip codes to preach modernized doctrines on marriage and sex.
In the RNS feature, this compromise sounds like this:
The One Church Plan ... would remove the controversial language about human sexuality from the Book of Discipline, according to the council. The denomination’s rulebook, the Book of Discipline, states that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” cannot be ordained as ministers, appointed to serve or married in the church.
It also would safeguard pastors and conferences unwilling to perform same-sex weddings or ordain LGBT people because of their theological convictions. The plan marks an attempt to plot a path that can hold together a diverse international denomination that includes more than 5 million abroad, where sexuality norms can diverge sharply from those in the United States.
This used to be called "local option" and it is, in practical terms, how the UMC has been functioning for decades. Another version of this plan would actually set up three parallel national UMC structures -- progressive, "contextual" and traditional branches -- based on competing visions of moral theology. Churches and clergy would be able to pick the theological flavor that fits their convictions, or, in the middle, willingness to compromise.
Now, let's think about the money, again.
If the special conference affirmed Orthodoxy again, once and for all, that would cause some idealistic liberal Methodists to leave the denomination. There might even be a window of opportunity for unity between liberal United Methodists and the victorious liberals in the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
This option would have some financial impact, but anyone who knows UMC life knows that the liberal annual conferences are the ones that are shrinking. What's the financial fallout? Moderate to significant.
If the special conference affirmed a plan that applied liberal doctrine to the whole church -- a clear win for the candid left -- that would almost certainly cause a very different schism, infuriating the doctrinal conservatives in the growing churches of the Global South and the American Bible Belt. The potential financial fallout? Catastrophic.
So go back to that RNS story and read the top third of it again. What 2019 outcome is not discussed?
Follow the money.
What does the cautious left in the UMC's establishment need? It needs (a) progressives to be able to proceed with LGBTQ-friendly church life without being punished, while (b) as many doctrinal conservatives as possible are kept, waiting, in pews while writing checks that sustain the national church, thus (c) allowing the clock to keep ticking, while the left wins photo-op media victories and a small number of evangelicals hit the exits.
The bottom line for journalists: A clear win for either side is unlikely. It is also unlikely that the Global South will accept one of the "local option" plans.
So who wins? The most likely outcome is the one that makes the most financial sense for the people in the denominational offices. That's an unofficial win for the optional-orthodox denominational establishment. Anything that keeps the clock ticking, with business as usual.