After the recent SCOTUS decision making marriage equality the law of the land, I have been drawn into conversations about predictions. Mostly I was asked about how the decision will affect The United Methodist Church.
Here are my five mostly hopeful predictions about the future of the UMC in the wake of this decision. And since gambling is not approved in the UMC, let’s just say that at least for now, all bets are off.
Prediction Number One: The far right in our denomination will up the pressure (both ecclesiastically and politically) against our LGBTQ siblings.
Given what’s happened in Texas and Kansas, this is kind of no-brainer and perhaps doesn’t deserve status as a “prediction.”
In the church, the pressure will come in several forms: there will be loud calls for trials for “disobedient pastors.” There will be a renewed movement against reconciling churches. And there will be increased pressure on boards of ordained ministry to “weed out” candidates who are “self-professed, practicing homosexuals.” All in the name of love, of course.
Prediction Number Two: There will be more same sex marriages performed by UM clergy and there will be more same sex marriages performed in our UM churches, particularly in the south.
Now that same sex couples who live in the traditional South can be married in their home states, I fully expect there to be more requests of UM pastors and churches for same sex weddings. Assuming that clergy tell their bishops and their district superintendents that they’re performing a same sex marriage, there will be charges filed against pastors. In my own conference, Rio Texas, there are now over a dozen clergy who are committed to performing same sex marriages as an act of pastoral care for those who have for so long been marginalized and maligned by our church. Some pastors have been asked to perform same sex weddings and at least one performed two weddings on the day SCOTUS made same sex marriage legal. (And, yes, charges have been filed.)
Prediction Number Three: In the face of prejudice and exclusion, there will be an equal, opposite and stronger reaction of grace. Our bishops, not known for their ability to agree on much or to lead us into bold new actions, will decide not to pursue trials. Most if not all bishops will work things out through just resolution.
Why? First, there is no money in most conferences for trials. Each trial costs upwards of $100,000 not to mention the time lost for all of those involved in the trial.
Second, the negative publicity generated damages the church’s witness, especially our witness among young persons who are overwhelmingly in favor of LGBTQ rights.
Third, like the court, the bishops know that the writing is on the wall and the UM church will be changing soon. When evangelicals like Brian McLaren, Rob Bell and Tony Campolo have wrapped their minds around supporting gay marriage you know change is not far off. When over half of young evangelicals polled are in support of gay marriage you know it’s not far off. When pastors who have long opposed changing our discriminatory laws whisper to me at Annual Conference, “I’m on your side now,” you know it’s just around the corner for The UMC.
Prediction Number Four: The UMC will not split over this.
Yes, some will leave the church; some already have. And some churches will try to pull out with their property and perhaps as a gesture of love and kindness, we ought to find ways for clergy and churches to part amicably. Of course, there will be proposals to split, mostly from the right wing of the church. But the church as a whole will not undergo a split like we did prior to the Civil War.
Although many progressives have left the church, progressives will not be leaving The UMC to form a new church or join with the UCC. Nor will conservatives leave en masse. There is a great love on both sides for Wesleyan Christianity and we will renew our calling to find ways to work together, continuing to connect the social and personal gospel in a powerful ways.
Prediction Number Five: At the 2020 General Conference, there will be change. The changes may not be substantial, but they will allow pastors to perform same sex weddings, the ordination of LGBTQ persons, and same sex weddings in our churches.
I hope and pray for change next year at General Conference. Methodists, however, have always approached these great changes dragging their heels, so I’ll stay with 2020 as the year we make important changes in our relationship with our LGBTQ friends.
All of this change will not happen automatically. Moderates and progressives will have to work hard to elect delegates that more fully represent a view of same sex marriage that is in harmony with our general rules (do no harm) and that is in keeping with our charge to pastors to be in ministry with all persons (no exceptions).
In order to get there, we will have to draw deeply from the well of the social gospel, always a late comer to the table. We must also draw on our theological understanding of scripture that takes into account historical context and criticism, and that announces the moral arc of scripture toward equality and egalitarianism.
So these are my five and I’m sticking to them. I continue to remain hopeful about The United Methodist Church. Deeply saddened, yes, by the harmful ways we continue to participate in a system that is hurting our LGBTQ members, but still oddly hopeful.
Why? While we take great pleasure in our heritage and the goodness of God to us, my faith is grounded in the awareness that God is the God of the future. God is always coming to us, bringing resurrection and new life. Who knows? This may be just the change our church needs to move us from institutional preservation and identification with the status quo to a radical witness of love that is truly world changing.