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October 23, 2012


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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25 comments

Of course they want to split the denomination.  That would allow the American liberals to take the American churches right down into the toilet along with the other mainlines.  The fact that it is still a single denomination with those churches outside of the U.S. is what is saving Methodism right now.

[1] Posted by Jim the Puritan on 10-23-2012 at 01:24 PM · [top]

“This is not meant as a criticism of Jack Jackson. I’m sure he’s sincere in his proposal,”

I’m inclined to respect him as sincere. The average liberal would not say:

“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.”

They’d say instead:
“After years of debate over progressive views of lesbian and gay ordination and marriage, the United Methodist Church decided to break with the loving inclusive tradition of Christianity and instead side with hateful, bigoted prejudices against our [...] brethren “, etc. etc. We’ve all seen revisionists post such things on this very site.

The bar is quite low for liberal honesty, but at least this guy acknowledged that what liberals are aiming at is innovation. But it’s true what you say: if they were operating from a position of strength, there would be a take no prisoners attitude and this guy might feel a slight pang that things were not quite ideal, but he’d probably fold his arms and keep silent. I wish there were more examples of when they do otherwise.

[2] Posted by SpongJohn SquarePantheist on 10-23-2012 at 01:29 PM · [top]

Why would liberals in the UMC behave any differently than liberals in TEC and PCUSA if they controlled the denomination?  Having watched these folks for 25 years destroy two different denominations I have been a part of, I frankly think they are snakes.  You just don’t hear the hiss until they get to the place where they have control over you.

[3] Posted by Jim the Puritan on 10-23-2012 at 01:33 PM · [top]

Jim: That’s my point. If liberals were in power in the UMC, they would certainly be going the same route as TEC and PCUSA. One correction, however: what Jackson is proposing is a split of the assets and structure of the American church, not breaking the African and Asian conferences away from the American.

[4] Posted by David Fischler on 10-23-2012 at 01:39 PM · [top]

Somehow I don’t think the Apostles or early church fathers would advocate giving those who corrupt the truth the sheep and means to continue Satan’s work. At least not in the version of Scriptures I read or other letters.

[5] Posted by Festivus on 10-23-2012 at 02:28 PM · [top]

Perhaps not, but I also don’t think they would have advocated stealing it from the people who bought and paid for it. If there are liberal congregations that have put up the sweat and the dollars for property, they have every right to it.

[6] Posted by David Fischler on 10-23-2012 at 02:46 PM · [top]

It is my experience the GLBT agenda, and the progressive agenda, which is the fertile ground that nurtures that agenda, is one of no surrender/no prisoners…There is no “no” in their agenda…they will work until they control the synod, and then run everybody else off no matter how long it takes…and they will use liberal clergy to accomplish that agenda…it has worked in PCUSA,TEC, Congregational and others.  But for the magisterium, it might be further along in the Roman Church than it is too, becasue the progressive movement is very alive there.  See current issue of First Things regarding the progressives after Vatican II, and how the more conservatives lead by the current Pope have kept that agenda from being more dominant…“The Tridentine Genius of Vatican II” by Thomas White.

We are in a culture war and we cannot protect our churches unless we use the sheild of faith.

[7] Posted by aacswfl1 on 10-23-2012 at 03:27 PM · [top]

David Fischler,

I suspect that you are correct that if the shoe were on the other foot, law suits over church properties would be expected. If the “progressives” want to leave, let us pray that that no suits will be instigated by the current majority. Hey, the progressives can come join TEc (as long as they realize that no one can ever escape a black hole once they’ve crossed the event horizon).

[8] Posted by Undergroundpewster on 10-23-2012 at 03:30 PM · [top]

David @ #6 - what is being stolen and from whom?

