The United Methodist Church, the country's second largest Protestant denomination, is at a crossroads.
In confronting the issue of homosexuality, as it involves individual conferences, churches and ministers, the church wants to avoid the messy upheavals other denominations have seen in making decisions for the future.
The Episcopal Church, for instance, which consecrated its first openly gay bishop in 2003, allowed openly gay individuals to be ordained in 2009 and permitted same-sex marriages to be performed by priests in 2015, saw a 32 percent decline in attendance between 2000 and 2015 and a 25 percent decline in membership between 2000 and 2016.
The Presbyterian Church (USA), which allowed the ordination of gay and lesbian ministers and the denomination's ministers to perform same-sex marriages in 2014, declined 43 percent in membership between 1996 and 2016. In 2017, it lost 147 congregations, including 45 that joined more conservative denominations.
It is true that mainline Protestant denominations have been declining in membership and attendance for 50 years or more, but the clergy and marriage decisions have accelerated the downturn.
The United Methodist Church, which has nearly 7 million lay members in the U.S. but has lost members every year since 1964, hopes by taking the relevant facts to its churches it may increase understanding, foster what unites the membership rather than divides it, and offer a range of options for going forward.
We don't believe the moves will stem the decline in membership, but they may leave churches and members with a better understanding of what the denomination is considering before a February 2019 special session of the church's General Conference acts on a report from its Commission on a Way Forward on human sexuality.
Though individual congregations may have their own discussions on the issue, the latter of two general meetings in the Chattanooga area about the denomination's plans will be Nov. 10, at 10 a.m., at Ooltewah United Methodist Church, 6131 Relocation Way.
Currently, the denomination's Book of Discipline says this: "The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching." It also bars "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" from the clergy.
The Commission on a Way Forward, a 32-member group formed in 2016 to study the issue the denomination has been wrestling with since 1980, brought forth three plans, the One Church Plan, the Traditional Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan, for the consideration of the 864 members of its General Conference.
The Traditional Plan maintains the language in the denomination's Book of Discipline, broadens the term of a "practicing homosexual" to anyone living in a same-sex marriage or civil union and anyone who publicly says they are gay, and offers a way for churches and annual conferences (regional bodies) who disagree to set up self-governing or "autonomous, affiliated or concordant" churches or conferences.
The Connectional Conference Plan replaces the denomination's current five geographic jurisdictions in the U.S. with three connectional conferences based on their theologies or values, both those "commonly agreed upon by United Methodists" and others they may adapt that are not in the Book of Discipline. Conferences outside of the U.S. could align themselves with one of the three connectional conferences.
The One Church Plan eliminates the Book of Discipline language and allows individual annual conferences, bishops, churches and clergy members to make decisions about ordaining gay clergy and hosting and performing same-sex marriages.
Complicating the decision of choosing among the three plans is the fact homosexuality is frowned upon (even punishable) in many of the countries in Africa, where the United Methodist Church has seen its largest recent growth.
The denomination's Council on Bishops has recommended the One Church Plan, but its nod does not keep the membership of the special session from voting its conscience.
Interestingly, the Episcopal Church, only three years ago, endorsed a similar plan that would allow its dioceses and clergy to make their own choices about performing same-sex weddings. But earlier this year, the church amended that ruling and said that all dioceses — beginning Dec. 2 — would offer and all churches could host such weddings. Individual Episcopal clergy still may decide whether or not to perform such rites.
Despite all the machinations, the issue nevertheless threatens to divide a denomination founded by John Wesley, a man who preached unity.
"It is evil in itself," he said in a 1786 sermon called "On Schism." "To separate ourselves from a body of living Christians, with whom we were before united, is a grievous breach of the law of love. It is only when our love grows cold, that we can think of separating from our brethren."
On the other hand, in a sermon titled "Catholic Spirit," Wesley also said, "Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences."
It is our hope the spirit of love may permeate the proceedings in this second largest Protestant body, both in Chattanooga as the issue is discussed and in February when a way forward is, indeed, determined.