By Mark Tooley (Follow on Twitter)
My friend Ted Campbell of Perkins School of theology has a column in The United Methodist Reporter warning of the perils of dividing The United Methodist Church. He’s thoroughly correct that schism offers no easy solution. Americans, religious or not, are especially prone to hoping for climactic conclusions. But in real life, most issues simmer and brew, ebbing and flowing, with no truly final end.
There is only one real way to precipitate United Methodist schism. If a General Conference compromised the current church policy affirming sex only within heterosexual marriage and prohibiting same-sex marriage and sexually active clergy outside marriage, some conservatives would depart to create a new denomination. When the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America compromised their sexual teaching, conservatives left and created new denominations. Those schisms will continue to play out for decades to come. Meanwhile, the membership spiral of those three liberalizing denominations has accelerated, and there’s no reason to think it will ever reverse, absent divine intervention.
Almost alone among the oldline Protestant denominations, United Methodism has not compromised its sexual teaching, primarily because its membership is global, and the overseas churches are growing while the U.S. church continues its decline. Non-U.S. delegates were 40 percent of the total at the 2012 General Conference and likely they will be 50 percent in 2016. These conservative, mostly African churches ensure that as long as United Methodism is global, there will be no liberalizing our sexuality standards. Interestingly, as United Methodism continues to lose hundreds of thousands of members in the U.S., it is now possibly the 9th largest denomination globally, thanks to Africa.
This situation has caused a few liberals of late to ponder whether liberals should possibly leave, advocate division, or at least stop fighting. Here is a new development with potentially interesting consequences. But there is virtually no precedent in American, or global, religious history of liberals creating NEW denominations. Liberals may take over already existing denominations, but when have they generated new ones? It’s very rare. After the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980’s, a very small number of liberals departed to create the Alliance for Baptists. It remains very small.
It’s unlikely that liberal United Methodists will corporately quit the United Methodist Church to create a new body. If they do, it will make history. Instead, I suspect they will do what evangelicals in United Methodism did for many decades. As the church becomes more global and less U.S./liberal controlled, U.S. liberals will sustain a wide sub culture, doing their own thing, and largely ignoring the general church. They will carefully work around the legal prohibitions on same-sex unions. And they will fully exploit the freedom of pulpit that United Methodists have long had. Just as evangelicals for years in their sub culture subversively preached salvation and holiness, liberals in the future will preach sexual liberation, environmentalism, feminism, and the Social Gospel. Our denomination is unlikely ever to control the message of the pulpit, and local churches will largely do want they want, with whatever consequences.
Campbell suggests returning to the pre-1972 era when United Methodism had no official stance on homosexuality. If he wants schism, then removing the current stance on homosexuality is the sure way to precipitate it, causing exodus by a combination of U.S. evangelicals and Africans. There was no stance prior to 1972 because there was no serious debate. I’ve noticed in looking at old Books of Discipline that the church had no specific policy on extra-marital sex until the mid-20th century. It’s not because early Methodism was sexually liberated. It’s because the formal stances were only necessitated by the rising challenge of liberal forces seeking overthrow of traditional Christian teachings previously resting on unstated consensus.
There’s no easy, smooth path for United Methodism in the future. Evangelicals can be moderately hopeful about the global growth and its ultimate impact on the U.S. church. Liberals are concerned about losing their long-time power monopoly. And they are frustrated that United Methodism is breaking with its past and this time is not following the other declining oldline denominations and not following the secular culture. But liberals, in their own churches, will largely have continued freedom to do almost whatever they want to do. That freedom is probably more appealing than the prolonged labors of trying to create a new structure.
Neither side will ever be completely happy with the status quo. But Christ warned there will always be wheat mixed with the tares until He returns. We are called to be patient and hopeful, understanding that even our adversity can be providential.