A Hopeful Way Forward for Progressive United Methodists
by Jack Jackson
Special to United Methodist Insight
Almost a month after the conclusion of General Conference one thing is clear-the forty-year quest by progressive United Methodists to fully include LGBTQI+ persons in the life of the church is now over.
The effort was on life support after the 2012 conference as delegates from the Global South asserted their voice and power. It was briefly salvaged after a last-ditch effort at the 2016 conference when progressive leaders begged delegates to make one last heroic effort for unity. After three years of holy conferencing, planning, months of prayer, and a full day of worship and prayer that cost the denomination about $750,000, delegates stuck to the traditionalist direction that has guided the UMC since its founding in 1968.
Despite potential voter irregularities, the investigation of which both traditionalists and progressives would be wise to encourage, the denomination’s traditionalist direction is now set. United Methodist progressives have three options before them, one of which provides hope and potential missional vitality. The other two lead to slow and painful irrelevance for progressive United Methodists both in the UMC and in western cultures more broadly.
The hopeful option is for progressives to form a new progressive Methodist denomination. A new denomination would allow progressives to form a community that reflects their convictions regarding human sexuality. This new body would be the only fully inclusive Methodist denomination in the United States and could provide an immediate home for LGBTQI+ persons and their supporters.
Already some senior progressive leaders who see this as the only hopeful option are in strategic talks with a handful of leading traditionalists to create a plan of separation. More conversations will take place in the coming months across the country, and perhaps in Europe, and an initial blueprint for this new community may be public by late summer or the fall.
While a fully inclusive denomination would find its center in the United States, it might be welcomed in much of Europe, and find a few adherents in other parts of the world as well. This new denomination may or may not have “affiliate” status with the UMC.
Progressives and traditionalists should welcome and encourage these conversations. This path would allow progressive United Methodists a truly inclusive church that could devote itself this inclusive vision of Christ’s mission and reallocate time, money, and other resources that have been spent on the fight toward a vibrant and progressive Methodist witness for years to come.
Traditionalists should offer a generous exit to progressives. If progressives are willing to pay their pension and mortgage obligations, traditionalists should vote to allow churches, annual conferences, and even jurisdictions to leave, with their property, upon a majority or supermajority vote of each body.
If progressives reject separation, they have only two other options.
The first is to accept the democratic will of the delegates to General Conference. Progressives could mourn, investigate, and then accept the reality that the UMC’s traditionalist direction is now set for decades. While this is an option, I’ve spoken to no progressive who embraces it.
The final option is for progressives to double down and continue the fight with a sacred resistance to the denomination’s democratic will. This was the first response on the conference floor as progressives stood and claimed the battle would continue. It was also reflected in numerous newspaper advertisements by clergy and local churches supporting the LGBTQI+ community and is part of the energy behind calls to investigate voter fraud.
While these charges should be investigated, progressives would be wise to recognize that even if the allegations are true, there is no way to correct them and the denomination’s increasingly traditionalist direction will remain unchanged. Continuing the fight will feel righteous, but it will prove futile and perhaps devastate the progressive Methodist witness over the long term.
Its futility lies in the denomination’s demographic reality. While United Methodists in the United States and Europe are split over human sexuality, with somewhere around 40% of the current membership supporting prohibitions on the ordination and marriage of gay persons, the UMC in the rest of the world is remarkably united where upwards of 90-98% of membership supporting the current Disciplinary language. Since this latter group is the part of the church that is growing, its voice in critical decisions, including next year’s regularly scheduled General Conference, will only continue to grow.
This growth should have been even more evident last month. While much has been made about a few cases of potential voter fraud, there seems little awareness in some progressive circles that the traditionalist voice was underrepresented since approximately 30 African delegates failed to receive their visas and therefore did not vote.
By the 2020 General Conference delegates will reflect the growth of traditionalists who will then make up approximately 55-60% of the global delegates. In short, progressives have no chance of overtaking the democratic majority for at least a generation and perhaps much longer.
Progressives cannot afford to wait a generation on the mere hope they might one day prevail. US membership in progressive conferences and jurisdictions is in free fall. Decline is evident in most traditionalist North American ones as well, but the drop is stark in progressive ones.
Indeed, some UMC laity and clergy are already mapping their way out of the denomination. Some laity left the Sunday after General Conference, never to return. Others will leave in the coming months and years as the traditionalist hold on the denomination becomes fully evident. Some clergy who can retire early will do so, knowing they can no longer serve in a denomination they view as fundamentally unjust.
Even more disturbing for current progressive United Methodists is the effect of the headlines following General Conference on potential UMC members and clergy. The negative impact of the New York Times front page article, "United Methodists Tighten Ban on Same-Sex Marriage and Gay Clergy," and the Patheos.com headline, "It’s Official: We Are The United Methodist Church That Hates Gays", is difficult to overstate. Many potential clergy and laity who might have sought a home in the UMC will now simply turn elsewhere. And they are not going to wait a few years, or a few decades, for the UMC to sort itself out on human sexuality.
Fighting is simply no longer an option if the progressive goal is a vital missional community that welcomes all numerous visions of human sexuality.
The next four to eight years will be painful ones for the denomination no matter which path progressives choose. But a decision by progressives to welcome and encourage conversations on a generous separation will give progressives and traditionalists alike the chance to pursue their distinct missional visions and offer hope for a truly vibrant future.
The Rev. Dr. Jack Jackson, Ph.D., serves as E. Stanley Jones Associate Professor of Evangelism, Mission, and Global Methodism and Director of the Center for Global Methodism at UMC-related Claremont School of Theology in Claremont, Calif.