Noted retired liberal Methodist pastor Christy Thomas recently appeared on the Crackers and Grape Juice Podcast to talk about issues facing the liberal wing of the United Methodist Church (UMC) and possible solutions. This podcast is especially interesting for the positions that Thomas and the hosts take on these issues. The purpose of examining this podcast is to assess what liberal Methodist thought looks like at the current moment.
Thomas and the podcast hosts focused on three main topics in the May 31 broadcast. Is it possible for the UMC to divide itself into two or more denominations? And how can liberals and traditionalists coexist within the current system?
On the issue of a split in the UMC, Thomas seems to have reversed course somewhat. She previously talked of an inevitable split in the UMC, but seems less sure of it now. She contacted Dr. Bill Lawrence, former member of the Judicial Council and former Dean of Perkins School of Theology, to ask if a vote on dividing the UMC would itself be struck down as unconstitutional. The answer was a resounding, “I don’t know.” This constitutional problem is compounded by the problems of division and infighting already within the UMC which may doom any attempt at a formal separation from the outset.
The other major problem with a denominational split is property. The UMC, under its various boards and subdivisions, owns a substantial amount of property beyond local church facilities. Specifically mentioned facilities include: the Methodist Building on Capitol Hill, Southern Methodist University, American University, and Methodist Hospital in Houston among others. Furthermore, since all of these organizations are incorporated in different states and sometimes different countries, then a split would need to apportion property to the resultant denominations according to a litany of different state and national laws. Even if it was politically and constitutionally feasible, a schism in the UMC would take years to legally finalize if it was possible at all. To quote Thomas, a schism “could easily take us all down in a way that no one really wants to have happen.”
Since a formal schism would be difficult, their conversation turned to understanding how liberals and traditionalists could coexist in the UMC. Early in the conversation they hit upon the main issue that stops these two groups from coexisting. Liberals and traditionalists in the UMC have so internalized issues of sexuality that they believe that the church cannot remain the body of Christ while the other side still holds sway. Despite this, Thomas says that the best way forward right now would be for the liberals and the traditionalists to find a way to “live within the tension” and to go forward as a unified church body. However, she does not see a way for this to happen at the moment.
Furthermore, this attempt at reunification would be hampered by divisions that the hosts as well as Thomas see in their churches. One of the hosts commented that his church will take a vote to become a reconciling congregation in July. A reconciling congregation in the UMC context is a congregation that has publicly aligned itself with the Reconciling Ministries Network, a very liberal network of churches within the UMC. Thomas recalled a conversation in which someone said they attend a reconciling church and the average Sunday attendance had dropped by three-quarters because people are sick of all the divisions in the UMC right now. Finally, the other host said that, as a pastor, he will have to pay a fraction of his church’s apportionment because congregants are withholding their tithes due to the debate over sexuality.
In short, while liberals in the UMC may be less enthused about a schism in the UMC due to the inherent difficulties involved in it, as well as due to traditionalist control of General Conference for the foreseeable future, they have not backed away from their goal of LGBT affirmation. They are just as committed to their goals and ideology, but they now emphasize the necessity of understanding one another and trying to live within the differences of belief. However, they also understand that such a lofty goal may not be possible within the current political climate.