Seven weeks ago today, the Special Session of the General Conference came to an end. For persons hoping the Conference would vote to make the United Methodist Church a more welcoming place for LGBTQ persons and their families, the conference was painful. Even those who supported the Traditional Plan that was approved privately noted, “It doesn’t feel like a victory.”
In the seven weeks since General Conference nearly every committed United Methodist has been asking, What’s next for the UMC? (or, said another way, Where do we go from here?). The bishops, renewal movements, and various caucuses, are all asking the question. Annual Conferences, Jurisdictional Conferences, Central Conferences are in conversations about it. Seminarians, faculty, young clergy, and Boards of Ordained Ministry are discussing it. Pastors are having this conversation with their members. I’ve been in dozens of these conversations in the last seven weeks, as I’m sure you have as well.
In the last month a group of centrists convened two meetings with centrist and progressive leaders to discuss the question. The aim was to take the pulse of a representative sample of leaders who see themselves as compatibilists, to see if there was any emerging consensus about what happens next.
We held two, six-hour conversations—one in Dallas and one in Atlanta. About 70 people participated. They included traditionalist and progressives, evangelicals and liberals, pastors of small churches and pastors of some of our largest churches, members of the LGBT community, people of color. They came from different places, but what united them was their opposition to the decisions made at General Conference. I’d like to attempt to summarize the consensus from these conversations.
We began by recognizing that the Judicial Council of the UMC will be meeting later this month, and it is possible they will strike down portions of the Traditional Plan. That would mean that the Good News/Confessing Movement/Wesleyan Covenant Association (GN/CM/WCA) coalition would likely rework these portions and bring the plan back to a vote next May. In addition, there are concerted efforts underway to elect delegates to next year’s General Conference that would seek to replace the Traditional Plan (though there will be 20 additional delegates from Africa next May, which makes the vote that much more challenging). One thing is clear, the intensity of the conflict next May will not diminish.
As the groups began to discuss what happens if the Traditional Plan is retained at the next General Conference, participants seemed to gravitate to two different paths forward: 1. Leave to form a new United Methodism, or 2. Stay, resist, give the GN/CM/WCA the gracious exit they’ve been looking for in hopes that they will leave, and then reform the United Methodist Church for mission and ministry for the 21st century.
The first path, creating a new UMC, would need to be done in concert with the GN/CM/WCA coalition and the Central Conferences, through some kind of dissolution of the UMC and the creation of two or three new Methodist bodies in its place. Annual conferences might decide which of the Methodist bodies they would associate with, and churches wishing to associate with the other Methodist body would vote to join another annual conference.
There was some genuine excitement about the possibility of reinventing United Methodism for the 21st century, retaining the Doctrinal Standards, the Theological Task and the Social Principles (while removing the incompatibility language), holding together the evangelical and social gospel, the Wesleyan emphasis on grace and sanctification, and a passionate pursuit of both evangelism and social justice. There was also excitement on the part of the bishops and others to reduce the rules of the Discipline and, instead, to place the primary emphasis of the Discipline on supporting and encouraging mission and ministry.
Others recognized that building support for, and actually dissolving the UMC to launch a new Methodism could take years to pull off, that it could have a negative impact on some of the institutions of the church, and on many churches, who are themselves divided. Instead of this approach, they recognized that the GN/CM/WCA coalition had been preparing a plan to leave the denomination for several years, and that some of their leaders and churches had been wanting to leave the UMC far longer than that. Why not offer them the gracious exit that they have sought, and bless them as they go to form the Wesleyan body they’d been hoping to form?