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.
As I explained in a post last week, the UMC is currently locked in a three-way standoff among US centrists and progressives, US traditionalists, and Africans, in which none of the parties is able to achieve their goals in the church, but none of the parties is willing to walk away. Since a standoff is a deadlocked state, it is not clear how this conflict will be resolved at GC2020 or beyond.
There are perhaps four possibilities for how this conflict will develop:
1. The situation isn’t resolved. The conflict and the deadlock continue, at least for the near-term future. Perhaps in another 4-8 years, the situation will have changed such that the situation will be resolved, but until then, the conflict will simply continue, likely escalating in the meantime.
In many ways, because of the deadlocked nature of a three-way standoff, this is actually the most likely scenario. A standoff will only be resolved if the goals of one party significantly changes, if one party is able to gain a tactical advantage, or if something disrupts the system from outside. In all other scenarios, the standoff simply continues.
Of course, there are costs to continuing the standoff: both US parties lose members and financial support in greater numbers because of the conflict, and the conflict guts the boards and agencies, which Africans would like to preserve.
Yet since these costs will come in incremental amounts, it is possible that incremental losses will be more acceptable to all parties than accepting a sudden and total loss.
2. The outcome of GC2020 changes the calculus for one (or more) parties, leading them to decide that they are actually willing to walk away from the UMC. This is more likely if some sort of exit provision is available to whatever party decides they’re willing to leave.
Practically, this is likely to be US centrists or US traditionalists, who may decide that they are better off walking away, even with some sort of loss, than they are continuing in an unwinnable conflict. Indeed, there are some within both the centrist/progressive camp and the traditionalist camp that have already indicated their willingness to walk away from the current system. Those voices are likely to grow louder and more numerous if GC2020 does not resolve the conflict in some way.
Africans, by contrast, have an added incentive to stay at the table in that their position politically in the denomination is strengthened every quadrennium with the addition of more General Conference votes. Thus, if no party leaves the UMC, Africans gradually realize their goal of greater voice in the denomination, though it would still be a long-term process to translate more votes into more control over agenda-setting.
3. US centrists and US traditionalists come to agreement on dividing the church and join forces to do so over African objections. There is a sense among US centrists as well as US traditionalists that the current conflict in the church cannot continue. Thus, it is possible that these two groups could unite around a plan of division.
The current US delegate majority means that such a plan could be passed despite strong objection from the central conferences IF US delegates were overwhelmingly in favor of it AND it required no constitutional amendments.
However, given the low level of trust between US traditionalists and centrists and the multiplicity of plans for division out there, getting overwhelming consensus among US delegates seems highly unlikely. Far more likely is that Americans are unable to agree about which division plan to support.
Moreover, while most plans are trying to accomplish the division of the church without constitutional amendments, Africans could with just their own votes call for judicial review of any plan by having at least 30% of delegates ask for it.
It is hard to say what Judicial Council would make of any of these plans, but in general, Judicial Council has been resistant to major changes in the system of the UMC, making it possible that such a plan for division could be voided by the Judicial Council, even if supported by an overwhelming majority of US Americans.
4. Perhaps the most intriguing possibility is that the Filipinos determine the outcome by successfully advocating for a regional restructuring of the church.
While Filipinos are often lumped in with Africans and Eastern Europeans in terms of UMC sexuality politics, the Filipinos are don’t have quite the same set of goals or reasons to not walk away as Africans or Eastern Europeans, thus making them somewhat of a wildcard.
There are a wider range of opinions on sexuality in the Philippines, and the issue plays differently in Filipino secular society, even as the majority in the Filipino church remains traditionalist in their understanding of sexuality.
Moreover, the church in the Philippines is less financially dependent on the current structures of the UMC than the church in Africa or Eastern Europe. While I’m sure they would like to continue the boards and agencies, they may be more open to structural changes.
And with 52 votes, they may have a large enough block to swing a vote by siding with one of the three other blocs.
The Filipino bishops have issued their own statement, praising the unity of the church as an important goal. But even while they call for continued unity, they also advocate for a changing of structure into regional conferences that would maintain authority over “witness, mission and ministry” in their own contexts. It’s not clear what exactly this means, but it is possibly an indication that Filipino bishops are willing to grant US centrists and progressives their wishes on LGBTQ inclusion within the US.
If so, then Filipino bishops might be able to unite both Africans, because of their shared concerns for church unity and similar views on sexuality, and US centrists and progressives, because of their desire for unity and their willingness to allow regional adaptation, behind the Filipino plan. In short, they may be able to serve as an intermediary between the deadlocked parties that provides a new option.
Of course, the Filipino bishops’ statement is short on details, and it is remains to be seen whether US Americans or Africans take it seriously, since it will come from outside of both of those contexts. But the Filipino bishops’ plan may just be the best chance for resolving the UMC’s three-way standoff that doesn’t involve one or more of the parties slowing bleeding away.