by Bob Phillips
What follows are plausible pieces in the puzzle of “What If” the OCP had passed the recent General Conference. Some of what follows would have been certainties. All would have been probabilities. Consider the nature, extent and location of uproar, pain and protest to the passage of an imperfectly amended Traditional Plan and then consider the alternatives:
- A new denomination would have incorporated and formed by July 1, 2019. Many, not all, traditional clergy and members would have aligned with the previously announced plan of the WCA and other traditional renewal groups whose conscience would not permit them to remain in a denomination that redefined historic scriptural understandings of Christian marriage. If experiences with the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church and Evangelical Lutheran Church provide context for numbers, the new denomination would have 400,000 members within 18 months (well exceeding the size of the Western Jurisdiction) and over 1M members by 2024.
- Major shifts of individual members to other denominations would have occurred in selected geographic regions. Numerous small traditional churches would close and/or cease to pay apportionments as disaffected members dropped out. Regions such as New England or Northern Illinois would be nearly untouched by turmoil. Regions in the South and slabs of the Midwest would suffer 25%+ loss in active participants over 4 years as critical mass tips conference boundaries and alignments in several areas.
- The denomination would suffer a major drop in income. Consistent data (Pew-Gallup-Wuthnow-Smith) indicates more traditional-conservative members tithe or give higher proportions of income to church and charity. The loss of general church income from (1) and (2) almost certainly would extract a disproportionate financial penalty of the denomination. For example, necessity rather than vision would force the merger/realignment of the 13 theological seminaries for ministry in a new reality.
- Legal costs arising from litigation over property could exceed 40M. The Episcopal Church, roughly 1/3 the size of the UMC, has incurred 50M+ in litigation, in part because of its policy not to sell property to departing congregations at any price. Some UM bishops have a precedent of similar response, such as Cal-Nevada in 1999-2002 when at least 13 traditional pastors and 4,000 members departed the conference, none permitted to take their property for a negotiated price without litigation. Only congregations wishing to depart with hefty mortgages would be reasonably sure that the conference would not make difficult demands.
- The UMC in certain nations could be suppressed, marginalized or outlawed. The UM church in certain central European and African nations almost certainly would cease.
- African United Methodism probably would sever from the US church for the sake of survival. The African UM church would face threats from Boko Haram and other religious terrorist groups who are not known for doing theological nuance and would manipulate the fact the ‘denomination’ approves gay marriage and sexually active gay clergy to attack churches, congregations, and educational facilities. Many members who embraced monogamous Christian marriage amid polygamous cultures, would feel betrayed and find other church homes. The growth of African Methodism would shift from thrive to survive mode, as their leaders warned.
- Traditional candidates for ministry would struggle to find a seminary that would welcome them. Human nature argues against aligning with schools where one’s convictions on marriage and sexual ethics had been unanimously rejected by the Presidents of all the official seminaries of the church. The absence of public and articulate faculty voices in several seminaries affirming the traditional Christian perspective on marriage would reinforce suspicion that diversity exists only within politically approved parameters. “Bigots welcome” is not a helpful inclusive invitation.
- The vast majority of UM young adults would be in conflict with the OCP ethos. Recall the median age in Africa is 19.4; in the US UMC the median age of members is 57. Over 70% of all UM members under age 40 live outside the US, and many thriving UM churches with significant young adult presence in the US embrace traditional views of marriage. The largest concentration of young adults active in Christian churches in nearly every major American city are found among churches with traditional theology synergized with innovative worship/simplified organization and social outreach.
- “Where orthodoxy becomes optional, it eventually becomes proscribed.” This wisdom from Fr. Richard John Neuhaus has been playing out in the UCC, Presbyterian, Lutheran and Episcopal churches, all of which have moved significantly to the theological left in the aftermath of adopting their versions of the OCP. Theological diversity involving a vigorous and affirmed evangelical presence is nearly unknown in the Western Jurisdiction and other conferences where no General Conference delegation includes any representative of that perspective.
- Decline accelerates. Consistent with the example of every other mainline church that adopted a OCP approach, the steady annual loss of members/attendance in American Methodism would more than doubled since embracing the OCP, with projections of a US denomination of less than 3M members by 2050 and the functional statistical extinction of the existing denomination in the US by the end of the century.
Rev. Dr. Bob Phillips is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Illinois, with advanced degrees from Asbury, Princeton and St. Andrews (Scotland). He retired with the rank of Captain as the senior United Methodist Chaplain in the US Navy in 2005. An elder in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, Bob most recently served as Directing Pastor of Peoria First United Methodist Church prior to his retirement. He was a clergy delegate to the 2016 & 2019 General Conferences of The United Methodist Church.