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.
A couple weeks ago, I encouraged readers to consider the possibility of the "null hypothesis" being true at General Conference 2019: that no plan to resolve the denomination's debates about gay ordination and gay marriage is passed. That post was intended to remind readers that the passage of a plan is not a given. There is a real possibility that there may not be sufficient support for any of the three plans coming out of the work of the Commission on a Way Forward or any alternate plan introduced by another body.
In this post, I would like to suggest something further: that at least for some central conference delegates, this scenario would not represent a failure of GC2019 but a success. That is, at least some central conference delegates to GC2019 may prefer the present state of affairs to any of the three plans on offer.
To understand why, one can look at some of the recent episcopal statements from African and Filipino bishops. As I have cautioned before, episcopal views don't necessarily reflect the attitudes of delegates from episcopal areas, but these statements are nonetheless instructive.
Both the Africa College of Bishops and the Philippines College of Bishops have recently released statements weighing in on the state of the denomination. Neither endorsed any of the three plans coming out of the work of the Commission on a Way Forward. The statement by the Africa College of Bishops emphasized two things: a traditional definition of marriage and unity. The statement by the Philippines College of Bishops emphasized unity without directly addressing sexuality. Opinions among the Filipino bishops vary, but as the accompanying UMNS article made clear, at least some bishops like Bishop Torio favor a traditional understanding of marriage.
While opinions certainly differ among central conference delegates, as they do among American delegates, these two desires seem common: a desire to continue a traditional understanding of marriage and a desire for church unity, both as a spiritual principle and because it facilitates partnerships with a broad range of American partners.
Yet the major contending plans each threaten one or the other of these two desires. The Traditionalist Plan, while it maintains a traditional understanding of marriage, cuts into the unity of the church and the breadth of partnership because it also emphasizes a "gracious exit" from the denomination for progressive conferences. The One Church Plan, while it maintains unity and thus allows for continued broad partnerships, undercuts a traditional understanding of marriage. The Connectional Conference Plan would seem to threaten both the desire for unity and the desire to maintain a traditional understanding of marriage.
Of course, central conference delegates may decide that one or the other of these two principles is more important to them and vote accordingly. Or they may decide that the changes involved in one of the plans are not significant enough or likely enough to affect them to really threaten their desires.
But there is also the option that central conference delegates would decide that the current state of affairs is actually the best way to balance unity and upholding a traditional understanding of marriage. The UMC currently officially has a traditional understanding of marriage. Passing nothing would not require anyone to leave the denomination (it is likely that some would, but that is likely under any scenario). Thus, some central conference delegates may see the status quo as the best way to balance their desires for traditional understandings of marriage, unity, and broad partnerships.
Most Americans see the debates over gay marriage and gay ordination as indicative of an untenable situation in the church. Surely, they think, something has to happen. We can't continue to go on in the way we have. Yet, for many outside the US, these debates are remote and do not affect the daily experience of the church. It is entirely thinkable and relatively unproblematic for the status quo to persist. Ultimately, the biggest difference between US and central conference delegates to GC2019 may not be over views of marriage but over how important it is to try to resolve the debates.