Editor’s Note: This is a follow-up to an essay by Dr. Bob Phillips that offered a vision for mitosis as a Way Forward for United Methodists; one that gives us the best chance for addressing systemic issues of decline. This post provides summary analysis of a two-church solution. 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.
by Bob Phillips
- United Methodism is not “united.’ Externally imposed approaches to paper over profound theological, cultural and practical divisions cannot succeed.
- United Methodism in the United States is on a clear course to functional extinction. If “every organization is perfectly aligned to the results it gets,” the numerical decline of American Methodism suggests complete extinction by 2060.
- United Methodism does not have a problem with sexuality. It has a ‘wicked problem’ consisting of a perfect storm of challenges dealing with theology, trust deficits, communication, geography, demographics, clergy preparation and deployment, logistical support, obsolete methods of placement and supervision and defective leadership development, among others.
- Given (3), nothing the 2019 Special General Conference decides regarding sexuality can slow the decline of the American church. The conference does have the ability to take actions that could maintain current decline or transition decline into free-fall.
- Nothing short of profound and systemic change can free the denomination from the organizational inertia that otherwise hastens death by denial and delay.
- The best outcome for the 2019 conference is the creation of a dual expression of Wesleyan Christianity in the conceptual birth of a Progressive Methodist Church and a Global Methodist Church (placeholder names) via constructive spiritual mitosis rather than destructive and invective-laden schism.
Broad View of Methodist Mitosis
- As the mitosis of cell division in the human body is crucial to life and health, so the Body of Christ must engage in mitosis for the sake of life, health and mission.
- Mitosis presumes shared Wesleyan DNA, history, and broad theological perspective. Both new expressions would view one another as Christian, Wesleyan and children of the United Methodist era.
- Unlike the name-calling, litigation and anger that has characterized some other Christian churches in recent splits, spiritual leadership in both expressions will commit to productive, constructive and positive engagement despite significant differences.
- Mitosis can put the issue of sexuality squabbling in the rear-view mirror, while requiring the vision and work necessary to re-form the church to address effectively the range of ‘wicked problem’ issues it faces.
- Mitosis can offer the secular world a powerful witness for mutual respect and collegiality rather than the highly publicized bickering that plays into popular negative stereotypes.
Specific Aspects of Methodist Mitosis – Sample Insights
- Mitosis would lead to the creation of the Progressive Methodist Church and the Global Methodist Church (placeholder names).
- The PMC would consist of center-left American United Methodists plus any from overseas settings who wish to affiliate. Same gender marriage would be affirmed, with conscience clauses for clergy unwilling to conduct such weddings. LGBTQIAA-N and others would be eligible for ordination and appointment, provided other qualifications for ordination are met. Churches would have exemption if uncomfortable with a pastor of such an open orientation, but neither churches nor pastors in the PMC would object to identifying with the PMC and with those clergy and congregations that do affirm such practices.
- The PMC would offer expansive welcome to clergy and laity who affirm progressive Christian theology and practices. Belief in the divinity-humanity of Jesus and the authority of scripture would be affirmed but the freedom to take specific beliefs such as the virgin birth or atonement or the resurrection of Jesus seriously but not literally would be protected. The social implications of the gospel would be on the table, ranging from women’s reproductive rights to the treatment of Palestinians by Israel to global warming to voter suppression. Uniformity of belief in social matters would not be expected but such issues would be allowed back in the room, among many others.
- The Global Methodist Church (GMC) would retain existing teaching on human sexuality. Clergy and congregations remain free to disagree about this or other aspects of church teaching but would affirm obedience to the covenant freely taken. Center-right pastors and congregations would comprise the membership, in addition to churches outside the USA that share the essential theology and vision.
- Existing structures would be maintained for both churches until 2020 when the first serious organization re-formation would commence, to be completed in 2024. General Boards and Agencies of the church, seminaries, questions of the length-cost-content of educational requirements for clergy, aspects of offering support for pastors and metrics for effectiveness, creation of a career ministry progression to connect with seminary and other continuing education, systemic review of all existing congregations in the light of the universal mission of the church, redeployment of resources to reach under-served geographic regions are among challenges the two churches will undertake. Mutual collaboration in appropriate areas would further highlight the positive nature of mitosis.
- The PMC will lose some who believe any compromise on sexuality is the moral cousin to compromising with slavery or segregation. The PMC likely will draw some significantly left of center in political views that will be advocated loudly in a smaller denomination. The PMC will find some pockets of churches in largely traditional regions that will affiliate with them but be isolated. The PMC may have more clergy eager for the freedom to conduct same gender weddings than churches that are willing to have their particular congregation be the site of such ceremonies, a collision of consciences with no easy solution. More openly LGBTQIAA-N candidates may be suitable for ordination than have churches in which to place them.
- The GMC will lose some who simply wish to shed any theological identity or accountability that comes with denominational affiliation, especially some large stand-alone churches. The GMC likely will draw some significantly right of center in political views who will advocate loudly for strict immigration policies, outlawing abortion for any reason, and downplaying social engagement of the gospel with the world. The GMC may or may not find Methodism outside the USA eager to affiliate with them. The GMC would face challenges in deciding long range questions similar to those facing the PMC on church board and seminaries. Both expressions will find churches that affiliate with them but suffer loss of individual members who prefer the other group or no group.
So Why Mitosis Rather Than a Tweaked Status Quo?
- Mitosis jump-starts the process of profound change without which the United Methodist Church has no future in the USA.
- Mitosis will force serious thought and action about theological education and validated requirements for the number and nature of theological seminaries.
- Mitosis will force serious collective thought about the future purpose and role of existing boards and agencies in meeting the mission of the church. Neither a ‘Thelma and Louise’ driving of boards and agencies over the cliff nor a defensive institutional fetal position that rationalizes no change will carry the day. The re-set button will be pressed.
- Mitosis will free both progressive and traditional Wesleyans to move forward with witness, evangelism and discipleship from their various perspectives without constant collisions or bickering.
- Every bishop finally would be able to reaffirm their respective consecration vows “without mental reservation or purpose of evasion,” borrowing language from the military.
- The church will be free to deal with the whole of the wicked problem it faces, rather than to be slowly bled to death by numerous unaddressed issues while needed energy flows to arguments over sexuality.
- The United Methodist Church will have done what no US Protestant church has ever done, a faithful, grace-filled and mutually affirming division that can presage fresh multiplication, a reality not known in American Methodism for over 50 years.
- The African United Methodist Church (for example) could retain that name with continued and likely increased support from US churches from both models and a deepened relationship for mutually supportive ministries.
- Indiana Jones, in The Last Crusade, must step off a precipice with no visible path on his way to the Holy Grail. He trusts, steps and finds firm footing and the Grail. In the Spirit of Genesis 12:4, we are called to leave the familiar for a revived and re-formed expression of the Kingdom, a land that God will show us, and in so doing we will find and become a blessing through which the world for which Christ died will be called in love to Him.