As everyone who follows the Methodist blogging world knows, the United Methodist Church is in a crisis of apocalyptic proportions. So what should we do? What will we do? I suspect the answer is nothing. And that’s not so bad really.
The crucial issue is (of course) homosexuality, especially homosexual marriage and homosexual weddings. Conservatives have managed to determine the shape of the official Church stance, but progressives have found ways to sidestep or just ignore this stance in some regions.
A few years ago I was more optimistic about hammering out a coherent compromise within the church, but have long since become cynical about these efforts. There are several reasons for this. First, because there are extremists on either side who are willing to blow up any compromise. But not all of the dysfunction should be blamed on the extremists. The logistic, moral, liturgical, and theological issues involved have turned out to be more intractable than I earlier thought. People of good faith have labored on these issues without making headway. None of this has been made any easier by the (lack of) institutional structures for fruitful dialogue. We live in a Church that only gets together every four years for a couple weeks to actually iron out the details of our common life. This structure is clearly insufficient, and the patchwork of social media engagement that has developed in the interim has shown itself entirely unsuitable for profitable discussion.
In any case, at the end of four years of fighting, there is no real compromise position that has emerged. So at this point there are really four alternatives. All proposals at this point are versions or mixtures of these.
1. We strengthen enforcement of the current standard in the Discipline.
This is the alternative where conservatives “win” and progressives “lose.” It is unlikely that it will carry the day at General Conference. While the conservative position likely gains strength via the growth of the votes of African United Methodists at the conference, the progressive position will likely have picked up more votes among the European and American voters. Aside from this, it would not really resolve the issue. Progressives have proven perfectly willing to find ways around previous declarations of the General Conference. There is no reason to think that more statements on the need for enforcement would significantly change the situation. The most likely outcome is that progressives would respond with two different strategies. On the one hand, they would continue to ordain and do weddings without publicizing, and since these practices are accepted in significant pockets of the church no one will complain. On the other hand, some progressives will continue to pursue the practice of ecclesial disobedience. The cost to the church in terms of Church trials and bad publicity would only speed the decline of the denomination.
2. We change the current standard.
This is the option where progressives “win” and conservatives “lose.” For the reasons cited above, this too is unlikely to pass at the General Conference. Further, passing it would lead to similarly problematic outcomes. Changing the official stance of the Church would lead to outright rebellion from conservative churches and clergy. Some would start withholding apportionments to the General Conference, declaring de facto independence. More extreme congregations will seek to leave the Church. The cost associated with trials to enforce the trust clause would build up. Bishops would be forced to decide whether it is worth it to even fight the attrition. Inevitably, the effect would be to speed the decline of the denomination.
3. We split the Church down conservative/progressive lines.
This is the option where extremists on both side “win,” and the majority in the middle “loses.” There is no reason to think that the General Conference would even seriously consider an plan for schism. In any case, in order to split, the two sides would have to agree on how to split. The changes of agreement there is only slightly less likely than the emergence of a grand bargain in which both sides come together to sing Kumbaya on the Conference floor. Besides this, the effect of a split would be catastrophic for United Methodist congregations. Most include people on both sides of the disagreement, and being forced to decide between a new progressive or conservative version of United Methodism would inevitably ostracize members on one side or the other. The result would be to speed the decline of the denomination.
4. We don’t do anything.
This is the option where everyone loses, but a relatively small amount. Regardless of how much effort is put in by varying interest groups, this is the most likely outcome of the General Conference on issues regarding homosexuality. Conservatives retain the ability to say the official position of the Church is reflected in their practice and theology, and where they control the mechanisms of enforcement they are able to enforce these standards. But they might as well get used to the fact that this standard will not be universally enforced across the church. Progressives get to continue and indeed expand their efforts to establish a new policy in practice which includes ordaining LGBTQ persons and performing gay weddings. The Church will suffer some attrition from extremists who cannot live with the de facto compromise, but the loss is nothing compared to what would happen if either side “won” over the other.
You will find few blogs arguing for the forth option. Most of those participating in the conversation at this point are devoted to one side or the other. But, it turns out that the majority of the United Methodist Church is not. Despite the perception in the blogging world that we are at the edge of a catastrophe, most United Methodists in the pews don’t even know that any of this is going on. They are just good people, coming together in worship, serving at their local food banks and homeless shelters, and contributing to the broader mission of the church. The first three options above will bring a catastrophe to their doorstep. But there is no necessity to this. There is no solution that will make everyone happy, but we can figure out how to muddle on in ministry together. In fact, the solution is easy. Just don’t do anything.