Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
The Council of Bishops has released their initial comments on the midterm report of the Commission on a Way Forward. They have indicated that they are considering three options for the future of The United Methodist Church in the face of its long-standing and increasingly divisive debate over homosexuality and the roles of LGBTQ+ people in the church.
Two of the three options seem fairly clear at this point, but the third option could entail a variety of distinct scenarios. This post will present three such scenarios. Taking each of these different scenarios as a distinct proposal, that leads to five possible proposals from the Commission and the Council of Bishops.
As I will then detail, each of these five proposals could then meet with six possible responses from the called General Conference in 2019, all but one of which would presumably need to be voted on by the annual conferences, which could ratify or reject the special General Conference’s action.
That gives at least 55 options still on the table for the future of the denomination (5*5*2 + 5*1). It’s a large number, and the ultimate outcome may not be evident until sometime in 2020.
The first option the Council of Bishops indicated is “a model [that] affirms the current Book of Discipline language and places a high value on accountability.” Presumably this means harsher penalties for those who disobey existing provisions against ordaining LGBTQ+ persons or performing gay marriages, which would lead to a purging of progressives from the denomination.
The second option mentioned is “a model [that] removes restrictive language and places a high value on contextualization. This sketch also specifically protects the rights of those whose conscience will not allow them to perform same gender weddings or ordain LGBTQ persons.” This seems to be the much-discussed “local option,” which would leave decisions about ordination to annual conferences and gay marriages to individual pastors and churches.
The third option is “a model [that] is grounded in a unified core that includes shared doctrine and services and one COB, while also creating different branches that have clearly defined values such as accountability, contextualization and justice.” It is not clear what exactly, this option would entail, but I can anticipate at least three possibilities:
1. A split into confederated churches – The United Methodist Church would split into two or more denominations with different stances on homosexuality. The two (or more) denominations would enter into an ecumenical agreement to mutually recognize members and, when they meet requirements, ministers. The two denominations would also continue to support joint ministries through shared boards and agencies and collaborative committees. The degree of collaboration and cooperation is a big question in this option. Another big question is whether the split would apply to any branches of The United Methodist Church outside the US.
2. US geographic central conferences – The five US jurisdictions (or some other configuration of geographic areas) become central conferences. Central conferences have the power to adapt portions of the Book of Discipline. Sexuality is placed in that portion to allow some parts of the church to maintain a traditional stance, others to adopt an affirming stance, and perhaps others to choose a local option. Presumably central conferences outside the US would have this option, too, though other than possibly parts of Europe, it seems unlikely any would.
3. US theological central conferences – The US is divided into central conferences, as above, but rather than rely on geography as a proxy for theology, the central conferences are explicitly based on theological convictions over sexuality.
Of these three, the first seems most likely, but the latter two may still be possibilities.
The bishops also indicated that whichever proposal they put forward will include a “gracious way of exit for those who feel called to exit from the denomination.” This pressure-valve release, if you will, allows a strongly dissenting minority to leave the denomination, presumably through relaxation of the trust clause, thus allowing congregations to take their church property with them.
Whichever of these five (two clearly indicated and three possible) proposals the Commission on a Way Forward and Council of Bishops ultimately recommend; General Conference will then need to vote on the recommendation. Again, there are several different possibilities for what the General Conference will do.
1. General Conference approves proposal – This is the most straight-forward scenario, though not necessarily what will happen.
2. General Conference significantly alters proposal – The bishops put forward a proposal, but General Conference delegates are not completely happy with it. They significantly alter the details of the proposal (especially possible if it’s one of the confederated church or US central conference proposals).
3. General Conference rejects proposal, approves alternative model indicated by bishops – Instead of merely changing the bishops’ recommendation, the General Conference may reject it in favor of a completely different proposal, substituting one of the other three models mentioned by the Council of Bishops.
4. General Conference rejects proposal, approves completely different plan – Instead of substituting one of the other three models mentioned by the Council of Bishops, General Conference could approve a completely different option not considered by the bishops, up to and including a full division of the denomination into two or more unconnected successors.
5. General Conference rejects proposal, implements only pressure value release – The General Conference could decide to keep the system as it is, yet seek to rid itself of those most discontented with the current system. Accommodations could be made for those on either side of the debate who wish to leave the denomination to do so.
6. General Conference rejects proposal, takes no alternative action – Varying interest groups, based either on theology or geography could oppose the plan put forward by the bishops. The plan could fail to garner sufficient votes to pass. However, because of the divided nature of the church, no other plan may win sufficient votes to pass, especially if it requires constitutional amendment. The called General Conference would end without any action being taken.
The first five of these possible General Conference actions would presumably involve changes to the UMC’s constitution. If so, such changes would need to be ratified by the annual conferences. Annual conferences, then, would vote on any General Conference-approved plan and could either ratify or reject it. It is certainly possible that even if a plan is approved by General Conference, opposition to it could build afterward, leading annual conferences to reject it. This may be especially likely if General Conference approves something other than what the bishops recommend.
It is unclear whether such annual conference ratification on a plan approved by General Conference in February of 2019 could begin with the American annual conference season in June 2019. Such a time-table would allow all annual conferences around the world to vote before the 2020 regular General Conference. (Some European annual conferences meeting in spring 2020 would be the last to vote.) General Conference 2020 could then take further action to implement the decisions of the prior year, if ratified. It is also possible ratification voting may not begin until fall 2019, with the final votes coming at American annual conferences in June 2020, after the May 2020 regular General Conference, though that seems ill-timed.
The last possible General Conference action, taking no action, would of course not require ratification by the annual conference. If this happened, it is not clear where the denomination would go from there. It is likely that, General Conference having failed to address the denomination’s impasse on sexuality, individual annual conferences and caucus groups like the WCA would implement their own plans for the future of their particular constituencies. Such plans are likely to be conflicting.
While it is unclear which of these 55 roads the church will go down, what is clear is that we are still several years away from knowing the ultimate fate of The United Methodist Church.