An Ecumenical Future for The UMC?

The United Methodist Church and its predecessor bodies are and have been deeply committed to the cause of Christian unity. Historically, Methodists have been founding members of many ecumenical organizations, including the World Council of Churches (WCC). Clergy and lay members of Methodist bodies have played key leadership roles across the ecumenical movement. The UMC continues to be a significant source of financial support for these organizations as well. A commitment to ecumenism is in the very DNA of Methodism, thanks in part to John Wesley’s own vision of Christian unity and cooperation in mission and witness across confessional and ecclesiastical lines.

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that our ecumenical partners are watching what is currently unfolding in The UMC with great concern. At virtually every meeting we attend as ecumenical staff officers at the Council of Bishops, we field questions from anxious partners about the future of The UMC. What will become of our current agreements should The UMC split? Will we have to renegotiate these agreements and begin new relationships from scratch? What will happen to the personal relationships we have developed in our current dialogues? Will a divided Methodism be able to sustain its characteristic level of support for vital ecumenical endeavors?

To a large degree the ecumenical future of The UMC depends on how committed its people and General Conference remain to these words in the constitutional preamble of The Book of Discipline:

The church of Jesus Christ exists in and for the world, and its very dividedness is a hindrance to its mission in that world. The prayers and intentions of The United Methodist Church and its predecessor bodies, have been and are for obedience to the will of our Lord that his people be one, in humility for the present brokenness of the Church, and in gratitude that opportunities for reunion have been given.[1]

The kind of unity we can pursue ecumenically in the future is dependent on the kind of unity we can achieve internally in the coming years. The ecumenical future of The UMC in many ways hangs on whether and how, in humility for our present brokenness, we will be open to the leading of the Spirit in the fostering of creative new forms of unity among the people and congregations that make up our church.

And yet, in spite of this uncertainty, the ecumenical work of the church continues. Our Council of Bishops is committed to ecumenical and interreligious relationship-building and to the continuation of the people called Methodists serving as leaders in the ecumenical movement. Our denomination continues to move forward with formal dialogues and commissions to guide joint ministries across denominational lines. We continue our participation in multi-denominational conversations with an eye to how these groups play unique roles within the larger ecumenical landscape. We continue our strong leadership in national, regional, and global conciliar groups. And the Council of Bishops remains committed to continuing and expanding our discipleship formation ministries, in teaching United Methodists why and how to engage in ecumenical and interreligious ministry.

However, we also see the future of the ecumenical movement moving beyond these classical modes of formal and professional ministry. As Christianity continues to experience major demographic and cultural shifts, the formal ecumenical movement will also need to continue to change. We will need to find ways to reach out to nondenominational churches and others who previously have not engaged in the movement. We will need to find ways to recognize and resource grassroots ecumenical ministries only tangentially impacted by official ecumenical statements and institutions. We will need to learn how best to relate to young adults and others who identify as spiritual but whose formal relationships to religious institutions remain fluid. We will need to expand our definitions of unity and rethink the role of denominational patterns as we head further into a post-denominational future. And we will need to do a much better job educating ourselves about other religions and engaging their adherents as neighbors.

As we look to the future, we look to our founder for whom unity encompassed more than institutional relationships. While remaining strongly committed to the integrity of existing institutions, John Wesley’s vision was also that of unity based on a personal, shared devotion to the way of Christ. Similarly, our vision will need to include official dialogues and conciliar denominational-based joint ministries. But it must also call each of us, in all we do, to reach out in humility to Christian brothers and sisters both within and beyond The UMC for the sake of our mutual witness. It further calls us to reach across lines of religious tradition for the flourishing of God’s whole creation. May it be so.

[1] The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church: 2016 (Nashville, TN: The United Methodist Publishing House, 2016), 25. Emphasis added.

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