As the largest mainline Protestant denomination, with some 12 million members, the United Methodist Church has long been dominated by liberal theology. But it has lots of conservatives, especially when it comes to moral issues. In 2016, Methodists took a surprisingly pro-life position, voting to drop its support of Roe v. Wade and withdrawing from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. Then last February the denomination voted against same-sex marriage and non-celibate gay pastors.
Important to that vote was the overwhelming support for Biblical sexual morality among international Methodists, especially those from Africa. But the decision caused an uproar throughout American Methodism. Many congregations defied the ban on gay weddings. Many male and female pastors (women’s ordination being universal among Methodists) came out as homosexual. Supporters and opponents of the conference decision met to discuss how to “move forward.”
In a development that was surprising to most observers of denominational politics, the talks actually led to an agreement. The denomination will accept same-sex marriage and gay pastors. Methodists who disagree may leave to form another denomination. Congregations that decide to leave will be allowed to keep their property. Pastors who leave for the new church body may take their pensions with them. The existing denomination will give $25 million to the new denomination to help get them started. (Read this account of the agreement, which includes links to the final agreement.)
First, I marvel that the issue that is taking the “united” out of the “United Methodist Church” is homosexuality. Not many years ago, there was wide consensus–among liberals as well as conservatives–that same-sex sex is wrong. Today, in many circles, the goodness and rightness of homosexuality is one of the clearest and most authoritative of moral convictions. This must be one of the quickest and most thorough-going moral revolutions in history.
And yet, I also marvel that homosexuality is where so many Protestant mainliners draw the line. They have tolerated watering down the authority of Scripture; they have come to support women’s ordination; they have allowed pastors, seminary professors, and bishops to reject the deity of Christ, the Atonement, and the Resurrection. They won’t leave the denomination over issues like that. But homosexuality–that’s another story! (This has been the syndrome not just with Methodists but with Episcopalians and ELCA Lutherans, both of which have also spun off dissident denominations over the issue.)
Also, I don’t understand why the conservative Methodists are the ones who have to leave. They won the denominational election! Why don’t the pro-gay Methodists leave to start their own new denomination? Why do the liberals get to keep the “brand” and the existing institution? Why do the conservatives have to do with considerable work of building a new church body?
It may be that the majority of American Methodists had wanted to accept gay marriage and ordination at the 2019 conference but were thwarted by the international voters. In that case, the smaller number of conservatives were happy enough to leave. But, still, what happened to the international Methodists? Are they not going to be allowed a voice?
Still, both sides seem to be very supportive of this agreement, which must be formally approved at the national conference in May.
And, yet, I salute the Methodists for crafting an agreement like this. If the goal is unity, the best way to achieve that, paradoxically, is often to split. A big entity full of conflict, whose members do not agree with one another, is not unified, even though the contending members are still in the same organization. If it splits into two organizations, each of which consists of members who agree with each other, the result will be two unified groups and thus an increase of unity.
An agreement to help a dissident group to leave is brilliant. There will be no legal battles over property. Let those who leave keep their building. Pastors will not have to let practical considerations, such as keeping their retirement program, keep them in a church body they no longer believe in. And to actually chip in $25 million to help get the new denomination started, though that won’t go far if it needs to build new seminaries and other institutions, is a very generous gesture.
The Episcopalians, on the other hand, did all they could to persecute those who left to form the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), tying them up in lawsuits, seizing their property, and being as punitive as possible.
Denominations and even congregations can learn from the Methodists about how to split amicably.
And yet, the eagerness of the liberals to get rid of their conservatives–and the eagerness of the conservatives to leave–is telling. The two sides are really not compatible. It will be interesting to see if the remaining Methodists will decline in numbers along with the rest of the Protestant mainline, and if the new Methodist church will spark a revival of traditional evangelical Methodism.
In the meantime, every Methodist congregation throughout the nation–and there are lots of them, even in virtually every small town here in rural Oklahoma–will have a decision to make.
Illustration: United Methodist logo , Pollicitus at English Wikipedia. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons