Big United Methodist questions: Has left embraced 'exit' plans? Do 'coexist' clauses work? (updated)

Reporters who have followed decades of fighting inside mainline Protestant churches over marriage and sex will remember that doctrinal conservatives have always been promised that they will be able to continue to believe and practice their church’s old doctrines at their own altars.

In practice, that can be summed up as two beliefs that go back to the early church and scripture: Marriage is the union of a man and a women and sex outside of marriage is sin. Both doctrines affect who can be ordained as clergy.

These promises usually took the form of "conscience clauses,” such as those given long ago to reassure Episcopalians who opposed the ordination of women to the priesthood.

Over time, these clauses have a way of being erased — a trend that is highly relevant to debates currently taking place among United Methodists at a special national conference in St. Louis. (Click here for the Bobby Ross, Jr., post on coverage of yesterday’s actions.)

Two of the plans to shape the future of America’s second-largest Protestant flock promised, to one degree or another, to allow believers on both sides of the marriage and sex divide to be able to coexist — protected by structures to protect their doctrinal convictions. A crucial aspect of these debates is that the doctrinal conservatives (who want to retain current United Methodist doctrines) are arguing:

(a) That these “conscience clause” structures will not work over the long haul, in part because the church’s bishops have already endorsed allowing doctrinal progressives to carry on with same-sex marriages and other LGBTQ changes, such as the ordination of women and men who are sexually active in same-sex relationships or other unions short of traditional marriage.

(b) Passing “agree to disagree” doctrinal plans of this kind can be linked to the demographic disasters that are shrinking liberal Protestantism, in general. (The left, of course, argues that doctrinal innovations are required to reach out to young people in a changing America.)

Reporters who are not covering these two themes in the debates are not, well, covering the debates.

This leads me to the top of the current Associated Press report — “United Methodist Church on edge of breakup over LGBT stand” — about the St. Louis meetings. Here is the overture.

ST. LOUIS (AP) — The United Methodist Church teetered on the brink of breakup Monday after more than half the delegates at an international conference voted to maintain bans on same-sex weddings and ordination of gay clergy.

Their favored plan, if formally approved, could drive supporters of LGBT inclusion to leave America’s second-largest Protestant denomination.

A final vote on rival plans for the church’s future won’t come until Tuesday’s closing session, and the outcome remains uncertain. But the preliminary vote Monday showed that the Traditional Plan, which calls for keeping the LGBT bans and enforcing them more strictly, had the support of 56 percent of the more than 800 delegates attending the three-day conference in St. Louis.

The primary alternative proposal, called the One Church Plan, was rebuffed in a separate preliminary vote, getting only 47 percent support. Backed by a majority of the church’s Council of Bishops in hopes of avoiding a schism, it would leave decisions about same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT clergy up to regional bodies and would remove language from the church’s law book asserting that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Notice, of course, that the story is framed — beginning to end — in terms of LGBTQ rights, as opposed to this denomination’s existing doctrines, which have been reaffirmed over and over in previous meetings.

This is to be expected, since LGBTQ rights are a hot-button political topic (although doctrines are involved, of course, for believers on the left) and the doctrines contained in the denomination’s Book of Discipline are, well, just religion stuff. Politics are real. Religion? Not so much.

Note that the early win by the conservatives threatens to drive “supporters of LGBT inclusion” out of the church — by defending the church’s current doctrines.

If the left had won, that would have been a victory for church unity and progress, even though it would have pushed thousands of United Methodists out of the denomination (because of their opposition to removing key doctrines from that “law book,” to use the AP’s ungraceful term. The word “doctrine” does not appear in the AP report.

After following these events closely on Twitter for five or six hours yesterday (it appears more doctrinal conservatives are at #UMCGC2019 and liberals are at #UMCGC), I have several questions that reporters need to ask today and in follow-up coverage:

* Conservatives have backed “exit plans” allowing liberals to keep their buildings and other properties as they leave the denomination. Reporters must ask: Have leaders on the left now agreed to exit plans offering the same rights to conservatives? Ask about the future status of seminaries, in particular.

