December 19th, 2018

how long

Different concepts of majority rule in United Methodism

In the increasingly bitter wrangles over sexuality and theology in The UMC, both sides take comfort from their sense of not only being in the right, but of representing a majority of opinion. This means that the other side is guilty of suppressing, by their unrighteous machinations, the will of the church. And since Vox Populi = Vox Dei (when it's convenient), the other side is guilty of opposing the will of God.

Well, it all comes down to how you construe your majority. There is a global majority, represented by the votes of General Conference delegates, that comes down more or less on the traditional/conservative/orthodox side. But if you removed all the delegates from the Central Conferences, the progressive/radical/liberal side would easily be an American majority in a US-only General Conference.

Despite their constant prattle of being a global church, this drives the progressives crazy. They'd really prefer the good old, paternalist days, when Africans (and others) followed the course laid out by American elites. Perhaps if they get their way, and The UMC blows up, they can create a smaller, purer denomination which affirms their place at the helm of things. But that simply brings up another clash of "majorities."

For elites, of any stripe, do not necessarily represent the membership. The clergy, for instance, are by and large far more liberal than the laity, but they have half the votes in Annual, Jurisdictional/Central, and General Conferences. And the leadership, both lay and clergy, which has an outsized influence on organizational machinery and also tends to be self-perpetuating, is also more liberal than the foot soldiers, both lay and clergy. That means that both the global majority and the US majority, as described above, are majorities of General Conference delegates or of some portion thereof, not majorities of the membership.

The general membership of The UMC in the US has all the range of opinions on these subjects as the general population of America. They're generally tolerant, but they like standards, and they are nowhere near as progressive as the people running the show. Which means, not only does changing our standards risk an explosion -- individuals, congregations, whole conferences leaving in a rush -- but it risks a long-term implosion. Suppose the progs get the church they want, where they set the standards. The probable result of that will be like unto the results experienced by every other mainline denomination that has gone this route: membership simply melts away. The progs sit around in their gorgeous vestments and pass ever more extreme resolutions, they scratch every progressive itch and gush over how liberated they are in crossing yet another boundary -- and every year, they shrink a little more. For the majority of ordinary church folk -- whose opinion nobody asks, and whose only votes are with their feet and their pocketbooks -- is looking for something more like, you know, a church.

I understand my progressive colleagues' frustration. Everybody they know, everybody that matters, is on their side. Why can't they have the church the majority (as they see it) wants? I also understand my traditional colleagues' frustration. They've got the votes, and they've got the membership. Why can't they have the church the majority (as they see it) wants? Well, it all depends upon which majority you think matters.