Does the world need another Methodist church?


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.

To split or not to split

A recent poll of United Methodists found that more than 90 percent of respondents don’t think the church should split over the question of homosexuality. Moreover, “[c]reating disciples of Christ, spiritual growth and youth involvement” were named as higher priorities than debates over sexuality.

The congregation I belong to is firmly in the “open and affirming” camp, and yet our pastor and leadership are strongly committed to the view that the church can and should include people of divergent views on this, as well as on other matters.

Now, in practice, I’m not sure how this is going to work, since as a matter of policy the church will have to come down on one “side” or another. Maybe the best we can hope for is some kind of “local option,” similar to what my former church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has been moving toward. I’m of two minds about this because, on the one hand, I do consider full equality of LGBT persons to be a matter of justice and not simply personal preference. But at the same time, there are good Christian people who have not come around on this, and I’m not convinced that it would be healthy to continue the already-pronounced Protestant tendency toward schism by splitting the church further.

Two additional considerations incline me against a split: first, since we believe in grace and the Spirit, Christians shouldn’t regard anyone as beyond having a change of heart. And second, we shouldn’t think that we (for any value of “we”) possess the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Even in positions we regard as fundamentally wrong, there may be elements of overlooked truth. Staying in communion and conversation with people we disagree with can be a check on smug self-certainty.

I don’t think that there’s any neat and clean solution here, and any course of action is likely to result in pain and loss. And we should be particularly alert to the effect any choice will have on those who’ve been on the receiving end of discrimination for so long. Straight Christians like myself are only too prone to discount how toxic church environments can be for LGBT people.

Probably many churches will muddle through for some time yet without coming to a decisive resolution. But I do think it’s still worth trying to find ways to muddle through together.




When is schism justified (or required)?

Emergent blogger Tony Jones calls for a “schism” regarding women in the (evangelical) church:

That means:

  • If you attend a church that does not let women preach or hold positions of ecclesial authority, you need to leave that church.

  • If you work for a ministry that does not affirm women in ecclesial leadership, you need to leave that ministry.

  • If you write for a publishing house that also prints books by “complementarians,” you need to take your books to another publishing house.

  • If you speak at conferences, you need to withdraw from all events that do not affirm women as speakers, teachers, and leaders.

I agree with Jones that this should be a non-negotiable position in the church. Of course, that’s easy for me to say because I belong to a church that has ordained women since 1956.*

Some of Jones’s commenters contend that it would be more gracious and Christ-like for supporters of women’s equality to remain in fellowship with those they disagree with. While this has a certain ring of plausibility, it ignores the reality of institutional power and structural inequality. A church can contain disagreement over women’s equality, but at an institutional level it has to decide for or against it. Either you ordain women or you don’t. To advocate remaining in a church that doesn’t ordain women is not, therefore, a policy of even-handed neutrality. If one stays in such a church, it is at the cost of sacrificing the equality of women. “Let’s agree to disagree” tends to skirt the question of structural inequality and provide cover for the status quo.

Now, mainline Protestants shouldn’t feel too smug about this, not least because true, substantive equality is still an aspiration in many of our churches. Women pastors continue to face hurdles that don’t affect their male colleagues, and we are still far from where we should be. Moreover, Christians whose churches (like the UMC) that have yet to enact policies of equality for their LGBT members face an analogous dilemma. If women’s equality is non-negotiable, is it OK to stay in fellowship with people who oppose LGBT equality under the conditions of structural inequality? If so, what is different about this case that makes it OK?


*To be more exact, the Methodist Church, which was the largest of the bodies that merged to form the United Methodist Church in 1968, had been ordaining women since 1956.

“Living the questions” isn’t everything

James McGrath shared a cartoon today from David Hayward that depicted the cross on a church steeple being replaced with a question mark.

I don’t want to read too much into the cartoon, which may have just been meant to be provocative or get people thinking, but it seems to me that progressive Christians sometimes make a fetish out of “questioning.” The problem wit this is that (1) it implies that other types of Christians don’t ask questions and (2) questioning for its own sake can become a substitute for having a positive message or agenda. When I think of the great icons of liberal/progressive Christianity (e.g., Martin Luther King, Jr. or Desmond Tutu), I think of people who, yes, wrestled with doubt, but who also had a strong vision of what was true and right and were willing to fight for it. The life of perpetual questioning, with answers indefinitely deferred, can sometimes become an excuse for not taking responsibility or making a stand.

