The Future of Methodism Is Not Methodism

January 1st, 2020
This article is featured in the The Future of Methodism (Feb/Mar/Apr 2020) issue of Circuit Rider

I first learned of the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation” from one of my sons who showed me a Washington Post news story titled “United Methodist church is expected to split over gay marriage.” My immediate reaction was surprise. The diversity of the signatories committing themselves to the process outlined in the agreement was unexpected. I was also surprised by the amount of media attention that the release of the Protocol garnered. True, the media outlets got ahead of the story and mischaracterized the Protocol as a done deal. At the same time, the clarity of its proposals and the weight of its endorsers make a split seem more imminent and questions about a future for (or beyond) The United Methodist Church more pressing.

Is there a future for Methodism? Wesley had his doubts. Five years before his death, in his “Thoughts upon Methodism” he famously said, “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect having the form of religion without the power.”[1] In his 1789 sermon “Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity” he wonders, “What a mystery is this! That Christianity should have done so little good in the world!”[2]

Wesley is exaggerating. I believe that Methodism has done much good in the world. Still, how do we account for its proneness to church splits and cultural accommodation? When the first ecumenical Methodist conference met in London in 1881, there were ten separate denominations in attendance from the United Kingdom and eighteen from the United States. John Wesley’s perplexity finds an echo in Ricardo Arjona’s lament, “Jesús es verbo, no sustantivo” (“Jesus is a verb, not a noun”)[3] that in this world there are more denominations than happy children.

The future for Methodism envisioned by the Protocol is predicated on a tragic separation. Separation is presented as “the best means to resolve our differences, allowing each part of the Church to remain true to its theological understanding, while recognizing the dignity, equality, integrity, and respect of every person.”[4] Restructuring toward separation is “a faithful step with the possibility of continued cooperation around matters of shared interest, enabling each of us to authentically live out our faith.”[5] The step may well be legitimate; the lesser evil, a “respectful and dignified separation” is preferable to the greater evil of doing harm to fellow United Methodists and impeding The United Methodist Church in its mission to the world. And yet, I am mindful of Hannah Arendt’s warning, “those who choose the lesser evil forget very quickly that they chose evil.”[6] Are we doomed to choosing between evils?

"The Works of John Wesley: Volume 1" edited by Albert C. Outler. Order here:

I am neither a forecaster nor a gambling man. I do not know what will happen at General Conference 2020 nor do I have a sense of the odds for this Protocol. I am, for better or worse, a theologian. Thus, when I think of the future of Methodism, I begin not with General Conference but with the end. John Wesley believed that God raised the Methodist people “not to form any sect, but to reform the nation, particularly the Church, and to spread Scriptural holiness over the land.”[7] Holy love is the end of Methodism. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are a reform, renewal, and revival movement that makes disciples of Jesus Christ (not simply disciples of John Wesley) for the transformation of the world (not simply for congregational growth). We Methodists are most ourselves when we live backwards, when we live from the end.

In T.H. White’s The Once and Future King the character of Merlyn is a somewhat confused and confusing person.  He has a hard time living in the world because he lives backwards. As he explains to young Arthur, “Now ordinary people are born forwards in time…But I unfortunately was born at the wrong end of time, and I have to live backwards from in front, while surrounded by a whole lot of people living forwards from behind.”[8] I believe that this is the vocation that Methodists are being called to embrace again. Our present moment calls for us to interpret our history from the end, to lament the current state of Methodism from the hope that God is still with us, to contemplate the Golgotha of separation from the future of reconciliation and the reality of grace. We are called to live backwards from the end because our “life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). What does this mean? It means that the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through separation” is best backwards from the end.

Read from the end, the earmarking of funds to “to strengthen ministries by and for Asian, Black, Hispanic-Latino, Native American, and Pacific Islander Communities”[9] is a sign that the future of Methodism in the United States needs to resemble more the demographic diversity of the nation. The days of monoculturalism are numbered. This is not an issue of celebrating diversity but of announcing and anticipating the kingdom of God where “there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all” (Col 3:11)!

Read from the end, the charge to the Council of United Methodist Bishops “to enter into ecumenical agreements with Methodist denominations formed under this Protocol”[10] is more than a sensible, just sharing of assets. The word “ecumenical” means more than interdenominational cooperation. At the root of all “ecumenical agreements” worth their name is the groaning of the people of God for the fulfillment of the prayer of Jesus Christ “that they may be one…so that the world may believe” (Jn 17:21).

Is there a future for Methodism? Yes! But the future of Methodism is not Methodism. When read from the end, the future is “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Rev 7:9). When read from the end, the future is cosmic symphony because through Christ “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col 1:20). When read from the end, the future of Methodism is, Wesley says, the new creation where “there will be a deep, an intimate, an uninterrupted union with God; a constant communion with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ through the Spirit; a continual enjoyment of the Three-One God, and of all the creatures in him!”[11] Read from the end, the Protocol is but one possible outline for a scene in the story of the people called Methodist, which is but a chapter in the divine comedy of the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church.

[2] John Wesley, “The Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity” in Sermons IV: 115-151, ed. Albert C. Outler, vol. 4 of The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1976- ), p. 87.

[3] Ricardo Arjona, "Jesús, verbo no sustantivo,” Jesús, Verbo No Sustantivo (Sony Music, 1988).

[4] Protocol, Statement of Principles, Paragraph G.

[5] Protocol, Statement of Principles, Paragraph H.

[6] Hannah Arendt, Responsibility and Judgement, ed. Kohn (New York: Shocken Books, 2003), 36.

[7] The Works of John Wesley, ed. Thomas Jackson (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1978), Vol.8, p.299, Minutes of Several Conversations between the Rev. Mr. Wesley and Others.

[8] T.H. White, The Once and Future King (New York: Ace Books, 2011), 22.

[9] Protocol, Article IV, Paragraph C, Item iii.

[10] Protocol, Article IV, Paragraph C, Item v.

[11] John Wesley, “The New Creation” in Sermons II: 34-70, ed. Albert C. Outler, vol. 2 of The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1976- ), 510.

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