For more than half a century, leaders of The United Methodist Church have seen the denomination as a “big tent,” a place where different theological and ecclesiastical identities could co-exist and perhaps even co-mingle as a single entity. Now that the “big tent” seems to be unraveling with the apparent development of a new, traditionalist denomination, the Global Methodist Church, United Methodists are pondering how to be a worldwide church of some 12 million members in the technologically advanced 21st century.
Members of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, the traditionalist caucus that is forming the Global Methodist Church, see Methodism as a church that combines the evangelical zeal of the Baptist tradition with the Calvinist love of rules and discipline.
“Members of the Wesleyan Covenant Association … see Methodism as a church the combines the evangelical zeal of the Baptist tradition with the Calvinist love of rules and discipline.”
Founded in 2016, the WCA held its fifth “Global Gathering” in early May in Montgomery, Ala., one of the homesteads of the former Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Eager participants seemed enthusiastic about founding their new church, which according to a legislative session will be based upon principles of “evangelism, scriptural authority, historic Methodist practices and a traditional understanding of marriage as between one man and one woman,” according to a report by Sam Hodges of UM News.
Throwback to segregation?
At least one commentator, Seattle pastor Jeremy Smith, characterizes the fledgling GMC not as a new denomination, but as a throwback to a racially segregated era of the former Methodist Church, except that now the oppressed class is composed of LGBTQ persons instead of African Americans.
In a recent post, “The Future of the Global Methodist Church is in the Past,” Smith likened the Global Methodist Church to the Methodist Church as it existed from 1939 through 1968. Those roughly three decades were marked by the existence of the racially segregated Central Jurisdiction, a church unit to which all African American congregations and pastors were assigned. The Central Jurisdiction was formed to satisfy the Jim Crow demands of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, which wouldn’t join a tripartite merger with the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Protestant Church unless racial segregation was assured.
In a contemporary expression of “hate the sin, love the sinner,” Wesleyan Covenant Association members insist they love LGBTQ persons and would welcome them into their new fellowship — provided they don’t practice their sexuality.
WCA members reject the notion that their tenet of traditional sexuality harms either individuals or the institutional church. Instead, they blame the growing acceptance of LGBTQ persons in the United Methodist Church on bishops and pastors who have promoted what WCA members view as a sinful lifestyle. One Global Gathering speaker, pastor Eric Huffman, summarized the viewpoint: “Infinitely more harm is caused by spineless and sentimental church leaders who misrepresent the truth because they like being liked by people more than they like people loving Jesus,” he was quoted in Hodges’ story as saying.
“WCA members reject the notion that their tenet of traditional sexuality harms either individuals or the institutional church.”
On the other end, Liberation
At the other end of the spectrum is a loosely organized group calling itself the Liberation Methodist Connexion or LMX. Unlike the Global Methodist Church with its strict faith statements and institutional structure, the LMX could hardly be characterized as a church by any organizational standards. At best, the LMX might be identified as a set of aspirations on a journey toward a beloved community.
Its website states: “The Liberation Methodist Connexion (LMX) is built on what currently is, and on an expectation of what is yet to come. We are journeying toward a new way of being followers of Christ that refute the imbalance of powers, principalities and privileges that has plagued Methodism: colonialism, white supremacy, economic injustices, patriarchy, sexism, clericalism, ableism, ageism, transphobia, and heteronormativity. We trust God’s presence and our collaborative labors will guide us toward a new, more liberative way of answering our calling and being in connexion together.”
UMC left in the middle
Between these two extremes, the United Methodist Church struggles to find some handles on the moment of impending schism.
The latest attempt comes in the form of an academic approach by David Field, who heads a European-based distance-learning program called Methodist e-Academy. Field has published an 18-page paper describing six different understandings of United Methodism today:
- As a U.S. denomination.
- As a European free church.
- As a connection of holiness societies.
- As a confessional church.
- As a generously orthodox church.
- As a movement of liberation.
Field has been active with the unity movement, Uniting Methodists, who support maintaining the current denomination by allowing more flexibility in decision-making. Uniting Methodists produced the “One Church” plan that was defeated at the special 2019 General Conference at which traditionalists tightened the prohibitions against same-sex marriage and ordaining LGBTQ clergy by a margin of 438-384 votes.
In his introduction, Field approaches the wedge issue splitting the church from a different perspective. He cites two principles: the terminology used to describe LGBTQ people, which carries moral and ethical judgment, and the ethical and theological significance of the debate itself.
“We are in conflict not merely because we disagree on inclusion and affirmation but because different groups within the church weigh the significance of the diversity of views differently,” he wrote. “This is an ecclesiological issue in two ways. First, how much diversity can be embraced and/or tolerated within a church? Second, how do we determine what are church-dividing ethical issues and what are not?”
Field cited an icon of the traditionalist movement: the late Albert C. Outler, longtime professor at UMC-related Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. Outler was active during the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s when the current UMC was formed.
Field quoted Outler from a 1962 Oxford Institute of Methodist Studies paper: “Do Methodists have a doctrine of the Church? Outler’s conclusion was that while Methodists had a functional ecclesiology, they had not developed a detailed theological understanding of the church.”
‘Wonder, Love and Praise’
Contemporary scholars and theologians attempted to define The United Methodist Church in a study intended to go to the 2020 General Conference for review and ratification. The document, “Wonder, Love and Praise: Sharing a Vision of the Church,” was produced by the church’s Committee on Faith & Order, but unfortunately is among the casualties of the General Conference delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The document was widely circulated in 2017 and 2018, reviewed and critiqued by scholars and agency staff as well as bishops.
“Wonder, Love and Praise” has a lot going for it, as this writer noted in a 2017 interpretative analysis: “As a potential mechanism for United Methodist unity as well as church identity, ‘Wonder, Love and Praise’ focuses on how to create a Christian denomination of Wesleyan heritage that can serve a world of human diversity. While its theology likely will interest scholars, clergy and ‘Methonerds,’ rank-and-file United Methodists might identify more with practicalities: a two-part process for how the church makes decisions about its policies and practices.”
“Each church unit from local congregations to regional bodies would be empowered to decide what non-essential policies and practices work best in their respective contexts.”
In particular, “Wonder, Love and Praise” proposes a concept of “subsidiarity.” The principle, based on a business model of quality assurance popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s, means that each church unit from local congregations to regional bodies would be empowered to decide what non-essential policies and practices work best in their respective contexts. The key phrase, of course, is what policies and practices are to be considered “essential.”
“Wonder, Love and Praise” has a chance for resurrection in the coming year as United Methodists prepare to gather (they hope) for General Conference Aug. 29-Sept. 6, 2022, in Minneapolis. The denomination’s ministry coordinating agency, the Connectional Table, recently unanimously adopted a proposal to serve as an organizer for regional conversations across the worldwide denomination on the nature of the UMC.
According to the agency’s announcement, one goal of those conversations will be to hear from rank-and-file United Methodists whose views aren’t often represented in the halls of legislative power or big denominational gatherings, said Kennetha Bigham-Tsai, Connectional Table executive, in a UM News article. She told Heather Hahn of UM News that “the challenges the denomination faces require learning, not leveraging authority.
“’In other words, if we knew the answers, we would have deployed them by now,’” Bigham-Tsai was quoted as saying.