Before its impending split, the United Methodist Church (UMC) has already evolved into seven distinct “churches.” The following is adapted from an academic journal article submitted recently published in The Asbury Journal: Lomperis, John (2021) “The Seven Churches of United Methodism, Revisited,” The Asbury Theological Journal: Vol. 76: No. 1, p. 82-108. This was offered as a sort of update of the famous 1985 “The Seven Churches of Methodism” study by Robert L. Wilson and William Willimon. The full journal article can be read here.
As the United Methodist Church prepares for a major split, a review of the key divisions that already exist is worthwhile.
The Preamble of the widely supported “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation” very explicitly envisions that one denomination emerging from the split, the “post-separation United Methodist Church” (psUMC) would liberalize church law to authorize same-sex weddings, in contrast to the emerging denomination to continue the UMC’s historic doctrinal and moral standards, now called the Global Methodist Church. The Protocol Preamble also acknowledges that these differences are related to more fundamental differences over contrasting theologies and approaches to Scripture.
But the realities of current United Methodist divisions are more complicated than a simple two-way division. It is more accurate to think in terms of how the UMC has become divided into seven main sub-churches, each with its own nuances and internal sub-divisions but also distinct overall features setting them apart from the other six. Importantly, for each of these “churches,” the constituency is far broader than those who strongly support, feel represented by, or are even terribly familiar with their faction’s identifiable leaders.
As some prepare to shape the psUMC, others prepare to shape the Global Methodist Church, and all sorts of United Methodists try to figure out this interim period, we would all do well to try to better understand each of the UMC’s seven “churches,” including the histories and nuances of United Methodists outside of the United States.
Church #1: American Traditionalists
American traditionalists are fundamentally united by their primary values of a high view of the authority of Scripture, and the urgent importance they see in salvation through Jesus Christ alone. Leadership has been provided by the Renewal and Reform Coalition of renewal caucuses, including UM Action. Members of this “church” want their denomination to continue banning clergy sexual behavior outside of monogamous, heterosexual marriage, seeing this as a derivative commitment of their primary values. They see this moral stance as a matter of authentically loving all people, including their family members and loved ones in the LGBTQ community, and they deeply resent accusations to the contrary. This “church’s” experience with congregational growth and relationship to the UMC’s bureaucratic establishment has often differed starkly from that of other “churches.” American Traditionalists include important internal diversities, including a much-greater range of opinions on American politics than some outsiders imagine.
Church #2: The Genuine Methodist Middle of America
This is perhaps the least understood “church.” After all, it is the only one with no organized caucus or clear, representative leadership. It is very different, and much less liberal, than the caucuses and leaders now loudly touting the “centrist” label.
But there are many American United Methodists whose theological views are truly somewhere in the middle of the denomination’s divides, with the details varying widely between individual members. They are deeply uncomfortable with the packaged-deal stances of the caucuses of the other U.S. sub-churches. For some this is a transitional phase before evolving into one of the other groups listed here. But it would be a mistake to take the relative silence of this “church” in denominational debates as signaling that it can be ignored.
Church #3: Institutionalist Liberals
This American sub-church is defined by (1) a strong desire to liberalize church standards on sexual morality, (2) key theological shifts needed to support this stance, and (3) loyalty to the institutional trappings of the United Methodist Church as we have known it. The “four commitments” of the UMC Next caucus capture uniting core values of the members of this “church.”
Leadership is provided by denominational agency officials and the majority of American bishops as well as leaders from older liberal-caucus circles and all of the newer caucuses describing themselves as “centrist.” When we consider the particular history of how the term “centrist” was first widely introduced into denominational discourse, the realities of extremely liberal individuals claiming the “centrist” label when it seems politically convenient, and the differences with the Genuine American Methodist Middle (Church #2 above), the cause of accuracy would probably be greatly served by retiring all use of the word “centrist.” Revealingly, in the Mediation Team that developed the Protocol, the two leaders initially selected to represent “the centrists” and the two initially selected to represent supposedly distinct “progressives” were all members of the Convening Team of Adam Hamilton’s UMC Next caucus, with a common legislative agenda.
