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.
Most watchers of United Methodist news have been eagerly/anxiously awaiting this week the forthcoming announcement by the Council of Bishops on what proposal they will put forward to the special called General Conference in 2019. This proposal, which will presumably be based on the work of the Commission On a Way Forward, is intended to resolve the denomination's decades-long battle over homosexuality, specifically the ordination and church marriage of LGBTQ+ individuals.
Whatever proposal the Council of Bishops put forward, it is unlikely to satisfy the demands of traditionalists in the denomination, who have stated they will accept nothing other than continued adherence to and full enforcement of the denomination's current position prohibiting gay ordination and gay marriage. Leaders of conservative leaders have indicated their intention to put forward their own legislation to accomplish this goal. This legislation could be introduced on the floor, even if the Judicial Council rules that it could not be submitted beforehand.
With these developments, many have wondered whether The United Methodist Church is in line for a Southern Baptist-style conservative takeover. For those unfamiliar, back in the 1980s, the most conservative/fundamentalist elements of the Southern Baptist Convention waged a campaign to gain control of the denomination, marginalizing the moderate wing that had previously been in power.
To assess such a possibility, I've been reading this week Nancy Ammerman's book about this process, Baptist Battles: Social Change and Religious Conflict in the Southern Baptist Convention. It's an even-handed, sociological account of this story. The book is well-written and insightful.
Much of what the book describes rings true to the situation of United Methodism. Conservatives who felt excluded from moderate-dominated denominational institutions seeking to assert their voices. Tightly drawn battle lines over issues, including who should be ordained. A very engaged and politically mobilized group on either end of the spectrum with a larger group in the middle open to persuasion but more invested in the status quo. Increasingly contentious and politicized denominational meetings. A specially designated group created to keep the peace.
Of course, there are important differences, too. 2019 will not be the same moment culturally for the US that 1979 or 1989 was, and the UMC has a substantial non-American constituency, which was not true of the SBC. These differences matter, but the parallels are nonetheless worth noting.
The biggest differences that emerged for me, though, were the nature of what was being fought over and the significance of regionalism in shaping the battle. In the following description, I am not trying to imply that either side in the UMC is theologically right or should prevail. Instead, I am merely trying to describe what I see as the differences between the SBC fight and the UMC fight.
First is the difference of the prize for which people were/are fighting. Southern Baptists were fighting for control of the denominational institutions - an executive committee, 4 boards, 9 commissions, and 6 seminaries. Neither side was seeking to substantially alter any of these institutions, just to be the ones in charge of setting the policy and choosing the personnel for them. To gain this control, Southern Baptist fundamentalists needed to elect fundamentalist convention presidents who would appoint fundamentalist committee members who would choose fundamentalist trustees for these institutions. Thus, in a very direct way, control of the presidency = control of the institutions. Despite being ostensibly congregationalist in their polity, Southern Baptists actually have very centralized denominational authority structures. This was a fight about gaining the reins of that legitimized central authority.
United Methodists, on the other hand, are fighting to set policy that is supposed to determine the behaviors of dozens of annual conferences and their Boards of Ordained Ministry and tens of thousands of elders and licensed local pastors. As United Methodists have already learned on the issue of sexuality, official denominational policy does not translate directly into specific behaviors by annual conferences and pastors, especially when there is substantial regional disagreement with such policies. United Methodists have substantial local and regional ability to resist denominational policy.
This observation brings me to my second point - regionalism. The conflict among Southern Baptists was correlated with life experiences (education, moving to the city or to the suburbs), but it was not well correlated with regional differences. There were slight differences between the Southeastern seaboard (GA, SC, NC, VA, and MD) and the old frontier Southeast (AL, MS, TN), but the conflict existed throughout all regions and was centered on institutions (the Convention meetings and the denominational bureaucracy) shared by all regions.
The United Methodist Church's conflict is highly regional in nature. While variation within regions exists, theological views differ most widely between regions, best dramatized in the US by the Western Jurisdiction and the Southeast Jurisdiction (to say nothing of United Methodism globally). Moreover, the conflict is not just about what denomination-wide policy should be, but about how that policy should be upheld and carried out by regional bodies. Actors at the regional level have additional sets of considerations beyond ideology in how they approach this conflict - they must also consider careers, relationships, impacts on local ministry, etc.
Herein lies the crux of the problem for United Methodist traditionalists. United Methodism, both inside the US and world-wide, has regional power deeply ingrained in its structures. The annual conference has been in many ways the basic unit of Methodism since its beginnings. Jurisdictions have exercised significant powers since their creation in 1939. It is clear by now that traditionalists have sufficient votes to control the policies set by General Conference, but it is equally clear that there are currently no adequate mechanisms for enforcing these policies throughout the connection.
Thus, whereas fundamentalist Southern Baptists were trying to take over the SBC structure as it stood, which could be done by focusing on its centralized power structure, United Methodist traditionalists face a much harder task. They must create new means of enforcement that go against deeply entrenched structures of United Methodist regionalism and allow traditionalists to exert authority in regions other than their own, even when local authorities are opposed to or ambivalent about traditionalist agendas.
It's quite possible that United Methodist traditionalists could pass legislation that would give them greater tools to exert more authorized authority and force across jurisdictional and annual conference lines. Such legislation would, however, require substantial innovations to United Methodist polity. As the bishops have been wrestling with this week, it's always harder to make structural changes that it is to make changes within the existing system. Yet it is still possible traditionalists could succeed in doing so.
It's also clear, however, that progressives, should they want to, would have means to resist this force. Despite traditionalist calls for progressives to take a "gracious exit" from the denomination, progressives have shown no impetus towards leaving and creating their own denomination. It's possible some would reconsider and move in that direction after a sufficiently demoralizing defeat at the special General Conference. But if others wanted to continue their current program of resistance within - raising legal objections through Judicial Council and possibly secular courts, following the letter and not the spirit of requirements, slow-walking the implementation of new polices, etc. - that would be a successful short-term strategy.
If progressives decided to mount such resistance, even in the face of new authority by traditionalists, traditionalists might still eventually be successful in their campaign to drive progressives out from the denomination. Yet it might take another five, ten, or even more years to do so. Even with their clear focus, it took fundamentalist Baptists a decade to solidify their wins. Moreover, such an eventual traditionalist United Methodist victory would involve a significant amount of continued and perhaps intensified fighting in the meantime.
There are many possible outcomes to the called General Conference in February of 2019. Yet it is quite possible that, while this special General Conference is supposed to resolve the debate over homosexuality, it will only shift that fight into other forms. United Methodists may well be still fighting over sexuality and related polity at General Conference 2024 and 2028 and perhaps beyond.