Last week I joined several United Methodist renewal leaders to meet with about twenty United Methodist bishops, as reported here by United Methodist News Service. The meeting was organized for non-USA bishops but several American bishops attended. Each of us from renewal groups made brief remarks and then listened to the bishops.
The African bishops stressed they and their churches are traditionalists who support United Methodist teachings about marriage and sexuality. Several European bishops noted many in their areas differ with the church’s stance. There are 53,000 United Methodists in Europe, where the church is declining. There are 5.3 million in Africa, where the church is growing.
There will be many more conversations ahead among various United Methodist groups and persons before the 2020 General Conference. Some hope for a negotiated form of separation between traditionalists and liberals to avert further conflict.
Here’s my prophecy. There will be at least two new liberal Methodist denominations in America. One will self-identify as “centrist” and the other as progressive. Both of course will reject orthodox teaching on marriage and sex. “Centrists” will strive to retain forms of credal orthodoxy. Progressives will embrace more fluid theologies.
Progressives start from a stronger position organizationally. They control the Western Jurisdiction, plus the New England, New York and Northern Illinois Conferences, with about 600,000 members, or nearly 10% of USA membership of 6.7 million. Their congregations, many of them urban, are often theologically and politically homogenous. (It should be noted that many congregations and individuals in these areas disagree with their liberal governance.)
“Centrists” in America may be more numerous than progressives but they are politically weaker, not controlling geographic areas, and typically having mixed congregations. Often “centrists” are left-leaning clergy in red states, typically in suburbs, who still have conservative parishioners. More defused across the nation, their construction of a new “centrist” denomination will be more difficult. They will also suffer more divided congregations.
But the cultural differences between “centrists” and progressives will require separate denominations. And ultimately, if not initially, these groups, especially the progressives, may fracture further, as identity politics impair sustainable institutional cohesion.
The initial two new liberal Methodist denominations will separate from global United Methodism on generous terms. Congregations will retain properties. Departing conferences will leave with their institutional assets. General denominational assets, perhaps now totaling over $400 million, could be divided according to population percentages. A new entity taking 10% of church membership could merit $40 million in assets, for example.
Nearly all of United Methodism’s 13 official seminaries have already made clear they cannot abide the church’s marriage teaching. So nearly all of them will align with the new liberal denominations. Some of these schools ultimately will close or merge.
Most of United Methodism’s general agencies likely will dissolve, their assets reallocated. But larger agencies with ample assets, like the General Board of Global Ministries, may become autonomous and serve individual congregations contractually. The controversial General Board of Church and Society could dissolve or transfer to the liberal denominations. But the historic Methodist Building on Capitol Hill will remain with the global church.
This great sorting out will be painful and destructive for many local churches with divided congregations. Some will not survive and others will be crippled. More clergy will want to join the new liberal denominations than there are congregations to support them. The drama will unfold across many years.
As I told the bishops last week, a strong majority in the U.S. church will remain with Africa and other traditionalists internationally as part of growing global United Methodism. There are great days ahead for classic Wesleyan beliefs, maybe the most momentous since Methodism’s earliest revivals. God has honored us by entrusting this responsibility to us during this time.