GC20, which is coming up all too quickly, could come up with an agreed-upon process for sorting us into two separate denominations, perhaps with some of the general agencies acting as independent contract-partners as desired. In such a process, all Conferences, all clergy, and all congregations would have a chance to find themselves among the like-minded. Both successor denominations would inherit the existing Book of Discipline, which they would then take up to amend to suit themselves according to the existing processes. Whether or not everybody can be holy enough to make this happen is an open question, but it would certainly be the least painful (and also the least expensive).
If no plan of division is approved, some parts of the church could simply set up on their own. Annual Conferences are all independent corporate entities, and while there is no "legal" way, under the BOD, for them to exit, nobody could stop them, either. Conferences in which a majority of clergy and laity are in accord could simply set up with other like-minded Conferences and vote themselves into existence under any name they desire. The most progressive Conferences in the US and Europe could simply leave; or, the more traditional Conferences in the US, Africa, and Asia could leave; or, some could go one way and some, another. We could wind up with three or four successor denominations. We could also wind up with some hefty legal bills, as the clergy and congregational minorities in one group or another attempted to join up with a group other than their existing Annual Conference.
If one or more groups secede, that means whoever is left (whether progressive or traditional) inherits the name, the bureaucracy and institutions, and many of the liabilities of The UMC. Adjusting to that new reality would be painful, even apart from congregations and conferences suing each other to get what they want. There are advantages to both seceding and inheriting, and there are disadvantages both ways, too.
If the bulk of The UMC's legitimate components stay together, then the most disaffected could simply walk away. The WCA was and is prepared to walk away, if necessary -- though I think they are figuring that enough Conferences would come with them that it would be more like a secession than a withdrawal. But if we go on the way we are, the reality is, we will begin to hemorrhage members and congregations as people make their escape by onesies and twosies. A trickle will turn into a flood. Even if a large group, like the WCA, would lead an exodus of a large part of the dissatisfied, that doesn't mean their version of Methodism would be attractive to everybody who is unwilling to put up with The UMC any further.
The problem here is, if you don't have legitimate components dividing or seceding -- if what you have is just a bunch of dissatisfied or disenfranchised people simply withrawing -- then you're talking about making up your own denomination, not taking over what we've been used to having. At this point, unity will begin to fracture. Why? Well, because unity against something everybody is familiar with is easier to maintain than unity for something nobody's seen. And there are more tensions in The UMC than just those caused by the LGBTQ controversy.
Problems in the Next Methodism
For instance, if a bunch of disgruntled UMs just left together to form a new church, would we have bishops? If no existing bishops joined in the effort, how would we create them? I don't mean anything like worrying about apostolic succession or whatever. I mean, how will these new bishops create a place for themselves when they have no clout except on paper and no habit of obedience from long years to back them up? If the people creating a new denomination are people of sufficient drive and charisma to leave, why would they submit to somebody else? And if they become the new bishops, will they leave their existing employment to take up such a chancy endeavor?
And if we don't have bishops in the Next Methodism, where will our leadership come from? Will it come down to leadership by a committee of mega-pastors or other poo-bahs? I can see all kinds of ego problems in what is basically an insurgency trying to institutionalize itself. I can also see a lot of pastors and congregations feeling just as overlooked by the Next Methodism as they were by the last one.
What about ordination? What about the making of appointments? Figuring out who places pastors in their employment will be a pressing concern. Longer term, a Next Methodism that isn't just a major piece of the Last Methodism, will have to address some of the inequities and illogic in our clergy credentialing system. We have the craziest clergy system of any religious body I know, and it's getting worse. Not only that, but a large part of the traditionalist base is made up of people with one beef or another with the way we do things now, and all those issues will have to be addressed, if it's the trads who walk out.
If those withdrawing are the traditionalists, and they aren't taking the BOD with them, then we have to talk about doctrinal standards. I presume we all are in favor of the Articles of Religion, etc., but the field would be open to writing new standards. Are we all really on board with the same doctrinal commitments? Are you so very sure that all the traditionalists agree on the same way to talk about the authority of the Bible? I'm not. And then, there are the sacraments.
A progressive colleague of mine just made a perfectly valid observation that he knows of no same-sex weddings done in our Conference, even by those who think they ought to be allowed to do them, while he knows of at least seven re-baptisms done by evangelical colleagues in the last year simply through casual conversation. Under our current BOD, re-baptizing is just as much a chargeable offense as conducting a same-sex marriage. This is a glaring hypocrisy on the part of many of the traditionalists. Supposing a large group of traditionalists "escape" together from The UMC, the question then is, Are we really going to have one baptismal practice -- and are we going to pursue that practice with integrity?
Meanwhile, even though nobody's talking about it, the celebration and administration of communion is getting pretty loosey-goosey out there. If we're sitting down with a blank piece of paper and drawing up rules for who can celebrate and how they should celebrate, we probably ought to look at this. And there is no guarantee that all the escapees in one lifeboat are going to find it easy to agree on this, either.
If a large group of progressives were to withdraw, they would face some of the same pressures, but at the present time it looks like they would have the institutional support to secede, so most of the foregoing under Withdrawal assumes traditionalists leaving.
Meanwhile, even if do this peaceably and with our structures fairly intact -- a division or an orderly secession -- it is entirely possible that the traditionalist successor denomination would be a majority African one. I'm fine with that, but it means we would have to change a lot of how we do business in order to accommodate that reality. We here would be the outpost, not the main theater of action. Leadership would have to be redistributed in a more equitable way. Resources would have to be reallocated. General church meetings would probably mostly happen outside the US.
I would prefer that we divide, if we must. Alternatively, I think we could all survive some part or parts seceding. A splinter group -- even a large splinter group -- withdrawing is the most painful and troublesome to accomplish. That doesn't mean it couldn't be done -- it certainly could be done, and I'm sure the WCA has thought a lot of this through (or is discussing it even now). But any of these options are probably preferable to another fight to the death in the arena that solves nothing outside the arena.
And no matter how we do it, there is more than a small chance that none of the options available to me when it's all over will suit me as a spiritual home. The way forward is fraught with the possibility of loss for everybody. But it would be nice if we could all recognize that and treat each other with respect so as to get where we're going with the least blood left on the sand when we're done.