By the time the General Council concluded its business on Tuesday, it had sent shockwaves through the United Methodist Church. Many Methodists in various conferences had assumed that the One Church Plan, which had the backing of the majority of the Council of Bishops, would ultimately prevail. This plan would have maintained institutional unity by allowing for doctrinal and ecclesial diversity regarding same-sex marriages and the ordination of non-celibate homosexual ministers. Instead, the evangelical-international coalition of General Conference delegates held together and defeated the One Church Plan—both in the legislative session on Monday and the plenary session on Tuesday when it returned as a minority report. In its place, this coalition pushed through the Traditional Plan, which upholds the Book of Discipline's current teaching on human sexuality and attempts to strengthen its place in UMC doctrine and polity.
Painful as it was, the General Council pulled back the curtain on a schism that was already occurring within the UMC. It also demonstrated how weak the bishops have become in defining the church. Most important, with the battle lines clearly drawn, it set the stage for trench warfare at the next General Conference in 2020.
There are two distinct coalitions within the United Methodist Church, an evangelical-international coalition and a progressive-centrist coalition. In both of the major votes on Monday and Tuesday, the evangelical-international coalition held strong at 55-57 percent of the vote while the progressive-centrist coalition held 43-45 percent. These two coalitions are already functionally distinct denominations.
The intense debates also demonstrated that both coalitions desire an integral church, which binds doctrine, morality, and polity into a coherent framework that supports a clear mission. However, they have diverse interpretations of Wesley’s emphasis on perfect love. Progressive-centrists see love as a mission to bring about full inclusion through social justice, while evangelical-internationals fuse it with biblical fidelity and holiness of heart. Of course, both sides would probably dispute that characterization: Progressive-centrists consider themselves faithful to the Bible in light of the experiences of LGBT persons, and the evangelical-international coalition argues that social holiness is a crucial part of the church's mission. These divisions—over the common language of the Wesleyan tradition, how to interpret Scripture, and what weight human experience should have in theological reasoning—all demonstrate the fact that two churches currently exist under one institutional roof.
By pushing hard for the One Church Plan, the bishops played into the mistrust that both coalitions have toward one another. The progressive-centrists wanted more than the One Church Plan could deliver and the evangelical-internationals thought it went too far. Will Willimon is correct that “the General Conference seems united: We don’t trust bishops.” The mistrust will only grow if individual bishops engage in prophetic critique against one coalition while extending pastoral care to the other. This is already happening. Immediately after the conference, the Western Jurisdiction issued a statement calling for a fully inclusive church, inviting others to join them in dialogue “as we move forward together into a future with hope.” One could interpret this invitation as a move to break. At minimum, it’s a clear call to join one side. This will further erode the capacity of the bishops to minster to the whole church and maintain their authority.
Although it seems momentous, the passage of the Traditional Plan was more of a symbolic gesture than a genuine change. When the Judicial Council meets in April, it will take up the question of whether the entire Traditional Plan is unconstitutional, and no one thinks it will survive fully intact. A good percentage of the plan will be struck down, which will set the stage for another battle at the next General Council in 2020. Members of organizations like the Wesleyan Covenant Association will be meeting in the coming months to formulate a plan on how to move forward.
There may be an exodus in the months ahead, but I doubt it. If the Traditional Plan gets dismembered, the bishops will most likely maintain the status quo until the 2020 General Conference. Local churches and conferences will probably wait it out a little longer. During the coming months, however, members of the UMC must ask themselves how long they will maintain this fight.
Schism is sometimes a tragic necessity. Since the battle lines have been drawn, the best course of action is to turn those temporary markers into permanent ones. All that is required is the institutional will to recognize what is already a fact: The two coalitions are two denominations trying to be born.
Dale M. Coulter is associate professor of historical theology at Regent University.