Notes for a New Methodism
BY, Rev. Darren Cushman Wood
The Indianapolis Plan is the only plan conceived by a group that represents the full theological diversity of the denomination’s stance on sexuality. At the table were people diametrically opposed to each other’s opinions, and for the purpose of crafting a realistic plan that is the diversity that matters most. As a result, the hopes and compromises in the plan reflect this diversity.
Some have accused the Indianapolis Plan of being a WCA inspired scheme. They deride the progressives and centrists who worked on the plan for selling out to the traditionalists. Yet, the details of the plan reveal four key compromises that the traditionalists made:
The centrist denomination will be the default position for American annual conferences. According to the plan, no annual conference will be required to take a vote. If they do not vote, then they will automatically become a part of the centrist denomination. No local church will be required to take a vote, and if they do not vote they will align with the choice (made by default or vote) of their annual conference. This gives centrists a huge home court advantage. A traditionalist could make the argument that this is unfair because our current policies are traditionalist. If it was a WCA plan, then the default position throughout the denomination would be to align with the traditionalist denomination.
The legal continuation of The United Methodist Church will be held by the centrist denomination. The unforeseen consequences of this concession may play badly for traditionalists depending on the fairness of centrists in the future.
The general agencies (other than those, such as Wespath, that will serve all future denominations) will become a part of the centrist denomination. One could argue that traditionalists never liked or supported them in the past. Some traditionalists, such as Billy Abraham, have argued that traditionalists should gain control to enact radical conservative reforms. Yet, if they want to pillage them for their resources and dominate their agendas, this will not happen in the Indianapolis Plan.
The plan offers only aspirational recommendations for denominational assets. If the centrists and progressives on the Indianapolis team were carrying the water for traditionalists, then we did a poor job of it. The plan leaves their buckets empty of any specific commitments for assets. The team explored a wide variety of specific proposals and we could not come to any agreement. Instead, we agreed to the general aspirational statement about assets. If this was a WCA inspired plan then the provision about assets would look very different.
These features that are unfriendly to traditionalists is why the WCA’s endorsement of the plan came after much debate and was not unanimous. Like centrists and progressives, they too have their internal disagreements on how best to proceed.
Centrists and progressives do not need to agree with traditionalists, but they need to listen closely to them in this present moment. From a traditionalist perspective, they believe that if anyone should leave the denomination it should be non-traditionalists. They will say that they have not violated the Discipline, unlike non-traditionalists who advocate a “stay and resist” strategy. They too have their own version of “stay and resist” and characters practicing it.
A realistic plan is a compromise. Just as the traditionalists compromised, so too did the centrists in three ways.
A majority vote will be required to realign an annual conference or a local church. Centrists and progressives on the team preferred a two-thirds voting threshold because of the momentous nature of the decision. But when we analyzed a variety of scenarios and stories from other denominations, we felt that a majority vote could also work in many situations. Also, it is important to remember that General Conference has always used a mere majority vote to consider changing our policies on sexuality. Both types of voting thresholds are ideologically neutral; neither favors nor handicaps one particular position. A two-thirds vote could have the unintended consequence of creating a tyranny of the minority, like the malfunctions of the electoral college in Presidential elections. A majority vote threshold is a reasonable compromise if the American default position will be the centrist denomination.
The default position of central conferences will be the traditionalist denomination. We felt that this different standard was a reasonable compromise that reflects the general trends throughout the denomination. The plan gives central conferences the full spectrum of choices and the authority to make their own decision. The plan allows for central conferences—and their annual conferences and local churches—to realign with the centrist denomination or become autonomous. The decision-making process (no requirement to vote; majority vote threshold; the option to realign at every level) is the same as in the United States.
The plan offers only aspirational recommendations for denominational assets. Centrists made proposals that were unacceptable to traditionalists.
Did the progressives compromise? Well, it depends on what kind of progressive you are.
If you are a progressive who wishes to remain in a non-traditionalist United Methodist denomination, then your concerns are those of the centrists.
If you are a progressive who longs to create a separate, liberationist denomination, then the plan offers a great opportunity. The path for creating it is streamlined to form it with 50 or more local churches across the denomination.
The progressives compromised on the same issue that the traditionalists and centrists did: a specific formula for the appropriation of assets.
Everyone compromised on the use of a qualifier with the name “United Methodist.” No one “wins” the name and the logo because the Indianapolis Plan is not conceived as a plan of expulsion of any one side.
In reality, we use qualifiers all the time. Many churches do not use “United Methodist” in their branding, and some churches use it as a qualifier, such as Church of the Resurrection (It is unclear to me which is the qualifier—Is “Church of the Resurrection” the qualifier of “United Methodist” or vice versa?).
And everyone compromised on the assets. It is too complex and our group was too limited by our composition and time to offering anything more concrete. We turn this over to the good wisdom of the delegates.
In keeping with the rules of General Conference, anyone can amend our petition. Traditionalists, centrists, and progressives will offer their own proposals for the assets. There may be ideas in other plans that fill this gap in the Indianapolis Plan. As a progressive, I hope General Conference will adopt the proposal for reparations and financial re-investment in UM Forward’s N.E.W. Plan.
Despite our different hopes for the future, we share a common view of our current situation. The denomination is at a stalemate and the most peaceful and productive way forward is a plan for separation. Any plan that attempts to defeat the Traditional Plan with a floor vote or stalling with delays through political maneuvering will only multiply the harm done in St. Louis. Whatever good that is left in the United Methodist Church will be destroyed.
To be sure, the Indianapolis Plan is not perfect and there are legitimate critiques. But calling it a WCA plan says more about the critics’ view of reality.
Like it or not, traditionalists won the vote in St. Louis. Not only have they won every vote on the issue of sexuality for the past 47 years, they are likely to win it again if a vote is taken to repeal the Traditional Plan at 2020 General Conference.
Yes indeed, non-traditionalists made substantial gains in this year’s elections, but it is unclear whether they can flip enough central conference votes to achieve a majority.
Even if non-traditionalists can win the vote, what they have won is a mortally wounded church kept alive by a dysfunctional institution.
Maybe the critics think they can gain a better bargaining position, but I doubt it. It’s a gamble that will only create more animosity. It will permanently poison the United Methodist Church with a spiritual sickness of arrogance and bitterness.
When non-traditionalists tell me that we should retake the vote on the Traditional Plan in Minneapolis, I am reminded of the words of Dirty Harry: “You have to ask yourself one question: Do you feel lucky? Well, do you punk?”
Notes for a New Methodism
Rev. Darren Cushman Wood is the senior minister of North United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana and is an elder and full member of the Indiana Annual Conference. He is a graduate of the University of Evansville and Union Theological Seminary (New York). Darren was a delegate to the 2004 & 2008 General Conferences and a delegate to the 2000 & 2016 Jurisdictional Conferences. He is the author of "The Secret Transcript of the Council of Bishops" and "Blue Collar Jesus: How Christianity Supports Workers' Rights."