In recent weeks many have laid out plans for how the United Methodist Church should move forward in the midst of our arguments about schism. I offer the following as the most viable of the proposals yet suggested. I do not endorse it, but given the costs of all alternative proposals I have yet seen, it may end up being the best option.
Ideally, a proposal would articulate a new order for the United Methodist Church which is reflective of the will of the Church, coherent, and enforceable. This proposal achieves none of these goals. But, what it does offer is almost complete continuity with the United Methodist tradition, a total absence of obstacles getting passed at the General Conference, avoidance of the need for individual churches to vote on how they should sort out their stance, mechanisms for conservatives to continue to assert that the Church supports their position unequivocally, and allowance for progressives to continue ordaining homosexuals and administering homosexual weddings.
What is the proposal? It is as elegant as it is pragmatic. Don’t do anything. Conservatives control the official statements in the Discipline. Progressives all the way up to the Council of Bishops flagrantly ignore these statements. Bishops are free to bring charges or not in each particular case of non-compliance with the Discipline, or to pursue “just resolutions” to the cases where offenders sip latte with the Bishop and talk shop. Homosexuals actually get ordained and appointed in some conferences, but don’t in others. We all just keep going.
The Most United Methodist Option
There has been a great deal of talk recently about the importance of enforcing Order in the United Methodist Church. I am entirely in agreement with this point. As an academic, I love the clean and orderly world of rule based theories, and would love to find a theory that could be forced upon the messy world of practice. But, for all the advantages of Order, it is a rather strange principle to bring up as central to United Methodism. The United Methodist tradition is pragmatic through and through, and theory rarely trumps practice. Just look at our current Discipline.
The Confession of Faith, one of the foundational documents of The United Methodist Church states that “We believe war and bloodshed are contrary to the gospel and spirit of Christ.” The claim is basically repeated in the Social Principles, where it declares that “We believe war is incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ.” Taking such statements at face value, on pain of apparent logical contradiction, we should be a pacifist Church. But, of course, in practice we are not. In fact, even within the Social Principles themselves, we go on to articulate conditions under which war is acceptable and to accept the role of Christians as soldiers. Some of our churches celebrate Veterans Day and Memorial Day with special celebrations for those who have served in the military. Disorder is built into the very Discipline itself on this issue in order to allow for the diversity of our actual practices.
Take another example: alcohol. Here, as the Social Principles state: “We affirm our long-standing support of abstinence from alcohol as a faithful witness to God’s liberating and redeeming love for persons.” This is our standard in theory but rarely in our living rooms. If we brought all ministers who are “self-avowed practicing drinkers of alcohol” to church trial, we would run out of funds for the proceedings long before we were able purge ourselves of offenders.
I could go on into other issues where we either say contradictory things, say things that are vague enough that we can mostly ignore them, or just say one thing and do something else, but I think these two are high enough profile cases to make the point. Whatever the claims of Jurisdictional or Local, or even Amicable Separation options to be grounded in the polity of The United Methodist Church, there is nothing quite so United Methodist as figuring out how to set aside our official rules in order to allow for the diversity of actual practice in the Church.
The Most Practical Option
Almost all other proposals come with extremely high costs. Some face massive legislative hurdles. Some would change our constitution, and/or create multiple overlapping church structures, progressive and conservative. As the last General Conference proved, the deck of probability is clearly stacked against massive changes (1) surviving to become Church law amidst the contesting parties at the General Conference and (2) surviving judicial review afterwards. But despite the chances, arguments about proposed plans may yet suck the oxygen out of the entire Conference, limiting focus on the many other issues that The United Methodist Church needs to deal with.
Alternative proposals also all have massive downsides in terms of their potential impact on Church membership. The majority of United Methodists would mostly like arguments about homosexuality to just go away. Individual congregations have members who deeply disagree on the issue, but this doesn’t bring about conflict so long as they are able to discuss them in Sunday school then go to the potluck after church together. Adding power politics to the mix, however, would inevitably leave some members bruised and feeling excluded. Thus, any proposal that includes churches voting about how to locate themselves is likely to have negative effects on membership. This effect would be starker the more churches are required to vote. Some plans admirably attempt to limit the number of Churches that would enter into a voting process, but all proposals to change the status quo involve some mechanism for the change, and thus some strife.
The “don’t do anything” option sidesteps these costs. There are no legislative hurdles to be jumped. The “don’t do anything” option, if widely embraced would literally take no time from the General Conference. We can leave the language of the Discipline just as it is, and progressives have already shown that they know how to create work-arounds that allow them to avoid enforcing the Discipline. Churches and Conferences are left to muddle on, on their own. There is, doubtless a greater level of arbitrariness involved in not doing anything, because there would be no policies or officially enforced mechanisms to govern the process of discernment. But, hey, c‘est la vie.
But, won’t progressives continue to protest? Won’t conservatives leave the Church? Yea, probably. But some of this will just take care of itself. Conservatives can still tout that they have not compromised on the language in the Discipline. African United Methodist can still point to the official teaching the Discipline. And, as churches in the US adjust to having a Discipline that is not universally or uniformly enforced on this issue progressives will find places where they are able to minister in the ways that they see fit.
I am not yet convinced that this is the best option for the United Methodist Church. I long for a position that would allow our official position to do justice to the reality of faithful and rational disagreement that exists in the Church. I want unity, enforceable order, and justice in The United Methodist Church. However, all of the plans proposed thus far to find an enforceable order come with significant costs. So, it seems reasonable at this point to think about what it might look like just to live with the mess we’ve got.