The Return of the Local Option

A plan has recently emerged to preserve the unity of the UMC. I encourage you to read it carefully and prayerfully. The proposal begins by diagnosing a very serious problem in our denomination: we have reached an impasse on matters related to “self-avowed, practicing homosexual” people. The proposal then offers a potential solution which I will discuss below. Many of those who have signed on to this document are people I know and respect. Mike Slaughter in particular is a friend, trusted partner in ministry, and valued colleague. Each person who has signed the document has gone out on a limb publicly to try to develop a compromise position that will not satisfy everyone but is intended hold us together in the work of ministry. I respect that. To be clear, then, the comments I’ll make below are offered in the interest of fostering conversation and furthering our common dialogue. To summarize what follows, I agree with the diagnosis of the problem facing our denomination, but I have serious concerns regarding the proposed solutions.


What is helpful in this plan?

1. “We, the undersigned, believe the division of the United Methodist Church over this issue would be shortsighted, costly, detrimental to all of our churches, and not in keeping with God’s will.” I agree 100%. 

2. “While some on either side of this issue see only two sides in the debate, a vast majority of our churches are divided on this issue. United Methodists have gay and lesbian children, friends, co-workers and neighbors. A large number of our churches have gay and lesbian members. Our members, like the broader society, are not of one mind on the issue of ordination or marriage for gay and lesbian people, and many find
themselves confused about bisexuality and those who are transgender. Most of our churches, regardless of the dominant view of the issue in their congregation, stand to lose members if The United Methodist Church divides into two churches over homosexuality.” It’s hard to argue with this point. If a division occurs, both “sides” will certainly lose members.

3. “We believe that the question of homosexuality is virtually irresolvable at General Conference.” In light of our current denominational structure and the circus-like atmosphere of our General Conference, I agree completely.

4. If this plan works as intended, it will allow us to focus much more attention on a variety of different matters of ministry, and not just on “homosexual practice. ” Our myopic fascination with these matters is diverting massive amounts of attention away from other ministry areas that are at least as important.

5. “What makes us United Methodists is not our position on homosexuality, but a core set of theological, missional and ministry convictions.” This is certainly true. I particularly like the emphasis on a core set of theological convictions, which would then drive convictions around mission and ministry.


What problems attend this plan?

The solution to the problems diagnosed in the first few paragraphs is twofold. First, the UMC will “entrust to each local church the authority to determine how they will be in ministry with gay and lesbian people including whether they will, or will not, allow for homosexual marriages or unions.” Second, annual conferences will “be permitted to determine whether they will or will not ordain self-avowed, practicing homosexuals while allowing local churches to determine if they would or would not be willing to receive gay and lesbian clergy. In conferences where the ordination of gay and lesbian people was allowed, they would be held to the same standard heterosexual clergy are held to: fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness.”

Will this solution help us move beyond our current impasse and help to preserve denominational unity? There are several reasons that I question whether it would.

1. It seems unlikely that the adoption of this proposal would stop or even mitigate debate on the marriage and ordination of self-avowed, practicing homosexual people at the General Conference. Remember: protesters shut down the 2012 General Conference for two hours at a cost of around $180,000 because of decisions the General Conference made regarding self-avowed, practicing homosexual people. This type of action implies that, regardless of any other business that may need to take place, the practice of disruption is warranted by the overwhelming importance of the protesters’ agenda. This ideology is not one that will allow conservative annual conferences and congregations to go about their business in their own way. Do all people who support the progressive position on this matter endorse these kinds of tactics? No, of course not, but it only takes a segment of this group to cause disruption and to keep the debate at the center of attention at the level of the General Conference. 

2. Some annual conferences and congregations will be unanimous or nearly unanimous in their positions, while others will not. Our annual conferences are already full of resolutions regarding the ordination and marriage of self-avowed, practicing homosexuals. Imagine what would happen if the annual conferences had real decision-making power to determine policy on this issue. Perhaps in the Western Jurisdiction there would be near-unanimity on these matters. In my own conference, West Ohio, it would be ugly. As for the local church… wow. Bringing this debate to the level of the local church will do to many congregations what has happened to the General Conference. These congregations will be torn apart.

3. Does this type of action set a precedent with regard to other controversial matters? Are we going to take a similar position on, say, euthanasia or abortion? If so, on what basis should we say that the denomination as a whole should have any moral teaching at all?

4. It’s not at all clear that this proposal will actually preserve our unity. Dividing up between annual conferences and congregations that accept gay and lesbian marriage and ordination and those that do not seems to be a step toward division, rather than away from it.

5. This proposal would seriously complicate the matter of itinerancy. Can a progressive pastor go to a traditionalist congregation or vice-versa? Will each congregation and minister need to declare his or her position for the purposes of itinerancy?

6. Yes,  “a core set of theological, missional and ministry convictions” should define us as United Methodists, but there is also the matter of polity. This is essentially a congregationalist approach to ethics and certain ecclesial practices in a denomination that is not congregationalist in its polity. While Baptists strongly value the autonomy of the local church, this has never been a core value of United Methodism.

There may well be compelling answers to each of these concerns I’ve raised, and I’m certainly willing to hear them. I want a solution as much as anyone so that we can move forward as a church in ministry. Despite these concerns, I am appreciative of the attempt to find a workable solution for the UMC. I wish more people were equally irenic and creative in their approaches. Undoubtedly there are matters here that I’m not seeing. I look forward to learning about these from your comments.

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