What Can We Learn from the United Methodist Split?
by Larry Downing | 09 April 2020 |
A January 3, 2020, Washington Post headline informed members of the United Methodist Church (UMC), and the public, that one of America’s premier denominations was about to enter uncharted territory. Not since the earliest days in England, when Charles and John Wesley met in the homes of their followers to provide instruction in how to implement their spirituality methods, have the Methodists faced such a traumatic situation.
The issues that led to the denominational fracture had long generated heated discussions among denominational administrators and parish members. On one side of the discussion are traditionalist Methodists. This group does not sanction gay marriage or accept gay clergy. The liberal branch of the church allows gay marriage and accepts LGBT+ clergy. The articles report that the proposed split into two denominations has generated a strong response from some, while from others the response has been relief.
The Post quotes Bishop Kenneth Carter, president of the church’s Council of Bishops and one of the formulators of the new plan: “I’ve always been committed to unity. But over time, it could not be unity at someone’s expense.”
The article continues,
The split is ‘a resolution that’s going to free the Methodist church to share love unconditionally with all people,’ said Andrew Ponder Williams, a married gay candidate for the clergy who was a member of earlier committees that attempted to resolve the issue.
The conservative wing of the church added its affirmation to the plan. Rev. Thomas A. Lambrecht, vice president of the conservative Methodist organization Good News, is quoted:
We believed that separation was the only feasible way of resolving our conflict in the church and allowing different groups in the church to pursue ministry as they believe coincides with their understanding of the Christian faith.
The San Luis Obispo, California Tribune published a similar report, as well as an interview with the pastor of the San Luis Obispo (SLO) Methodist church. Methodists have been in this community since the 1800s, but last spring, when the UMC voted to restrict marriage to heterosexual couples only and denied ordination to LGBT+ clergy, there were SLO Methodists who were prepared to split from the church.
Angst and disappointment, however, turned to optimism when a group of bishops and church leaders worked out an agreement that will result in the traditionalists maintaining their practices, and the more liberal venturing forth on their own. Rev. Rick Uhs, a pastor of the San Luis Obispo UMC, says, “Just speaking personally, this is the first really hopeful thing I’ve seen going from (UMC) leadership. If it is able to be legislated and approved, it may actually be the road to finally putting behind us this issue of human sexuality, which is tearing (the church) apart.” (SLO Tribune, Jan 12, 2020, p. 1)
The Tribune article reported that the mediation of 16 stakeholders, composed of bishops and other UMC church leaders meeting in Washington, D. C., produced a nine-page non-binding “Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation” document. The intent of their decision is to “preserve the United Methodist Church while allowing traditionalist-minded congregations to form a new denomination.”
The agreement, according to various published accounts, allocated $25 million in UMC funds to the new traditionalist group which will break away from the denomination. In addition, the breakaway group would forgo any claim to church assets and agencies. The agreement is subject to approval by the 2020 General Conference scheduled to meet May 5-15, 2020, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which body represents the 13 million-member UMC denomination.
New York Conference Bishop Thomas Bickerton, a participant who helped produce the proposal, referenced a contentious 2019 General Conference meeting that adopted what is termed the Traditional Plan that continues the ban on gay clergy and officiating at or hosting same-sex marriage by a vote of 438 to 384. A report of this meeting can be accessed on-line under “2019 General Conference Passes Traditional Plan.”
Bishop Bickerton acknowledged that the specially called 2019 St. Louis General Conference brought to a head the intensifying divisions within the UMC denomination and the importance for creating an amicable separation.
“It became clear that the line in the sand had turned into a canyon,’ Bickerton said. “The impasse is such that we have come to the realization that we just can’t stay that way any longer.” …“This protocol provides a pathway that acknowledges our differences, respects everyone in the process and graciously allows us to continue to live out the mission for making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, albeit in different expressions.” (ibid.)
The UMC plan is to restructure the remaining global denomination into regions that will have the flexibility to adapt church policies to fit their situation and needs, including the inclusion of LGBT+ individuals.
Members of a new denomination, not yet named, have the liberty to implement what they see as biblically supported restrictions on same-sex marriage, and ordination of gay persons as clergy.
