by Chris Ritter
There are many reasons to not disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church. Its revised narrative is the best fit for many U.S. congregations and the default option for all. For all legitimate reasons to #BeUMC, some really lousy ones keep getting repeated. Consider…
“#BeUMC… to stay Methodist”
United Methodism is not synonymous with Methodism. Multiple denominational affiliations often span the history of our congregations. Most Methodists in the world today have never been part of the UMC. The World Methodist Council is comprised of “80 Methodist, Wesleyan and related Uniting and United Churches representing over 80 million members in 138 countries.” Some UM central conferences have membership in the World Methodist Council apart from the UMC. Several Methodist/Wesleyan denominations have long histories in the United States, including AME, AMEZ, CME, FMC, and others.
United Methodism is correctly grouped with the united and uniting churches on the World Methodist Council that, like the United Church of Canada, are not exclusively Wesleyan in their approach to faith. American Mainline Faith, ecumenism, and the EUB tradition, often in conflicting ways, have contributed to our DNA. Proposed changes in teachings on marriage and human sexuality would put the UMC out of step with the vast majority of “mere” Methodists. In 2016, the Anglican Communion censured The Episcopal Church for its approach to Christian marriage. It will be interesting to watch how the larger Methodist family views developments in the post-separation UMC. Voltaire famously argued that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. Debate is open on how uniquely Methodist the United Methodist Church is and will be.
“#BeUMC… to be thoughtful and open-minded.”
One famous United Methodist loves to repeat the story of disaffiliating from Pentecostalism to find the UMC where his intellect could be engaged. United Methodists love hearing that story almost as much as he loves telling it. It makes us feel… better. But he might just have easily found a Presbyterian, Episcopal, or Lutheran Church who also draw from the same Mainline, upper-middle class, Western understandings of self (and the related sense of duty to ones own judgment). If sustained, serious intellectual reflection is the standard, U.S. Mainlines cannot hold a candle to the Roman Catholic Intellectual Tradition. If open-mindedness is the measure, Baháʼí Faith or Unitarian Universalism make United Methodists look like inclusivity amateurs (United Methodism is only behind Lutherans as the whitest denomination in America.)
The vast majority of Methodists currently separating, on both sides, embrace reason in their approach to faith. Historically, all Methodist bodies sponsor respected institutions of higher learning and provide well-rounded social service ministries in the name of Jesus. I encouraged everyone to get their hands on a copy of The Next Methodism: Theological, Social, and Missional Foundations for Global Methodism. Thirty-seven top Wesleyan scholars lay out the case for a new Methodism that better honors our heritage, hearts… and heads. You will find coherence, balance, and hope that combats the caricatures bandied about by those scrambling defend the current institution.
“#BeUMC… to be connectional.”
I’m a bit past listening to lectures on connectionalism from people who do not honor the primary vehicle for our #UMC connection: General Conference. Our UMC “Galactic Senate,” at least temporarily, has been dissolved by US interests seeking to press their advantage. It will be a full eight years between regularly called General Conference sessions if the UMC finally gets around to meeting in 2024. Anti-connectionalism is on full display. And this is not the first time it has reared its head. Putting regions on mute that we don’t want to hear from is actually baked into the UMC constitution. The jurisdictional system was invented to keep us less-than-fully connected with United Methodists who may not look, think, or act like we do.* These barriers to true connection have been erased in plans for the Global Methodist Church. There will be a slim Book of Doctrines and Discipline to which all are equally accountable.
Our conference system was invented for a time when scriptural holiness was deemed so urgent a message that preachers had to be deployed out strategically in order to cover as much territory as possible with a transformational gospel. The rigor of our system was tied to the unity and urgency of our message. Now the UMC seeks to become a big(ger) tent where several different visions of the Christian life can blossom… progressive, centrist, and traditionalist. How strange to impose our centralized, top-heavy system upon what amounts to a choose-your-own-adventure approach to faith. Al a carte Christianity would seem to call for al a carte denominational support and control. (Choosing your own Jesus seems even less Methodist than choosing your own pastor.) If our trust clause is not guarding our theology, what is it guarding? Forced connection is no replacement for true connection. Coercion tends toward violence. Daryll Stephens represents a progressive voice describing life a UMC big tent as cohabitating with a domestic abuser. Many traditionalists have likewise come to feel like prisoners in their own denomination.
“#BeUMC… so as to not quibble.”
United Methodism is not falling apart because people think differently. That has always been the case. The UMC is fracturing because the covenants that bind us together are no longer honored. There will always be diversity of thought. Put ten Methodists in a room and you will have eleven opinions. But there are essentials on which there must agreement. Each group deciding the essentials for themselves is the same thing as having none. The Global Methodist Church has done a thoughtful job sorting through the grab bag of doctrinal standards collected (and selectively ignored) in United Methodism.
First, there are foundational standards like the Nicene Creed, Apostle’s Creed, and Definition of Chalcedon. This is what all Christians believe, stated in a way that all Christians should embrace. Second, there are the Constitutive Standards: The Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church and the Confession of Faith of the EUB Church. These particular Methodist/EUB articulations of the Christian Faith will eventually be melded together using today’s vernacular. Third, there are the Normative Wesleyan Standards such as the Standard Sermons of John Wesley and Wesley’s Notes on the New Testament. These define the unique contribution of Methodism to World Christianity. With doctrinal expectations sorted and clarified, the GMC denomination feels free to wield less practical control over congregational life. The relationship between a local church and the denomination will continue only with consent of both parties.
“#BeUMC… to love Christian unity.”
Jesus prayed that all his followers would be one, just as he and the Father are one (John 17:20-23). The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one in purpose, love, and character. That this love would define the Church Universal is the prayer of every true Christian. If institutional unity was the standard for this, we should close the UMC immediately and become Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox.
The first Methodists found themselves in two camps: Arminian Methodists led by John Wesley and Calvinist Methodists under the banner of George Whitefield. They fussed. They feuded. They infiltrated each other’s meetings. The first trust clause (the model deed) was intended to protect one group of Methodists from the other. Pamphlets were published tearing down the other side. Finally, two great Methodists decided that enough was enough. They “agreed to disagree” by separation. Then an amazing thing happened. Wounds healed. Friendship was restored. They were more unified in separate organizations than they ever were trying to fight over a single steering wheel. When Whitefield died, Wesley preached the funeral and took his text from Numbers 23:10: “Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!” Spiritual unity was only found when institutional control was abandoned.
*Local connection is also waning in the UMC. In many places, district-level programming has all but died out. District superintendents are the primary face of the connection, but districts keep growing geographically larger as numbers decline. Churches tend to draw their ministry ideas from sources beyond the denomination. The United Methodist brand has ceased to be a guarantor of quality, ministry ethos, or doctrinal focus. Some United Methodists congregations are exiting to independent status. Most, however, seek a richer and more meaningful connection.