Last week I blogged against United Methodist schism. In response, some have asked what scenarios I envision for United Methodism’s future. Here are some possibilities, starting with what I think is the least likely scenario and concluding with the most likely, and I believe, the most desirable, compared to the alternatives.
1. General Conference in 2016 in Portland, Oregon votes to liberalize or localize United Methodism’s biblical teaching on marriage and sex. A significant number of U.S. Evangelicals withdraw from United Methodism and create a new communion, possibly right there in Portland, with scores of delegates immediately relocating to a separate location to launch the new project. Some of United Methodism’s largest congregations will eventually join this new conservative denomination. Based on the pattern of what happened in other Mainline denominations that liberalized their marriage teaching, the new Methodist communion may include several hundred thousand members. (United Methodism in the U.S. currently has 7.3 million.) The departing congregations will, of course, lose their property to their respective annual conferences, as The Discipline stipulates. Some congregations will litigate, almost all unsuccessfully, after millions of dollars are spent. It’s also likely that departing conservatives will not cohere into a single new denomination but possibly two or more new denominations will emerge, based on theological, ecclesial and personality differences and preferences, as happened among departing conservatives from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Or some departing Methodists may join an already existing Wesleyan denomination, just as many departing congregations from the Presbyterian Church (USA) joined the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, while others formed the new Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians. Some departing Methodist congregations, tired of denominational bureaucracy, will essentially go congregationalist, similar to churches that quit the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Others may form small subsets, perhaps in association with parts of overseas Methodism, whether United Methodist or other national churches, as happened with congregations quitting the Episcopal Church. In this scenario, as United Methodism solidifies its rejection of orthodox teaching on marriage, nearly all of African United Methodism, with nearly 5 million members, and gaining 200,000 new members annually, will quit the U.S. based denomination. Likely they will choose to form new national churches, with missional relations with the U.S. based forms of Methodism. The same may be true for Philippines United Methodism, and some of the small European and Asian churches. But United Methodism’s fracture over marriage will likely mean the end of an international Methodist denomination, in favor of dozens of new national Methodist churches, adding to the scores that already exist globally. There are about 70 million Methodists globally, of whom just over 12 million belong to United Methodism. In this scenario, most conservative United Methodists, belonging to congregations that do not leave, will be stuck choosing whether to remain or leave for a new church. Many, and ultimately, most will leave. United Methodism in the U.S., currently losing 80,000 to 100,000 members annually, after liberalizing, will start losing 200,000-300,000 members annually, similar to increased losses suffered by other liberalizing denominations under the same scenario.
2. After preliminary discussion at the 2016 General Conference, the 2020 General Conference votes to divide the denomination approximately between conservatives and liberals. Nearly all the seminaries go with the liberal side, as do most church agencies, as conservatives see them as intractable. There is tremendous upheaval, as thousands of congregations, directly or indirectly, must choose sides. Many conservative congregations in the north and west will vote to leave their liberal conferences. Liberal congregations in the south will vote to leave their conferences. Most congregations, including conservatives and liberals, will have very contentious debates and votes. In hundreds, perhaps thousands of congregations, the losing side will not accept the outcome and will form new congregations, or litigate against the winning side, or will dissipate as individuals leave for other congregations. In this ongoing division, hundreds of thousands of United Methodists, at odds with their congregations, or disgusted by the battle, will quit Methodism altogether. As the new conservative and liberal denominations begin to cohere, both liberals and conservatives realize their philosophical unity is less clear than anticipated. There are intense leadership and policy battles. Factions from both new denominations break off to form new bodies. A formerly United Methodism ultimately becomes 5 or 6 new denominations or loose associations. Many congregations, with or without their property, become independent. Many moderates are especially outspoken in rejecting their conservative and liberal new denominations, choosing to take their own paths. The African churches initially side with the new conservative U.S. based denomination but ultimately choose to separate into new national churches or into a pan-African denomination. The new U.S. conservative denomination, after several of its own internal schisms, experiences some growth, although unevenly. It ultimately becomes, in contrast to Methodism’s historic role as a great national and international denomination with wider influence in the global church and in society, an evangelical insular sub-culture. The new liberal denomination suffers accelerating membership losses, relies mostly on endowments in the absence of people, and becomes increasingly Unitarian Universalist in theology. As a refuge from its sharp decline, it may attempt to merge with other liberal, non-Wesleyan denominations, like the United Church of Christ, or maybe even the Episcopal Church.
