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.
General Conference 2019 begins one month from today. While GC2019 will certainly not be the end of the story about debates over sexuality in The United Methodist Church, it is a climax in that debate towards which events have been building for many years.
There is no way of knowing what exactly will happen at GC2019 until it happens. Moreover, some surprising thing may happen in the next month that would dramatically affect debate at GC2019. Yet, we do know a lot about the range of possibilities. The Commission on a Way Forward has made its report, the Judicial Council has ruled on that report, other groups have submitted their own legislation, the Committee on Reference has decided which of these proposals are in harmony, and groups have lined up behind various proposals. With all that background in mind then, here are some reflections on the range of possibilities for next month.
It seems there are five primary plans under consideration: the One Church Plan, the Traditional Plan, the Connectional Conferences Plan, the Simple Plan, and a relaxation of the trust clause that would allow churches to exit the denomination with their property. These plans do not have equal amounts of support and therefore are not all equally likely to pass, but all have some level of support. That there are multiple plans under consideration make the negotiations, politics, and discernment much more complicated.
While a relaxation of the trust clause alone has not been treated as a formal plan in much of the discussion leading up to GC2019, there are good reasons to regard it as such. That there were five different petitions to take this action, all of which were ruled in harmony, indicate a significant level of interest. Deciding among the different details of these five may create complications for this option, but it is an option. There have also been people publicly supporting this option, even if no official group has backed it.
In addition to (or instead of) these five primary plans, it is
possible that GC2019 could revise church teachings by adopting one of
the petitions ruled in harmony without adopting a broader plan that would
address a full range of polity issues related to gay marriage and gay
ordination. These petitions seem to be mainly the work of individuals
rather than broader groups, making this option unlikely.
The General Conference will begin its work as a committee of the whole and will select which proposal it wants to take up and work on. That proposal will then serve as the main proposal with the best procedural shot at passage. It does not, however, assure passage of that proposal. As I have previously noted, there is a bit of strategy for supporters of various plans in determining which plan should be taken up first. If a plan is taken up but then defeated, that may make it easier to pass an alternative plan. Such a sequence of events may benefit the trust clause relaxation plan in particular. If another plan is taken up but then defeated, supporters of a variety of plans may agree to relax the trust clause as a way of trying to provide some resolution.
It is possible that none of the five proposals will pass. Since support is divided among a number of different proposals, none may have majority support. Furthermore, as I have indicated before, some delegates, especially from Africa and the Philippines, may prefer that no changes are made. It is also possible that if the first plan (or two) considered fail, General Conference may simply run out of time to fine-tune and pass a plan acceptable to all.
Whatever happens at General Conference, annual conference, local churches, caucus groups, central conferences, and other entities will likely need to make decisions in response in the days, weeks, and months following GC2019. Some plans, including all three from the Commission on a Way Forward would allow for or require some decision making about standards for ministry and/or affiliation with the church. Any constitutional amendments would need to be ratified. Those unhappy with whatever plan passes are likely to make decisions about next moves and strategies to accomplish their long-term strategy goals. If a plan passes with only simple majority support, it is possible that opponents could seek to reverse that decision at General Conference 2020.
It is this continued decision making that will ensure that GC2019 is not the end of this story. It may prove to be a denouement or a turning point, as many expect it to be, but it will not be the end. As they say in broadcast, stay tuned for more!