If United Methodists were transformed into an animal, they no doubt would be Dr. Doolittle’s famous “pushmi-pullyu.” In other words, they’d like to have their future go two ways at once.
Today’s United Methodists come by this tendency honestly, because Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, contended with conflict by pleading, “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike?”
Disputes among his preachers over doctrine and practice inspired Wesley’s famous 1777 sermon, “Catholic Spirit,” which has nothing to do with the Roman Catholic Church but with the idea of “catholic” as “universal.” The sermon is one of 44 “standard sermons” by Wesley that are considered essential United Methodist doctrine.
Wesley took as his text a little-known passage from 2 Kings 10:15, “When he left there, he met Jehonadab son of Rechab coming to meet him; he greeted him, and said to him, ‘Is your heart as true to mine as mine is to yours?’ Jehonadab answered, ‘It is.’ Jehu said, ‘If it is, give me your hand.’”
Wesley’s text comes from the middle of a particularly bloody passage in 2 Kings, when Jehu, the 10th king of the northern kingdom of Israel, was busy exterminating the kinfolk of Ahab, the southern kingdom of Judah’s infamous apostate king. Jehu’s wholesale slaughter is justified as his “zeal for the Lord” in killing off worshipers of Baal. Wesley immediately contrasts 2 Kings with Jesus’ instructions in the New Testament to love one another, which Wesley deems the higher law.
Two views of Wesley’s famous sermon
“Catholic Spirit” has been used, over-used and abused in the half-century that United Methodists have fought over the acceptance of LGBTQ people, the presenting issue of the power struggle driving apart the worldwide denomination. The interpretation of “Catholic Spirit’s” meaning for today depends on the interpreter.
For example, the Wesleyan Covenant Association, the movement seeking to form its own “traditionalist” denomination, posted a critique of “Catholic Spirit” on its website in February 2019, just before the special called General Conference. The essay by Greg Stover contends that Wesley didn’t mean for “catholic spirit” to be extended to all, but only to those who hold orthodox beliefs — hence justifying the WCA’s push for separation. The essay appeared in time to influence slim-margin votes that rejected a unity plan called “One Church” in favor of instituting harsh penalties for violating the UMC’s bans against same-sex marriage and ordaining LGBTQ people.
Previously, Morris Davis, assistant professor of church history and Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at UMC-related Drew University, sketched an opposite conclusion in a 2004 academic essay, “John Wesley on Doctrinal Standards and Church Unity.” He wrote: “Wesley’s concept of ‘catholic spirit’ played itself out in praxis; Wesley found it a hard-won victory to stave off the call for separation from within his own Methodist ranks. In the course of his struggles, Wesley found the line between doctrinal indifference and doctrinal dogmatism a difficult one to navigate. In the end it was a combination of Wesley’s vision of catholicity and his strong belief in the destructive effects of schism that held off, nearly on its own, a split from the Church of England.”
Two views on a way forward for Methodists
In contrast to the traditionalists’ contention of orthodoxy being essential to “catholic spirit,” United Methodists in regions beyond the United States have put forth a proposal called “The Christmas Covenant” that embodies more of Wesley’s famous quote from “Catholic Spirit,” “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike?”
The Christmas Covenant was presented in December 2019 almost simultaneously with “A Protocol for Grace & Reconciliation through Separation.” Not surprisingly, since it originated in regions outside the American church’s political influence, the Christmas Covenant has received far less media attention than the Protocol. The latter is an agreement negotiated among representatives of various pro- and anti-LGBTQ factions to allow for “new expressions” of Methodism, primarily creation of a traditionalist denomination. The Wesleyan Covenant Association is hanging its current campaign to set up a new denomination on the assumption that General Conference approval of the Protocol is a done deal.
The Christmas Covenant opposes “calls to dissolve or dismember The United Methodist Church, to liquidate its assets and distribute them to the highest bidder.”
Backers of the Christmas Covenant likely would disagree, even though a bishop has argued that the two documents complement one another. The Christmas Covenant opposes “calls to dissolve or dismember The United Methodist Church, to liquidate its assets and distribute them to the highest bidder.” Thus the covenant directly challenges the basic idea of the Protocol, which would allow dissidents to leave The United Methodist Church with their property and additionally would provide $25 million over four years for the establishment of a “traditionalist denomination,” such as the Wesleyan Covenant Association.
In contrast, the Christmas Covenant lays out a vision of unity without uniformity: “As United Methodists from central conferences, we envision a Church that connects globally, engages in mission together, respects contextual ministry settings, celebrates the diversity of God’s creation in its many beautiful expressions, and values mutually empowering relationships in order to strengthen our core mission of evangelism, discipleship, and social witness for the transformation of the world. This is our covenant.”
In its values statement, the Christmas Covenant bases its proposal upon two cultural concepts: the African idea of ubuntu and a Filipino idea known as bayanihan. In an article for United Methodist News Service, Heather Hahn explained the two concepts thus: “Ubuntu refers to a way of life that recognizes human interdependence. Bayanihan refers to the community spirit and cooperation to achieve communal goals.” While not couched in western European language, ubuntu and bayanihan both reflect the kind of mutual respect, forbearance and cooperation that John Wesley advocates in “Catholic Spirit.”
Postponement of the 2020 General Conference — the United Methodist legislative assembly — to September 2021 has allowed time for regional units known as annual conferences to consider both the Christmas Covenant and the Protocol for Grace & Reconciliation through Separation. Support for the Christmas Covenant has been moving quietly through annual conferences, with the North Texas Annual Conference the latest to endorse it in September.
Enabling legislation for both documents has been submitted for consideration at the 2021 General Conference, so the Christmas Covenant and the Protocol both will come before the nearly 900 delegates slated to make up the Aug. 31-Sept. 7 session in Minneapolis, Minn.
The showdown between the two proposal hinges on one nebulous factor: will the coronavirus pandemic be sufficiently over in time to allow international travel to large indoor gatherings like the United Methodist General Conference? If General Conference doesn’t happen in 2021, how much longer can The United Methodist Church hold together with two opposing forces pushing and pulling at it?
Cynthia B. Astle is a veteran journalist who has covered the worldwide United Methodist Church at all levels for more than 30 years. She serves as editor of United Methodist Insight, an online journal she founded in 2011.
This story was made possible by gifts to the Mark Wingfield Fund for Interpretive Journalism.