by Bob Phillips
A lot of chatter filling the Methodist air regarding the forthcoming division is framed around the assumption that the United Methodist Church is “better together.” Seminars are being planned in advance of annual conferences to make laity and clergy wise in the blessings found in staying together. The disaffected right/left wing fringe folks can leave, for in spirit they left the institutional a long time ago. The broad and gracious middle remains the centering point, the critical mass holding the denomination together, with room for those who are right of center and left of center as the institutional wingspread lifting the moderate center.
Jesus’ prayer that “they may be one,” is the key. Rodney King’s plea amid the LA riots, “Can’t we all just get along” is the theme. Father Wesley routinely is referenced in his wisdom, “If we cannot think alike, can we not love alike?” “If your heart is as my heart, give me your hand.” “At all opinions that do not strike at the root of Christianity (marriage is not a Gospel root issue) we think and let think.” Granted the context typically is overlooked for these words; they retain the Wesleyan gift of allowing room to breathe and think within the church.
The appeals are attractive. Positive reasons include embracing the glorious past with pride, having a denomination truly inclusive not only of LGBTQIA+ clergy and members but of conservatives and liberals, progressives and traditionalists, and centrists who find truth in all positions. The work of UMCOR, Africa University, church-related schools, and support for missions can continue. The existing structures for appointments, clergy and church support, and the spirit of connection can be improved without simply being destroyed, the assumption being that division equals destruction. Local congregations will be spared the upheaval and uncertainties that are certain to follow churches that choose to separate. Despite the shortcomings and need for improvements, all of which can be accomplished in time, the denomination holds the profound titles of spiritual “Mother,” and “Home.”
The negative arguments are subtler but also powerful. “Separation” is a polite word for schism. Division, like divorce, is a form of civil war, always painful and who goes looking for pain? The witness to society of Christians fighting will harm the cause of Christ. Departing churches will have no conference communication process to keep them in touch, no Journal or Book of Discipline beyond a ‘transitional’ document that’s main claim to fame is being 90% shorter than the existing official BOD, Resolutions, Social Principles. How much will it leave out that really needs to be included? How will Methodists outside the US be supported? What will happen to Africa University and countless other ministries that depend on the UMC for survival? How will pastors be appointed, or moved when needed? What kind of support can churches receive and will not many smaller congregations that depart be left hanging? How will new clergy be recruited, trained, and deployed. Where is the infrastructure for any of this? How will it feel to be part of a church primarily known for what it is against, i.e., gays and lesbians and transgendered and drag, rather than be known for something positive? The entire far right wing of the current church, whose influence has been diluted by the far larger number of reasonable centrists, will have at least some of the keys to the Global Methodist Church asylum, where the danger of mixing far right religion and politics already is playing out among other American fundamentalists. Since 80% of white American evangelicals supported Trump, will not this new mostly white American evangelical church become a politicized church of Trump?
Are we having fun yet? “Better together” is warm, inviting, reassuring. It is positive, affirming and comforting. It invites recommitment to historic loyalties rather than to break with new loyalties for other, untried ways. It is the known way, the safe way, a way where separation is rejected and a recommitment to ‘make the marriage work’ is the choice.
With these items of yes, some of which have strong merit and others not so much, consider three observations offering vision and hope for those who believe they are being led by the Spirit of Christ to birth a new Wesleyan expression.
First, consider the big picture. If separation is always bad and division always a surrender of God’s will and never a surrender to God’s will, what then? First, the United Methodists need to rejoin the Church of England, that needs to rejoin the Catholic Church (together with Lutherans, Presbyterians and Baptists), which needs to rejoin the Orthodox Church (and my Greek Orthodox mother will be happy to tell you what happened in 1054AD). The Salvation Army, divided from British Methodism, has been outside God’s will, joined by the Free Methodists, Wesleyan Church, Nazarenes and the 644 million Pentecostal Christians world-wide. Really? Over 20 years ago renowned church historian Nathan Hatch challenged the assumption that somehow division is never God’s will or intention. Occasionally the truth is the precise opposite. While destructive splits are marred by anger, bitterness, name-calling and warfare (literal, relational or legal), a cell division mitosis within the Body of Christ births a multiplication of presence and witness in the world. A gracious, rather than a vindictive or defensive spirit, defines the movement. Challenges no longer are denied and ineffective or mediocre ministry is tackled by a church revived, renewed and reformed, and in that order!
