How we got to where we are: A brief overview of United Methodism in 2017

April 28th, 2017

Note: For those who want to dive in deeply into what is happening in United Methodism in the present moment, I recommend the abundance of statements and interpretations that are easily accessible via the web. I am speaking in reference to the called General Conference, the Judicial Council and the Commission on a Way Forward. This is something different — a brief overview of events that have led to where we find ourselves that can be read in 5-7 minutes.

1. American Methodism began and flourished as a movement with a very clear set of doctrines, a very thin book of discipline, a very high set of expectations for discipleship and a very real struggle with slavery and racism. We failed in that struggle, and some of the divisions have been with us ever since. A recent statement of full communion with the Pan Methodist (historically black churches — AME, AMEZ, CME) is a step in the right direction.

2. There have always been multiple streams of theological diversity in American Methodism: revivalism, the social gospel, personalism, neo-Wesleyanism, process theology and theologies of liberation. We have been able to live together with theological differences, while affirming a doctrinal core. This is the distinction made in the Book of Discipline between our doctrinal standards and our theological task. I have also found the work of Tom Langford in his Practical Divinity to be very helpful. My simple point here is that we have always been a church with differing theological perspectives; yet, we are united by a rich and deep understanding of the grace of God that leads to sanctification — which is itself God’s gift — and the means of grace that form us as disciples.

3. Largely through migration and missionary movements, American Methodism came to align with ancestors of the Wesleys in Europe and to establish churches in Africa and the Philippines. At the same time, our relationships with churches in Latin America and the Caribbean are more loosely defined, as these bodies are autonomous. Still, we engage in mission and prayer together (two examples would be Cuba and Haiti). At present the global body that is The United Methodist Church is present on four continents: the United States, Africa, the Philippines and Europe. Our process for decision-making is aligned with membership. This decision-making occurs every four years at a General Conference, held in 2016 in Portland and in 2020 in Minneapolis. Methodists have met in conferences since our very beginning.

4. Because of our impasse on definitions and practices related to LGBTQ identity and implications for the unity of the church, the General Conference in Portland called for a special General Conference to focus exclusively on this matter. This was seen as a more faithful and helpful alternative than the more efficient (but also harmful) practice of taking up these questions in a few minutes, when the outcomes are of such great concern to so many. This called special General Conference included provision for a group to prepare the church for this work. The group is the Commission on a Way Forward, 32 persons who come from across the globe in approximate proportion to our membership and diversity. This Commission will meet nine times, and its purpose is to prepare the larger church for decision-making that will help us to find a way forward, beyond our present impasses. I am honored and humbled to serve as one of three moderators of this Commission.

5. As the Commission does its work, life in the church goes on, in all of its diversity, confusion and disagreement. One aspect of this is the Judicial Council’s decision regarding the contested election of a bishop in the Western Jurisdiction. The decision of the Judicial Council is a legal response to the questions of both LGBTQ marriage and ordination in the church. It is distinct from the processes of both the Commission on a Way Forward and the General Conference. At the same time protest and renewal movements continue to do their work. The media (social and otherwise) often exacerbate the divisions and ignore the much greater reality of a common ground.

6. For some the present denominational work is a distraction. For others it is for the purpose of clarifying who we are as United Methodists. Some see a future for our church only through a definition of orthodoxy that includes traditional understandings of marriage and ordination. Others see a future for our church that is fully inclusive of persons in same gender marriage and open to the gifts of LGBTQ persons in ordained ministry. And yet others hope for a future United Methodist Church that can include both traditional and progressive practices.

7. The decision of the Judicial Council, the report of the Commission on a Way Forward and the actions of the called General Conference will provide a blueprint for the future of United Methodism. The decision of the Judicial Council will respond to a very specific question, and is significant in the short term. The General Conference’s decisions in 2019 and 2020 will shape the church in a more substantive way and will define our capacity to find a way forward.

I would encourage those who love The United Methodist Church and seek a future with hope to:

  • consider the complexity of a much more diverse tradition in our past and a much more diverse and global reality in our future; 
  • not be quick to assume the worst about denominational leaders and advocates for renewal and protest; many of them are United Methodist Christians to their core. Here the distinctions in The Anatomy of Peace between a heart at war and a heart at peace are helpful; 
  • recognize that there are LGBTQ persons in virtually every local United Methodist congregation and their gifts are a great blessing to the church and the world; 
  • place ourselves with humility under the Lordship of Jesus Christ as we seek to become more holy, and 
  • to take life, and the life of our denomination, one day at a time, to trust in the work of God and to seek God’s will through a process that, yes, does take a very long time.

Ken Carter is resident bishop of the Florida Area of the United Methodist Church.


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