I have spent nearly half of the past 30 years as a member of the United Methodist Church (the rest of the time I was Nazarene or Church of God — Anderson). I have been in Methodist churches in rural Kansas, urban Oregon, and now Michigan. It is no surprise that these three churches were very different in their temperament, their theology, and their politics. That’s not even getting into the distinctions between the former Evangelical United Brethren churches which maintain a unique culture fifty years after merging into the UMC.
I recently read research outlining that 80% of Methodist congregations are located in the South or Midwest. No doubt those regional dynamics play a role in how people think about what it means to be Methodist. Then there is the urban-rural distinctions. Urban Methodists are different from Rural Methodists and likely to have a very different set of issues that motivate them. Clergy take different positions than do rank and file members.
There’s also a distinction to be made between those people who are multi-generational Methodists and those who happen to find themselves comfortable in a local congregation yet grew up Baptist or Catholic or nothing at all. There are also significant differences between older Methodists and their younger counterparts. The former look back at the days when the congregation was bigger and the church played a significant role in the community. The younger generation wants a vital faith experience that speaks to the world in which they live.
People are part of Methodist churches because they support their community or they want to serve those in need or they want to better understand their Bible or because it’s where their primary social circle is centered. Or sometimes all of these at once.
This diversity I’m exploring is a feature of the United Methodists, not a bug.
That feature is what has brought about a specially called single-purpose general conference in St. Louis over the next few days. Called in response to the 2016 General Conference, it is a way to explore the varied positions that exist within the denomination regarding LGBTQ issues — how the church views sexuality, whether or not to ordain LGBTQ clergy, and whether to permit same-sex marriages to be performed by Methodist clergy or in local congregations. For a great overview, you can’t beat this piece (or any other, for that matter) by Emily McFarlan Miller of the Religion News Service.
As I have considered the various plans that are under consideration this week, I have developed two guiding principles. First, a good solution must protect the diversity that exists within the denomination. Second, nobody should be forced into a position that violates their own sense of integrity.
The first principle would serve to legitimize what we already know. There is a wide range of theological perspectives on LGBTQ questions within the denomination’s membership. We must avoid the temptation to search for winners and losers. We must not villainize those on the other side as unbiblical or homophobic. The delegates in St. Louis should be trying to discern God’s best vision for the future of the UMC. Ideally, that precludes those who want to take a “my way or the highway” approach. There has been far too much talk of schism before the conversations even got underway.
The second principle follows from this. Legitimizing difference means finding ways of resolving conflict that neither force people into positions (i.e., conducting a same-sex wedding, accepting a gay pastor) nor seek to punish those who act out of conscience (suspension without pay, removal of credentials). Any efforts to create uniformity through force, coercion, or sanction are not in the Spirit of the early church.
There are four primary plans under discussion in St. Louis (our local Bishop, Dr. David Bard, did a great explainer video).
The Connectional Plan creates two Methodist churches — one affirming and one traditional. Local congregations would align with one of these two bodies regardless of where they are located. The varied logistical nightmares of assemblies and councils make this solution untenable. While it protects my second principle, it is a shallow version of the first.
The Simple plan removes the Discipline language about homosexuality being inconsistent with Christian teaching as well as any restrictions on ordination or marriages. The Traditional plan retains the language and increases the penalties for violation of existing Discipline rules. Either of these two options falls short of my second principle.
That leaves me with what the Bishops call the One Church plan. This option allows individual conferences and boards of ordained ministry to resolve the question of ordaining LGBT clergy. It allows individual clergy and congregations to resolve the questions regarding same-sex marriage. The One Church plan affirms the diversity of the UMC while providing freedom to local jurisdictions on how they plan to proceed.
What is the likely impact of such a solution in the years to come? It is frankly hard to predict. Yet there is reason to believe that it might not be as fraught as many are predicting. First, since Obergefell the general public has become far more accepting of same-sex marriage. The percentage of local congregants who have family members, friends, or coworkers who are LGBT is likely quite high. Second, the younger generation has already shifted on the same-sex marriage question. According to PRRI, a majority of millennial evangelicals support same-sex marriage as of 2017. Resolving, at least in part, the denomination’s stance on LGBTQ issues may help stem some of the generational loss impacting all religious groups.
I wrote on Twitter yesterday that I was thinking about #GC2019 with an eye toward the Catholic conference going on in Vatican City and while still reeling from the horrific news of the last few months about the Southern Baptist Convention, Harvest Bible Chapel, the Independent Fundamentalist Baptists, or Willow Creek. Those examples show us how far our churches need to go to address the critical challenges of our day, especially on issues of sexuality and human dignity.
I’m sure many friends will see the One Church Plan as half a loaf because it still allows UMC churches to be nonaffirming. Other friends will be similarly disappointed because they see any accommodation to broader social changes to be a failure of the church. This diversity is, as I said earlier, one of the great strengths of the UMC. The challenge for us all is to embrace those differences while celebrating the core of what we all have in common.
The people called Methodists have always been a diverse bunch and will continue to be so. That’s not a bad thing because the world is made up of the same kinds of diverse folks.
If the United Methodist Church can acknowledge its internal diversity while maintaining the dignity of its member bodies, we will find the opportunity to stand in witness during these changing time by truly “Making Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World”