The Dis-United Methodist Church: Growth, Conflict, and the Uncertain Way Forward

Last week, we reviewed the formation of the United Methodist Church in 1968 and the struggle ever since its creation to shape a coherent identity – to answer the basic question: who are we? We looked at the tone and direction of two theological statements, in 1972 and 1988, and described the growing divide between traditionalists and progressives within the denomination, which had reached a stalemate by about 2004.

But that was largely United Methodism within the United States. The membership of the UM Church and its predecessor bodies had been overwhelmingly within the U.S., so few seemed to notice something new on the horizon that was growing and moving ever closer: and that was the growth of the UM Church overseas. This factor became undeniable by the early 2000s.

In the U.S., membership has fallen dramatically since 1968, while explosive growth began happening overseas, especially in Africa. To use real numbers: U.S. membership fell from more than 11 million in 1968 to less than 7 million in 2016 – yet overall, UM Church membership has grown to more than 12.5 million worldwide. It will not be many years before United Methodists in the U.S. will be a minority!

In addition, the steepest decline in America has been in the most progressive areas of the country: New England, the west coast, and the urban centers of the northeast and Midwest. More conservative areas of the U.S. (like the south) have seen slower decline, or even some modest growth, while the overseas growth has been almost all on the traditionalist side. Again, some real numbers may help. You may know that in the U.S., the UM Church is divided into five regional “jurisdictions” – the Northeastern, the Southeastern, the South Central, the North Central and the Western. The combined membership of the eight annual conferences in the entire Western Jurisdiction in 2015 was 313,086. That is less than the membership of the North Georgia Conference alone, which stood at 361,907. The combined membership of all the annual conferences in the Southeastern Jurisdiction was more than 2.7 million.

The combination of demographic changes in the U.S., coupled with the growth overseas, means that the UM Church has undergone a fundamental shift. Theologian Billy Abraham, an observer at the 2016 General Conference, wrote a paper afterward, detailing his conviction that the church was now irrevocably on course to become a “unique, global, orthodox denomination.” Increasingly, an overwhelming majority of the global church is in favor of maintaining traditional doctrinal and moral standards. And that includes the flashpoint issue of sexuality and marriage. By 2012, it was clear that the UM Church as a global body had made up its mind about marriage, and would stick with traditional teaching of marriage as between one man and one woman.

For the progressive minority in the church, this was unacceptable. Beginning in 2013, people in the UM Church who favored changing church teaching on marriage and sexuality began a campaign to force change through open defiance. This included several cases which garnered national headlines: retired Bishop Melvin Talbert’s public presiding at a same-sex marriage in Alabama (2013); the trial of Rev. Frank Schaeffer of Eastern Pennsylvania (2013); and the mass celebration of a same-sex marriage in Philadelphia with its subsequent disciplinary action (2013-14). In addition, by the summer of 2016 several annual conferences had adopted “non-compliance” resolutions, stating that they would defy the church’s disciplinary rules. And in July 2016, the Western Jurisdiction, in defiance of church law, elected as a bishop a female pastor who is married to another woman.

Since the creation of our denomination in 1784, it has never before happened that not only individuals but also whole conferences are openly defying the church and disobeying its Book of Discipline. And they do so while believing they should retain all the rights and privileges that come with remaining in the church. It was clear that this was simply an unsustainable situation, and several large churches have acted to leave the denomination, while others began withholding financial support.

By the time General Conference delegates met in Portland, Oregon in May 2016, there was a sense that the UM Church had reached a crisis point and might split right then and there. Thus, during the second week of the conference, delegates were asked by the Council of Bishops to be empowered to create a process that could come up with some sort of plan to maintain the unity of the church, despite our deep division. This request passed and resulted, later that year, in the creation of the Bishops’ Commission on a Way Forward, consisting of prominent representatives of all the various perspectives, to try to come up with a solution.

In April 2017, the Council of Bishops formally called for a special session of General Conference, to meet in February 2019, specifically to act on recommendations growing out of that process. The Commission on a Way Forward recently delivered to the bishops its final report. By July 8, 2018 all proposals for resolving the crisis must be submitted to the Commission on General Conference, so by mid-summer the whole church will have some clarity about potential ways forward.

So what may the future hold? Is there a “Way Forward” for the UM Church? According to information made public to date, there are three possible scenarios that could before the 2019 General Conference.

  1. The Traditionalist Model. This plan would retain traditional language and rules about marriage and sexuality, and strengthen measures to hold clergy and congregations accountable to the Book of Discipline. Individuals, clergy, and congregations (perhaps whole annual conferences) could be allowed to leave the denomination with their property if they are unwilling to abide by church teaching and church law.
  2. The Centrist (or “Local Option”) Model. This plan would allow local churches and clergy to decide where they stood on human sexuality. It would remove traditional language and disciplinary rules about marriage and ordination while also incorporating protections for clergy whose conscience would not permit them to perform same-sex weddings, or participate in ordaining “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals.”
  3. The Multi Branch model. This plan would restructure the denomination to create two (or more) “branches” within United Methodism, along theological lines. These would function separately regarding conferences, episcopal elections, appointments and ordination, but still relate to each other under a common umbrella of bodies like the United Methodist Committee on Relief, the publishing house, or the pension board.

There are problems with each plan. Model one is essentially a continuation of current policy, and it potentially has the votes to pass at the conference. But would it be enforced, as it has not heretofore? Model two has been proposed before with little support, and appears (to many) to be a recipe for chaos and conflict at the local level. However, the majority of our bishops support this plan. Model three would require a number of changes to our church’s constitution, and therefore would need a two-thirds majority vote by the delegates at the 2019 special conference and by all annual conferences afterward, which is a very high bar. Add to these scenarios the fact that the 2019 delegates could modify or even reject all three options in favor of something else. And of course it is also possible that no consensus will be reached, and nothing will be done.

So where does this leave us? Very uncertain indeed! Now is the time to for United Methodists to stay informed, to discuss with one another how various proposals might impact their local churches and annual conferences, and pray for God to show us the way forward.

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.

 

This is the third in a series of articles on “Preparing for the Future.” Click HERE to read the others.