United Methodist Church strategists have been sweating out how to maneuver since last February’s special General Conference voted by 53 percent to reinforce traditional doctrines that bar same-sex weddings and actively gay clergy. Ongoing resistance to that from liberal bishops, agency officials, educators, pastors and congregations appears to make it inevitable that the existing disagreement will be formalized in a big breakup.
But what, when and how?
Religion writers will want to focus on proposed legislation on this for next year’s General Conference (May 5–15 in Minneapolis), due to be filed by a September 18 deadline. Three notable drafts, which may be polished further before submission, are thus far in the mix:
On July 8, Bishops David Bard of Lansing, Michigan, and Scott Jones of Houston, Texas, offered “A New Form of Unity.”
On August 8, a dozen key figures representing traditionalist, liberal and “centrist” views joined to issue the “Indianapolis Plan.”
On August 19, the less detailed “UMCNext Proposal” was issued by an alliance of UMC caucuses that want a change to full LGBTQ inclusion.
All three schemes envision the simplest possible path to schism without the hassle of rewriting the UMC constitution, and fairly soon, though timelines vary. You’ll want to compare the final texts with help from UMC analysts, but looks to The Religion Guy like the outlines of a deal are already emerging. However, endless details remain to be thrashed out. Methodists would need to carve up a global church of 12.6 million members and 44,000 congregations, with annual donations of $6.3 billion, plus massive assets.
Some envision a three-way split if necessary, but the UMC essentially faces a two-way divide, with LGBTQ policy the precipitating issue that reflects generally differing attitudes toward the Bible and historic theology. It looks like liberals are prepared to let traditionalists bid goodbye to the old UMC but keep their buildings and other assets. Or vice versa.
Each regional unit (“annual conference”) would pick which faction to join, though there’s disagreement whether a simple or a two-thirds majority would decide this. Then individual bishops, clergy and congregations would be allowed to switch affiliations into other entities.
There will be major fun allotting agencies and assets, but with enough good will on both sides the UMC could hope to avoid the legal squabbles other “mainline” Protestants have suffered.
The Indianapolis Plan is especially important because participants included President Kent Millard of Ohio’s United Theological Seminary and two leading conservatives, the Rev. Keith Boyette, president of the traditionalist Wesleyan Covenant Association, and the Rev. Tom Lambrecht, general manager of Good News magazine. If such conservatives were to depart after winning the big vote that will reverse the pattern in other “mainline” Protestant denominations, where conservatives left after losing votes.
The two bishops think the UMC should continue on as nominally one denomination but split internally into fully self-governing entities. They say a split is required because the Methodist witness will be damaged by “intense, angry conflict” with escalation of conservative disciplinary moves and of liberal defiance and disobedience. Better to negotiate a “gracious exit process,” they say. (The Religion Guy, who covered the first General Conference debate on this fully 47 years ago, and all the agony since, cannot but agree.)
An unusual aspect of the UMC situation is its large overseas membership, which is heavily conservative. That contingent probably determined the outcome at the February General Conference, where liberals apparently had a working majority among U.S. delegates. Among future issues: Will Africa form a separate jurisdiction or merge with the U.S. conservative entity?
For news calendars, note two Wesleyan Covenant events: Its pastors who lead large congregations will confer in Orlando October 7-9. The group’s November 9 “global gathering” in Tulsa, simulcast to sites in 14 states, will feature a talk by Oklahoma City attorney Cara Nicklas, a drafter of the Indianapolis Plan.
Contact for Boyette (who’s a former attorney): firstname.lastname@example.org. Media contacts for UMCNext: Cathy Bien at email@example.com or 913–544-0210 or Toska Medlock Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org or 214–729-6144. Official UMC news is available at www.umnews.org. Self-described “centrist” pastor John Stephens in Houston is busily blogging about matters at https://embodygrace.org..