Editor’s Note: This essay by Dr. Bob Phillips is an extended discussion of a vision for mitosis as Way Forward for United Methodists that has the potential for addressing our systemic issues of decline. This post will soon be followed by another with delineated arguments for this approach. Bob is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Illinois, with advanced degrees from Asbury, Princeton and St. Andrews (Scotland). He retired with the rank of Captain as the senior United Methodist Chaplain in the US Navy in 2005. An elder in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, Bob most recently served as Directing Pastor of Peoria First United Methodist Church prior to his retirement. He is a delegate to the 2019 General Conference and a frequent contributor to peopleneedjesus.net.
I begin with two approaches to the forthcoming 2019 General Conference. The first is the “Red Ant-Black Ant” approach. When I was a boy I once conducted a sad experiment. I placed a number of red ants down a black ant hole to see what would happen. I quickly learned that ants do not have hearts at peace and that a shared family name (ant) or DNA do not cancel out evolutionary tribal loyalties. The ants quickly engaged in fights to the death. It wasn’t funny.
The second approach is the “Borg-Wright” approach. In 1999 Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright combined to author The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. While labels quickly can reduce to inaccurate stereotype, it is fair to say that Borg represented a liberal-progressive view of Jesus and the gospels, while Wright reflected a more traditional view. They discussed topics such as the virgin birth, the atonement and the resurrection of Jesus from profoundly different perspectives, and did so with clarity, intellectual rigor and…drum roll…mutual friendship and respect. Advocates of liberal or conservative understandings of Jesus could draw fresh ammunition for the viewpoints from one or the other author. Advocates for respectful dialogue could draw inspiration from the emotional and spiritual tone of the entire book.
As the 2019 General Conference approaches an increasing number of leaders from all points of view suggest some sort of division within the denomination is inevitable. Prophecies vary from a head-on train wreck to a subsequent piecemeal fragmentation as congregations and/or major clumps of individual members drift away from a church in which they no longer feel confidence or comfort. Nightmare scenarios envision a deadlocked conference, with theological red ants and black ants running amok such that no matter which side technically gets the most votes, peals of head-knocking will replace paens of praise.
In this view, the One Church Plan will lead to the principled exodus of many/most of the tradition-conservative believers for other Wesleyan bodies that do not bless homosexual behavior, such as every African American expression of Methodism, or the Free Methodists or Wesleyans, or a fresh expression formed by the Wesleyan Covenant Association. Many evangelicals would prefer to eject from a denomination that begins to bless practices ‘incompatible with Christian teaching,” as a better response than simply ejecting others. African Methodists will need to prep defenses, both verbal and literal, against Boko Haram and other groups sworn to their destruction about how they are not really part of a denomination that blesses practices denounced by other prominent religions and governments in Africa.
In this view the Traditional Plan will lead to a lesser formal exodus but outright civil war as principled progressives will continue to defy what they feel are unjust policies leveled at the LGBT community, confident that they will win the ultimate victory. In the near term comes confidence that the denomination will not hold 500 church trials at any given time, paralyzing the American denomination with continuous defiance of an exclusionary and unjust policy.
In this view the Connectional Plan, which theoretically creates space for co-existence, runs into a wall of required constitutional amendments that will be impractical to pass and implement. To take counsel of our fears is to envision a no-win outcome of the General Conference that essentially resolves nothing. Constitutional deadlock will begat institutional gridlock.
That is one future. There is another way. It is found in the conception and birth, through spiritual and ecclesial mitosis, of two expressions of modern American Methodism. Sharing a common Wesleyan DNA, aligned in collaborative ministry and function where mission and ministry intersect, it is a two-church model that accepts the reality of existing division but converts negative energy toward Kingdom purposes and God’s larger will for the church.
In this view the name and title of “United Methodist Church” goes away, sharing status with the numerous earlier names for the American Methodist experiment. Honorable retirement of the name serves two purposes. First, it undercuts the symbolism of win-lose in the outcome, i.e., whatever group keeps the name is the winner and groups or individuals who depart are the losers. Second, it avoids the sin of hypocrisy, for the word ‘united’ frankly does not describe the American church today, nor the church any General Conference has the power to create.
