by Chris Ritter
Note: My continued desire is for a new connectionalism that creates options for UM unity through a generous affiliated autonomous status. I remain guardedly hopeful that such a plan will be placed before GC2019. Analysis of the official Way Forward models is necessary as we seek to understand the implications of each. These next two posts are gloomy (sorry) but aimed toward this goal. Stay tuned for Part Two which seeks to quantify the pain caused by the various Ways Forward. All statistics are approximate and based on my general understanding of the UMC.
We have yet to see the detailed report of the Council of Bishops for the UMC Way Forward. But we know quite a bit about the three plans offered for consideration. The favored “One Church” Plan removes restrictive language around same-sex marriage and the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals. It will include some modest language aimed at protecting the rights of conferences and congregations that are not inclined to redefine Christian marriage. The Connectional Conference Plan would amend our constitution to re-sort the U.S. Church jurisdictionally based on positions related to human sexuality. The Traditionalist Plan would better enforce our current positions on human sexuality. It seems that the early promise by the Commission for “Exit Ramps” will not be honored by the bishops. (Find a helpful explanation here.)
- All three of the models considered by the Commission on a Way Forward and the Council of Bishops will result in two or more autonomous Methodist denominations.
- All three will exact organizational pain upon local congregations, conferences, and their ministries. The lack of an orderly exit provision would exacerbate this stress.
- Of the plans under consideration, the “One Church” model supported by the Council of Bishops will cause the greatest disruption in mission and ministry (more on this in Part Two).
Each Plan a Two-Church Plan
With regards to the One Church Plan, a significant number of United Methodists are on record stating that they cannot continue in an ecclesial body with a self-contradictory theology of marriage and sexuality. There is a significant segment of our church holding on by their fingernails to see what will happen at General Conference in February 2019. Our African bishops, I am told, came close to packing up their bags and going home from the recent Council of Bishops meeting when it was suggested that only the One Church and Connectional Conference Plan be put before General Conference 2019. The Traditionalist Model was included at the last minute to keep our bishops in the same room.
The One Church Model would appease the most progressive side of our church (somewhat) but the damage would be felt in more conservative areas. (Notice that presence of Bishop Oliveto is not running congregations out of her Mountain Sky Episcopal Area but the Mississippi Conference, instead). The Local Option is a gift to the Western and Northeastern jurisdictions of our church (1.5 million combined members), at the expense of the Southeastern and South Central Jurisdictions (4 million members). As a point of reference, the eight conferences of the Western Jurisdiction combined hold fewer United Methodists than the North Georgia Conference.
I am told that three Southeastern annual conferences would likely secede the denomination under the One-Church Plan and significant numbers of clergy and congregations in that area and across the nation would follow. Africa would undoubtedly separate from the U.S. Church. Institutional loyalty and Methodist niceness will keep the majority of the U.S. Church in the UMC, but I put the global membership loss at around 35-45%. The loss in the U.S. will be determined by any number of factors, but I put it anywhere from 15-30%. I am told an exit path may appear as an appendix to the One Church Model. Without this exit, the One Church Plan is a very messy Two-Church Plan.
The Connectional Conference Model organizes the U.S. Church into three camps: One guaranteeing LGBTQI+ marriage, one embracing the Local Option, and one that remains traditional in approach. But, as Way Forward Commissioner Leah Taylor recently indicated, there will only be two branches once the sorting is done. Progressive United Methodist conferences would undoubtedly join the Uniting (Local Option) Connectional Conference. They get everything they want there plus the opportunity to further advance their cause. Choosing the middle branch lowers the risk of losing their few remaining traditionalist-leaning congregations and clergy. This means one of the three Connectional Conferences will never populate. The two remaining branches would each have separate episcopacies and only a few general agencies to tie them together. The actual connection is slim and it is not difficult to imagine it becoming further degraded once the sorting is done. The Connectional Conference Model is mere stop-over on the road to a Two-Church Solution.
The Traditionalist Model is also a two-church solution, and honestly so. We already have a dozen annual conferences voting officially to defy the Book of Discipline’s standards on human sexuality. These bodies represent around 10% of the U.S. Church and around 5% of the global UMC. A November sketch of the Traditionalist Model developed by the Commission on a Way Forward gave an opportunity for these conferences to develop a new connection under their own rules and for clergy and congregations in other conferences to join them. We await to see the final form of this model, but it seems obvious that the Traditionalist Plan would result in two churches with perhaps a shared pension plan and a certain administrative services.
If we come to terms with the fact that there will be two UMC successor denominations operating in the U.S. within the next couple years, we can turn our attention to how to manage this with the least amount of harm and how to maximize the spirit of cooperation between the successor bodies. This will require the grown-ups on all sides getting together for frank conversation. The move not to include exit ramps denies the Council of Bishops the opportunity to control the terms and method of sorting…. a high-risk decision on their part. The General Conference of 1844 authorized separation without answering key questions of process. The result was a legal battle that was only settled by a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court.*
In Part Two I will attempt the quantify the organizational pain exacted by each of the Way Forward models. Spoiler alert: The One Church Plan creates the most intense organizational stress and for the longest period of time. Stay tuned.
*The Methodist Split of 1844 makes for fascinating study. It started as an amicable separation that quickly became contentious. The surprising thing is that our remarkable 19th-Century growth and expansion continued unabated in both branches. I surmise that it was such a quick, geographic, and decisive split that it allowed both groups to move on without losing focus. The continued rancor in border communities caused some level of disruption and distraction there. Read my history of the split here.