UM Voices is a forum for different voices within the United Methodist Church on pressing issues of denominational concern. UM Voices contributors represent only themselves and not IRD/UMAction.
This is the first of two articles offering different perspectives on the new “Protocol” proposal to divide the United Methodist Church. You can read the second one here. Rev. Teddy Ray is the founding pastor of the Offerings Community of First United Methodist Church in Lexington, KY, where he also serves as the Pastor of New Communities and Leadership Development.
Under the proposed Protocol, among other proposals, The United Methodist Church is about to cease to exist. Though the name, logo, and agencies may remain, they won’t represent the same denomination that has existed for fifty years. That denomination is dissolving and giving birth to new denominations.
This is sad. The UMC has done a lot of good work in our world. Millions of people have become Christians, been nurtured in the faith, and reached out to others through this denomination.
It could also be hopeful. Don’t view this simply as a schism or dissolution. Also see in it a new birth for at least two denominations. As much as we lament church separations, we can also acknowledge that they are a standard part of Protestant history. And we can celebrate that the Methodists, the Baptists, the Presbyterians, and so on, have all done a lot of good things in the world through their unique contributions.
Whatever it is, it’s necessary. Since the UMC’s inception, we’ve been united by organizational structures, not theology. Dale Coulter’s excellent article on the Methodist experiment’s failure details the problems with this. A church united by structures and not by theological and moral substance is doomed to failure. Our beliefs and practices regarding same-sex marriage finally revealed this. It turns out that theology and morals do matter to virtually everyone in the UMC. And we hold theological and moral stances that are not merely at odds, but mutually exclusive. We have reached a breaking point.
We have (at least) two parties who have been sharing assets, and we’re about to stop sharing. Various proposals would divide those assets. In a divorce, these include things like the house, the cars, the dog, the kids, and the money. In an organizational dissolution, they include things like the name, the logo, the agencies, all of the local churches, and the money.
While many reports say traditionalists are leaving the UMC, and some proposals even frame it this way, that doesn’t represent our reality. Neither traditionalists nor progressives are “leaving.” What we had together is going away. Everyone now will have to choose. Will they become part of the new progressive Methodist denomination, the new traditionalist Methodist denomination, or perhaps some other option?
Depending on which proposal passes, one of these groups may retain the UMC name, logo, and agencies. One of them may be the default position for churches or conferences that don’t actively decide with which new denomination they’ll align. That would make it easier for that new denomination to frame this as a question of “leaving” or “staying.”
So far, most proposals have the progressives and institutionalists retaining most UMC assets. That can position them as the “remain” group and the traditionalists as the “leaving” group. Many ask why the traditionalists would leave, since they won the votes.
Traditionalists are a thin majority of General Conference delegates and the wide majority of United Methodist membership. So why would they give up most assets? And why would they craft proposals that give the appearance that the traditionalists are “leaving” and the progressives “staying”? One reason is that traditionalists seem more tired of the fight. While progressives have declared their resistance to ratified UMC legislation, more traditionalists have said they’re “tired of the struggle.” Like the spouse ready to move on, traditionalists seem ready to concede assets to end the fighting. It’s also important to remember that traditionalists are conceding what they never had: United Methodism’s bureaucracy.
United Methodism’s name and logo may remain, but they’ll represent a different institution. Though some group may be the “default” new denomination for conferences or local churches, you’ll still have to leave the current United Methodist Church to go there. Everyone will have to choose. Will you go to the new progressive Methodist denomination, the new traditionalist one, or something else?
For laity: The single issue of same-sex marriage has been raised to such a level that as a church member, you may feel that you must go to a church that aligns with your personal beliefs. I want to say clearly to you that you do not have to fully agree with your denomination to be a part of it. If any of a number of our church’s positions became the litmus test for whether you could participate, I expect something would eliminate nearly all of us. And the same would be likely in any other church, as well.
The position my church holds in common is that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. We put our full trust in His grace. That does not make any of our other positions unimportant. But none of them are first in importance.
For each of us, agreement with our church on a particular issue may be essential to our ongoing participation, and as a pastor, I’ll respect any church member who comes to that point on this or another issue. But as a pastor, I want to also assure my people that we will continue to love and welcome every person who is a part of our community, regardless of their position on this or any other matter.
For clergy: Choosing is different for clergy. The options set before us in a new progressive or traditionalist Methodist denomination are likely to be “you must” or “you must not.” In the progressive denomination, I expect clergy to hear “you must” perform same-sex marriages, ordain people in same-sex marriages, and affirm same-sex marriage in your teaching on sexuality. In the traditionalist denomination, I expect clergy to hear “you must not” for all of the above.
Though church members may be able to be part of a denomination with which they disagree, I don’t expect clergy to have that same luxury. You’ll have to be aligned with your denomination on this issue or risk violating conscience or covenant. That is a devastating reality for any pastors who love their local church or annual conference but may not be aligned with them on this one issue. I wish it were different, but I’m afraid it won’t be.