It has been intriguing to follow a series of blog posts from “Mainstream UMC,” a newly minted special interest caucus. The posts have been analyzing an unscientific, non-representative survey that they administered through the Internet. Over 13,000 people took the survey and self-identified as either Traditionalist, Centrist, or Progressive. Mainstream UMC provides the numbers and analysis. We do not have access to the raw data. So my conclusions are based on their analysis.
Of course, the survey results are being touted to support the narrative that Traditionalists just want to “break up” The United Methodist Church. Well over two-thirds of Traditionalists answering the survey said they could not live in a denomination where same-sex marriage and ordination of practicing LGBT persons was allowed. The vast majority of Centrists and Progressives said they could continue to live in our denomination ONLY if it changed to allow same-sex marriage and LGBT ordination. In other words, if Centrists and Progressives get what they want, they could live with that. But if Traditionalists are forced to be in a denomination they believe violates Scripture, we could not live with that. Hardly breaking news.
More significantly, over 80 percent of Centrists and Progressives believe that if the Traditional Plan stays in place at the 2020 General Conference, there would need to be a change in the “common governance structure.” This could be understood as code for creating the U.S. as its own central conference to govern its own affairs. The vision is that the U.S. would have different standards of ordination and requirements around LGBT ministry than the rest of the world. The Connectional Table is submitting the beginnings of this plan to the 2020 General Conference.
More than 86 percent of Centrists and Progressives think that the U.S. conferences should have the same right to adapt the requirements of the Discipline to our cultural and legal context that the central conferences outside the U.S. have. This is despite the fact that the U.S. still has a majority of the delegates at General Conference and much of the Discipline is aimed at the U.S. context. There is only one area where the U.S. cultural context is not honored, and that is on the definition of marriage and standards for human sexuality. For the sake of that one issue, the U.S. Centrists and Progressives want to separate their governance from the global church.
Remarkably, more than three-fourths of Centrists and Progressives said it is not “appropriate for delegates from outside the United States to vote on LGBTQ ordination and marriage that affects the U.S. church.”
Again, more than three-fourths of Centrists and Progressives said it is not “appropriate for churches in the U.S. to pay for 99.3 percent of the global budget but to have only 56 percent of the votes (and declining) at General Conference.”
More than 80 percent of Centrists and Progressives thought, “The church in the United States should change our common governance structure with the global church.” This means setting the U.S. to determine its own affairs separately from the church outside the U.S. Even the way this question is worded betrays a U.S.-centric bias. According to the question, it is up to the church in the U.S. to change the governance structure, not in consultation with the global church.
Finally, three-fourths of Centrists and Progressives would be willing to continue funding the global church in a revised structure that allows the U.S. to govern itself separately. The Mainstream analysis did not say whether they asked the question whether Centrists and Progressives would be willing to continue funding the global church if the structure continues as it is today.
The biggest omission from the survey is the input of members from outside the U.S. It gives the clear impression that Mainstream UMC believes U.S. members of the church can and should determine our church’s standards and governance without even considering the 45 percent of the church that lives outside the U.S.
From the answers and analysis of this survey, it seems that many Centrists and Progressives do not want a global church. They want an autonomous U.S. church that does mission work in other countries. They want a U.S. church that can become more “relevant” to U.S. culture, while allowing the UM Church outside the U.S. to make different decisions. They want to decide matters for the U.S. church without the “interference” of United Methodists in other countries.
This attitude reflects a post-modern concept that marriage can be whatever we want it to be. Sexual morality can be determined by what works for individual people. Moral standards can wildly vary from one culture to another.
The problem with this concept is that it is not true. While customs and cultures vary over the historic eras, marriage has only ever been between a man and woman – in biblical and non-biblical cultures. God has a blueprint for human flourishing and moral standards that apply to all human beings, regardless of race, nationality, or culture.
The actions of many Centrists and Progressives betray the fact that they know morality is not relative, but universal. None of them, for example, is uncertain about the wrongness of polygamy or child marriage. That is the right impulse – but it also acknowledges that there are certain relationship barriers that should not be crossed. If morality accords with the culture, on what basis can Centrists and Progressives oppose the cultural practices of others? One cannot have it both ways. When they advocate for same-sex marriage they are merely disingenuously elevating their standards in preference to anyone else’s.
The Mainstream UMC analysis is preoccupied with the issue of money. They apparently believe that, since Americans give a great share of the money that funds the church, they should be the lone determiners of how that money is spent. It appears they believe that those who do not give as much money have no right to tell Centrists and Progressives what moral standards should be operative for them.
This attitude turns the concept of connectionalism and a global church on its head. It certainly does not accord with the vision of the church that Paul paints: “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him” (I Corinthians 1:27-28).
Never in our lifetime will United Methodists in developing countries be able to contribute as much financially to the work of the church as we in the U.S. This elitist approach condemns less advantaged United Methodists (most of the world) to a permanent second-class status. Does the fact that the U.S. has much more money mean that we can simply ignore and disrespect the voices of our brothers and sisters in less advantaged nations?
The real lesson of the Mainstream UMC survey is that there are deep and irreconcilable differences between Centrists/Progressives and Traditionalists. We have different visions for the church. We have different understandings of Scripture and different standards of morality.
The Mainstream analysis says the survey “shows that Centrists and Progressives are still trying to find a way toward some kind of unity.” With all due respect, this comes across as wildly unrealistic. It is difficult to see how any form of unity can persist in the midst of such deep divisions. Centrists and Progressives want to have unity on their terms. Traditionalists can only accept unity on our terms. The terms are mutually exclusive. Therefore, unity is impossible without one side or the other surrendering their deeply held beliefs.
Rather than consistently demonizing Traditionalists, a more fruitful approach would be to seek a constructive way to separate in order to honor the spiritual integrity of both groups. Rather than try to force a unity that is not there or force Traditionalists out of the church (as if we were the problem), it would be healthier to recognize reality and seek a way forward that minimizes the pain and shame attached to any perspective. If we cannot honor one another together in one body, can we not at least honor one another enough to allow for a gracious separation that does not stigmatize?