The Progressive Methodist Church
The names of the two new-birthed churches are placeholder for purposes of this piece. First is the Progressive Methodist Church. Its clergy and members would reflect the center-left of the theological perspective. Insofar as contested issues are concerned, it would include those who wish to bless same sex marriages and to ordain otherwise qualified active LGBTQQIAN individuals to ministry. Congregations that do not feel ready to have an openly gay or lesbian pastor would not be required to receive one, but such congregations also would not be disruptive nor protest neighboring congregations that may do same gender weddings or have non-hetero clergy. Pastors who do not feel comfortable with doing same gender weddings would not be forced to do so, but neither would they raise protest against other clergy or churches that do.
Theologically progressive pastors could be open about their convictions and their doubts. They would be free in taking understandings such as the virgin birth or the resurrection of Jesus seriously but not necessarily literally, much as did the late Marcus Borg. Bishops and clergy no longer need to fear formal church complaints for such stands. Other pastors would have freedom to take such teachings both seriously and literally without penalty or labeling as ‘neo-literalists,’ or other denigrating terms.
The social, political and economic implications of the gospel would be proclaimed without apology. A woman’s right to choose would be a viewpoint allowed back into the room in church teaching, with respect and space offered for those with moral objection to abortion for any or some reasons. The church could revisit issues of public and state morality, such as the treatment of the Palestinians by Israel or of undocumented immigrants under current law. Vigorous ecumenical and interfaith cooperation would be affirmed actively. The General Board of Church and Society, either by that name or under a fresh name, would continue and likely expand its social witness as an extension of the general church. Expanded witness on global warming, gender equality, voter registration, the rights of transgendered citizens and related issues would receive increased focus.
Two realities would underscore this expression of American Methodism. The first would be freedom of conscience. None would be forced into actions contrary to their conscience. Pastors who believe conducting a same sex wedding is the will of God will not be told nor pressured not to do so, and vice versa, no matter what church they serve. The second would be liturgy-worship. Understandings of doctrine that flow from worship would replace the heavy emphasis on theoretical dogmas often incapable of expression in worship. Heart religion would not replace the role of head religion but a healthier balance would be the goal. The Episcopal Church of Scotland, in adopting a variation of the “One Church” plan, has found that the emphasis on protecting conscience and the power of conveying doctrinal truth primarily through the vehicle of worship has found meaningful progress amid their modification of teaching, albeit in a very small denomination.
Such an expression would have challenges. Hyper-progressives who see clear moral comparison between opposition to same sex marriage and affirmation of slavery will see any compromises as unethical and will continue to press for purity. Those with strong political agendas from the left will encourage the denomination to embrace stances on public issues currently more consistent with the Unitarian-Universalist or United Church of Christ. Clergy who reject the resurrection, virgin birth, and miracles of Jesus as historic fact may not fit easily into some congregations as they feel freedom to finally say what they do and do not believe, and why.
The Progressive Methodist Church would be free to grow with integrity, to reach out among millennials who resist traditional beliefs wrapped in outdated practices. The church would reflect diversity with membership including all but the most conservative-fundamentalist, who would self-select out of the church. The PMC would become the first truly modern and progressive expression of Wesleyan faith in the US or anywhere else. The PMC could demonstrate that reaching modern young adults really does depend on compassionate and sophisticated views of God, life, marriage and the meaning of gospel and church. Theological diversity would exist and be welcomed but not the existing formula that has guaranteed institutional paralysis, hostility and mistrust. The PMC would be free to restructure and re-invent existing organizational machinery to align with the theological and cultural realities of modern progressive Wesleyan Christianity.
The Global Methodist Church
The second expression birthed in this process would be the Global Methodist Church. I offer this placeholder name as acknowledgment that on certain contested issues this expression reflects the global consensus of the Wesleyan community, though there are historical precedents to being globally wrong about certain issues! It also recognizes that statistically the denomination is poised to join the Assemblies of God, Seventh Day Adventists and other faith groups originating in the United States but with a clear majority of members residing on other continents.
Theologically the GMC would retain virtually all existing teaching and doctrine. Those with personal disagreement on the issue of same gender marriage would not be excluded from membership as the distinction between disagreement (an essential Methodist quality) and disobedience is maintained. No automatic exclusion from sacraments, membership, worship or active life in the church would be imposed on anyone based on gender, race or orientation, whether sexual, political or culinary.
The GMC would be free to further align and collaborate with expressions of the Wesleyan way outside the USA without hauling sexuality in-fighting into the mix. Traditionalists who are certain that more conservative or traditional theology is crucial to healthy church growth would have the chance to demonstrate that the overall attendance decline among most traditional congregations will be reversed now the trumpet no longer blows an uncertain sound. Women in ministry would remain a non-issue. The evangelical Wesleyan perspective of love of God and neighbor, expressed in ministry to those on the margins and engagement in issues of justice, would remain.
