Being Right and Being Wrong: The UMC General Conference

Before the United Methodist Church’s specially called General Conference got underway last week in St. Louis, I shared my perspective on why the Council of Bishop’s “One Church Plan” was the most sociologically sound. It acknowledged that differing views of how scripture called for Methodists to respond to LGBTQ persons were not easily reconcilable. Therefore, a plan that left ordination decisions in the hands of conferences and marriage policy in the hands of congregations seemed like the best solution among challenging options.

If you follow religion news at all, you know that what is called “The Traditional Plan” prevailed with 53% in favor and 47% opposed. This plan retains the language about homosexual practice being incompatible with Christian teaching. More importantly, it adds harsh penalties for pastors performing same-sex marriages — suspension without pay for first infraction, removal of credentials for the second. (photo reference screen capture from https://www.umnews.org/en/news/gc2019-daily-feb-26 )

In retrospect, there are many reasons why my optimism about the One Church Plan was misplaced. While many have rightly focused on the role that the non-US delegates played in the vote, there are other dynamics in play.

First, the supporters of the Traditional Plan had been issuing ultimatums about leaving the denomination for months prior to the General Conference. Much effort was spent in strategizing about what would keep them committed for the future. Retired Bishop and former Duke Chaplain Will Willimon wrote “As [the Bishops] called for generosity and openness from the podium, Traditional Plan politicos were busy on the floor counting votes and making deals.” In retrospect, nobody seemed to have gamed out what would happen if the progressives left the denomination.

Second, the “non-Traditional” block was not unified. There were technically four options going into the General Conference: The Simple Plan (removing all LGBTQ references or restrictions), The Connectional Plan (dividing the UMC into affirming and traditional structures), and the One Church Plan. From a simple electoral strategy, the three groups of non-Traditional supporters were required to develop a consensus position — the Traditional supporters were not.

Third, as with most church (and political) conventions, the population on the floor in St. Louis was older than the general population. I can no longer find the specific reference, but I read during the proceedings that there were less than 15 delegates under 30. The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) released data this weekend showing that while only 54% of Methodists support of same-sex marriage, support from college educated Methodists jumps to 64% and for Methodists between 18 and 49, it is 69%

Fourth, it is mind-boggling that decisions of this magnitude are decided by simple majority vote. In spite of conversations at the federal level about the impact of the Senate filibuster, there is something to be said for denominational decisions to be made with an eye toward fostering consensus. To my view, that could have required a two-thirds vote by the delegates (which is required for constitutional changes). This General Conference was important enough to have followed that same requirement. As it is, a shift of a mere 28 votes out of 822 cast would have seen the Traditional Plan fail.

Finally, a set of presentations I heard this weekend at the Midwest Regional meeting of the AAR reminded me that tensions between rank and file church leaders and denominational executives are nothing new. Greg Coates reported on research he’s doing on James O’Kelly, who created the Republican Methodist Church (later renamed) in the late 18th century. O’Kelly drew parallels between the Episcopacy supported by Asbury and the King and Nobles who had been the foils in the War of Independence. Diane Lobody gave a remarkable presentation on the history of splits within American Methodism as part of explaining the lack of split over the social gospel in the early 20th century. I was reminded that tensions between Methodist leadership and everyday clergy and parishioners over civil rights activism was blamed as a trigger for UMC declines in membership (I see other factors as more explanatory).

I was reminded today that all of the factors I’ve mentioned have been part of Methodism and other denominations for a long time. Diana Butler Bass reminds us that Methodism was born out of tension between an institutional structure and desires to see a Spirit-led ministry take on new forms. Nancy Ammerman contrasted tensions in the UMC with those from the Southern Baptists three decades ago.

I hesitate to make more predictions about where I think things go from here but it’s never stopped me before. First, I’m pretty sure that we’re going to see significant civil disobedience as progressive Methodist clergy perform same-sex marriages to force the legitimacy of the Traditional Plan’s sanctions (see this response from Adam Hamilton, pastor of the largest UMC church in North America). Second, some progressive churches will opt to affiliate with other denominations or no denomination at all. Third, the questions of where LGBTQ people fit in the UMC will come up again in the next General Conference. Expect a lot of fireworks.

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