THE FUTURE OF THE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH
For those who are interested, I want to share over the coming weeks and months a few articles and analysis pieces from various United Methodist leaders over the possible fall out of General Conference 2019 and the possible future(s) for our denomination.
This post serves as an introduction to what has been going on and links to the first article I think is worth reading on the topic (so, if you already know what is going on in the UMC, feel free to skip down to “What do the experts say” below to find the recommended link).
WHERE ARE WE NOW, AND HOW DID WE GET HERE?
First, a review. The United Methodist Church has come to a point of serious disagreement and division over some of its official teachings in the area of sexual morality, and how to appropriate the Biblical teachings upon these issues (and others as well).
What does the Church officially teach in its Book of Discipline (the book of official teachings and church law)? The United Methodist Church understands that all people are created in God’s image and therefore have “sacred worth” and that the church is to be in ministry with and showing love toward all people, including LGBTQIANP+ individuals. The United Methodist Church believes that homosexual practice* is incompatible with Christian teaching, and understands marriage to be a union of one man and one woman. Sexual relations are only affirmed within this Bible-defined marriage union. The United Methodist Church also supports laws in civil society defining marriage as a union of one man and one woman.
The church also teaches that, while abortion may be a legally accepted medical practice in rare emergency situations, “we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child.” The life of an unborn baby is morally equal to that of an adult mother, both bearing the image of God, which obviously means that we reject abortion as a means of birth control, which constitutes the great vast majority of all actual abortions.
On all of these issues the Church’s teachings have become controversial because they run directly counter to some of the popular teachings of our American popular culture.
Accordingly, some within the church have called for these official teachings to be reversed or dropped from the Book of Discipline. Progressives have suggested alternate ways to interpret the relevant Bible passages so that they do not mean what they appear to say or, in other cases, progressives have simply suggested that the relevant Bible passages only address 1st Century concerns and are indeed not relevant or applicable to the issues at hand in our contemporary culture, whatever those passages may say. This latter move involves a re-envisioning of how Biblical authority “works” that, most traditionalists argue, is quite different from what we have inherited from the traditions of the universal Church, and particularly from our Protestant and Wesleyan heritage.
Every four years the General Conference of the Church meets, which alone has the authority to change church teaching. So, for some decades now, the fight over sexual morality has become increasingly visible, and increasingly shrill at each successive General Conference.
In addition, a number of clergy and even some bishops, have signaled that – despite their ordination vows to uphold our church law – they have no intention of living according to rules that they see as unjust discrimination.
A WAY FORWARD?
At the 2016 General Conference it was clear that an impasse had been reached and there was serious discussion about the possibility of a formal split, or schism, that would divide the church between more traditionalist and more liberal groups.
To avoid such a split, the General Conference (responding to a request of the Bishops) tabled all discussions related to human sexuality so that the issue could be referred to a special Commission on the Way Forward, that would make proposals to deal with our division over this one issue.
The Bishops’ Commission on a Way Forward has met over the past 2 years and has developed 3 proposals for the Way Forward. A special General Conference has been called for Feb. 2019 to consider these proposals. The General Conference could adopt any one of the proposals, or revise one, or craft a totally new proposal for adoption, or indeed choose to take no new action at all.
The three proposals will be discussed in detail in the articles and posts that I share. In short they are:
1) The Traditionalist Plan – maintain current church teachings, strengthen accountability for clergy and bishops who break their vows;
2) The “One Church” Plan (i.e. “Local Option”) – remove the church’s historic teaching and allow each pastor, congregation, and Annual Conference** to set their own policies on whether the pastor will officiate or the congregation will host same-gender union ceremonies and whether the Annual Conference will ordain individuals living in same-sex relationships;
3) The Connectional Conference plan – the most complicated plan involves creating 2 (or 3) super “conferences” with which individual Annual Conferences and/or congregations could then affiliate. One of these super conferences would be traditionalist and one would be liberal (another might be in between); each would set their own standards for ordination, but would jointly share the stewardship of things like UMCOR (our disaster response ministry) and the clergy pension program, the Publishing House, and the like.
What the General Conference chooses will have profound implications for congregations (who may at some point have to choose a new group to affiliate with), and clergy families (whose callings, careers, retirement plans, and so on will be affected), and denominational institutions (and their employees) such as seminaries, universities, children’s homes, and mission organizations and so on, that may be divided or merged or eliminated.
SO, WHAT DO ‘THE EXPERTS’ SAY WILL HAPPEN?
Of course, we are all prayerfully waiting to see what will happen in February.
I have a few thoughts of course, but I’d like to share the thoughts of people better-informed that myself.
Rev. Lynn Malone is no stranger to General Conference and has shared his thoughts HERE. Rev. Malone is exactly right, in my view, that choosing any of the three plans will certainly result in more division and pain, and he highlights the real possibility that the 2019 General Conference chooses to do nothing at all. That, in my view (and his), would be a catastrophic error, but some believe that it is the most likely outcome.
* Note that the church’s teaching only addresses homosexual practice, meaning outward behavior, not homosexual desires or the people who feel or experience those desires
** The Annual Conference is roughly equivalent to the Diocese in Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches, it is the basic unit of the United Methodist Church, which connects all of the local congregations within a geographical region; for example, all of the churches in Louisiana form one Annual Conference. The Annual Conference, not the local congregation, is the body that approves and ordains candidates for vocational ministry