Here’s how I see it.
The United Methodist Church, which has been in existence since 1968 (52 years as of this April), has spent most of those 52 years arguing about the “proper” place of homosexual persons in the Church: for example, should they be permitted to worship in our churches and, if so, should they also be permitted to hold leadership roles? For several decades, the United Methodist Book of Discipline – our official “rule book,” if you will – has promoted two seemingly contradictory tenets:
In order to reconcile these two statements, some have said that, yes, LGBTQ+ persons are of sacred worth, being created in the image of God; but that does not mean that God accepts their gay lifestyle, as though somehow their inherent, at-birth orientation were somehow a choice (and, therefore, a sin, like the proverbial list of sins that begins with “white lies” and ends with murder). As Democratic Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg replied to Vice President Mike Pence’s anti-gay stance, “Your quarrel, sir, is with my Creator.”
Others have never been interested in reconciling the Discipline’s two statements from the get-go. Instead, they choose one or the other to argue against the one with which they disagree, and thence, we have the seemingly never-ending “dialogue” (read: argument) that has brought us to this point.
Finally, at the 2019 special-called General Conference, the Church said, “Enough! Let’s decide on this once and for all and let the chips fall where they may.” In fulfillment of that desire, a panel of 16 persons – clergy and lay; Traditionalists, Centrists, and Progressives – was created with representatives from all over the world to work on what is today called “A Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace through Separation” (not sure how you use “reconciliation” and “separation” in the same sentence, but I guess that remains to be seen). The racially and age-diverse 13 men and three women met under the guidance of internationally-known negotiator Kenneth Feinberg (whose credits include negotiating post-9/11 concerns and the BP oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico). Among the gaps that I noticed was the absence of any youth representation.
Tim Tanton, Director of United Methodist News, moderated the scripted discussion. I say “scripted” with confidence, because no one made any secret of the fact that s/he was reading either off a TelePrompter or from notes they held on their laps. Additionally, the hand-held microphones used by Mr. Feinberg and his 16 panelists were passed in advance to the next speaker. It was evident that each person knew ahead of time when s/he would be called on to speak. All of that to say, it was not exactly a spontaneous format.
In anticipating the January 13th live-streamed discussion, someone a few days ago – from the Traditionalist camp – said something that got me thinking. The gist of it was, “How do the Progressives get to determine who stays in the denomination and who is supposed to leave? Traditionalists are only holding on to what’s been accepted in the UMC ever since its inception. Since Progressives are the ones who want something different, why aren’t they the ones who should be leaving the Traditionalist camp?” That made sense to me, until I heard the report from the Protocol Committee where one member was quite clear in stating that it was the Traditionalists who requested to leave! I suppose the other factor that comes into play is that there are not as many Traditionalists as there are Progressives and Centrists combined so that, in effect, Traditionalists are in a numerical minority (despite the fact that it was they who won the vote at General Conference 2019). Progressives and Centrists want to start with the UMC in its present position and move it forward. Traditionalists are content to leave things just as they have been in recent decades.
When I consider the situation from a theological perspective, I am comforted. In my optimism I remember that everything that exists today began as chaos – “without form and void,” as Genesis describes it. And, from that collection of chaotic raw materials, God was able to make something that was given the “good” (or even “very good”) label. There is hardly any tragedy that has occurred in history out of which some good has not come. Eventually, life springs forth from destruction; unity returns to the scene of division; all working toward the final reconciliation of creation that God is working out.
So, even though it looks inevitable that the United Methodist Church will, in fact, split (my prediction), and its members will grieve over the reality that an issue as comparatively inconsequential as homosexuality was the cause, I believe that God will delight in having two new sources of raw material from which to grow two new Methodist denominations. The United Methodist Church will never again be the Church we have known all our lives. But, with God’s grace, it will be better than we have ever known before.
(By the way, I say “comparatively” inconsequential, not because the issue isn’t important, but, in my humble opinion, there are much more pressing concerns such as homelessness, poverty, disease, natural disasters, and the like that supersede our discomfort with what goes on behind closed doors with two same-sex people simply sharing their love for each other. I would be much happier if we were taking the millions of dollars we are investing in struggling to find a way forward denominationally and using them to put a little food in a starving kid’s bowl. But that’s just me.)
(By the way again – it should be stated emphatically that the decision on whether to split or to take some other course will not be made definitely until General Conference in May 2020. Until that time, everything remains “as is”).
I have other thoughts, but I’ll see if there’s a later time to bring them up. Should you be interested in watching the archived discussion from January 13, you can find it here: https://youtu.be/q2wZQyAjU6M. It takes about 70 minutes, but you can hear first-hand what was said and see if you come away with the same or different conclusions from mine.
May the Lord bless the United Methodist Church and use whatever future lies in store for making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world through its dedicated members.