In certain areas of the country the largest Protestant churches, with heavy millennial presence, are evangelical-traditional in beliefs but outside-the-box in worship and social service. They also largely do not permit women in pastoral leadership and many have serious issues with aspects of modern science and education. Evangelical Wesleyan theology and churches have no such negative issues with science, education or the role of women and could be positioned to establish a viable presence in areas where the existing denominational status quo functionally excludes this perspective as a United Methodist church plant. The two-church approach would allow center-right leadership of the GMC to confirm the vitality of the marriage of vigorous historic Wesleyan Christianity with outside-the-box approaches to worship, discipleship and love of neighbor.
There would be challenges. The GMC would attract virtually every pastor for whom the inerrancy of scripture, or a 6,000-year-old universe, or right-of-center politics come with the bargain. Pastors who have found reasons never to conduct an infant baptism or who embrace a dead orthodoxy against which James warned also can arrive with the shipment (James 2:18-19). If “a rose is a rose is a rose,” then “a jerk is a jerk is a jerk,” even if theology from the progressive or orthodox side is fully embraced by the saint in question.
Only those at the most extreme ends of the spectrum would find the company dissatisfying. Abolitionist firebrand William Lloyd Garrison publicly burned a copy of the Constitution, denouncing it as “a covenant with death and an agreement with Hell,” for its treatment of slavery, words drawn from Isaiah 28:15. Far left saints will be critical of a PMC that permits freedom of conscience of contested issues, given that for them it is an accommodation with bigotry. Far right saints will be critical of a GMC for insufficient orthodoxy in areas of preferred indignation, or for insufficient affirmation of Donald Trump as God’s anointed, much like Cyrus of Babylon (Isaiah 45:1). Recall that not one of the President’s ‘evangelical advisors’ is a United Methodist.
To Divide is to Conquer
A huge positive consequence of ecclesial mitosis is the requirement to push the re-set button on church organization, structure, resources and processes. This is the crux of the reason for the two-church approach. The existing denomination is sinking, and the leakage in worship attendance and membership is shifting from decline to free-fall in the American church. Challenges in trust deficits, miscommunication, preparation of clergy leadership, demographics, personnel issues of assignment and evaluation, reallocating resources to prioritize the mission of the church (making disciples) over the reality of much church activity (massaging the ageing saints) all would be on the table for revival and renewal. With bickering about sexuality in the rearview mirror, spiritual energy finally could face forward to the future God intends for “the people called ‘Methodist.’” The Wicked Problem of the church, drawn from a term in organizational theory, reflects the actual condition of the existing American denomination. Well-intentioned proposals that minimize profound change and call for the church to hold its breath will produce a church that will run out of air and run out of time. A wise line from the Italian novel, Il’ Leopardo says it best: “If you want things to stay the same, things will have to change.”
The United Church of Christ adopted a “Have it your way” approach to contested issues of sexuality while leaving deeper theological and institutional challenges fundamentally unaddressed, and its own leadership now projects an 80% membership loss by 2030 and functional extinction by 2050. The Presbyterian Church USA adopted a similar approach, fencing out any profound re-boot of the denomination, and projects a 60% loss in membership between 2000-2020. The Episcopal Church engaged in ferocious struggles over property in a winner-take-all scenario that has cost that denomination an estimated 50 million dollars in legal fees, plus emotional and spiritual wounds and fragmented Episcopal-Anglican shards that are loath to talk to one another…and consistent loss in membership and attendance.
The American heirs of Wesley do not need to walk that plank. Many areas of spiritual vitality mark the denomination amid its current travail. These areas, ranging from UMCOR to support of surging African Methodism to a healthy pension plan for clergy after years of service, can transition into new alignments. The 2020 General Conference truly can play an historic role in renewing the Wesleyan presence in North America, potentially developing closer and more meaningful relationships with other Wesley cousins (AME, AMEZ, CME, FM, Wesleyan Church, etc.) than currently exist. If such a vision is dismissed as schism wearing a tuxedo, the status quo of accelerating decline will be the bride. To divide is to conquer. Spiritual life-giving mitosis is the vision, not destructive and bitter schism; not red and black ants but a Borg-Wright gracious and collegial spirit points the way. The time is now.
Photo Credit: https://www.todamateria.com.br/divisao-celular/