Editor’s Note: The following essay appears in the Spring 2020 issue of Eikon.
After fifty years of fractious debate over sexuality, The United Methodist Church is about to divide into two or more denominations. This division would have occurred at the scheduled May 2020 quadrennial General Conference, now postponed until 2021 due to COVID-19.
If ratified next year, this schism will be the first organized division of a major national US denomination since before the Civil War, when Methodists, Baptists, and others divided over slavery.
United Methodist traditionalists and liberals have fought ever since the denomination in 1972 declared homosexual practice “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The church subsequently banned same-sex rites and reaffirmed that clergy must be celibate if single and monogamous in male/female marriage, otherwise risking defrocking.
This traditionalist stance has been upheld at every governing General Conference since 1972. These conventions of up to one thousand delegates meet for approximately ten days every four years to set denominational policy. Evangelical and moderate institutionalists in the US church sustained this teaching for decades in sync with American culture. But when the culture shifted, the church’s moderates followed.
But the church’s evangelicals gained new allies with the dramatic rise over the last twenty-five years of United Methodism in Africa, where nearly half and perhaps more of the church’s 12.5 million membership now live. The Africans are staunch theological conservatives.
As other historically liberal mainline Protestant denominations surrendered traditional Christian sexual standards over the past twenty years, United Methodism, which is the largest mainline church, became nearly the only holdout for traditionalism. US church liberals, who had long assumed history was on their side, were exasperated and unprepared for this American evangelical-African majority bloc.
The final showdown came at the February 2019 Special General Conference in St. Louis, which was summoned specifically to settle the church’s differences on sex. US bishops, with the US church bureaucracy behind them, pushed a plan to liberalize the denomination by allowing local options on sexual standards. The bishops and other US liberals were stunned when the delegates instead tightened the church’s rules against heterodox sexual behavior. Liberals complained their church had been infected by an “Ebola Virus.” Africans told of spiritual visions they had of invisible cosmic warfare at the convention.
St. Louis helped persuade US liberals that even if history is on their side, church demography is not. US United Methodism loses nearly one hundred thousand members annually, while Africa sometimes gains twice that number every year. Later in 2019, liberal and conservative church caucus groups convened to negotiate a denominational division. A bishop from Sierra Leone chaired the meetings, which were mediated by legendary D.C. lawyer Kenneth Feinberg, former Special Master of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.
In January 2020, this mediation announced agreement on a Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation, which would divide United Methodism. Liberals would inherit the church’s name and US-based bureaucracy. Traditionalists would create a new Methodist denomination that all local congregations could join by majority vote, keeping their church property (in United Methodism, church properties are held in trust by the denomination through the local conference, which is like a diocese or presbytery). Conferences, which typically follow state lines, could join by 57% vote. The new traditional church also would receive $25 million from the old liberalized denomination. There would also be smaller funding for potentially additional new denominations, which might include a radical liberationist Methodism impatient with conventionally liberal United Methodism.
Many conservative United Methodists initially reacted to this protocol for separation with indignation. Why should the global traditionalist majority “leave?” Shouldn’t US liberals who always lost the votes on sexuality instead leave to create their new denomination? But these complaints from conservatives, after reflection, have largely subsided.
The US church bureaucracy has been liberal for many decades, and few conservatives are interested in trying to reform it. It is also financially unsustainable, with the church already predicting funding cuts of 40% or more, likely exacerbated by COVID-19. Most traditionalists prefer a new denomination without the albatross of bloated church agencies.
There is also the consideration that while traditionalists are a global majority, they are only a plurality in the US. A church poll showed 44% of US church members are traditionalist, with the remainder divided between progressives and moderates. US clergy typically are more liberal than laity. A new denomination will allow traditionalist clergy to self-select into it, allowing for greater unity behind traditional orthodoxy.
The new traditionalist Methodist denomination likely will end up with larger membership than the old liberal United Methodism. About 20% of US local conferences will likely align traditionalist, with a population of about 1.5 million. Another one million or more from congregations in liberal conferences also will likely join. This 2.5 million in the US will be joined by over five million in Africa, and thousands more in the Philippines and Europe, for perhaps a total global denomination of 7.5 million or more. Meanwhile, old United Methodism will be almost totally comprised of US members, with 3.5 or four million, a number that will quickly shrink further, following the example of other denominations that liberalized on sexuality.
Of course, as this division rolls through thousands of congregations, it will not always be clean and amicable. The debate may cripple and perhaps ultimately kill many divided local churches. But overall, United Methodists have the opportunity through this organized division to avoid the chaos inflicted on other mainline denominations, where departing conservative congregations often lost their properties amid millions of dollars in litigation.
The new global Methodist Church will have the opportunity to revive the Wesleyan witness in America, in solidarity with its international members, who will be the denominational majority. Liberal United Methodism has lost more than four million members in America over 55 years and is virtually incapable of planting new churches. New, orthodox Methodism can reach cities, the West Coast, the Northeast, immigrant and nonwhite populations, and young people whom liberal mainline Protestantism largely cannot.
There is also the opportunity for a Wesleyan intellectual and theological revival. After many decades of liberal control of United Methodism’s seminaries, orthodox theologians have long operated as a minority but robust resistance. They will have the chance to shape a new global denomination with classic Methodist theology. Asbury Seminary in Kentucky, which is not officially United Methodist but produces more clergy for the denomination than any other school, will be the leader. United Seminary in Ohio, the church’s only mostly orthodox school out of thirteen seminaries, will also play a large role.
Orthodox United Methodist theologians are prominent in the Wesleyan Theological Society, where the more liberal voices are typically from evangelical denominations like the Church of the Nazarene. At the society’s recent meeting, I heard friends discuss a core group of forty-to-sixty orthodox United Methodist thinkers who could resource the new church. It was exciting to hear.
Just prior to the Wesleyan Theological Society, a group of traditional US and international bishops, pastors, and renewal caucus group leaders, including myself, convened to agree on principles for the new global Methodism. There was an encouraging spirit of unity and hope.
As a lifelong United Methodist who has spent my whole adult life (more than thirty years) laboring for church renewal, I confess I had not hoped for or expected schism. But I now believe that United Methodist division is the best course forward, and I look forward to great days ahead for traditional Methodism in America and globally.
Mark Tooley is the President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy
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