Break Up Methodism?
There was a very interesting article in the United Methodist Reporter last week that throws a lot of light on the state of play in the third largest Christian denomination in America. Written by Jack Jackson, a professor at Claremont School of Theology, it is amazing for its honesty. He writes:
After years of debate over progressive views of lesbian and gay ordination and marriage, the United Methodist Church reaffirmed its traditional stance at the 2012 General Conference in Tampa, Fla. Due to the UMC’s growth in Africa and Asia and decline in Europe and North America, many progressives fear the denomination will retain current prohibitions around LGBT inclusion for years to come. Advocates of inclusion are, therefore, left with four choices of how to proceed: covenanting to partner with the majority (whether or not it reflects a progressive vision), leaving the denomination for progressive ones, civil disobedience, or starting a conversation for an equitable division of the UMC.
Jackson does not explicitly state his own position regarding homosexuality, but it’s pretty clear he’s a liberal (he’d almost have to be to have a job at Claremont). So his examination of the options is basically being told form the standpoint of one who recognizes that his side has lost the debate. Methodism is peculiar among American churches in that it makes decisions globally, rather than nationally, meaning that African and Asian Methodists do not have to look on helplessly while the American church takes the denomination into apostasy. Instead, their votes count just as much as the left-wing Boston cleric or Claremont seminary professor. The most liberal sectors of the American UMC, the Northeastern and Western Jurisdictions, are in steep decline, while the overseas contingent comprises a rapidly growing percentage of world Methodism. That being the case, what’s a progressive to do?
Jackson examines the first three possibilities (remaining and continuing to try to change the church politically, leaving for more progressive fields, or playing Samson by destroying fidelity to the church’s standards embodied in the Book of Discipline) and find all wanting for various reasons. His preferred option, therefore, is the last:
If what progressives desire is a vibrant Wesleyan movement rooted in progressive values, especially as they relate to LGBT ordination and marriage, as opposed to an inclusive UMC at any cost, I propose a fourth option. Let’s begin serious discussion about dividing from one UMC to at least two new, distinct denominations.
This conversation would of course have to navigate many significant issues. They would include property (local church, Annual Conference, Jurisdictional Conference and denominational property), clergy pensions and seminaries, to name but a few. Other issues—such as the fact that the progressive/traditionalist divide is not purely geographic as a number of congregations and clergy in the West are rather traditionalist, while many progressives find their home in the Southeast—will also be problematic. Furthermore, the majority of the UMC that tries to live in the middle may be hesitant to claim a home in either a progressive or traditional vision of United Methodism.
Nevertheless, out of missional necessity, and in the light of the denomination’s continued decline, it is time for a conversation to begin on an equitable split of the UMC.
Beginning the conversation acknowledges the true endgame of our current direction: division. Progressive and traditionalist visions of human sexuality are simply incompatible. Most of Protestantism recognizes this. We can argue all we want, but there is no solution to our theological quandary that offers unity, common visions of Christian mission and an ability to focus on the deep systemic issues which plague the UMC.
Starting this conversation will require humility from progressives and traditionalists alike. Progressives will have to realize that time is not on their side and ask for an equitable division, or at least be given the chance to create a new Methodist denomination that reflects their progressive values. They will have to recognize that traditionalists could simply leave the denomination were progressives to succeed, and that their departure would leave a financially unsustainable UMC.
Traditionalists in turn will need to recognize that equitable division, or allowing progressives to take appropriate assets and form a new progressive denomination, is actually in their best interests. Not allowing a split means a generational fight that they may win, but which will drain their already declining resources for years to come. United Methodism, even its most traditionalist vision, is barely holding its own in the United States. Turning resources towards a vibrant missional future, instead of continuing the fight, will allow traditionalists to focus on the broader mission to which they feel called.
I have to say that I really appreciate this, and I think that he’s on the right track. I doubt seriously that it will happen, because the practical problems are enormous, and the imagination to cut through them simply doesn’t exist among leadership that is, by and large, institutionalist in its outlook, and therefore dedicated to maintaining the status quo any way it can. What is most interesting about this piece to me, however, isn’t what it says about the future of United Methodism, but about the predominant liberal mindset in the mainline denominations.
As readers of Stand Firm are well aware, the liberal leadership in the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA) have taken a scorched earth approach to denominational division. That is to say, they have, by and large, decided that evangelicals must either 1) stay and shut up; or 2) leave with the shirts on their backs. TEC has been absolutely uncompromising about property of any kind–everything you have, everything you’ve paid for and worked for, belongs to us, is their mantra. In the PCUSA, there have been instances where presbyteries have been gracious in their response to those who desire to leave, but even when congregations have been granted their property, a Mafia-like approach is taken whereby protection money has to be paid either in a lump sum or over a period of years (all for the sake of “missions,” doncha know). Tens of millions of dollars have or will flow from evangelical churches to prop up a dying institution, but many have seen that as preferable to paying who-knows-how-much to lawyers.
In other words, when liberals have been in the saddle, their attitude has been, “you’ll take our sanctuaries and our endowments and our fellowship halls when you pry them from our cold, dead hands.” In Methodism, however, they don’t have the votes, so the attitude expressed by one of their number is, “why don’t we sit down like civilized people and divvy up the assets? It will be good for everyone!”
This is not meant as a criticism of Jack Jackson. I’m sure he’s sincere in his proposal, and I even think it’s a good one. I know he’s looking just at the situation in the United Methodist Church, and is not drawing a contrast between the situation there and the situations in TEC and PCUSA. But I can’t help but feel that, if the situation were different, and all those Africans and Asians didn’t have votes in General Conference, and the American church were free to take it’s own path regarding gay ordination and marriage, that we’d be hearing a different tune, if not from Jackson, then from many of his fellow liberals. In that case, it would be, “it’s my way or the highway.”
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