Monday, March 1, 2021

A New Era in United Methodist Politics: New Issues

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian 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.

For years now, if not for decades, politics in The United Methodist Church have reflected politics in the United States: they have been dominated by a conflict between traditional and progressive blocs over social issues. In the UMC, the most contentious such issues have been gay marriage and gay ordination.

Things, however, are changing. Under the impact of a variety of forces, a new set of issues will dominate The United Methodist Church in the next few years, bringing with them new coalitions of players. This post will examine the new issues and the forces leading to their prominence, while a subsequent post will examine the new array of parties within the church as defined by these new issues.

The Forces Reshaping the UMC
There are three main forces that have pushed the church into a new era of internal politics. The first of these is the breakdown of existing denominational structures’ ability to manage the conflict over sexuality.

As much as this conflict has characterized the church for forty years, for much of this time, the denominational system gave players on both sides enough hope that their position could prevail that they were motivated to stay involved, and the rest of the work of the denomination could continue despite the conflict.

Increasingly over the last decade, but especially since the called General Conference in February 2019, the denominational system has no longer been up to this task. Various players are no longer willing to stay engaged in the fight within the denomination, and the conflict has derailed much of the rest of the work of the denomination. This has happened despite the best efforts of the bishops and the General Conference to find solutions.

The second significant force reshaping the denomination is the increasing voice of non-US United Methodists in denominational affairs. While people around the world have views on issues of sexuality, the conflict over sexuality in the UMC has been a predominantly US-driven issue. Non-US United Methodists are now pushing agendas that they have defined, rather than just responding to issues originating in the United States.

The increased power of voices from outside the United States is the result both of demographic trends in the denomination (decline in US membership and growth in members in the Congo and elsewhere) and a consequence of denominational breakdown. As US church leadership and existing structures have proven unable to manage the denomination’s conflicts, it has emboldened leadership from outside the United States to set forward their own agendas for the church.

The third force is the financial realities brought about by US membership decline. Even independently of the fallout of GC 2019 or the coronavirus pandemic, the UMC would have reached peak apportionments within the last quadrennium, the point at which a rise in the wealth of the US membership (which is the source of 99% of denominational funds) could no longer make up for a decline in that membership. The exodus of members and congregations after GC 2019 and the financial fallout of the pandemic have, however, made the financial situation worse.

The New Issues
Shaped by these three forces, The United Methodist Church must now struggle with a variety of issues that include but go beyond its previous preoccupation with debates over gay marriage and gay ordination. These include gay marriage and ordination, denominational separation, regionalization, and denominational institutions.

Gay marriage and gay ordination, to be sure, do remain significant issues within the church. The United Methodist Church continues to include both people that are committed to ensure that the UMC minister with and through LGBTQ+ persons and people that are committed to ensuring that current prohibitions remain. Many of these people will remain within the denomination, regardless of what happens, and thus will continue to advocate around this issue one way or another. Still, it is worth noting that most major legislation coming before the next General Conference does not directly address the denomination’s stance on this issue.

Some with strong positions on gay marriage and gay ordination, though, have decided that they want to leave the denomination, either to ensure that they may fully include LGBTQ+ persons or to ensure that traditional understandings of sexuality are upheld. For these people, the primary question is no longer what the official position of the UMC will be, but what the terms will be under which they can exit the denomination. On the opposing side, there are those, especially from the central conferences, who feel it is very important to preserve denominational unity and are opposed to formal separation of the denomination. The Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation is a major legislative proposal related to this issue, but the issue of separation is not limited to passage or rejection of the Protocol, and trickles down to annual conference politics as well.

Another issue on which United Methodists from the Central Conferences have been making their voices heard is the need for greater regionalization, contextualization, and equality across branches of the church. United Methodists from the central conferences have been interested in this issue for some time, and the current disfunction within the US UMC has given new impetus to press for changes to the denomination’s organization that would preserve connection but separate out predominantly US matters from denomination-wide discussions and give other areas of the world greater equality with the US branch of the church.

Since this sort of restructuring can only happen through act of the General Conference, this issue is particularly General Conference-focused. The major piece of legislation here is the Christmas Covenant, which was put forward by a coalition of United Methodists from outside the United States. These United Methodists will resist the framing of regionalization as a progressive/Traditionalist issue, a framing that contributed to the failure of previous attempts at regionalization, such as proposed 2008 amendments to the church’s constitution.

Finally, there are a set of issues related to the denominational institutions of the church that have taken on significance in light of the denomination’s financial situation and forecasted future. These include the questions of how much in apportionments to ask of (US) churches, how to respond to a shortfall in episcopal funding (including how many bishops to elect), how to carry forward the work of the boards and agencies with reduced funding, and how to respond to reduced budgets at the local and regional levels (including reductions in annual conference budgets and possible redrawing of annual conference lines). In essence, these questions can be boiled down to one: How much of the current denominational institutions can and should be preserved, given current financial realities?

While General Conference 2012’s Plan UMC debate is a predecessor to the current debates, today’s debates go beyond a focus on the general boards and agencies. These financial and structural concerns are in some ways more pressing in the United States, since they effect all levels of church budgets in the United States and since the boards and agencies are all based in the United States. Nevertheless, they have implications around the world, given how significant US funding is for the church globally.

These financial issues are unique in that the questions are not necessarily either/or (as in allow/disallow gay ordination, leave/stay in the denomination, and regionalize/continue current the structure). While there may be either/or elements to these questions (restructure agencies or not, for example), there are also questions of quantity (how many bishops to elect?) and quality (how much support of ministries should agencies provide?).

An Era of New Issues
Each of these four issues has implications for the others, but none of them can simply be reduced to a function of another. And in the same way, the positions that United Methodists are taking around these issues cannot be reduced to a simple progressive/traditionalist division. As I will detail in an upcoming post, there are now a host of parties within the UMC based on which issue is most important and positions on that issue.

Given the amount of change afoot, United Methodist politics are entering a period of fluidity and unpredictability, as old patterns are disrupted. Within that setting, those who continue to understand United Methodist politics primarily in the dualistic terms that have sufficed in recent years will fundamentally misunderstand what is happening in the denomination now.

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