By Chris Ritter
There is a short black curtain that divides the delegate section of General Conference from the stage where our bishops preside. Today that simple little drape seemed more like a wall. It is hard to read the 55.6% “high priority” endorsement of the Traditional Plan as anything other than a repudiation of the process created and led by our Council of Bishops. The One Church Plan, touted regularly as “overwhelmingly” supported by our COB, failed to even reach a 50 percent threshold, coming in at a 48.7 percent “high priority” rating… fifth place.
The room was pregnant with anticipation as we awaited the vote totals. Ranking the plans in order of importance is really just procedural work designed to make best use of our time tomorrow. But it came to mean so much more than that. After all the hype and spin, it was the first glimpse we have into how the delegates to General Conference feel about the options placed before them. Moments of high drama like this are rare. Think about it: It has been seven long years since the only body that can speak for The United Methodist Church has spoken on the topic of human sexuality. Voting on human sexuality in 2016 was interrupted by the proposal for a commission. GC2012 was three years before same sex marriage became legal in the U.S. No one knew what was going to happen. We held our breath… literally, in some cases. The tide of rapid cultural change in the U.S. was being met by the rising tide of United Methodist growth in the Global South. Which tide would crest higher?
If the new leading plan passes on Tuesday and a new Progressive Methodism develops from self-governing conferences enabled under the Traditional Plan, I think we will remember this as the day that United Methodism became a global church rooted in historic orthodoxy rather than a Progressive American Mainline denomination. But it is too early to make that prediction. When we began our legislative work, savvy OCP supporters rose to ask questions to which they already knew the answers. It was obvious (to me) they were stalling. I assume they wanted time to regroup and our newly elected legislative chair gave them that opportunity with an early adjournment. They will arrive tomorrow with a strategy, I am sure. Anything could still happen.
But we now know some things we didn’t know just 24 hours ago. The One Church Plan’s aura of inevitability was revealed to be a thin lacquer of piffle. We have heard for weeks how this was the only plan overwhelmingly supported by the bishops. It is endorsed by a majority of the Commission. The brightest lights in our ivory tower institutions commended it, at least as a good first step. Rock star pastors gave their nod. It was the only thing that could unite us (“You like unity, don’t you?”) To speak of any other options was simply a waste of time. We now see that a plan flowing down from the top can be realistically challenged by a plan bubbling up from the bottom.
Let’s consider the unlikely path of today’s top vote-getting approach to our crisis of biblical interpretation. The Council of Bishops were so little interested in even the concept of a Traditional Plan that they left it in the form of a half-page sketch and told The Commission they could save their time by not even developing it. When the nearly final Way Forward report came to the bishops with only the OCP and the CCP, our African episcopal leaders put their collective foot down and let their colleagues know that neither of those options would fly on the only continent where United Methodism is growing. If they wanted a unified report, it would need to include something Traditionalists could support. A few bishops and commission members scrambled to write a plan to stand along side those that had been crafted over months of deliberations with professional guidance. The Traditional Plan has since weathered constitutional challenges, amendments, and relentless critiques… but (at least for today) it is our most likely outcome.
So, what are the champions of the One Church Plan doing tonight? First, I imagine they are inspecting their own camp. Were there Progressives who voted for the Simple Plan and against the One Church Plan as a matter of principle? These folks will need to be identified and schooled in the error of their ways. There might be enough principled progressives that can be swayed to get the OCP over 50 percent. But it is hard to see how there would be enough to make up the 7 percent spread that currently separates the Traditional Plan from the OCP. Second, they are planning (I am sure) to make full use of the parliamentary options available to them. They will want to substitute the OCP for the TP. They will also want to further degrade the accountability measures in the Traditional Plan. Specifically, they will try to frustrate the process of giving the Traditional Plan its needed amendments. Some have talked about “shutting down” GC2019 with protests, but that will prove more challenging in St. Louis than in Portland. Parades of protesters can form, but they cannot as easily gain access to the floor as they could in 2016. Demonstrations would be limited to the bleacher sections of the stadium unless led by delegates. We have been told that violating our rules for decorum will be grounds for expulsion.
This was a very difficult and disappointing day for many of my Progressive brothers and sisters, especially those of the LGBTQ community. I hope that my political analysis above does not come across as callous and unfeeling toward this pain. On my cynical days, I have viewed the OCP as the plan of an outmoded institution desperately grasping to preserve itself and the power of its keepers. My LGBTQ colleagues have never loved the OCP. It was just the best option they were given. I hope that maybe thorough-going Progressives will consider the horizons opened up under Par. 2801 of the Modified Traditional Plan. I believe it provides an opportunity to set a new course. If the OCP revives, I hope they will bless folks like me by adding provisions for a similar space for Traditionalists.
Yes, the Connectional Conference Plan had a weaker showing then I had expected… and my expectations were quite low. It came in just over 12 percent. And this was after a very excellent and impassioned speech given in its favor during the Commission on a Way Forward Report. The CCP faced opposition by both the OCP handlers and the renewal and reform coalition. Only a hundred delegate of us stood outside that influence. On the flip side, the Wespath Pension proposals received overwhelming support because they were the only petitions endorsed by both groups. I think it is fair to say that the United Methodist Church now has a functional two-party system. Maybe that has always been the case, but today removed all doubt.