After decades of fighting about sex and marriage, the world's 12.5 million United Methodists are still waiting for a final shoe to drop.
Now, it's less than a year until a special General Conference that has been empowered to choose a model for United Methodist life after the Sexual Revolution -- some path to unity, rather than schism.
As the faithful watch and wait, Boston-area Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar composed a prayer for use among United Methodists in New England, on of the church's most liberal regions.
"God help us! Help us … to take the next faithful step forward not based on doctrine, tradition or theology; judgments, fears or convictions; notions of who are the righteous and unrighteous," wrote Devadhar (.pdf). "God help us! Help us … to take the next small faithful step forward that is neither … right or wrong; good or bad; for or against; left or right; pro or con."
The problem is that ongoing battles among United Methodists have demonstrated that any realistic unity plan has to address this global church's doctrinal fractures, said the Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, vice president of the conservative Good News organization. He is a member of the Commission on a Way Forward that will make recommendations to the historic Feb. 23-26, 2019, General Conference in St. Louis.
If United Methodists had a "quick and easy way" forward that managed to ignore "doctrine, tradition and theology" they would have tried it already, he added. Meanwhile, many of the church's leaders still have "a dream that there are millions of evangelicals who are willing to live in a United Methodist Church that doesn't defend the authority of scripture and our church's own teachings."
Meanwhile, on the left, many United Methodists fear the growing flocks of evangelicals in their denomination -- especially overseas.
The Rev. Christy Thomas, at "The Thoughtful Pastor" weblog, warned: "Those behind the Evangelical takeover are well funded, well-organized, and have no interest in taking prisoners. They merely want to expel those who don't adhere to the same tight lines as they do. It's called 'heresy hunting,' one of their favorite sports."
Where do things stand? A recent statement from the United Methodist bishops noted that two -- maybe three -- plans are being considered.
The first is a "one-church model" allowing each of the 56 regional "annual conferences" in the United States -- there are another 75 annual conferences in Africa and overseas -- to make their own doctrinal decisions about same-sex marriages and the ordination of noncelibate LGBTQ clergy. Local congregations could decide how to handle these questions, as well.
This would, in effect, formalize the "local option" reality that has existed for decades, with many clergy progressive regions rejecting the UMC Book Of Discipline requirement requiring clergy to maintain "fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness." Also, the global church has rejected same-sex marriage rites.
A second plan, said the bishops, would be a "multi-branch" model creating three parallel UMC conferences, each "covering the whole country, based on theology and perspective on LGBTQ ministry -- progressive, contextual and traditional branches."
The bottom line: There would be liberal and traditional conferences, with a "local option" conference in the middle. Conferences in other parts of the world would get to choose, as well. This raises all kinds of questions about how bishops, clergy and congregations relate to one another at the local level. And what about church agencies, seminaries and budgets?
The bishops claimed that, under this "multi-branch" model, United Methodists would "share doctrine, services and one Council of Bishops" -- while somehow agreeing to disagree on doctrines and rites linked to marriage and ordination.
Finally, Lambrecht confirmed that the "Commission on a Way Forward" has discussed a third "traditional" option that would maintain, and defend, the doctrines affirmed in the current Book of Discipline.
All three plans would allow dissenting local churches -- on left or right -- to leave the denomination, under terms still to be determined by UMC leaders.
"Lots of people are tired of fighting," said Lambrecht. "Many are tempted to throw up their hands in frustration and head over to a nearby nondenominational megachurch. … But all of this is going to take time. We have years to go before this process is over."
Terry Mattingly (tmatt.net) leads GetReligion.org and is Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King's College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn.