These are difficult days in the United Methodist Church. The divide in our denomination between those who differ on the compatibility of homosexuality with Christian teaching is deeper than ever. Both sides are frustrated. Both sides are hurting. Both sides want a solution, though different people on each side have different ideas on what constitutes a solution. Many hope that conservatives and progressives will work out a compromise and remain together in a united United Methodist Church. One recent proposal aimed at such unity comes from Adam Hamilton and has been endorsed by a number of others in the denomination. The proposal has already been analyzed by some and evaluated for its strengths and weaknesses, and more analysis will undoubtedly be forthcoming. This is good. Proposals like this have potential for a massive impact on the UMC, and they come with a variety of intended and unintended consequences. Shared dialogue is very important, especially since our future as United Methodists is at stake.
Before I get to the proposal itself, let me say that I have a great deal of respect for Adam Hamilton. I've read his books, participated in his mentoring groups, used his materials, and implemented some of his strategies. Like many, I have benefited greatly from the resources that Adam has made available to the Church. I appreciate and have attempted to imitate his practice of looking for the helpful contributions and strengths of perspectives other than his own. So, the following evaluation comes in the context of years of appreciation.
A Double Proposal
The heart of the proposal in "A Way Forward" is twofold:
- Local churches would have the authority to determine the nature and extent of their ministry with gay and lesbian people, including whether they will or will not allow same gender unions.
- Each Annual Conference would have the authority to determine whether or not it will allow self-avowed, practicing homosexuals to be ordained.
The goal of moving these decisions to local and regional levels is "to end the rancor, animosity and endless debate that divide our denomination every four years at General Conference." Those who have signed off on this document believe that it "would allow conservative, centrist and progressive churches to come to their own conclusions regarding this important issue and to focus on how best to minister in their own communities."
The "A Way Forward" proposal is set forth as a compromise that would keep progressives and conservatives together in a single United Methodist Church. The idea is that if local groups get to make their own decisions, then everyone will be happy, or at least able to live together. But is this proposal really a compromise? I fear that it is not. If General Conference permitted those Annual Conferences that choose to ordain practicing homosexuals to do so, then that would amount to General Conference giving its blessing to the practice of homosexuality. Allowing the decision to be made locally does not amount to a neutral position on the part of the General Conference. If this proposal were implemented, it means that The United Methodist Church would affirm the compatibility of homosexual practice with Christian teaching, even if it did not require all Annual Conferences to ordain practicing homosexuals and local churches to bless homosexual unions. Implementing this proposal would necessitate the removal of the "incompatible" language from the Discipline and it would necessitate the removal of the language that forbids same sex unions in local United Methodist churches. This is not a compromise. This is a reversal of the denominational position. Allowing those who so desire to abstain from participation does not change the reality that this would be a win for progressives and a capitulation for conservatives.
Forward or Apart?
Others will certainly have a different take on this plan, and I welcome some healthy and charitable dialogue on the matter. But as I see it, given that this proposal amounts to an affirmation by the General Church on homosexual practice, it is unacceptable for those who affirm the current stance of the United Methodist Church with regard to homosexuality. If implemented, many conservatives would find themselves unable to remain in the United Methodist Church and would feel forced to leave the denomination. As a result, the implementation of this plan would not help us avoid a split. Instead, it would lead us ever further down the path toward schism. I suspect that we would experience something similar to what has happened in The Episcopal Church. Conservatives churches (and perhaps whole Annual Conferences) would pull out of the denomination to go it alone, affiliate with another denomination, or form new associations. This plan is not a way forward; it would push us further apart.