Stay or Go? An afterword for moving forward

June 11th, 2019

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What of the wisdom from above? First, it is pure, and then peaceful, gentle, obedient, filled with mercy and good actions, fair, and genuine. Those who make peace sow the seeds of justice by their peaceful acts. (James 3:17-18, CEB)

It seems to me that there are really two questions facing churches, members, clergy, boards, and denominational leaders today. The first is easier: What is the future of The United Methodist Church? The second is harder: What is the future of the Methodist movement?

What is the future of the United Methodist Church?

Despite the complexity of details sorting out institutional organization, this is actually the easier question to answer. After all, there are precedents.

The Evangelical Presbyterian Church emerged in the 1980s because (according to the EPC website) "leaders had become increasingly distressed by theological liberalism and institutional resistance to change in their denominations." Their goal was to form a denomination that emphasized scripture and historic reformed confessions and re-energized American Presbyterian evangelical fervor. Many congregations split from the PCUSA and PCUS to join. This migration weakened those denominations, but also helped focus their unique missions.

The Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion) emerged in America in the 1990s. It distanced itself from both the British Anglicans and American Episcopalians over the ordination of gay men and celebration of same-sex marriages (among other liberalizing trends). Their vision, according to their website, is to be "bible-based, spiritually dynamic, united, disciplined, self-supporting, committed to pragmatic evangelism, social welfare and a Church that epitomizes the genuine love of Christ." After entering a covenant with other conservative Anglican groups, the denomination originally from Nigeria mostly consists of theologically conservative American Anglicans. They are said to be the fastest growing church in the Anglican Communion. This migration weakened the more liberal Anglican and Episcopal denominations, but also helped focus their missions.

The Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC) also emerged in the 90s. Their theology and position on homosexuality is similar to the LCMS, but like the ELCA they support the ordination of women. My experience is that they are also critical of the practice of sharing Lutheran and Episcopal priests. Notably, the LCMC describes itself as a “movement” rather than a “denomination.” While their movement is accountable to scripture and historic Lutheran confessions, they affirm that "one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to ministry because different communities often have different needs, backgrounds and cultures. Rather than micromanaging what they do, we give our members the freedom to be creative in how they do ministry, working together to transform the lives of others and fulfill the Great Commission that Jesus set forth in Matthew 28." The “movement” has attracted congregations from the other Lutheran denominations seeking a middle way, which has weakened them but also focused their unique missions.  

"Sideline Church" by Thomas Bandy. Order here:

The fracture in the United Church of Canada in the 80s and 90s was provoked by the policy that homosexuality should be no barrier to ordination, support for same-sex marriage and other liberal policies, and a trend toward “progressive” theology. The “Song of Faith” is perhaps the best insight into this diverse multicultural denomination: "God is Holy Mystery, beyond complete knowledge, above perfect description…. Nothing exists that does not find its source in God." In this case, disillusioned congregations and members did not form a new denomination but merged with existing Presbyterian, Baptist and other traditions or remained independent. Few have thrived, and the liberal UCC has also declined and become more congregational. However, each side is probably more focused in mission.

In each of these precedents, conservative churches (leaders and/or members) departed to recover what they considered to be a more “traditional” church. In the United Methodist split, it is the liberals who are considering departure to form a new expression of church loyal to Wesleyan principles. That may change at the next General Conference, but some split is inevitable. I think there are at least two unique features to this split that break from precedents.

First, the UMC split involves the fracturing of a rather monolithic and well-organized global church. Other precedents impacted less integrated communions, ecumenical relationships and mission partnerships, but still tended to be confined to national or regional interests. In this case, division is more clearly tied to cultural differences between America and Europe with the eastern and southern hemispheres and Pacific Rim. I think this means that the coming split may potentially undermine shared resources and damage global mission more than in the other cases. It may cause significant realignment among international Christian and non-profit partnerships and lessen the mediating influence between global Catholics and Evangelicals.

Second, the UMC split reflects even more dramatically the cultural clashes that divide Americans regionally and demographically. Regional differences shaped by economics, immigration, education, and other factors are causing division in other public sectors as well. Moreover, lifestyle diversity in 2020 is infinitely more complicated than lifestyle diversity was even in the 80s and 90s. The forces of urbanization, centralization, and isolation are far more advanced and potentially harmful to entire communities — not just religious organizations. This may well make this split organizationally messier, and the brunt of the pain may be felt by underpaid clergy and many rural and urban congregations that are already below critical mass and barely sustainable.

The future of the United Methodist institution may be tactically complicated, but no doubt it will be sorted out. The second question facing leaders is much harder to answer. 

What is the future of the Methodist movement?

I encourage denominational leaders, clergy, boards, members, adherents, and the many spiritual seekers in America to see this split in global United Methodism as a symptom of a larger cultural shift and global crisis. There are two principal elements. The first is growing alienation from current ecumenical institutions that results in weakening respect for traditional authorities and the rise of populist movements. The second is growing polarization of opinion that results in ideological “acid tests” of credibility and the multiplication of factions. This is happening across all sectors, and, in perspective, the church is a relatively minor player in seismic cultural change.

Some would call this the “Balkanization” of politics and religion, and there is much to learn from the tribal wars surrounding Sarajevo. I commend to your reading a recent article by George Packer entitled Elegy for the American Century: A Report on the Decay of Pax Americana in the May 2019 issue of The Atlantic. The Balkan wars were precipitated by the politicization of religion and the dogmatization of politics.

In the Balkans, centuries of ethnic migrations and religious wars reshaped indigenous cultures and divided regions, towns, and neighborhoods. Ethnic nationalism and religious bigotry were temporarily set aside to confront shared enemies, but were readily reignited by demagogues when peace seemed within grasp. It only took a spark of nationalist sentiment.

In America, decades of mobility and urbanization combined with an explosion in digital communication amid undercurrents of religious and racial intolerance have favored the success of a few at the expense of the many. As the opportunity gap widened, demagogues readily reignited old feuds. It only took a spark of ideological disagreement over sexuality.

In the Balkans, conflict was often described as “ethnic cleansing” as different factions tried to enforce cultural homogeneity where it hadn’t existed for years. In America today, conflict seems to be a kind of “ideological cleansing” as rival factions try to enforce behavioral uniformity where it hadn’t been necessary in previous decades. Religious organizations in the Balkans seemed powerless to stop the animosity. But religious organizations in America still have significant power to calm the rhetoric, build relationships, protect cultural heterogeneity, and tolerate behavioral diversity.

The deeper issue of this denominational split, therefore, is how it will impact American culture. What will happen to the unique sacramental theology, social conscience, quadrilateral methodology, and “reasonable religion” of John Wesley? The future of the Methodist movement will not be determined by what we choose, but by how we behave.

What was missing in the Balkans was an organized role model for peacemaking. There were individuals working for peace, but only a concerted effort could bridge the ethnic, ideological, and religious chasms. The result was what James described as “worldly wisdom” in the New Testament: the hate and strife of ethnic cleansing. What seems to be missing in the clash of American micro-cultures is similar, and might result in the same result: the hate and strife of ideological purity.

Methodists can become collective role models for “divine wisdom.” They can resolve their differences and conduct their institutional splits in ways that are peaceful, gentle, obedient, filled with mercy and good actions, fair, and genuine. They can disarm the ideologues and calm the debate. They can demonstrate how those who make peace sow the seeds of justice by their peaceful acts. Disagree if you wish. Divide if you must. But the Christian model of peacemaking is even more important today than it was in the 80s and 90s. Perhaps Methodists, even in the midst of disagreement, can show America how peace works.


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