Recently I participated in a gathering hosted by three United Methodist bishops for dialogue among conservatives, liberals and self-identified centrists. Our topic was the impending division of the United Methodist Church. The day-long conversation was off record, but you can read the United Methodist News Service report, which includes my quote:
Tooley said he has opposed division and for 30 years has worked for a “vision of denominational revival.”
“I now admit division is inevitable,” he said. “It will happen of itself, chaotically. Or it will happen through negotiation and some leadership. The latter seems preferable.”
After the meeting, which was in Chicago July 19, a clergyman tweeted: “United Methodism held it’s own Yalta Conference in Chicago this week. I just hope we don’t get too bogged down in attempting to label the various attendants Chamberlain, Roosevelt, or Stalin. #umc”
Initially I laughed out loud in response to this wonderful absurdity. (Of course Churchill, not Chamberlain, attended Yalta.) But this tweet maybe was more insightful than I initially realized. United Methodism will tragically divide, as Europe was divided by the Iron Curtain after WWII. This division results from tragic necessity and shouldn’t be celebrated. But God is sovereign and His Gospel will prevail even in adversity.
In the UMNS story, a “centrist” participant who favors liberalizing United Methodism faults evangelicals for dividing the church, insisting “progressives, centrists, and central conferences want to stay together.” But liberal dissenters as a minority have loudly proclaimed their refusal to live under the continuously reaffirmed official teachings of the church, ensuring schism between themselves and the traditionalist global majority.
Five of seven conferences in the liberal Western Jurisdiction voted this Spring to consider separation from United Methodism. Several other liberal conferences elsewhere approved similar moves. The schism has begun, led by the liberal side of the church. When heterodoxy displaces orthodoxy, schism usually results.
We should pray that United Methodism’s institutional schism between liberals and traditionalists is negotiated relatively amicably, with a fair division of assets, maximum laity participation, and minimal disruption to most local churches. But even in a best case scenario there will be acrimony in thousands of congregations.
The new liberal denomination will follow the path of decline universally true for liberal Protestant denominations around the world. But the new conservative church should not assume growth in the USA just because it is formally orthodox. Orthodoxy is a requirement for sustainable church growth and vitality but it’s no guarantee. There are plenty of declining and dying orthodox denominations and congregations.
To help avoid their fate, we who are orthodox must ponder how we failed, despite the opportunities God allowed us, to revitalize all of United Methodism and avoid division. Could we have worked and prayed harder for renewal? Could we have loved our adversaries more? Did we sincerely seek transformation for them and for ourselves?
We who are orthodox can’t just blame liberals for United Methodism’s division. This schism is a divine judgment on us all. We all have failed in His sight. Yet God has preserved us and preserved Methodism, however fractured, despite ourselves. He graciously has good plans for the future of His church and for us.
Let’s pray that the new liberal Methodist church, and that all liberal denominations, will, in God’s own time, under a new generation of leadership, rediscover the glories of Christian orthodoxy, inseparably in doctrine and ethics.
And let’s pray that the new traditional Methodist denomination will learn from the past, cleave to orthodoxy and the universal church, while rejoicing in the chief task of evangelizing new disciples for the Kingdom.
Methodism must endure our own Yalta of tragic but unavoidable division. We have brought it on ourselves. Yalta of 1945 divided Europe for 45 years but occupation and dictatorship eventually collapsed. Methodist division will also not be permanent. Sound doctrine based on the Eternal Word will prevail in the end to the benefit of all. We should strive to be faithful until that day.