It is easy for those who have been around The United Methodist Church for years to assume everyone knows how we have come to our current impasse. However, despite declining membership and worship attendance in the U.S., there are still plenty of growing congregations with new people joining every day. Many of these new members, plus young people who have become young adults in the past several years, want to understand what is going on in their church. Additionally, many long-time members have primarily focused on ministry in their local church and so may be unaware of some of the history and dynamics that have led to our current circumstances. In the following article the Rev. Joe DiPaolo helps them and reminds others how we arrived at this point in the church’s life. Please read it and share it with others, particularly those who are new to the conversation. With this article, last week’s, and still others to come, the Wesleyan Covenant Association provides a “toolbox” of resources to inform and prepare local churches to navigate the coming days as we approach the special 2019 General Conference and respond to its actions. You may access the toolbox here.
The Dis-United Methodist Church and The Quest for Unity
Many United Methodists (but by no means all) are aware the church has been in crisis mode for several years. Our bishops have called for a special session of General Conference in 2019, charged with seeking a way to maintain the unity of the church amid deep disagreements. General Conference is the highest decision-making body of the global denomination, and usually meets only once every four years. Many people are predicting a schism is in our future. In the interest of making sure people understand how we have come to this point some historical context will definitely help.
The United Methodist Church was created in 1968, with the merger of the Methodist Church with the Evangelical United Brethren (EUB) Church. This merger grew out of the strong ecumenical spirit that dominated the first two-thirds of the 20th century. A great desire to bring back together, in some form, the broken branches of the Christian family, led to the establishment of such bodies as the Federal Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches, as well as unions and mergers of a number of denominations around the world.
Among Methodists this process included the reunion of the southern and northern branches of the Methodist Church, along with the Methodist Protestant Church, in 1939; the reunion of a divided Evangelical Church in the 1920s; and the merger of the Evangelicals and United Brethren in 1946 to create the EUB Church. The driving spirit during this period had been the quest for unity; the dominant issues had been about church structures: how do we merge with different understandings and practices regarding ordination, bishops, sending pastors to local churches, etc.?
The 1968 merger creating the UM Church was the culmination of that process. Suddenly, a new question came to the fore: who are we? Henceforth, the driving spirit would be the quest for a coherent identity; and the dominant issues would be about doctrine and moral standards. Though the Methodist Church and EUB Churches shared a similar heritage, they had evolved somewhat differently; each had its own set of doctrinal standards. So, the 1968 General Conference appointed a study commission, which everyone thought would bring forth a new set of doctrinal standards.
That is not what happened. Instead, the commission proposed to the 1972 General Conference that the UM Church retain both the EUB and Methodist doctrinal standards side by side, without change. This was adopted, as was a new “Theological Statement,” to interpret the historic statements for a new day. This statement embraced the idea of “Theological Pluralism,” which gave the green light, in the years that followed, to all sorts of theological experimentation: liberation theology, feminist theology, process theology, and more. In addition, the 1970s saw the flowering of caucus Methodism, with the formation of various interest groups. The church began to look more like a big-tent political party holding together various constituencies, rather than a church with core convictions and a common mission.
It was not long before critics began to ask: exactly what is the attraction of joining a church whose chief characteristic is that everybody disagrees with everybody else? A period of reassessment resulted, and at the 1988 General Conference the church adopted a new theological statement. This new statement expunged the term “theological pluralism,” reemphasized our Wesleyan theological heritage, and reasserted the primacy of Scripture as our authority. On the flashpoint issue of sexuality, delegates reaffirmed the teaching that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” (first explicitly adopted in 1972). In subsequent General Conferences, this was repeatedly reaffirmed, and buttressed with prohibitions against the ordination of practicing homosexuals and the conducting of same-sex ceremonies, as well as an official endorsement of legal definitions of marriage as between one man and one woman.
The key point: in the struggle to create a coherent identity, the progressive wing of the church was in the driver’s seat until the late 1980s, while the traditionalist wing took the lead for the next 15 years or so. By 2004, however, it was clear that a stalemate had been reached, at least at the General Conference level. Neither side would be able to entirely reshape the identity of the denomination in its image. That is where things have remained among American Methodists, with both sides growing increasingly frustrated, the division growing wider, and hence our current crisis.
By Joe DiPaolo
The Rev. Joe DiPaolo is the senior pastor at Lancaster First United Methodist Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He is also a member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association Council.