By Jack Jackson, Special Contributor…
After years of debate over progressive views of lesbian and gay ordination and marriage, the United Methodist Church reaffirmed its traditional stance at the 2012 General Conference in Tampa, Fla. Due to the UMC’s growth in Africa and Asia and decline in Europe and North America, many progressives fear the denomination will retain current prohibitions around LGBT inclusion for years to come. Advocates of inclusion are, therefore, left with four choices of how to proceed: covenanting to partner with the majority (whether or not it reflects a progressive vision), leaving the denomination for progressive ones, civil disobedience, or starting a conversation for an equitable division of the UMC.
This summer, the Western and Northeastern Jurisdictions, along with numerous pastors and churches in other jurisdictions, chose civil disobedience. While calling for noncompliance to the Book of Discipline heartens many progressives, it may destroy the possibility of their progressive Wesleyan vision coming to fruition. Of the four options, I propose that for missional reasons the best alternative for progressives is to begin a conversation about an equitable division of the denomination. By missional I mean a vibrant community of churches that lives its corporate understanding of Christ’s call to ministry in the world.
But let’s look at all four options. The first, to stay in covenant with the UMC while working toward inclusion, is the one most progressives chose over the last 30 years. Despite the demographic shifts mentioned above which indicate United Methodism will retain its theological stance against inclusion, some progressives will choose unity over protest or division. But this is increasingly untenable for many progressives, as evidenced by their recent embrace of the second and third options.
The second option is to leave, or never join, the UMC in favor of progressive, fully inclusive denominations. While it is difficult to quantify the popularity of this option, I know many laity and seminarians who have changed denominational affiliation because of the UMC’s lack of inclusion. Even at General Conference, I talked with people who said they were tired of the conversation, concerned about the poor prospects for change and were leaving for other denominations. My suspicion is that many people simply don’t become United Methodist because of the ongoing conflict over inclusion: progressives because of the UMC’s lack of inclusion; and traditionalists because they don’t want to be part of a denomination that’s in constant turmoil over the issue.
The third option for progressives, one increasingly in play, is civil disobedience. The growing appeal of this was evidenced this summer in three acts: retired Bishop Melvin Talbert’s call to the California-Pacific Conference to act as if denominational prohibitions do not exist; the Western Jurisdiction’s “Statement of Gospel Obedience”; and the Northeastern Jurisdiction’s call to work against the Discipline when conscience dictates. Many progressives now choose to defy General Conference when they believe it acts unjustly and unbiblically.
Yet exercising this option, for a number of reasons, may destroy the possibility for a more progressive vision of Christian mission to flourish in the UMC.
First, progressives don’t seem to have the resources to both stem the tide of decline nationwide and work towards inclusion. The UMC in the West and Northeast is retreating at an alarming rate. Choosing disobedience means resources of time, energy and money will continue to flow to the debate instead of bearing down on the reasons behind the UMC’s plummeting membership. If the UMC is to survive we must focus on the critical problems that plague our denomination. Yet it is the belief that inclusion is a justice issue, worth any cost, along with a belief that time is on progressives’ side, which justifies to some their advocacy of civil disobedience.
Second, there is little if any chance the denomination will become inclusive over the next generation. Africa and Asia, where the UMC is growing, voted almost 100 percent in support of current language. Even if 25 percent of these regions voted for inclusion in the coming years, a highly speculative assumption, General Conference as a whole would still vote to retain current prohibitions. While progressives may grow as a percentage of the UMC in North America, they almost certainly will not grow globally.
Therefore, after another generation of fighting, progressives will be little, if any, closer to making the UMC inclusive. But with 30 additional years of diverted resources and of progressives leaving the UMC for other denominations, the opportunity for a vibrant progressive vision of Christian mission in the UMC will have faded. Progressives will have a sense of pride in fighting the fight, but the result will be a shell of a progressive movement within the UMC. Time is no longer on the progressives’ side.
Third, the civil disobedience option ignores the reality that many progressives are choosing the second option of leaving the UMC or never entering it. People who might have chosen to live out their call to ministry or membership in the UMC are actively looking for, or have already moved to, other denominations. Many young progressives care about the LGBT inclusion, but are not willing to fight in a denomination they see as unfaithful. The longer progressives live in this third option of civil disobedience, the more their future lifeblood drains away.
Fourth, many advocates of civil disobedience ignore, or seem unaware of, the way many traditionalists will respond if current prohibitions are overturned. It is impossible to give percentages, but a significant number of traditionalists will not be part of an inclusive denomination. Were the UMC, either in the United States or globally, to become progressive on LGBT ordination and marriage, many traditionalists would simply exit for new or existing denominations (Wesleyan or otherwise). The result would be an enormous financial and material burden to progressives who remain. Let’s imagine only 10 percent of North American membership were to leave over a few years. The resulting financial burden would overwhelm the current apportionment system, crippling the UMC infrastructure.
These reasons make the choice for civil disobedience a destructive option with little chance of establishing a sustainable, progressive vision of United Methodist mission.
If what progressives desire is a vibrant Wesleyan movement rooted in progressive values, especially as they relate to LGBT ordination and marriage, as opposed to an inclusive UMC at any cost, I propose a fourth option. Let’s begin serious discussion about dividing from one UMC to at least two new, distinct denominations.
This conversation would of course have to navigate many significant issues. They would include property (local church, Annual Conference, Jurisdictional Conference and denominational property), clergy pensions and seminaries, to name but a few. Other issues—such as the fact that the progressive/traditionalist divide is not purely geographic as a number of congregations and clergy in the West are rather traditionalist, while many progressives find their home in the Southeast—will also be problematic. Furthermore, the majority of the UMC that tries to live in the middle may be hesitant to claim a home in either a progressive or traditional vision of United Methodism.
Nevertheless, out of missional necessity, and in the light of the denomination’s continued decline, it is time for a conversation to begin on an equitable split of the UMC.
Beginning the conversation acknowledges the true endgame of our current direction: division. Progressive and traditionalist visions of human sexuality are simply incompatible. Most of Protestantism recognizes this. We can argue all we want, but there is no solution to our theological quandary that offers unity, common visions of Christian mission and an ability to focus on the deep systemic issues which plague the UMC.
Starting this conversation will require humility from progressives and traditionalists alike. Progressives will have to realize that time is not on their side and ask for an equitable division, or at least be given the chance to create a new Methodist denomination that reflects their progressive values. They will have to recognize that traditionalists could simply leave the denomination were progressives to succeed, and that their departure would leave a financially unsustainable UMC.
Traditionalists in turn will need to recognize that equitable division, or allowing progressives to take appropriate assets and form a new progressive denomination, is actually in their best interests. Not allowing a split means a generational fight that they may win, but which will drain their already declining resources for years to come. United Methodism, even its most traditionalist vision, is barely holding its own in the United States. Turning resources towards a vibrant missional future, instead of continuing the fight, will allow traditionalists to focus on the broader mission to which they feel called.
We’ve reached gridlock. The UMC continues its decline and there is no solution to the stalemate over human sexuality. Division may provide space for the Holy Spirit to bless one or both visions. If Christ’s mission is our goal, and if progressives and traditionalists love our church, then it is our vision of mission, not unity, which must be our prize.
The Rev. Jackson is E. Stanley Jones Assistant Professor of Evangelism, Mission and Global Methodism at Claremont School of Theology and an ordained elder in the Florida Conference.