The Episcopal Church, one of the seven mainline denominations in the United States, has gone down the road toward the full affirmation of LGBTQ persons and practices. The conflict has cost the church hundreds of thousands of members and tens of millions of dollars in lawsuits over property. Their experience can help us see what the likely effects of a similar decision would be on The United Methodist Church in 2019.
Here is the trajectory The Episcopal Church followed:
- 2003 – The first openly gay bishop was consecrated
- 2009 – The church’s standards were changed to allow openly gay or lesbian persons to be ordained, subject to the approval of their bishop (some dioceses did not grant such permission)
- 2012 – Ordination of transgender persons was allowed, subject to the bishop’s approval; a provisional ritual for same-sex union/marriage was adopted
- 2015 – Same-sex marriage performed by priests was allowed in the church, subject to the approval of the bishop (8 dioceses out of 101 declined to grant approval)
- 2018 – Same-sex marriage was required in every diocese, whether the bishop approved or not, but clergy were not required to perform same-sex weddings and the provisional ritual was not adopted into the official church worship book
(Sources: Stances of Faiths on LGBT Issues: The Episcopal Church; Episcopal convention approves a ‘pastoral solution’ on same-sex marriage; and LGBTQ in the Church)
The Episcopal Church took a “local option” approach to resolving its conflict over same-sex marriage and LGBT ordination. Since The Episcopal Church gives more authority to bishops in setting policy, that “local option” revolved around the decision of the bishop, rather than the diocese (equivalent to our annual conference). This is the same approach that the One Church Plan takes, allowing annual conferences to decide about ordination and local churches and pastors to decide about performing same-sex weddings.
One thing to notice is that taking such a “local option” approach, even when spread out over a period of 15 years, did not stave off massive membership losses. Several whole traditional/evangelical dioceses left The Episcopal Church over the last ten years. Attendance dropped from 857,000 in 2000 to less than 580,000 in 2015-a 32 percent decline. Membership dropped from 2,329,000 in 2000 to 1,745,000 in 2016-a 25 percent decline. The national church spent over $45 million on lawsuits to retain church buildings when congregations left. In the same way, adopting the One Church Plan will cause hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of United Methodists to depart from The United Methodist Church and could well cost millions in lawsuits over property.
Another thing to notice is that each step along the way was only a step in the process of becoming more affirming of LGBT practices. Even the most recent Episcopalian action in 2018 is not the end of the story for their denomination. It is anticipated that the formal approval and adoption of a same-sex wedding ritual will take place in 2021 (their next general convention). And provisions mandating equal access to bathrooms and shower facilities regardless of gender identity that were turned down in 2018 may pass the next time around. The process (and conflict) leading toward full affirmation will not stop until same-sex weddings and ordination for LGBT persons are required for all.
The recent gathering of the Love Your Neighbor Coalition reportedly discussed that very prospect. Although many were loath to accept a solution (the One Church Plan) that allows for what they consider discrimination against LGBT persons in some parts of the country, others saw adoption of the plan as a good first step that allows the church to move farther in the direction of affirmation in future years. Dorothy Benz, a New York delegate and leader in Methodists in New Directions (MIND), called the One Church Plan “the necessary first steps for justice,” implying that other steps will need to be taken.
There are no guarantees in the One Church Plan that protections for traditional pastors, churches, and annual conferences will remain in place. In The Episcopal Church, what was once allowed is now becoming required. The “local option” is continually becoming more restricted in favor of required affirmation. By a simple majority vote, the General Conference in 2020 or 2024 could turn around and remove the protections for traditionalists and institute greater requirements for inclusion and affirmation of what the Bible restricts.
Evangelicals will not remain part of a church that forfeits its moral authority based on Scripture in order to go along with the tide of American public opinion. While the One Church Plan seems to offer a “live and let live” way forward, the experience of the Episcopal Church shows that it is only a slippery slope on the way to abandoning the clear teachings of Scripture.