[9] Posted by Festivus on 10-23-2012 at 03:31 PM · [top]

The U.S. UMC liberals tried to get around all this by splitting up the UMC into geographical General Conferences that would each have their own Book of Discipline.  This would have given them the keys to the kingdom in the U.S., but the proposed change failed.  Right now, however, practically all of the U.S. bishop positions, general boards, and seminaries are under the complete control of the inclusive, revisionist, LGBT crowd.  The proposal to take away appointment guarantees did pass and this frees bishops to declare UMC elders as not meeting performance “standards” and place them on terminal leave - a sure fire way to rid the denomination of those troublesome, orthodox clergy.

So, the U.S. church will end up with the clergy part of it completely dominated by revisionist liberals who will have no problem marginalizing and driving off orthodox laity.  So, instead of a “vibrant,” progressive Wesleyan movement, they will be left with a libertine, “vibrator,” progressive Wesleyan movement that will navel gaze into a black hole until nothing is left.

[10] Posted by Daniel on 10-23-2012 at 03:37 PM · [top]

#10—Yes that is certainly the case here, the UMC is basically comprised of aging Sixties hippie types, to the extent they still go to church.  But I suppose it is not totally a surprise that they want to jump on the homosexuality bandwagon.  The Methodist Church rose to prominence in the U.S. by being one of the mainstays of the Temperance/Prohibition Movement, so it’s no surprise they would try to look for another social trend they think they will benefit off of.  I think many Methodists today would be surprised to hear that their now liberal Church advocated teetotalism, but certainly alcohol in the late 1800s and early 1900s was a scourge ruining the lives of individuals and families.

[11] Posted by Jim the Puritan on 10-23-2012 at 03:47 PM · [top]

“but certainly alcohol in the late 1800s and early 1900s was a scourge ruining the lives of individuals and families.”

Now it’s called “entitlements”.

[12] Posted by SpongJohn SquarePantheist on 10-23-2012 at 05:06 PM · [top]

#9 Nutcracker, you wrote:

Somehow I don’t think the Apostles or early church fathers would advocate giving those who corrupt the truth the sheep and means to continue Satan’s work.

I assumed you were suggesting that liberals who depart the UMC in any deliberate split should not be allowed to take their property with them. I’m not sure what you would have been referring to by the use of the word “given” if not that. If I have misread your comment, please accept my apologies.

[13] Posted by David Fischler on 10-23-2012 at 05:16 PM · [top]

Wait - Schori let them keep their shirts?

[14] Posted by Jackie on 10-23-2012 at 07:11 PM · [top]

What cracks me up in the quote is how he contrasts the growing churches in various parts of the world with the shrinking white churches - and dubs the latter “inclusive.”

But other than that, yes, kudos for some rare honesty.

[15] Posted by Timothy Fountain on 10-23-2012 at 07:41 PM · [top]

It’s a great idea, and even better because he is honest and admits that there are basically two faiths in the UMC.  The Episcopal Church “progressives” tried to say that there was only one faith with a broad range of acceptable beliefs.  The price for remaining within TEC for an orthodox clergy member, on reasonably good terms, was to say that the heterodox were also Christians, just with some different views.  (For a denomination that proclaimed “You don’t have to check your brains at the door,” this was ludicrous: Jesus is either the Son of God Incarnate or he is not; either he rose from the dead with a corporeal body or he did not.) So, the author is willing to admit that there are not merely conflicting views, but mutually self-contradictory views, and that is a refreshing note of honesty.  Of course, it is only because the non-US conferences are solidly orthodox and have blocked the “progress” desired by the heterodox and the heretics that this honesty has come about.

The idea can’t work, however, for individual congregations are not solidly within one camp or the other.  Most congregations led by orthodox pastors have a number of “progressive” members, and some will be in leadership because they are willing to serve.  Even the most “progressive” clergy have a few orthodox members in their congregations.  No one congregation, let alone a district or a conference, will be able to make a thoroughly united decision as to which part to join, and even a 90% vote for one part or the other would be remarkable except in a few of the most “progressive” congregations.