I realize that many people who now identify as progressive Christians may come from fundamentalist and/or abusive church backgrounds where questioning received beliefs was verboten. Churches should definitely be places where people feel safe asking questions and expressing doubts (and they often fail to be such places). But a church whose highest reason for being is to ask questions sounds more like a debating society than a herald of the gospel.

Lutherans, Methodists, and open communion

On paper I’m still an ELCA Lutheran, but I’ve been attending a United Methodist congregation for the last couple of years, so this news from the ELCA’s recent church-wide assembly is of interest to me. A resolution was passed during the assembly to initiate a process looking at the church’s practices of administering communion, particularly with regard to the unbaptized. This seems to have been motivated, at least in part, by the fact that while the ELCA’s official position is that only baptized Christians should partake of communion, other churches with which it is in full communion practice “open communion.” That is, anyone who is so moved is invited to partake of the sacrament, whether or not they’re a baptized Christian.

This is, in fact, the practice of the United Methodist Church, with which the ELCA has a full communion agreement. The UMC’s official rationale for practicing open communion (a.k.a. communion without baptism) is this:

The table of Holy Communion is Christ’s table, not the table of The United Methodist Church or of the local congregation.  The table is open to anyone who seeks to respond to Christ’s love and seeks to lead a new life of peace and love, as the invitation to the table says.

The United Methodist Book of Worship says, “All who intend to lead a Christian life, together with their children, are invited to receive the bread and cup. We have no tradition of refusing any who present themselves desiring to receive” (page 29). This statement means that in practice there are few, if any, circumstances in which a United Methodist pastor would refuse to serve the elements of Holy Communion to a person who comes forward to receive.

By Water and the Spirit affirms: “Because the table at which we gather belongs to the Lord, it should be open to all who respond to Christ’s love, regardless of age or church membership. The Wesleyan tradition has always recognized that Holy Communion may be an occasion for the reception of converting, justifying, and sanctifying grace.”

I’ve worried before that the practice of open communion can sometimes be more “about the appearance of inclusion for inclusion’s sake than about inviting people to partake of the Eucharist understood specifically as the sacrament of Christ’s presence.” But understood along the lines described here, I think it can be a faithful practice.* As a practical matter, apart from a pro forma statement in the bulletin, even churches that don’t officially practice open communion are unlikely to turn anyone away from the table (I find it almost unimaginable that this would occur in an ELCA church). In my view, the main emphasis should be on the sacrament as the sign of Christ’s presence, love, and grace, and the invitation should be for people to respond to it as such.

UPDATE: I should clarify that the UMC certainly doesn’t intend for communion without baptism to be the norm. The statement on baptism referred to above says this immediately after the quoted section:

Unbaptized persons who receive communion should be counseled and nurtured toward baptism as soon as possible.

And the church’s statement on communion adds this:

Invitation to partake of Holy Communion offers an evangelical opportunity to bring people into a fuller living relationship with the body of Christ. As means of God’s unmerited grace, Holy Baptism and Holy Communion are to be seen not as barriers but as pathways. Pastors and congregations must strive for a balance of welcome that is open and gracious and teaching that is clear and faithful to the fullness of discipleship.

Nonbaptized people who respond in faith to the invitation in our liturgy will be welcomed to the Table. They should receive teaching about Holy Baptism as the sacrament of entrance into the community of faith—needed only once by each individual—and Holy Communion as the sacrament of sustenance for the journey of faith and growth in holiness—needed and received frequently.

This seems to me to strike a good balance.


*I’ve also become more comfortable with the idea of open communion after reading Charles Hefling’s recent essay, which draws on John Wesley’s notion of communion as a “converting ordinance,” as well as this paper from Lutheran theologian Ernst Käsemann, written 30 years ago.

Presbyterians still believe in God’s wrath

Christianity Today reported that the Presbyterian Church (USA) rejected “In Christ Alone”–a popular contemporary hymn–from its new hymnal because it mentions the wrath of God. Here are the offending lines:

In Christ alone! who took on flesh
Fulness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness
Scorned by the ones he came to save:
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied
For every sin on Him was laid;
Here in the death of Christ I live.

The committee putting together the hymnal wanted to change the lines to “Till on that cross as Jesus died, the love of God was magnified.” But the writers of the hymn denied them permission to make the change, so it was omitted altogether.

