One of the most significant challenges delegates face as they debate the merits of the four major plans before them at General Conference is sorting through the overlapping, and sometimes conflicting, values brought to the table. While each plan has a different driving value, they all are best understood as value cocktails sharing the same ingredients mixed to meet a different taste. For example, all four plans place some value on unity, but each arrives at it in a different way, with delegates bringing both unique understandings of what unity is, and varying degrees of interest in it.

Of course, there are more than four values at play as each United Methodist overlays their considerations with additional values of their own. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll focus on these four values: Unity, Inclusion, Choice, and Scripture. How, exactly, a plan embodies the value, and to what degree, is somewhat subjective and prone to variance even among a given plans supporters. Our goal isn’t to arrive at a perfect understanding, but instead to display some of the complexity actually present beyond the Tweets, Memes, and reductive talking points.

The four plans and their driving values

While there are certainly points of direct conflict to consider, more challenging (and perhaps frustrating) are the tensions that arise when United Methodists share values, but fail to recognize (or honor) that they simply hold them in a different order. As an example, proponents of the Simple Plan place a high, driving value on full inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons in the life of the Church, but sometimes fail to recognize that many One Church Plan supporters do as well.

A careful reading of the Simple Plan reveals that it is also not a monolith, holding the values of unity and personal choice as the plan doesn’t require conservative parts of the church to fully include LGBTQ+ persons. The plan is also deeply rooted, for many if not all, in understandings of justice found in Scripture, particularly in the prophets and incarnate in the life of Jesus. 

The One Church Plan embodies these same values in a different order. It may have some of the greatest variance, among its supports, in how it orders all but the first value. For most people that support the One Church Plan, unity is the driving value. For progressives, inclusion is a close second of significant concern with Scripture and choice following. A belief that change happens in relationship, and an appreciation for the global church, undergird some of this preferencing of unity as the driving value with the tension between unity and inclusion quite visceral for some.

For moderates and some conservatives in support of the One Church Plan, unity as a value might be followed by choice or Scripture rather than inclusion. Some bring a more congregational sensibility to things, respect for episcopal authority, or a deep recognition of the need for contextualization. This doesn’t mean that they are opposed to the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons, though some certainly are, but they don’t understand it as having the same urgency.

The Connectional Conferences Plan places choice ahead of unity. In its proposed restructuring of the connection, United Methodists are given significant freedoms to reorder themselves while preserving a new sort of unity and some shared identity and services. The full inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons is permitted by the plan in one part, but so is the continued exclusion in a different connectional conference. Similarly, the plan also makes space for varied, otherwise incongruent, hermeneutics of Scripture. It is hard to come away from the plan with a sense that inclusion or Scripture were significant values, but instead, value obstacles that needed to be dealt with.

Fidelity to Scripture, as understood with a conservative Christian lens, is the driving value of the Traditional Plan. That isn’t to say that the other values aren’t present, but they are certainly understood and shaped through this one prism. Unity, for example, is understood as uniformity of belief in a way that doesn’t present itself in the other plans. Choice and inclusion may be present, but with unity defined as it is, the wrong choice or form of inclusion necessitates punishment or schism. Of the four plans, it is the most distinct in how it incorporates all four values.

Finding Hope in the Commons

In much of the rhetoric that has preceded this General Conference, it’s been imagined that United Methodists will be forced to choose one value or another as they align themselves with a plan. It should be obvious, if imperfectly so, that this is an incomplete picture. In reality, delegates and United Methodists around the world are balancing at least four values as they consider the value cocktail they prefer. Most United Methodists understand each of these values as good and worth pursuing, with the possible exception outlined above in regards to some supporters of the Traditional Plan.

The key challenge for delegates over the coming days will be navigating the tension fostered by the driving value(s) of each plan. Without discipline, and a sincere openness to the Holy Spirit’s presence, delegates will default to their driving values and see others as compromised and reduced to caricatures. But for those that can resist that temptation, a key opportunity exists to find commonality with others who hold the same values, even if they hold them in a different order. 

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