Second, consider the immediate picture. The ‘wicked problem’ of the existing denomination is mirrored in other American Protestant mainline churches. Demographics point toward an increasingly aged and elderly church, where an untouched glorious past has left the unintended legacy of irrelevance. Eighty percent of church structures are now located where only 20% of the current population lives. A convoluted, complicated and often contradictory process awaits anyone under the age of 27 who may sense a call to ministry. Such ordinands can feel like the Borg of Star Trek fame, where those who survive are assimilated into a dysfunctional organization that has lost nearly half its national membership (in my Illinois Great Rivers Conference, make that a drop from 288,000 in 1972 to an estimated 105,000 in 2021, a 64% decline). True unity is in Christ, but a bipolar yet officially acceptable understanding of Christ who was and wasn’t born of the Virgin Mary, did an didn’t perform miracles, did and didn’t atone for sin on the cross and was and was not bodily resurrected on Easter reflects not a seamless but a schizophrenic faith. Every annual conference and nearly every church that does or refuses to do same sex weddings, or that has or refuses to have sexually active LGBTQIA+ clergy shares this common element: sustained numerical decline. Denial up and down the leadership of the denomination waives off the urgent need for profound change with the same attitude that comforted the leadership of the SEARS corporate dynasty on its brave march toward national extinction. A profound reboot to an otherwise dying expression of Wesleyan Christianity is the only hope. An approach that says, “Let’s stay together and we’ll figure something out” after 54 years of not figuring something out is Exhibit A for ongoing denial. Separation, of a constructive ‘Methodist mitosis’ type, forces all players into profound change, even if kicking and screaming, for neither the legacy UMC nor the Global Methodist Church will be able to coast into a post-separation future without profound and systemic change guided by a strategic vision and a renewed sense of the mission.
Third, consider the future picture. The actions of clergy and some laity in numerous conferences to exclude those with traditional views on marriage from election as General and Jurisdictional Conference delegations checkmates any appeals to becoming a conference or denomination with room for all, unless the room is at the back of the bus. Under a Methodist mitosis center/progressive and center/traditional expressions both would be free to create fresh approaches to structure and clergy preparation. Both could re-birth a connectional church where apportionment resources (by whatever name) clearly enhance and multiply local congregational effectiveness in evangelism, disciple-making, community servanthood and witness. The recent North Central Jurisdiction delegation call for local churches and conferences to focus in the next four years on rooting out the sins of colonialism, heterosexism, classism, racism, Christian nationalism and assorted other “isms” from local churches offers a clear vision for the way forward for large segments of the continuing denomination. Local churches are encouraged to weed out racism and heterosexism in their budgets, programs and personnel choices. Meanwhile, those who feel the primary focus for local churches in a rapidly declining denomination need to be elsewhere would be free to pursue alternatives, and to be fully accountable for the results. As cells in a mitosis process continue relationship, so meaningful collaboration in targeted areas of ministry (think disaster relief, support of African and other non-US Methodist expressions) can thrive, provided nastiness is renounced for winsome holiness. In this view, “Better Together” in which major issues remain unaddressed and major segments of clergy and laity are marginalized would mutate into “Bitter Together,” an outcome that no one longs to see.
The future is scary, but Christ is risen indeed. Both the continuing UMC and the GMC will face fresh challenges in fleshing out reformed and renovated systems and approaches to ministry, but Christ is risen indeed. Focused urgency and Spirit-led profound change will be a mountain to climb, but Christ is risen, is risen indeed. The vision of Wesleyan Christianity is too important to be allowed to atrophy further in the US. Over a half century of no paradigm-shifting change in the denomination is convincing proof. It is better that the cells in the Body of Christ divide, in a manner reflecting grace and larger reconciliation, for the sake of the Kingdom and the world Christ died to save. As for those clinging with a mix of denial and hope to basic preservation of the status quo, let the wisdom of Giuseppe di Lampedusa guide in his classic Italian novel, Il Leopardo (The Leopard): “If you want things to stay the same, things will have to change.” Reformation-level change is the need of the hour for the Wesleyan church of Jesus.
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)