by Bob Phillips
The end of status quo United Methodism is in sight. Separation, hopefully in a constructive Methodist “mitosis,” appears inevitable. Passage of the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace, perhaps with some minor tweaks, seems to be the best course of action at GC2022. Leaders from nearly every major ‘side’ and ‘lobby’ are in public support. The challenges facing the existing and increasingly ineffective system are taking a jackhammer to the can proverbially kicked down the road by General and Annual Conference over the preceding 40 years.
The Global Methodist Church appears as a certain new expression, legally created in the immediate aftermath of GC2022 and passage of the Protocol or legally created in the immediate aftermath of GC2022 if the Protocol is derailed. The “Post-Separation” United Methodist Church offers visions of continuity, familiarity and adjustments to the status quo. In conferences lacking serious theological diversity the initial upheaval will be barely noticed. For most of the US conferences, shifts in energy, membership and resources will be profound. Business as usual will become impossible to conduct for those with a status quo paradigm.
Both expressions will face big challenges in the renewal or stand-up of ministries, structure, and attitude. Consider the following two challenges/questions both expressions will face. While these questions are identical, the way each group understands, processes and responds likely will be quite different.
Where will the church draw its theological lines in the sand? Wesley famously said, “At all opinions that do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.” Both expressions will need to unpack what precisely is included in “the root of Christianity,” and how it will be addressed. For the PSUMC issues could include the person and work of Christ. Can one be ordained or serve as a bishop who rejects the virgin birth, the miracles of Jesus, the atonement or the bodily resurrection of Christ? Is the PSUMC theological tent going to be large enough to encompass every variation of belief and, if not, who drives the tent pegs into the ground and declares this or that beyond the boundary of core Wesleyan truth. The public and personal rejection of a ‘celibacy in singleness, fidelity in marriage’ standard by a growing minority of progressives, and the push to affirm ‘poly and kink’ behaviors as deserving of Christian affirmation will elicit chatter that will square and implode any UMW circle I have seen.
The GMC will face the same question but with different music. Again, what will be the boundaries of theological diversity and how will the boundaries be enforced. There is little debate that a clergy candidate who takes the resurrection of Jesus seriously but not literally will find no employment with the GMC. How about the pastor who has managed never to do an infant baptism, for all sorts of “reasons,” or the pastor who insists that “there is salvation in nothing else, for there is no other system of inspiration but inerrancy given among humankind by which we must be saved.” Where does Wesleyan “Christian Perfection” end and a Calvinist-lite “Lordship commitment” begin? Evangelicals (my tribe) can and do affirm the Nicene and Athanasian and Chalcedon creeds, but our Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic families in Christ politely insist we really don’t get it as the original autographs suggest.
A Western Minority
How will the white, Western privileged minority share and cede authority to the not-so-white, non-Western, non-privileged global majority? The PSUMC and the GMC both will need to tackle this compelling issue, again from different directions. Consider that 1/4th of the denomination’s membership is located in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the median age is 19 and the median income is $396…per year. At current trends, Congo alone will have four times the membership of the legacy American UMC by 2050, but who is seriously thinking through those implications? US comments about making changes in church teaching to appeal to young adults clearly aren’t including the 80-85% of teens and twenties members who do not live in the US. Regionalizing the denomination is fraught with unintended consequences. If each region can define the nature of marriage, how about eligibility or method of baptism, ordination, culturally popular polygamy (like so many Old Testament saints)? The temptation to threaten withdrawal of finances toward ‘uncooperative’ regions of the denomination smells of the rankest form of spiritual imperialism, and no one wants to exercise that nuclear option, nor (bluntly) have non-Western Methodist hold decisive power. Having heard a major and respected leader in the centrist movement voice precisely that threat among some delegates in the heated aftermath of the St. Louis vote, this is not a ‘straw man’ concern.
The GMC will face its own version of the challenge. A lot of American political conservatism doesn’t play well in Africa and elsewhere, so can US leadership engage and buffer the distinctive of a Christian worldview not awash in Western assumptions? Non-Western Methodism will need, expect and deserve substantial financial and logistical support, which can interfere with GMC promises of mini-apportionments and a personal buffet styled approach to mission support. Lots of eyes will be closely watching the stand-up of the GMC to see how meaningfully non-Western leadership actually functions at the global church level. If even 1/3rd of Africa and the Philippines, plus Central Europe-Russia align with the GMC, it is likely US membership will be outnumbered from day one of the legal formation of the church. If the GMC heeds the call to “bring the child to Africa,” what are the implications of that journey and destination for churches in the white, Western United States?
Constructive and mutually gracious responses are possible to both these questions. A vision of spiritual ‘mitosis,’ a cell division in the body of Christ that creates a win-win corridor to the future, points the way. Win-lose approaches and slogans such as, “It is not enough that I succeed; others must fail,” guarantee all will fail. Asking the tough questions and seeking helpful next steps with humility and honesty will make the difference in our collective service to Christ and the church that, ultimately, really is His and not ours.
Chair WCA, Illinois Great Rivers Conference
Degrees from University of Illinois, Asbury and Princeton Seminaries, University of St. Andrews
Graduate of Senior Executive Seminar on Morality, Ethics and Public Policy, Brookings Institution
Captain, Chaplain Corps, US Navy (ret)