I assume anyone who cares already knows what went down at last month’s special general conference of the United Methodist Church. (Here’s a pretty lucid rundown of the events and some possible implications.)
LGBTQ-affirming Methodists have been made painfully aware that they just don’t have the numbers to change church policy, and likely won’t in the foreseeable future. This is partly because the UMC comprises churches from around the world, and many of the growing churches are in countries where more conservative views of homosexuality at the norm. It was a coalition of traditionalist Americans and delegates from conservative jurisdictions outside the U.S. that secured the victory of the so-called traditional plan.
One outcome of all this is the very real possibility of a denominational split. Affirming Methodists aren’t about to quietly accept the punitive traditional plan (although how much of it will survive an upcoming review by the church’s judicial council is unclear). But a return to the trench warfare of the last several years can hardly seem appealing to many people, especially when the prospects of change seem so remote. This is why the idea of a split has been floated publicly by progressives, and even some more centrist-leaning Methodists. In my own Methodist congregation, this has been a lively topic of discussion during the past few weeks.
One question I have about this, though, is: Does the world really need another Methodist denomination? Or, to put it somewhat differently, what would the raison d’être of such a church be? I don’t mean this to be a rhetorical question–I think it’s a question we sincerely need to ask ourselves before going forward with any new denominational structure.
The UMC is the result of a merger in 1968 between the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church. The Methodist Church had evolved (with additional mergers along the way) from the Methodist Episcopal Church, which itself emerged from the First Great Awakening during the latter half of the 18th century. And of course all Methodists trace their lineage back to John Wesley and the revival movement he led in the England. (Although his actions created considerable tension with the established church, Wesley himself, along with his brother Charles, remained a life-long Anglican.)
Theologically, the UMC is kind of a grab-bag: It has evangelicals, liberals, and plain vanilla mainline Protestants. There are certain Methodist “distinctives”: e.g., an emphasis on God’s prevenient grace, “social holiness,” and “connectionalism.” But there’s not a “Methodist theology” that members or clergy are expected to subscribe to. Methodist churches also reflect a wide range of worship styles: from informal and low-church to the relatively formal and liturgical. Politically, members of the denomination are about as split between Republicans and Democrats as the country as a whole. Given this somewhat fuzzy identity, it’s not obvious what would set a hypothetical new progressive Methodist church apart from other liberal mainline denominations like the UCC or the Episcopal Church.
It’s important not to dismiss the fact that there are many lifelong Methodists in our churches who have no desire to be anything other than Methodist. As someone with pretty shallow Methodist roots, I try to be sensitive to this. But Methodism as originally conceived by John Wesley was a response to specific circumstances: the pro-forma piety of the established church and the fact that the gospel message wasn’t reaching some of those who needed it most, particularly the poor. Are there circumstances in our world today that call for a uniquely Methodist response? What would a new Methodist church offer that people couldn’t find elsewhere? Does Methodism per se still have an important role to play in the world and if so does it need to be embodied in a separate denomination? There may be good affirmative responses to these questions, but they seem like the kinds of question we should be asking before adding one more denomination to the alphabet soup of American Protestantism.