3. Some Evangelicals advocate a formal schism at the 2016 and 2020 General Conferences and fail by a large margin to reach the two thirds votes required for constitutional change. In reaction, and having had high hopes of a new conservative denomination, many of them choose to quit United Methodism to create a new communion. Perhaps several hundred congregations join the new splinter denomination. After several internal divisions, it possibly experiences growth, following the pattern of other new denominations that split from Methodism in the 19th century, like the Free Methodist Church, Wesleyan Church and Church of the Nazarene. These denominations never became large but grew and persevered, largely retaining their historic Wesleyan theology. Or this new splinter denomination could follow the pattern of one of Methodism’s earliest splits, led in the late 18th century by James O’Kelley, who rejected episcopal governance and formed a Republican Methodist Church, later becoming The Christian Church. This church then divided over baptism and other issues. Some of its descendants joined the Stone-Campbell movement, while others ultimately merged into a Reformed denomination that later became part of what is today the very liberal United Church of Christ.
4. The General Conference in 2020, after it’s clear the church will not liberalize its sexual teaching, authorizes liberal congregations and clergy who cannot abide by church law on marriage and sexual ethics to depart the denomination with their properties and assets. Very few respond to the opportunity, perhaps a couple hundred congregations at most. They form a new liberal denomination somewhat similar to the small Alliance of Baptists that emerged after the 1980s conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention. Like the Alliance, this new denomination is moribund in numbers and opaque in theology. As with the Alliance among Southern Baptists, very few liberals quit the main denomination to join the new body, preferring the continuity and stability of a larger communion.
5. The General Conference in 2016 and 2020 reaffirms the church’s biblical teaching on marriage and sex. By 2020, the Africans have become nearly half the membership of the United Methodist Church. Thanks to the 2016 General Conference giving them more proportional representation, the Africans and other internationals have nearly half the delegates at the 2020 General Conference, compared to 41 percent in 2016, making any liberalizing of the sexuality teaching thereafter politically and demographically impossible. Throughout these years, dissident clergy have persistently and publicly defied the church’s prohibition on same-sex unions, although the overall numbers never equal the claims implied by hundreds of clergy who proclaim their willingness to defy The Discipline. Enforcement of the prohibition is administered unevenly in different regions, exasperating conservatives. But liberal dissidents are not satisfied with a de facto laissez-faire policy in some regions, demanding formal change in church law. Both the 2016 and 2020 General Conferences strengthen penalties for disobedience of The Discipline by clergy and bishops. In 2020, the General Conference authorizes dismantling the ultra liberal Western Jurisdiction, whose membership has fallen below the membership of some annual conferences, and it is divided between the North Central and South Central Jurisdictions. Numerous annual conferences are also merged, and the total number of U.S. bishops continues to decline, as the African bishops slowly increase in numbers, although still not proportional to their membership strength. Africans are also given proportional representation on church agency borders for the first time, dramatically altering the landscape at liberal agencies like the Board of Church and Society. The 2020 General Conference creates a new agency devoted to teaching the church’s views on marriage, sex and family. In response to these trends, especially after a decisive 2020 General Conference vote on marriage, organized liberal resistance at the General Conference on sex issues effectively ends, similar to the end of “moderate” resistance in the Southern Baptist Convention after repeated conservative legislative wins. Most liberals do not quit United Methodism but become a smaller minority as the Africans become the majority, and some conservative areas of the U.S. church experience small growth. Effectively liberals become a subculture within United Methodism, just as Evangelicals were a sub culture for much of the 20th century. They also resemble the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the Southern Baptist “moderates” who lost legislatively but did not quit, instead organizing into a caucus that administers its own interpretation of ministry. The new globalized United Methodism is increasingly evangelical but not as conservative as some U.S. conservatives might prefer. But it is largely theologically orthodox, pro-traditional marriage and moderately pro-life, while taking left-of center views on some public policy issues, resembling some aspects of the Evangelical Left. The U.S. church loses nearly 2 million members over 20 years before bottoming out at about 5 million members, then posting United Methodism’s first U.S. membership gains in over 70 years, starting in the 2030s, thanks to denominational emphasis on evangelism and discipleship. Nearly half of United Methodism’s seminaries are closed or become independent institutions. Most United Methodist seminarians in the U.S. attend non-United Methodist seminaries. The African churches double in membership across 20 years, reaching nearly 10 million, making United Methodism a 15 million member global denomination.
Note that none of these scenarios offers an easy or straight path forward. They are also fraught with controversy and uncertainty. There’s no escape from conflict or hard work across many years and even decades. But I believe that hope for an ongoing strong Wesleyan witness in American Christianity requires the survival and reform of The United Methodist Church, and that any schisms or divisions will likely create small, increasingly splintered communions that form sub cultures lacking the capacity and vision for effectively spreading scriptural holiness across the land.