The Wesleyan Covenant Association has already prepared the way for forming a new denomination and has drafted a book of policies and doctrines. Bickerton and Rev. Keith Boyette, WCA president and a member of the negotiating team, said, “The negotiating team’s assumption is that the new church would emerge out of the WCA.” Boyette joined others in stating that the division in the UMC is irreparable and that an amicable separation is the best solution. “‘I believe this is a fair and equitable solution that puts decades of conflict behind us and gives us a hopeful future.” (Ibid.)
UMC leadership recognizes and supports the possibilities that congregations may form their own denominations, or join with other groups.
Disagreements that have led to splits have not been uncommon within the Christian community. From earliest times there are records of disagreements that led to separation. Judah and Benjamin split off to form the Kingdom of Judah. Jacob and Esau went their separate ways. Paul and Mark had a disagreement that altered their relationship. The Eastern church split off from the Roman Catholic church. The Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal and other denominations have experienced major disagreements that led to one or more groups going their own way.
The Roman Catholic church is in a debate over whether, in certain circumstances, married men can be ordained to the priesthood. Pope Francis has been said to support such a change; Pope Emeritus Benedict has been quoted as in opposition to married clergy. Should Pope Francis approve married clergy, would this decision initiate a break-away church? Time will tell.
In the 1800s many abandoned their relationship with various communions to establish the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. A significant number of these individuals, including founder Ellen Harmon White, came out of the Methodist church.
Since then, we Adventists have had our share of disagreements. We have argued over polity, debated doctrine, and gone to the mat on whether to ordain women elders.
Some have left the Adventist denomination to form their own independent congregations. Others have left to form independent denominations. In the 19th century some Adventists left the church to form the Church of God Seventh-Day. In the 20th century a European Adventist group birthed the Seventh-day Adventist Reform Movement which now has congregations and local conferences around the world. These denominations have fewer members than the mother church, but they do exist.
Could It Happen Here?
The issue within today’s Adventist denomination that has potential to split the denomination is the ordination of women pastors. The conflict has all the criteria that portend a denominational fracture.
- A lack of a biblical mandate that forbids the ordination of women clergy. Absent scriptural authority, we are left to our own devices to establish and implement policy.
- An appeal to heritage: “It has not been our tradition.” “Women in spiritual leadership goes against our customs.”
- A challenge to authority figures. The anxiety of those who occupy denominational positions filters down to members in the pews. Women in leadership positions are a not-so-subtle threat to what has been an exclusive male fraternity. We don’t like threat and are unsure what our future might hold if women were to be our boss.
In significant ways, women are more effective in the parish than we men are. Women are the majority in most congregations. Women teach our children. The loss of income generated by women would have a serious negative impact on the entire denomination should women hold back their tithes and offerings.
Consider the impact on the denomination should women actually accept that men are to be the only spiritual leaders. The logical path is that the women would resign from all church offices. Donating tithes and offerings is a spiritual exercise; they would cease their contributions. Anyone who studies the gender makeup of the Adventist church is aware that women keep the parish wheels on the ground and turning! If, to express their desire to have women ordained to the gospel ministry, women removed themselves from parish responsibilities, the present ordination policy would be amended, and soon.
It is unlikely that women will resign from their church offices. However, the question remains, does the matter of whether or not to ordain women to the pastoral ministry present a realistic threat to church unity? I believe the answer is yes. Why? Because of intransigence and fear.
When we look to Ellen White for guidance, she did not foresee a fractured church. In Acts of the Apostles (589-602) she describes the church triumphant, a church that endures and holds firm God’s truth to the end. What explicit form that church will take is not addressed. In The Great Controversy (626), White states that in the end time the remnant will take refuge in the mountains. There is no place in these descriptions of end time events for the Adventist bureaucratic structure as it now exists. Committee action or General Conference approval to escape those who seek harm is not part of the equation when the saints take refuge in a remote and isolated place.
Before that escape to safety, is there a realistic threat of denominational fracture? To those who reject such a possibility, consider the most improbable split the universe has ever witnessed: Satan, the Accuser, along with one-third of the angels, split away from the majority to establish an alternative kingdom. If heavenly beings found cause to split off from the One who gives life, is any group exempt from such possibility?