CT apparently couldn’t resist the “liberals ditch wrath of God” angle, but it turns out that the reason the PCUSA objected to the lines was their use of “satisfied.” In other words, the committee was rejecting not the notion of God’s wrath, but the satisfaction theory of the Atonement.

Bob Smietana, religion blogger at the Tennessean, got the story right:

Critics say the change was sparked by liberals wanting to take God’s wrath out of the hymnal. The committee says there’s plenty of wrath in the new hymnal. Instead, the problem is the word “satisfied,” which the committee says refers to a specific view of theology that it rejects.


The new “Glory to God” hymnal, due out this fall, includes songs such as “Oh Sacred Head Now Wounded,” which talk about substitutionary atonement — the idea that Jesus took the place of sinners on the cross. It also includes songs about God’s wrath.

“People think that we’ve taken the wrath of God out of the hymnal,” Bringle said. “That’s not the case. It’s all over the hymnal. The issue was the word ‘satisfied.’ ”

That term was used by the medieval theologian Anselm, who argued that sins offended God’s honor, and someone had to die in order to satisfy his honor.

The 15-member committee rejected Anselm’s view and voted 9-6 to drop the hymn.

CT, to its credit, has updated its original story with a correction, though the headline still says “Wrath of God’ Keeps Popular Worship Song Out of 10,000-Plus Churches.”

Ironically (considering that we’re talking about a Presbyterian church), it’s John Calvin, not Anselm, who is usually credited with formulating the view that God’s wrath was directed at Jesus on the cross. A more properly Anselmian line would be “the honor of God was satisfied.”

(H/T to Daniel Silliman (@danielsilliman) for the links to the stories.)

American Christians should relax about church decline

Popular Christian blogger Rachel Held Evans wrote an article for CNN on “why millenials are leaving the church.” She really means the evangelical church, and she cites issues like excessive politicization, an anti-science attitude, and hostility to LGBT folks as reasons why people in her generation are jumping ship. She suggests that churches need to come around on these issues if they want to draw in today’s twenty- and thirty-somethings.

Since I’m neither an evangelical nor a millenial, I don’t really have a dog in this fight. Mainline churches have problems with numbers across the generational board, so we’re not exactly in a position to lecture evangelicals about how to boost theirs.

But maybe that’s not really the point. I don’t want to attend a church that’s anti-gay or that tells me I can’t believe in evolution because I think those positions are wrong. Will a pro-gay, pro-science church attract more members? I frankly have no idea. But I do know that it’s better to live by what you consider to be the truth.

It seems to me that behind much of this anxiety about church decline is an unstated assumption that America is still the center of Christendom. Numerically, this just isn’t the case, as Philip Jenkins and others have been pointing out for some time. Whatever the future of Christianity is, it isn’t likely to happen here.

In light of that, maybe American Christians need to get over the idea that it’s up to us to ensure the future of Christianity. This could actually be quite liberating, allowing us to experiment with new forms of church life and take bold steps to live out our faith without constantly worrying about how it’s going to play to whatever demographic we’re trying to attract. Maybe we need to have a little more faith.

The biggest problem facing us is not the numerical decline of the church. It’s things like climate change, persistent poverty and inequality, and wars and rumors of wars. If Christians worried less about the former, they might discover the resources for interesting and fruitful ways of responding to the latter. And communities that can do that might actually be worth paying attention to.

A liberal revival?

According to the New York Times, after a period when it was more fashionable to study relatively marginalized religious movements like evangelicalism and Mormonism, historians are turning their attention back to liberal mainline Protestantism. One of the more surprising arguments, made by David Hollinger, is that the legacy of the mainline may be deeper and more enduring than its numerical decline suggests. He contends that, despite the apparent success of conservative evangelicalism in displacing it from the center of American Protestantism, liberal Protestantism succeeded in imparting certain broadly progressive values to American society.

Perhaps providing some support for Hollinger’s thesis, a report released this week by the Brookings Institution and the Public Policy Research Institute suggests that the religious conservatism in America is actually declining, and progressivism is on the upswing. The report summarizes the results of a survey of Americans’ views on economics and religion, and a key finding is that younger generations are more likely to identify as religiously moderate or progressive (or not religious for that matter). This trend seems to mirror the same long-term demographic changes that are contributing to the woes of the Republican Party. In short: America is becoming less old, white, and conservative and more young, non-white, and liberal.

Of course, “conservative,” “liberal,” “progressive” and the like are notoriously slippery and malleable terms (particularly when it comes to theology). And we don’t know if increased religious liberalism will translate to a revival of more progressive religious communities. At the same time, though, these trends hardly seem to support the oft-repeated claim that hard-core theological conservatism is the key to successful, growing churches.

