What will happen at the special General Conference this February? Right now, it’s anyone’s guess. We see through a glass darkly, not able to predict with confidence what the delegates will do and knowing that God can always surprise us and provide a solution to our problems that none of us imagined. Frankly, that’s what I’m praying for.
However, there are a few options that, at this point, seem most likely. Two that we can take off the board are the Simple Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan.
The Simple Plan goes too far. It redefines marriage as two adults, condones sex outside of marriage, prevents conservative annual conferences from refusing to ordain practicing gay persons, and allows pastors throughout the connection to marry gay couples. Whenever similar proposals have come before General Conference in the past, they have been defeated by a wide margin. The majority of The United Methodist Church has not yet moved this far in a progressive direction.
The Connectional Conference Plan creates three jurisdictions, each one with a different sexual ethic. No coalition has formed to support it and no group is doing the hard work of promoting it to the rest of the church. The plan requires numerous constitutional amendments and there is little likelihood that a super majority of both General Conference delegates and then later of annual conference delegates around the globe will support it.
The plan with the greatest likelihood of passing is the Traditional Plan. It maintains our present position of affirming the worth of and welcoming all persons to the ministries of the church without allowing for practicing gay persons to be ordained or for our pastors to marry gay couples. The Traditional Plan has several provisions that would allow the church to enforce the Book of Discipline more effectively when pastors and bishops violate our policies. Each of these provisions will need to be approved individually.
Why is the Traditional Plan most likely to pass? Because it is most in line with what delegates have supported at every General Conference since 1972. It was the plan that the majority of the delegates supported less than three years ago in Portland – most of whom will be voting again in St. Louis. Whether all of the enhanced accountability measures can be passed remains to be seen. But it is most likely that a Traditional Plan of sorts will prevail. And a Traditional Plan provides the most hopeful path to a faithful future for The United Methodist Church.
It is also possible that no plan will be approved. If General Conference begins to approve a Traditional Plan, it is very likely that some progressives will move to keep the conference from passing a plan. Some will do so surreptitiously. There will be countless “points of order,” amendments, and substitute resolutions coming from the floor, bringing work on a Traditional Plan to a standstill. Others will be more blatant. In the past, scores of pro-LGBTQ supporters have entered the bar of the conference without permission and have brought deliberations to a halt with their chanting and protests. The bishops have been reticent to remove the demonstrators and the better part of a day has been lost before the protesters have been convinced to leave the conference floor.
At past General Conferences when the delegates met for nearly two weeks, the protests were a temporary disruption to the work of the conference. But in St. Louis, the delegates will have only three days to select, perfect and pass a plan. It’s very possible, unless the bishops are willing to remove the protesters forcibly and quickly, that their demonstrations will not allow sufficient time for the conference to complete its work.
If nothing is passed, we will return to our churches with the same position – and the same divisions – that presently characterize the denomination. So, will we be stuck with the status quo?
No. It is highly probable that we will enter a time of chaos and crisis. Progressives will be angry that nothing has changed. Their liberal bishops will have failed them. Their “centrist” partners who assured them that they could change the church democratically will have proven themselves, once again, ineffective and out of touch with the majority of United Methodists.
The progressives will see no other method of change left open to them but wide-scale disobedience. It would not be surprising for large numbers of progressive United Methodist pastors to co-officiate high-profile gay weddings. In 1999 the “Sacramento 68” – ordained UM pastors, actually numbering over 100 – jointly conducted such a service without any enforcement of the church’s position. We could see the same in the coming months should no plan pass – only on a much larger scale. More Boards of Ordained Ministry are likely to announce publicly, as many have already, that they will ignore our policy of not ordaining practicing gay persons.
And there is little reason to believe progressive bishops would enforce the Book of Discipline in any meaningful way. If a Traditional Plan passes, there would at least be some ways for the church to counteract such disobedience. But if no plan passes, chaos would be the order of the day.
What would conservative churches do? Many would stop paying apportionments, either in total or, at least, the part that supports our national boards and agencies, including the episcopal fund that pays the bishops’ salaries. Some will leave the denomination. And some, before they go, would attempt to lead their annual conference out of The United Methodist Church.
Is it possible that General Conference will pass the One Church Plan – allowing every pastor, every congregation, and every annual conference to determine its own sexual ethic? It is not likely; but yes, it is possible. If it does, we know what will happen. Exactly what has happened in every other mainline denomination that has liberalized its sexual ethics. Traditionalists will leave – lay people, pastors, and congregations. But only after lengthy, litigious, and costly battles have been fought. That’s not a threat. It’s reality. It’s what we learn from other denominations – all the other denominations – who have gone this way before. The only way around this dire scenario is for General Conference to provide an equitable exit path for congregations to leave with their property.
I do not know what will happen in St. Louis, but the glass I am looking through is dark. And my heart is heavy. We Wesleyans have a most marvelous gift to give the world. It’s a gift of grace and hope and power that comes from God himself.
Instead, the bishops we asked and empowered to think creatively to end our division, are offering the world a church that will continue to be embattled, self-absorbed and dysfunctional. My heart breaks because it did not have to be this way.
Is there any hope? Yes, God is good and God is sovereign. I believe he still has plans for the people called Methodist. Maybe it will take a period of crisis and chaos for progressive and centrist leaders to realize that the time has come to stop denying reality and embroiling the church in a destructive battle that ruins our witness and harms our churches. Maybe the months after St. Louis will be the dark that comes before the dawn. Or maybe, even before St. Louis, we can come to our senses and work for a future where there are no winners or losers, no victims or villains – just people who see things differently and who are willing to set each other free.
Surprise us, Lord God. Surprise us.
Renfroe is the president of Good News, an unofficial advocacy group that seeks to strengthen enforcement of church laws on homosexuality.