* In the American context (as opposed to the denomination’s rapid growth in Africa and overseas), where is the UMC in rapid decline? How do these statistical trends align with voting patterns in St. Louis? The bottom line: Does the left need the offering dollars of the right, thus placing a heavy emphasis on trying to maintain STRUCTURAL (as opposed to doctrinal) unity at this time?

* Is it safe to say that the doctrinal left’s leaders have assumed that they can count on being rescued by their denomination’s bishops (who endorsed that One Church Plan, a coexist option) and by its judicial branch (which has consistently rejected efforts to enforce church doctrines)?

* What happens if the liberal establishment manages to declare the Traditional Plan unconstitutional, after it passes at this special conference? Will the fight just go on and on, even as the more conservative churches overseas continue to grow and gain power in “national” conference votes?

The bottom line: Was the St. Louis conference meaningless, unless it voted to allow the doctrinal innovations sought by the left?

In conclusion, let me return to the subject of the track record of “conscience” clauses in other mainline denominations.

Recently, The Tennessean offered an update on that subject, in the context of the Episcopal Church. Spot any common language in this? The overture:

Episcopalians advocating for marriage equality say the bishop for the Tennessee diocese is five weeks late on issuing guidelines for same-sex church weddings.

They mailed letters … to Tennessee Bishop John Bauerschmidt and the Episcopal Church's presiding bishop, the Most Rev. Michael Curry, taking issue with the delay and calling on Bauerschmidt to act.

"We are gravely concerned that the decision of the General Convention allowing for same-sex marriage rites to be made available to all members of the church has yet to be implemented in the Diocese of Tennessee," the Jan. 7 letter addressed to Bauerschmidt states. …

Now, why is Bauerschmidt resisting?

Well, he thought that — as bishop, under long-standing church traditions and doctrines — he was in charge of worship and sacraments in his own diocese. It is, after all, called the Episcopal Church. And doctrinal conservatives had been handed “conscience” çlauses protecting their rights and beliefs. Remember? But things have changed:

In July, the General Convention, the Episcopal Church's governing body, removed restrictions on same-sex weddings, making it so couples can marry in their home churches. The new measure, known as Resolution B012, went into effect in early December.

At the time, the General Convention, acknowledging the differing views on marriage in the denomination, left it up to each bishop to decide whether clergy could officiate same-sex church weddings in their geographical regions of the Episcopal Church. Ninety-three bishops permitted the weddings, but eight, including Bauerschmidt, did not. 

This summer the General Convention passed Resolution B012, which essentially overruled those local decisions and gave same-sex couples the opportunity to wed where they worship. 

In other words, this diocesan bishop is no longer the leader of this diocese on these sacramental and doctrinal issues. He is no longer a bishop, really.

Thus, I offer a suggestion to reporters working in St. Louis today: Ask leaders on the United Methodist right if they are following events linked to “conscience” clause promises in the Episcopal Church and other mainline bodies who have proceeded down this path in recent years.

Just ask. I think the answers will be interesting and highly relevant to the voting patterns.

UPDATED: As I have predicted all along, the judicial branch of United Methodist establishment ruled the Traditional Plan unconstitutional. Headline: The Empire Strikes Back.

Then, the conference voted down the One Church Plan, which was brought up in a minority report after it failed yesterday. The growing global church outvoted the declining sectors of the mainline American flock.

As I have said for several years now, the only real question here is whether the United Methodist establishment will fight on and on, even as its votes decline. Establishment could even adopt a Gen. Sherman burns everything plan like the Episcopal Church, spending millions in an attempt to hang on to church properties and assets controlled by conservatives.

The only question, the question reporters have to ask: What will it take for the establishment left to join the right in accepting a charitable, sane set of exit plans for believers and congregations on both sides of this war? Can that be done in St. Louis or do United Methodists have to go through this all over again at general conference after general conference? The growing parts of the international church will only gain votes and no one seriously expects the shrinking — for decades — liberal UMC regions to suddenly explode with growth.

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