One of the proposals for preserving “unity” in The United Methodist Church in the midst of our controversies over same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals is the “Local Option” idea promoted by Adam Hamilton and others, with legislative support from the Connectional Table. This proposal would essentially legalize same-sex marriage within the UM Church while not requiring it. And it would allow those annual conferences who wish to ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals to do so without penalty.
Proponents claim that this approach would allow freedom of conscience within the church, while allowing all United Methodists to stay together and continue working together to make disciples for the transformation of the world. But would it?
Other denominations have taken this approach. One such is the Presbyterian Church (USA), one of the seven Mainline churches.
In 2006, some local presbyteries (the equivalent of our United Methodist annual conferences) began ordaining non-celibate homosexuals, contrary to the denomination’s stated standards. In 2010 the PC(USA) changed its ordination standards by removing the requirement for “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.” In 2011 this constitutional change was ratified by a vote of the various presbyteries. The door was opened and such ordinations began to take place in 2011.
What impact did this change have on the membership of the PC(USA)? When local presbyteries began defying the denominational standards, the membership loss jumped 50 percent, from 2 percent to 3 percent a year. When the denominational standards changed, the rate of 3 percent membership loss per year shifted to over 5 percent per year. In other words, the rate of membership loss shot up by 150 percent altogether.
In response to the change in ordination standards, a new Presbyterian denomination was formed: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO). In the first two years of its existence, 185 congregations left the PC(USA) to join ECO. An equal number of congregations left the PC(USA) to join the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Additional congregations became independent or joined other Presbyterian bodies.
In 2014 the PC(USA) changed its definition of marriage, calling it “a unique relationship between two people, traditionally a man and a woman.” (This wording approach bears resemblance to the proposal to say that The United Methodist Church historically considered “the practice of homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching.”) That constitutional change has been ratified by the presbyteries in 2015.
After the initial burst, has the pace of membership loss slowed down in the PC(USA)? No, the loss in 2014 was worse than the loss in 2013, and initial reports of membership loss in 2015 continue to maintain that devastating pace. Losing 5 percent of membership per year puts a denomination on track to extinction in 20 years!
How do these results translate to The United Methodist Church?
The Presbyterians took a two-step approach, legalizing ordination first and then marriage. My guess is that if United Methodists were to take a two-step approach, we would probably begin with marriage and then ordination. However, the proposal likely to come to General Conference would adopt both changes at the same time. And those changes would not be constitutional changes. They would only require a majority vote by the General Conference and no ratification by the annual conferences (different than the Presbyterian Church process). Thus, it would be much easier to accomplish in our setting. (The PC(USA) voted three times unsuccessfully to allow ordination, beginning in 1997, before finally achieving ratification on the fourth try.)
Just as a change in policy by the PC(USA) brought about a sharp jump in membership losses for them, it would also translate into increased membership losses for the UM Church. It is impossible to say for sure the magnitude of the impact. Whereas we now lose about 95,000 members per year, replicating the PC(USA) results would increase that to 238,000 members per year. I suspect the real number could be even higher, as surveys have shown that grass roots United Methodists more consistently identify themselves as theologically conservative than do Presbyterians.
Just as in the PC(USA), a change in policy by The United Methodist Church would undoubtedly spur the formation of a new Methodist denomination to which fleeing UM congregations could join. Over the last three years, the PC(USA) has lost about 2 percent of their congregations per year. That would translate to over 600 congregations a year leaving United Methodism. (The Presbyterians have the same type of trust clause that we do, but they do have a way for congregations to exit with property. However, that process is administered unevenly across the presbyteries, with some being much more hard-line than others in demanding high payments for leaving.)
The bottom line is that adopting the “local option” would bring about a jump in membership losses for The United Methodist Church. There would be a segment of the church that would be unable to continue in a denomination that allows same-sex marriage and the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals. Whether that segment is closer to 5 percent or 35 percent is unknown. Not only would we lose hundreds of congregations who would attempt to withdraw and join another Methodist entity, but even churches that remain would suddenly lose a portion of their members, some of whom will undoubtedly be those who are most active in leadership and financial support of the congregation.
Those proposing the “local option” should also propose a plan to make this transition as painless as possible and to minimize the impact on thousands of local congregations across the country. Otherwise, we will follow our Presbyterian brothers and sisters into a quagmire of confusion, conflict, and court battles.