It is no surprise that many members of The United Methodist Church are growing impatient. It feels like we have been discussing (if not fighting over) our views regarding the church’s ministry with LGBTQ people for a lifetime. Many hoped that the 2016 General Conference would give clarity to our situation. Instead, in true Methodist fashion, we appointed a committee. (I say that with a smile, since I serve on the Commission on a Way Forward.)
I understand that impatience and share it. I have been in the struggle for denominational renewal and reform since the 1980’s.
As we contemplate the future of Methodism, however, we would be well served to adjust our expectations for resolution of this matter to the reality of the extent of our brokenness. If there were a quick and easy fix, we would have enacted it by now. For good reason, few want to be reminded to be a bit more patient. But an impasse that took 45 years to make (and according to Dr. James Heidinger’s recent book, took over a century) will not be solved in six months or a year. By definition, we are dealing with a very difficult, complex, and intractable institutional situation.
Many hope that when the Council of Bishops (COB) releases its proposal in May, we will have a clearer vision of the future of United Methodism. However, we must reckon with the fact that the bishops are unlikely to coalesce behind only one plan. Just as the Commission on a Way Forward submitted three sketches to the COB, it is conceivable that the COB will submit two or three proposals to General Conference.
In addition, there are bound to be some who disagree with any or all of the plans submitted by the bishops. They will introduce plans of their own. It is entirely possible that General Conference will have to consider a minimum of four different proposals for a way forward. So we will not know until the end of the 2019 General Conference which direction has been chosen for the church’s future.
Furthermore, most of the various proposals already put forward would take several years to implement. Sketch One, which maintains the current position of the church with increased accountability, would set the table for several years of accountability actions to bring bishops and annual conferences in line with the church’s policy or graciously help them to exit from the denomination. There would be a time of at least a year for annual conferences, bishops, and clergy to decide if they can in good conscience uphold the Discipline in those matters under contention. If not, they will have a time to decide if they will exit from The United Methodist Church to form something new or unite with another existing body. Only after that time will they become subject to disciplinary action. And if conferences, bishops, or clergy resist the policy of the church but refuse to leave, there will be trials and other actions that will take months or even a few years to carry out in order to restore compliance with the Discipline. Rev. Chris Ritter has proposed some ideas about how a Sketch One might work.
Sketch Three, which envisions multiple branches of the church under a type of global umbrella, is a much more radical restructuring of the church. It aims not only to resolve the impasse over homosexuality, but to also position the church for renewed vitality and growth. Such a radical restructure will require amendments to our church constitution. So even if passed by the 2019 General Conference, it will take an additional year to ratify the amendments by the various annual conferences. Then there will need to be time for annual conferences, bishops, and clergy to decide which branch to affiliate with. Once the branches are populated, they will need to be organized and set up with whatever structure each determines. Then the general church agencies will need to be reorganized or restructured. It will take several years to live into this new structure.
Sketch Two looks like the easiest to implement because it does not require constitutional amendments and does not require any accountability actions. (This option allows pastors to determine for themselves whether they will perform same-sex marriages and annual conferences to determine whether to ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals.) However, it will be an uphill battle to pass this option, since it requires changing the church’s position on homosexuality, which has never gained traction at past General Conferences and would not be supported by most evangelicals and most central conference delegates. Aside from that, adoption of Sketch Two would undoubtedly cause many evangelical clergy and congregations to depart from the denomination. This departure would itself take time to implement (see the next paragraphs).
Whatever plan is proposed at General Conference, the Commission has always stated that there will be an option for gracious exit for congregations and clergy who could not live with the plan that is adopted. And there will be many evangelicals who are ready to leave the denomination rather than compromise their belief in the teachings and authority of Scripture. At this point, there is no indication what that process of leaving would look like. Will it require a period of study and discernment by local churches? Will churches have to make payments to their annual conferences before they are allowed to depart? If no exit path is adopted by General Conference, will there be lawsuits over property that consume years in court?
If congregations have to depart from the UM Church as an act of conscience, what would come next? Most hope that there would be a new Wesleyan Methodist body formed to which such congregations could belong. Even if groundwork is done ahead of time, the formation of such a body would take time. Structures would need to be formed, decisions made on policies and finances, and leadership chosen. It would take several years to live into the structure of a newly-formed church.
It is tempting to throw up one’s hands and just walk down the street to the nearest non-denominational church. Such a decision, however, could be shortsighted and out of sync with the leading of God. It is worth thinking over very carefully. We have a unique theological treasure in authentic Wesleyan Methodism that we do not want to lose. The marriage of head, heart, and hands in relationship to Christ. The balance of personal and social holiness, as well as concern for the poor and social justice. The juxtaposition of divine sovereignty and personal responsibility. Potlucks and congregational dinners! These and many other treasures are uniquely part of the Wesleyan wing of Christianity. To give them up would be a loss to the entire body of Christ that is the global, trans-denominational church.
As most of us know from our experience with New Year’s resolutions, tempering our expectations and not expecting a quick and easy answer is very challenging. It takes the willingness to work through a longer-than-hoped-for, difficult, and complicated process because we believe that something better will come out on the other side. No matter which way God works in providing a future for Methodism, it is going to take time — more time than we would like. But like anything good, the end product will be worth the wait.