What Could Split Us?
Matters other than women’s ordination bring unrest among some church members. The list includes
- Creation—long or short chronology
- The historicity of Genesis 1-11
- The interpretation of Daniel 8:14
- The investigative judgment
- The authority and application of Ellen White’s writings
- Various issues in biblical hermeneutics
- The interpretation of eschatological biblical passages
- The use of tithe
- Headship theology
- The acceptance of the LGTBQ community
- Other social and theological issues.
The news that the leadership of the United Methodist Church has chosen to confirm the divide that generated endless turmoil has implications for our denomination. Traditionalists and the progressives are at loggerheads.
It is instructive to note the differences that exist between the UMC and our denomination. Our denomination has a more complex structure that would present near insurmountable obstacles should there be a split. Our educational and health institutions are integral to our mission. These are but a few of the significant challenges, both moral and legal, that lurk, not far in the background, should the denomination fracture. Into the mix, the threat of endless court battles.
Is it our fate to perpetuate hurtful battles over who will come out on top in the debate over women’s ordination and other internecine conflicts? Alternative possibilities include an administrative structure similar to that of the North American Division (NAD) regional conferences. In 1944 the General Conference (GC) executive committee, in response to pressure from African-American leaders and members, voted to implement this model. This new entity was established to accommodate those of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Regional conferences are part of the North American Division but do have unique practices—for example, the Regional Conferences do not participate in the General Conference retirement plan.
New Regional Conferences?
Churches within the North American Division could form, under existing General Conference policy, a “Union of Churches.” An organizational like this, or one similar, would have the authority to ordain pastors and take other actions as deemed necessary to maintain a functional entity.
Should actions and attitudes lead to a denominational fracture, the fault lines will have been drawn by those who occupy administrative positions. Splits, whether among people or within organizations, occur when one or both parties holds to a non-negotiable attitude. Frequently the call to hold to principle is based more on “I want it my way and if you don’t like it, there’s the highway” than on empirical evidence.
Voices within the Adventist hierarchy, beginning with GC president Ted Wilson, have ridiculed, isolated and demeaned denominational colleagues who have ordained women. The conferences that ordain women Wilson labels as rebellious and a threat to church unity. Individuals who approve, participate or receive ordination are categorized as rebels. If GC leaders continue this behavior, a time may come when someone says, “Enough is enough. We are tired of the threats, the bickering, the expenditure of funds to promote a cause we believe is unethical and immoral. We will form our own organization that holds to our traditional beliefs, but affirms the acceptance of all people, irrespective of gender or sexual orientation.”
Many of us would find this an unsatisfactory end to the matters that now disturb our church. There is a better way and our challenge is to find that way. If we continue in the decade ahead as we have in the decade past, the United Methodists have provided a model to ameliorate the disturbances. This is not the ideal conclusion to the whole matter! It is our opportunity to implement the motto many of our congregations display: An House of Prayer for All People. If our denomination practiced this motto it would go far to decrease the tensions many of our members feel. We can choose to eschew practices that lead toward negative outcomes. The choice is ours to reform attitudes and policies that alienate and demean. We can learn to accept individuals we have marginalized and abandoned.
Not every person will be able to accept this change; they are free to move another direction. Will the church survive should this fundamental change occur? No one can say. What can be said, to paraphrase a church leader from ancient times: if it is of the Lord it will succeed. If it is not, failure awaits. What we do know is that many people, especially among those under 40 years of age, believe the present system is in failure mode. Denominational leaders can continue to expend energy and resources to maintain current policy that divide us, or they can celebrate that where there is life there is change. We have the ability to choose life.
Bold leaders will demonstrate courage and, with visionary insight, support the inclusiveness of God’s grand kingdom. I urge you to implement existing denominational policies that affirm the equality of all people. Our official statements of belief allow no room for those who hold to the brief that certain people are more equal than others. No! Our Lord’s life-example was one of welcome to all, with emphasis on extending a welcome to those the seventh-day Sabbath keepers of his day rejected. There’s a lesson embedded in that.
Lawrence Downing, D.Min, is a retired pastor who has served as an adjunct instructor at La Sierra University School of Business and the School of Religion, and the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies in the Philippines.