On February 23, the United Methodist Church will hold a special General Conference in St. Louis to decide how to move forward in the debate over ordaining practicing homosexuals and blessing same-sex unions. It is a precarious moment that will spell out the future of the largest sister of Mainline Protestantism.
Last July, the Council of Bishops offered three possible plans for moving forward: the One Church Plan, the Connectional Conference Plan, and the Traditional Plan. The One Church Plan calls for removing language from the Book of Discipline that upholds traditional teaching on sexuality, and allowing individual churches and conferences to decide on the basis of conscience whether they will permit same-sex unions or homosexual bishops. The Connectional Conference Plan calls for completely reorganizing the regional conferences around shared beliefs rather than geography—in other words, creating traditionalist and progressive conferences and trying to hold them together. The Modified Traditional Plan calls for upholding the traditional teaching on sexuality and then offering an exit path for any local churches or conferences that disagree.
Even though the bishops offered three plans, most have come out in support of the One Church Plan, even creating a website to push it. They hope this plan will preserve the denomination's unity by allowing individual churches and ministers the freedom to follow their own theological convictions. Most of the traditionalists urge adoption of the Modified Traditional Plan—traditionalists that include organizations like the Wesleyan Covenant Association and the Africa Initiative Group, which represents many African Methodists.
After watching this debate unfold for a long time, I do not think the progressive and traditionalist wings of the UMC can live together any longer. The One Church Plan is garnering support because it tries to maintain a big tent, but in reality, it will set the stage for death by a thousand cuts—not least because bishops control the appointments of pastors to churches and the plan allows them to maintain control of those appointments. There is little to keep bishops from appointing pastors that reflect their own theological convictions. Moreover, there is a distinct possibility that if the General Conference adopts the One Church Plan, the African conferences will split, taking around 5 million members with them. Detractors think they can hold the Africans to the UMC by virtue of funding from the U.S. church, but that may not be the case.
Besides, the One Church Plan merely delays inevitable schism. Thirty percent of delegates at the General Conference come from African churches. This percentage will continue to grow because the African churches are growing at a fast rate while the progressive conferences in the United States are declining. The Western Jurisdiction, the most progressive and also the smallest, will only send 26 delegates. Even if the African churches lose the vote for the One Church Plan, their growth will eventually ensure that they win the war.
This is a war for the soul of the UMC. People on both sides feel strongly about their positions, and I don’t see how they can live together any longer. Progressive and traditionalist churches are pledging to leave if the outcome does not go the way they want. This includes significant churches like Mt. Horeb UMC in Lexington, South Carolina, the largest church in the state conference. The One Church Plan feels like a shotgun wedding when what is really needed is for both sides to walk away. The recent history of the TEC, ELCA, and the PCUSA on this same question suggests that the best way to avoid either a scorched-earth campaign or a slow death with a steady stream of churches departing is to agree to separate amicably.
As Billy Abraham points out in his call for a “Mexit,” the divisions run much deeper than gay marriage and ordination of practicing homosexuals. There are divisions over the interpretation and authority of Scripture, the status of the Book of Discipline and the authority of the General Conference, and the mission of the church. When you cannot even agree on these fundamentals, it’s time to part ways. How could the General Conference continue to define doctrine for a church that no longer agrees on core theological principles? How can you maintain connectionalism when some believe the General Conference’s pronouncements need no longer be considered binding? How could there be a consistent theology of marriage and sexuality one way or the other?
I do not say this with enthusiasm. Parting ways will be a painful process for many Methodists, but many are already leaving, and this trend will continue. The One Church Plan offers a patch for a ship that is sinking. The question for the delegates at the General Conference is whether they should force a relationship already broken beyond repair or find a way to live apart. If they really want freedom of conscience, the prudent course of action is clear.
Dale M. Coulter is associate professor of historical theology at Regent University.