I hope his idea gets discussed, nevertheless.  Honesty throughout the denomination about what is going on would be a wonderful thing

[16] Posted by AnglicanXn on 10-24-2012 at 05:15 AM · [top]

David@#13 - You did understand my comment correctly. My understanding of the UMC process is that the district or conference maintains the property in trust for Methodist ministry. If that is correct, I am curious the theology that would support a group creating schism to be given assets to further the turmoil?

[17] Posted by Festivus on 10-24-2012 at 08:29 AM · [top]

I think the deck is completely and totally stacked against the progressives.  UMC is not a congregational church - you don’t get to pick your minister, and the propertly belongs to the UMC.  The flip side - if the progressives managed to get a hold of the leadership there it would all be over quickly.

So, why in the world would the UMC give the progressives buildings and what-not?  Not that the UMC would have a “scorced earth” policy or anything, but that giving the progressives stuff would be enabling them to spread a compromised gospel.

Hence the nice, compromising tone from the author of the article.  He’s got nuth’in.

FYI, if you live in the DFW area in the great state of Texas, there is a group of Methodist ministers that have a great band called “Connections Band” that raises money for various charities - they are playing Saturday in Dallas “Super Hits of the 70’s” - http://www.connectionsband.net/page1/page10/page29/page29.html

[18] Posted by B. Hunter on 10-24-2012 at 12:48 PM · [top]

[19] Posted by B. Hunter on 10-24-2012 at 12:52 PM · [top]

#17: Theology? What does theology have to do with anything?  raspberry

You’re right about the presence of a trust in Methodism, and given the role of the annual conference in the life of the local church it is probably fair to say that it has a firmer foundation than in either TEC or PCUSA. From a theological and likely even legal standpoint, an evangelical United Methodist Church would be under no obligation to give any of its assets to a breakaway group.

There is, however, another issue at work in such a scenario, and it’s one that is in play the TEC and PCUSA as well. Is it morally correct for the denomination to stand on its legal rights and theological stance and say that the people (or their predecessors) who paid for and maintained a property should be deprived of it? It is the same question that evangelicals and other conservatives in TEC and PCUSA have been asking. What gives the denomination the moral right to appropriate property from those who have bought it, built it, and maintained it? I’m not at all sure that it’s enough to say, “we’re upholding the gospel and they aren’t,” a position that was used by the medieval church to justify a great deal of behavior that we’d agree was wrong.

[20] Posted by David Fischler on 10-24-2012 at 03:24 PM · [top]

#20.  Hmmm, interesting.

Contested property should be sold and the proceeds given to orphans.

[21] Posted by The Plantagenets on 10-24-2012 at 04:52 PM · [top]

The guy is right. If Christians win, we have to be generous. It is in the Covenant.

If non-Christians win, Christian behavior on their part isn’t required.

[22] Posted by Just a Baptist on 10-24-2012 at 10:50 PM · [top]

“If what progressives desire is a vibrant Wesleyan movement rooted in progressive values, especially as they relate to LGBT ordination and marriage” Does Jackson actually believe what he has written here? Does he even understand what he has written? This is progressive PR without substance. It will diminish to the status of a sect and then disappear. There is nothing ‘vibrant’ about it.

[23] Posted by Fr. Dale on 10-29-2012 at 06:39 PM · [top]

#10—“Yes that is certainly the case here, the UMC is basically comprised of aging Sixties hippie types, to the extent they still go to church.”

Jim the Puritan—why do you say that? I am a worship leader in a Methodist church, although I belong to an Anglican church. I can tell you that body of believers is vibrant and growing and spans all ages. They love the Lord and love to draw close to Him in worship. The Methodist churches in our area that I am familiar with are each like this.

The pastor of the church I work at had told me they were watching things unfold with the Anglican churches in VA because they were next. Global statements such as the above rarely approach accuracy.

[24] Posted by Pat Kashtock on 11-9-2012 at 07:38 PM · [top]

And btw—I think just splitting the denomination in the US would be a great idea. Staying together isn’t unity when two sides don’t hold to the same truths. Seems more like sentimentalism.

[25] Posted by Pat Kashtock on 11-9-2012 at 09:03 PM · [top]

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