An update: our Annual Conference narrowly voted against the two petitions I discuss below. This was heavily influenced by speeches about “the UMC my grandparents grew up in” and pleas for us to work it out rather than giving people a way out. In my humble opinion, these arguments were naive to our current realities, found safety in the status quo (see my final paragraph below), and lead us toward a scorched-earth litigation battle.
Debates about homosexuality threaten to break apart the UMC. Though these debates are nothing new, they’ve taken on a new urgency.
At the heart of these debates is this line in our bylaws:
“The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as [ministry] candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.”
United Methodist delegates have upheld that position for forty years, and everything indicates they will continue to uphold it.
But a large minority disagrees. They’ve grown more vocal and more active in their disagreement. “Why don’t they just leave the UMC?” some may ask. Largely (though not entirely) because the church doesn’t get to take its property with it, and the pastor may fear losing his/her pension. A retired Bishop, Will Willimon, explains it this way, “I’m thinking a major division is not going to happen, mostly for financial [and] property reasons. Any group exiting would face having to leave behind lots of resources.”
Leaders have suggested various solutions to help the UMC get beyond its impasse. The most discussed of these is a “local option,” which would allow each local UMC church to amend that line in the bylaws (quoted above). With a supermajority vote, a church could rewrite that line however they choose. This would also allow each Conference to set their own standards for ordaining clergy.
For all the attention that “local option” has received, it creates as many problems as it solves. It instantly has each congregation voting on whether to alter the statement on homosexuality, and if so, how. Our congregations are far from uniform in their beliefs on this issue. We would likely see a number of 60-40 votes, the kind of votes that can tear a church apart. And even after the dust settles on these votes, we’ll have established a bifurcated denomination. Appoint “conservative” pastors only to the churches that preserved the standard line. Appoint “progressive” pastors only to those that amended it.
The Best Option Out There
My conference will be voting this Thursday on two petitions (attached as PDF) that represent the best option I’ve seen. These were both submitted by Bill Arnold. I interviewed Dr. Arnold and reviewed his book on the same subject last year.
Dr. Arnold’s petitions graciously acknowledge the problem with our current situation: (1) We have irreconcilable differences within the denomination. The kind of differences that can’t and shouldn’t be fixed by creating a bifurcated system of “pro-” and “anti-” churches. (2) We have pastors and congregations whose consciences will not allow them to abide by the UMC’s standards. But (3) those pastors and congregations stay, in large part, because of the resources––property and pensions––they would have to leave behind.
Arnold’s petitions allow clergy to keep their pension benefits if they withdraw from the denomination. They also allow a local church to disaffiliate from the UMC and retain full rights to its property, with the votes of 2/3 of its members.
This is not a perfect plan. It could still lead to a number of 60-40 votes. Those would be devastating votes—especially when the majority of a congregation has voted to disaffiliate from the UMC but then must stay because they didn’t achieve a 2/3 majority. I fear the day we begin taking these kinds of votes. I suspect they’ll infuse into local churches the same turmoil and hostility we’ve seen at a denominational level. Sadly, I see no way we can avoid those votes forever.
What the plan does provide is consistency and clarity for those within the UMC and a gracious way out for those with irreconcilable differences. Unlike the “local option,” it doesn’t create a bifurcated denomination. Unlike so many other battles, this plan avoids a scorched earth, winner-takes-all litigation approach.
There is no perfect plan. Each will come with a number of downfalls and dangers. But it has become clear that the UMC can’t continue on the same path—with a clear majority setting the rules while a large minority despises or flouts them. We need a path that will honor both of these groups. The most viable path I’ve seen is in these petitions.
We run the risk of doing what the UMC so often does: we see the problems that a new plan presents and find it easier to do nothing. This is my greatest fear––that for all the talk about new plans and solutions in the UMC, we’ll identify the problems with each new option and opt to maintain our current course—with growing dysfunction and dissatisfaction. It’s time to recognize a path that provides more hope than status quo. I hope Kentucky will lead the way later this week by passing these petitions. Stay tuned.