Leaders and activists of both this “church” and American Traditionalists (Church #1) have often defined themselves in opposition to each other. Members of this “church” have chosen to put aside their differences on other issues for the greater priority they see in making common cause against traditionalists. But what will happen after separation? We have already seen early signs of some of the intra-liberal divisions that may shape the psUMC.
Church #4: Liberationist Progressives
The self-described “liberationist” faction in America is sometimes given disproportionate attention. It merits listing as its own sub-church primarily due to the talk of some of its members forming a third denomination. Its members are less attached to the UMC’s institutional trappings than institutionalist liberals, whom liberationists sometimes accuse of such sins as valuing the denominational establishment over full LGBTQ+ liberation.
Leadership had primarily been provided by the UM-Forward caucus, but more recently a division has become formalized in the emergence of two new liberationist groups, the Liberation Project and the Liberation Methodist Connexion. There are strong reasons, based on present facts and some inherent limits, to be skeptical of the latter’s rhetoric about forming its own denomination. But then again, if the next General Conference fails to liberalize sexuality standards or enact a separation agreement, then some current institutionalist liberals may get frustrated enough to join some liberationists in forming a liberal split-off denomination.
Church #5: Sub-Saharan Africa
It is dangerous to make generalizations about over 6 million church members, spread across so vast an area, with so long a history. But some broad outlines can be carefully observed. The internal leadership culture as well as the wider social and religious contexts of this sub-church can be starkly different from those faced by United Methodists in the other sub-churches. One key factor is an often-extreme level of financial dependence on international partners. Although Africans remain extremely under-represented in denominational leadership, United Methodists here have in recent years experienced extraordinary growth and become increasingly vocal. This sub-church tends to fervently cherish its United Methodist identity and the cross-and-flame logo, in contrast to how some American congregations, across the theological spectrum, have consciously distanced themselves from denominational branding.
African United Methodists are overwhelmingly theologically traditionalist, with a high view of Scripture, strong commitment to evangelism, and near-unanimity in disapproving of homosexual practice. There are some exceptions, which should be neither ignored nor exaggerated. American traditionalists should take care to avoid any sort of “romantic racism” about this sub-church. Furthermore, as the denomination approaches schism, one prominent African leader has reported that “some influential African bishops, who are in support or sympathetic to this progressive sexual ethic,” are seeking to bring African United Methodism into the more liberal denomination that will allow same-sex weddings in at least some of its regions.
Church #6: The Philippines
The Philippines Central Conference is much smaller, with three active bishops and slightly more than 200,000 members. It faces distinct challenges finding its place within its nation’s wider religious landscape. Filipino United Methodists have done impressive work planting congregations in other nations, including in the Islamic Middle East, among overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs). This central conference’s particular traditions of having every bishop run for re-election and replacing General Conference delegates every four years have fostered some unique challenges. Talk of “schism” is particularly loaded for Filipino United Methodists given some of their own history.
Theologically, a strong super-majority of Filipino United Methodists are traditionalist. However, in contrast to Africa, there is a more sizable and sometimes vocal theologically liberal minority.
Church #7: The Central Conferences of Europe
Stretched across some 30 nations, today this region only counts slightly more than 50,000 members, a number which has been trending downward. Interestingly, Europe’s history of church-state relations is such that in some countries, the UMC actually receives direct financial support from the government (see here for a couple of examples).
Internal divisions here have often been generalized in terms of the Western nations having greater wealth as well as theological liberalism, and the Eastern nations often facing serious government repression and financial dependencies. There is much truth to this, but the reality is more complicated.
It would be a mistake to neatly equate theologically liberal factions in Europe with those in the United States. The real theological divisions that exist here have been less polarizing than in America. Among other things, at least much of this region has not had the same experience as Americans of liberal clergy publicly defying the denomination’s bans on same-sex weddings.
I strongly encourage reading the full article in The Asbury Journal to get a fuller picture of each of these seven churches of the UMC as well as the wider context and history in which these divisions have developed.