So Many Ways Forward, None of Them Pretty

New Avengers #14 cover by simonebianchi
Dr. Strange combing through possible futures.

Avengers: Infinity War is a movie that is long on action, overstuffed with characters, and is very short on plot. It also has a surprisingly shocking conclusion (less surprising when one remembers this is just the first half of the story it's telling) that has genuinely moving moments. At the heart of this colorful, constantly moving slugfest is a single profound moment, upon which the inevitable redemption of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (coming in 2019) rests: mystical magician Dr. Strange's clairvoyant trance. For less than a minute, his image blurs, he appears to have multiple arms, his head buzzes back and forth like that of Fox Mulder caught in a flying saucer's tractor beam. He comes out of it announcing to his super-teammates that he has just analyzed more than a million possible outcomes to their confrontation with cosmic villain Thanos, and there's only one that saves the countless trillions of souls that will vanish once he completes his quest for the Infinity Stones. He doesn't spell out the details of that vision, but as the movie grinds on to its bleak conclusion, it becomes clear that the only way around the slaughter is first to pass through it.

In a word: yes, there's a way out. But you're not going to like it.

On this Sunday in the midst of the Memorial Day weekend, I'm pulling out a topic I've been wanting to address since May 4, when it first materialized in my news feed. It's about my erstwhile spiritual home, the United Methodist Church, so publishing this homily on the Lord's Day is fitting. As with most of my Methodist writings, this is going to be a critique, with predictive and prescriptive elements. And as with Dr. Strange's chosen way past the Thanos problem, the conclusions I reach are not going to be pleasant for many who take an interest in the future of the denomination.

Four weeks ago, the United Methodist Bishops issued a statement on their conclusions about the Way Forward, a project they'd been entrusted with at the last General Conference. The task they'd been assigned was to sift through three possible solutions to the church's stubbornly unresolvable conflict over issues of sexuality; more specifically, whether LGBTQ persons could be ordained and/or married by United Methodist Bishops or clergy. This issue has been around since the 1970s, when a clause was inserted in the Discipline (the church's constitution and law book) decreeing that "homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teacher." For nearly half a century, Methodists have argued and fought over how to interpret and implement that clause. United Methodists of the West Coast and Northeast United States have become more and more dedicated to working around it, while United Methodists in conferences that were part of the former Southern Methodist connection, as well as United Methodists from the parts of the world where the denomination is growing (particularly Africa) have insisted on implementing the policy with extreme prejudice. Caught somewhere in the middle have been midwestern United Methodists.

The Bishops were given three models for the "Way Forward," and asked to choose one, then recommend it to a special General Conference to be held next year. On May 4, the Bishops announced that all three models should be presented to this conference, though they were as a body backing the "One Church" approach. This model would delete all language from the Discipline related to homosexuality, while giving individual Annual Conferences the right to implement their own policies, whatever they might be. The "Traditionalist" model would retain that language and take it further, adding the possibility of rigid enforcement across the denomination. The "Connectional-Conference" plan, on the other hand, would divide the denomination up into three worldwide connections based on where they fell on the enforcement spectrum.

Of the three, the Traditionalist approach almost guarantees schism. West Coast Methodists are not about to go back on their now well-established practice of ordaining LGBTQ pastors and performing same-gender weddings, let alone begin prosecuting gay-friendly ministers across the region in church trials that make Methodists look more like witch-hunting Puritans than the mainline Protestants they really are. We'd rather split than go back. Meanwhile, the Connectional-Conference approach embraces schism, returning United Methodism to the state it was in prior to the 1939 merger of the three American Methodist churches that had separated over slavery and doctrinal disagreements. Those three denominations to a large extent continued to share seminaries, mission agencies, and a publishing house, so the historical precedent of a looser confederation of conferences is well established.

Of course, both these options leave Methodism more untied than united. It doesn't take Dr. Strange's clairvoyance to know that the Northeastern and Western Jurisdictions would break away the minute draconian church law was levied against them; and over time, I imagine the continued connection of the other approach fading away as conservative Methodists become increasingly irrelevant to American culture, ultimately finding far more in common with conservative Evangelicals than with other American Methodists; and the more leftist Methodists not really wanting anything to do with the Trumpist wing of the denomination.

No wonder, then, that the Bishops went with the One Church model. It's really the most Methodist of the three, putting the continued unity of the denomination front and center. At the same time, it offers ministerial and congregational autonomy that is far more reminiscent of traditional Baptist doctrine (as opposed to the modern Southern Baptist approach which, like the Traditionalist model, punishes liberal churches and pastors with expulsion). This model, too, is fraught with risks: when LGBTQ persons and diversity-embracing Christians go church-hunting, denominational reputation plays an important role in congregations they check out. The United Church of Christ has a long record now of unabashed support for LGBTQ rights, openly ordains and marries LGBTQ persons, and advocates regularly for progressive causes. Some United Methodist congregations have similar records, but under the One Church program, it would take considerable research to know which was which. It's as if the denomination chose to handle diversity in the same way the United States dealt with racial justice prior to the civil rights era: segregated neighborhoods, spotty tolerance, hit-or-miss voting rights, and lynchings all flying under the radar.

This saddens me. Over a lifetime spent with United Methodists, I've learned that as a body, the church is always many decades behind American culture. The healing of the slavery schism came almost 75 years after the end of the Civil War. The ordination and appointment of female clergy, while never completely forbidden, didn't even begin to catch up with the number of women in seminary until the 1990s, again, three quarters of a century after American women were granted the vote. With the exception of moral dinosaurs like Jeff Sessions and Franklin Graham, American culture is moving on from its centuries-old obsession with traditionalist formulations around gender. Evangelicals who cling to these bigoted ideas are a dying breed. Making common cause with them guarantees the eventual disappearance of United Methodism as a faith.

I expect there are many on the Council of Bishops who wish they could go into a half-lotus position, fan out their many arms, and catch a glimpse of all the possible future consequences of their final choice. Knowing how averse Bishops are to breaking up the denomination, it doesn't surprise me that they chose this quasi-federalist middle-of-the-road model. But if they could see the future, I think they'd shrink from the church it will create: one that embraces diversity in one neighborhood while sanctioning homophobic hatred in another. In such a church, it's just a matter of time until Annual Conferences choose their own version of the Traditionalist approach--though for those on the West Coast, it's more likely to be a Progressive approach--enforcing doctrinal uniformity on LGBTQ matters and guaranteeing a future schism from neighboring conferences that go the other way.

I'm no clairvoyant, but I see writing on the wall. Methodism will cease to be United in my lifetime--if it survives at all.


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