Next big news story: After 40 years of war, is United Methodist establishment ready to bargain?

The late Lyle E. Schaller was always popular with journalists because he had the rare ability to dig deep into statistics and demographics, while speaking in direct-quote friendly language. But it was always hard to know what to call him. He was an expert on church-growth trends. But he was also a United Methodist. Wait for it.

Schaller used to laugh whenever he was called a “United Methodist church-growth expert,” in part because of that flock’s serious decline in membership over the past quarter-century or more. If he was a church-growth pro, why didn’t his own denomination listen to him? It was something like being an expert on Baptist liturgy, Episcopal evangelism or Eastern Orthodox praise bands.

But when Schaller talked about the future, lots of people listened. Check out this material from a column I wrote about him entitled, “United Methodists: Breaking up is hard to do.

One side is convinced the United Methodist Church has cancer. The other disagrees and rejects calls for surgery. It's hard to find a safe, happy compromise when the issue is a cancer diagnosis. …

So it raised eyebrows when United Methodism's best-known expert on church growth and decay called for open discussions of strategies to split or radically restructure the national church. Research indicates that United Methodists are increasingly polarized around issues of scripture, salvation, sexuality, money, politics, multiculturalism, church government, worship and even the identity of God, said the Rev. Lyle E. Schaller of Naperville, Ill.

Many people are in denial, while their … church continues to age and decline, he said, in the Circuit Rider magazine for United Methodist clergy. Others know what's happening, yet remain passive.

Sports fans, That. Was. In. 1998.

Schaller told me that he was basing his diagnosis on the open doctrinal warfare that began two decades earlier, in the late 1970s. He was very familiar with a prophetic study that emerged from Duke Divinity School in the mid-1980s, entitled “The Seven Churches of Methodism."

Do I need to say that Schaller’s words are highly relevant in light of the acid-bath drama in yesterday’s final hours at that special United Methodist conference in St. Louis (GetReligion posts here and then here)?

But this is old news, really. Activists on both sides of this struggle have been doing the math (see my 2004 column on that topic) for four decades.

A year ago, I thought this prayer for the St. Louis gathering — offered by Boston-area Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar — was especially candid, in terms of views on the doctrinal left.

"God help us! Help us … to take the next faithful step forward not based on doctrine, tradition or theology; judgments, fears or convictions; notions of who are the righteous and unrighteous," wrote Devadhar (.pdf). "God help us! Help us … to take the next small faithful step forward that is neither … right or wrong; good or bad; for or against; left or right; pro or con."

No “doctrine, tradition or theology”?

So where does the story go now? I am talking about “the story” for journalists, as well as UMC activists. At the end of yesterday’s emotional bloodshed, I tweeted this out:

It was crucial, going into St. Louis, that the traditionalist camp was ready to talk about exit plans that would allow churches on left and right to go their own separate ways, hanging onto their buildings and most of their assets. I was convinced that the only real question in St. Louis was whether something would happen that would force the UMC’s left-of-center establishment — think bishops and the judicial authorities — and the openly liberal LGBTQ activists to come to the bargaining table and face the future that Schaller predicted decades ago.

I remain shocked — in light of UMC vote totals on sexuality issues for a decade or so — that many reporters were surprised that the Traditional Plan won the day, in terms on the St. Louis vote. The real story was how the UMC empire (think courts and denominational agencies) would strike back against the results. Would the establishment fight on?

Note the opening of the fresh feature at The Atlantic:

The United Methodist Church has fractured over the role of LGBTQ people in the denomination. At a special conference in St. Louis this week, convened specifically to address divisions over LGBTQ issues, members voted to toughen prohibitions on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy. This was a surprise: The denomination’s bishops, its top clergy, pushed hard for a resolution that would have allowed local congregations, conferences, and clergy to make their own choices about conducting same-sex marriages and ordaining LGBTQ pastors. This proposal, called the “One Church Plan,” was designed to keep the denomination together. Methodist delegates rejected its recommendations, instead choosing the so-called Traditional Plan, which affirmed the denomination’s teachings against homosexuality.

This is a consequential vote for the future of the United Methodist Church: Many progressive churches will now almost certainly consider leaving the denomination.

Actually, a victory for the One Church Plan would have led to a different splintering, with many small-o orthodox churches — in America and especially overseas — hitting the exits (especially if the establishment offered a gracious exit plan). After all, the One Church Plan would have made the denomination’s teachings on marriage and sex optional at the local and regional levels. The fighting would, literally, have been outsourced to local pews.

It is true that some liberals will now consider leaving. See this important statement from the denomination’s liberal Western Jurisdiction:

“We have long appreciated the richness of the global diversity of our United Methodist Church and have embraced opportunities to join with you all in the work of making disciples for the transformation of the world.

"We also understand the purpose of the Church to be in mission and ministry. Consequently, we in the West have been functioning for years as One Church committed to full inclusion, seeking to be a home for all God’s people.

"Today we acknowledge the fracture of this body, yet we worship a God who tells us that the body of Christ has many parts, all equally valued. Rooted in Wesleyan tradition, grounded in Scripture and committed to mission and ministry, the Western Jurisdiction intends to continue to be one church, fully inclusive and open to all God’s children, across the theological and social spectrum.

"We know from experience we are stronger when we live together as progressives, traditionalists and centrists in our Church. Many times during this Conference we have sung or prayed or blessed each other with the reminder that we need each other.

I cannot see the UMC establishment letting the Traditional Plan go into effect. The question is whether the voting trends seen, again, in St. Louis force the left to the bargaining table.

So how did the press do yesterday, covering both sides of this emotional story? It’s almost funny to ask that. I mean, see the CBS report at the top of this post — Westboro Baptist on one side and a pro-LGBTQ voice on the other.

The Times article actually contained a few interesting pieces of information, even if the entire story should have been framed draped in black signalling mourning. Note the double message here:

… The nation is becoming increasingly less Christian, and the share of religiously unaffiliated Americans is growing. As mainline denominations that embrace gay rights continue to decline in membership, conservative Christian institutions are growing in power and financial resources.

Why the declines on the religious left? Isn’t that doctrinal approach on the correct side of history? That’s a valid story angle to chase. Note this, as well:

Some congregations have celebrated same-sex weddings and had gay, lesbian and transgender pastors, at times receiving church approval to do so even though it technically violated church policy. Punishment of those who violated the rules has been uneven, and church trials for the few who were sanctioned have been unpopular.

Ah, why the inconsistent enforcement of the UMC’s own doctrines? That’s the old “Seven Churches of United Methodism” thing again.

Now, read between the lines of this Times puzzle:

What happens next hinges on questions that are not just theological, but financial. For entire congregations to leave, they would most likely need to reach settlement agreements related to the potential transfer of church property, and liabilities related to the church’s $23 billion pension fund.

Major seminaries at universities like Emory and Duke, which have supported their gay, lesbian, and transgender students, risk losing grants and funding from more influential, and conservative, churches.

Think of it this way: Does the left need offering-plate dollars from right more than the right needs the services of the left-leaning UMC schools, seminaries and agencies? Follow the money. There could be stories there.

I stayed on Twitter most of yesterday afternoon and into the early evening, trying to spot themes I have followed during my 30-plus years covering this story.

Where does this story go next? I’ll end with this sampling of my tweets during the fray — trying to point to factual hooks worthy of coverage in the mainstream press. Here we go.

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