Communion as a means of conversion

“Open communion”–or what is sometimes referred to more precisely as “communion without (or prior to) baptism”–has become something of a hot-button issue in mainline Protestant circles. In this article at the Christian Century, Boston College theologian Charles Hefling provides the best overview of the issue that I’ve seen.

Drawing on John Wesley’s notion of communion as a “converting ordinance,” Hefling says that there is a case for seeing communion as a means by which some people are drawn to Jesus. “The drawing may go unregarded, but on the other hand a readiness to receive and follow it may also be nurtured by deliberate practices, among which is participation in the Lord’s own supper.” Thus it may be wrong for the church to insist on baptism as a prior condition for receiving. But this isn’t simply a matter of being “inclusive” or welcoming–it’s an invitation to enter more fully into the Christian life, with the commitments and sacrifices that entails. Hefling goes on to suggest that any practice of open communion should be accompanied by a robust program of catechesis and a more explicit linkage of communion and baptism. “Communion never is irrespective of baptism, although possibly it may in certain circumstances precede it.”

He concludes:

The recommendations do not in themselves resolve the question of whether an open table policy is theologically justifiable in general or pastorally appropriate in any particular instance. They are not meant to. They do, or would, give concrete expression to a conviction that if the Eucharist is to be regarded as a means of Christian formation—and that is arguably the surest ground on which to build a case for open table communion—then eucharistic worship needs to belong to a larger pattern and process. A visitor who experiences a communion service as a discrete, one-off event, like a tour of the Grand Canyon, has missed the point, or else the point has not been made clearly enough.

That point, the embeddedness of this liturgical action within an all-inclusive, corporate turning to God, is one which has been made, negatively and somewhat mechanically, by insisting on “no communion without baptism.” There seem to be serious reasons for thinking it would perhaps be better made by saying, in many and various ways, “We are glad to have you join us in our pilgrimage. Please know that you are very welcome. Please know too that to join, you have to be prepared to join, to take the plunge, literally.” In that context, the question is not whether a ritual requirement for receiving communion may at times be waived for individuals who are indeed so prepared. The question is whether opening the communion table to them now is the most appropriate way to prepare them further.

Whether or not open communion is the best policy–and I’m still somewhat on the fence–I think this provides a good framework for thinking about it.

A few points on “liberal Christianity”

The events at the recent general convention of the Episcopal Church have generated a wave of the usual outrage/concern-trolling/Schadenfreude over the supposed demise of liberal/mainline Christianity. Conservatives have been riding this hobby horse for years, arguing that while churches that espouse more liberal theological or social positions have seen declines in membership, more conservative churches have been growing (or at least declining at a slower rate). The lesson–sometimes explicit but more often implicit–is supposed to be that embracing conservatism is the key to growth (which is in turn understood as virtually synonymous with success).

As is so often the case, the reality is a bit more complicated than this narrative suggests. Certainly all is not well in the mainline, but there are a few things we should keep in mind:

–Most major church bodies in the U.S. are experiencing some degree of decline, including the Roman Catholic Church and the famously conservative Southern Baptists.

–Churches labeled “conservative” aren’t necessarily growing because of their emphasis on doctrinal orthodoxy; many of them downplay theology in favor of various self-help, personal growth techniques; “prosperity” preaching; or right-wing politics that have little to do with the historic Christian faith.

–Churches that take “liberal” stances on political or social issues aren’t necessarily “liberal” on theology or liturgy. Liberal or progressive social positions can be based on “conservative” theology, and many mainline churches are quite traditional in their liturgy and approach to worship.

–Mainline denominations are actually not as liberal as people think but contain a wide range of theological and political views. For instance, in 2008, Barack Obama got only 44 percent of the white mainline Protestant vote (see, e.g., this study). Similarly, a review of official church statements on issues like marriage and abortion would show that mainline churches have hardly bought into “sexual liberation” hook, line, and sinker.

–Liberals are often accused of “capitulating to the culture,” but many positions espoused by liberal churches (on the economy, war, or immigration, for example) are actually “countercultural” with respect to the dominant American culture.

None of this shows that liberal Christianity has a bright future–or that mainline denominations don’t have major institutional problems that need to be addressed. But I’m not convinced that “liberalism” explains these churches’ problems or that being less liberal is a panacea for what ails them.