United Methodists and much of the media have been abuzz in this new year around a high-profile, carefully negotiated proposal that would end our denomination’s decades of theological infighting through separation into two or more denominations.
Lots of questions remain about details.
Will liberal United Methodists really, actually insist on sticking to their guns of adamantly refusing to follow our Lord’s Golden Rule of treating others as they would want to be treated? Will they really keep demanding that votes be blatantly “rigged” so that their side would “win” any annual conference currently subject to the traditional biblical standards of the United Methodist Discipline if a mere 44 percent minority vote for such a liberal take-over, while shamelessly imposing a double standard of traditionalist believers needing to muster a 57 percent super-majority just to stick with the same doctrinal and moral standards we have already had?
How can someone really keep a straight face, in loudly professing to follow Jesus Christ while stubbornly insisting upon disregarding one of His most core teachings?
How can those bishops who have already broken so much trust be trusted to act with honesty, fairness, and integrity in managing the transition and sorting processes?
These and other very important question will need to be addressed in the days ahead.
In the end, it is guaranteed that what ultimately comes out of the May 5-15, 2020 will not be ideal in anyone’s eyes.
But the bottom line is that it is now increasingly likely that by May 15, one way or another, we will find ourselves in a situation in which the current denomination now known as the United Methodist Church will evolve into at least two new denominations: one whose moral standards and underlying theology would allow a more permissive approach to same-sex union ceremonies and clergy being sexually active outside of monogamous, heterosexual marriage, and one that would continue the same basic doctrinal and moral standards of the current United Methodist Church.
(I and others have extensively argued that the UMC’s standard that sex is only for monogamous, heterosexual marriage did not begin in 1972, but were already essentially embedded in our denomination’s historic, core, constitutionally protected Doctrinal Standards. No one has been able to seriously dispute this.)
Each annual conference and congregation will then have a choice to make – will we remain with this group of United Methodists, or this other one? Choosing to let someone else make that choice for you, or choosing to passively default into one or the other, is still a choice.
The rhetoric many use in framing some choices as “leaving the United Methodist Church” is misleading and should be avoided as much as possible.
The reality is that in any of the likely scenarios for separation, pieces of our denomination – as well as conferences, congregations, and people – will be divided, with some continuing with one of the new denominations and some continuing with the other.
At the risk of over-simplifying, one denomination is likely to end up with most of our current denomination’s hierarchy of general agencies while abandoning much of our current denomination’s doctrinal and moral standards. The other denomination will be the other way around: abandoning most of the bureaucracy while keeping our doctrinal and moral standards. This reflects fundamental differences in the priorities and values of different factions within the current UMC.
No matter which denomination you end up within, going with one or the other WILL separate you from much of the rest of the United Methodist Church as we have known it.
The end of our denomination as we know it is an occasion for sadness, and will take time for all of us to process and grieve.
Whatever may happen in terms of names and media narratives, the reality will be that the post-General Conference 2020 denominations will be fundamentally new and distinct from the current UMC. The United Methodist Church as we now know it – the whole packaged deal of the current structure, doctrine, moral standards, denominational culture, internal divisions, and people – will be no more, and two (or perhaps more) new denomination will be born in its place, each inheriting different parts of the old denomination from which they grew.
Each denomination can be expected to move in dramatically different directions, suddenly unhindered by internal resistance from those United Methodists who would now be in the other denomination. It is now widely agreed that differences over sexuality are merely the presenting issue from far more fundamental disagreements. I would expect that rather quickly, some of the most prominent differences between the new denominations would be over matters entirely separate from sexuality, such as the size of the denominational bureaucracy, or which denomination supports bishops in publicly teaching that Jesus Christ needed to be converted out of his sinful “bigotries and prejudices” (and which denomination does not).
Leaders in annual conferences and congregations need to be prepared to discern the choices before them, and decide which alignment and affiliation would be most faithful to the Gospel as they understand it.
Rather than talk about “leaving” something that we will no longer actually have, the choice should be understood in terms of continuing. As our conference / congregation continues our ministry, do we want to continue our ministry in closer alignment with this one group of United Methodists with one package of beliefs, values, and structure, or with this other group of United Methodists with a package of different beliefs, values, and structure?
May God grant us grace and wisdom as we all seek to discern and choose wisely.