Thinking about disunited Methodist future: Questions, terms and fault lines to ponder

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So the “United” Methodists are back on the clock, in terms of waiting for their amicable divorce?

It would appear so, as COVID-19 continues to delay all kinds of large-scale meetings for pretty much everyone. Maybe they could have a socially distanced meeting in something like the University of Michigan’s “Big House” stadium (which seats about 110,000 under normal conditions)?

This is a huge story, of course, any way you cut it — with major implications for the shrinking world of the Seven Sisters of oldline liberal Protestantism, as well as putting the spotlight on the thriving evangelicalism of the Global South. As GetReligion patriarch Richard Ostling noted the other day:

The United Methodist Church is on the brink of America’s biggest religious schism since the Civil War, with the conflict centering on sexual morality, biblical authority and theological liberalism.

At stake is an empire with 6.7 million U.S. members and 31,000 congregations located across most American counties, 6.5 million members overseas and $6.3 billion in annual donations (though there’s now a severe money crunch). Many of those churches sit on prime urban and suburban real estate.

You know that COVID-19 has to be affecting the economics of all of this, especially for the center-left UMC establishment. Will they try to run out the clock somehow, assuming that the doctrinal conservatives will simply leave on their own (thus avoiding the need for some kind of severance check)? But that kind of split would lead to legal warfare (think of it as the United Methodist lawyers Employment Act) over church sanctuaries, clergy benefits, etc. Ask the the Episcopalians about that.

This leads me to two think pieces for reporters and news consumers to file. The first comes from the Mark Tooley, the must-follow analyst on the Methodist right: “Global Methodism’s New Church.” He covers essential background, with logical attention to Methodist growth in Africa, then offers this helpful summary:

Why are conservatives leaving when they won at the General Conference?

Liberals, although outnumbered globally, dominate the U.S. church and its bureaucracy. Few American conservatives want to inherit liberal church agencies, seminaries, and local conference structures, whose financial viability is already dubious.

Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, which is not officially United Methodist, will feature prominently in Global Methodism. It has already committed $500,000 to the new denomination’s church planting.

Technically, traditionalists are leaving official United Methodism under the protocol. But the reality is that the church is dividing into new denominations. In that sense, under the protocol everyone is leaving the denomination created in 1968, when The Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical United Brethren. That denomination, operating under theological pluralism, plunged from 11 million members to the current 6.7 million, a trajectory that traditional Methodists don’t want to continue. …

Conservative church leaders, including several bishops, convened a preliminary group early last year to envision the new traditionalist Methodism that would emerge from a divided United Methodism. The result was the document “Reimagining the Passion of a Global Wesleyan Movement: ‘I will look upon the world as my parish.’

Here is another essential document, for journalists. The small-o orthodox leaders have already produced a transitional Book of Discipline and Doctrines. It would be interesting to see if it contains any major doctrinal changes from the UMC’s current book, which is too conservative for Methodist progressives.

Here is an ominous passage for reporters to ponder, noting that the new Global Methodist Church will not “legally launch until United Methodism formally ratifies the protocol for separation or possibly when liberal partners in the protocol withdraw their support. So far, no liberal group has indicated such plans.”

The big words? “So far.”

Here is another essential chunk of the Tooley analysis, which is a must-read:

Who will be in the new Global Methodist Church? As of 2019, there were 6.7 million United Methodists in the United States. As of 2018, there were 6.5 million United Methodists overseas, of whom 6.3 million are in Africa, as reported by United Methodist News Service.

Likely about 2 million American members will align with the conservative church, leaving perhaps 4 million with the liberal church. (The chaos of the division is likely quickly to shave at least half a million members from the U.S. rolls.) Africa’s more than 6 million members will align conservative. Tens of thousands in Europe will divide about evenly, with east Europeans choosing conservative. More than 100,000 in the Philippines will probably choose conservative.

The first post-schism General Conference of the remaining United Methodist Church almost certainly will eliminate the denomination’s teachings and policies about Christian marriage, which currently preclude sex outside of heterosexual marriage and prohibit any celebration of same-sex rites.

Global Methodism’s founding General Conference would have to ratify its new name and policies. The protocol also provides for creating additional Methodist denominations.

Liberation Methodist Connexion has already unveiled itself, pledging to fight “colonialism, white supremacy, economic injustices, patriarchy, sexism, clericalism, ableism, ageism, transphobia, and heteronormativity.” Moderate liberals will mostly stay with post-schism United Methodism, retaining creedal orthodoxy while abandoning traditional Christian sexual teachings.

What will happen on the doctrinal left?

For insights into that process, check out this post at Mainstream UMC website, a crucial forum on the establishment left. The key is that this post does a great job of sorting through the theological divisions on the left, anticipating fault lines that could cause trouble there.

Check out these fascinating questions:

What is a Progressive Incompatibilist?  Only willing to be in a church with others who fully embrace LGBTQ ordination and marriage. Anyone who is against it or unsure should be in a different church. Unwilling to compromise. Offended by Centrists and by the mean-spirited Traditional Plan. (Posted May 23, 2019) …

What is a Progressive Compatibilist? Fully embrace and celebrate LGBTQ ordination and marriage, but willing to be in a church with those who do not fully embrace it, or are unsure, so long as there is no harmful language and LGBTQ ordination and marriage is allowed. Uncomfortable with compromise, but willing to join a broader coalition. Offended by the mean-spirited Traditional Plan. (Posted May 23, 2019) …

What is a Centrist?  Accepts LGBTQ ordination and marriage and seeks to end the harm caused by the exclusionary language. Actively seeks compromise for unity and for the broadest expression of Methodism. Is offended by both Progressive and Traditional Incompatibilists and offended by the mean-spirited Traditional Plan because it causes more harm and is dividing the church. (Posted May 23, 2019)

What is a Traditional Compatibilist? Do not personally agree with LGBTQ ordination and marriage, but willing to be in a church that allows it. But, would prefer to be in a church that does not allow it. Uncomfortable with compromise, but willing to join a broader coalition. Uncomfortable with the mean-spirited Traditional Plan, but willing to go along with it.  (Posted May 23, 2019)

Wow. Now we need an annotated guide to the John Wesley quotes that will be used, during debates, by each of these four groups.

Read both of these pieces. And stay tuned. This is, I remind reporters, a local, regional, national and global story.

Just saying.

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