Whether you are a newcomer to United Methodism, a longtime member, or a passerby looking askance, these days it is obvious there is a lot of controversy going on in The United Methodist Church.
The following are ~1000 word attempts to describe the current state of The UMC in a succinct manner that admittedly over-simplifies things with broad brush strokes. Nonetheless, it will be a useful set of primers for people to enter the conversation. Think of these as the Ghosts of Methodism Past, Present, and Future, and this article on the Present is sobering indeed.
- The Past: Power & Polity versus People & Places (LINK)
- The Present: In the Meantime and the Mean Time (LINK)
- The Future: Avoiding the Fundamentalist Future Set Before Both Sides (Today!)
Which Future do we seek?
While the above image looks like the history of The UMC’s schisms and mergers, it’s actually from the Disney+ Marvel show Loki, a show that involves time travel: whenever someone goes back in time and changes something, it can create a “variant” branch (variant is a poor choice of words amidst today’s COVID variants but it’s their terms) from the timeline like the image above. Keeping variant futures from causing trouble for the preferred future sets up the major conflict in the show.
Both progressive and traditionalist elements in United Methodism are trying to keep variants and variables out of their preferred futures:
- Traditionalists are trying to avoid the fate of other mainline schismatic movements before them by starting out with money and property that would allow them to shape culture through people power and political influence like fundamentalist influences outside of the Wesleyan tradition. The GMC and the Protocol are their last, best hope.
- Progressives are trying to avoid the fate of other sister mainline denominations that turned into smaller, like-minded traditions–that continue to affect change and grow disciples, to be sure, but no longer shape culture through people power and political influence. A more inclusive and just United Methodism continues to be that preferred future for most.
Each side is trying to achieve their preferred future: the WCA by getting an infusion of cash, and the progressives by aligning the mission and institution movements together. Let’s outline a few considerations then see what could lead us to the best future together.
The Problem: the Biggest Whopper the WCA ever told
Longtime readers know I’ve been following the Wesleyan Covenant Association for a long time, chronicling their rise at a level unmatched by other bloggers. So when I say I found the biggest whopper they’ve ever said, trust me it’s true. See the screenshot?
The above quote by Rev. Thomas Lambrecht of the Good News movement—that traditionalists want the UMC to be “set up to succeed, rather than fail”—is in stark contrast with the 2004 strategy document that Rev. Lambrecht himself penned that details why Traditionalists ought not leave a “strong” UMC behind. This document also provided the baseline for their successful strategy at the 2019 General Conference, which backfired spectacularly and would have ran them out of options except the coronavirus happened (see analysis here).
In every corner of traditionalists online, it is anathema to the Traditionalists to give The UMC anything to stand on. The house must be gutted before it is sold in the divorce. The libs must be owned.
We see this has played out in the Protocol because traditionalists refuse to allow The UMC to restructure to become its best self. The disappearing act of brokered and agreed-upon regionalization from the published protocol is the best gift the authors could have given to the traditionalists: though supported behind closed doors, it didn’t make the public face and therefore doesn’t have to now be supported by traditionalists to pass the Protocol.
Traditionalists have looked to the future and repeatedly said they will not vote for anything that violates their values other than the Protocol. Even UMC structural changes like the Christmas Covenant (that says nothing about LGBTQ+ inclusion) are not supported. By their documented actions, they have no interest in allowing United Methodism to be “set up to succeed” in any form–only that their bank account has $25 million in it when they go to cash the check.
Traditionalist obstinance to voting for something they object to–but won’t have to live with–is notable because they are asking progressives to do the very thing they object to.
Progressives are being asked to vote for a Protocol that gives $25 million dollars to fund ecclesial abuse of LGBTQ+ persons for years to come. But almost worse than that is progressives have a troubled path ahead because the Protocol won’t actually create anything new for them. Many progressives may be okay getting with a Traditionalist exit via the Protocol (even though that would leave the gay children of Traditionalists more vulnerable and with less support), but their exodus doesn’t mean full inclusion is achievable—indeed, the opposite.
If the voting and decision structure stays the same, progressives will still not have a majority vote globally, leaving us in the same situation as before, just $25 million dollars spent for no effect. But progressives will still be able to carve out inclusive spaces like previous decades. The denomination will not be set up or reformed in any way to be more inclusive unless there is regionalization like the Christmas Covenant included in any such reform.
Two variants ahead
If the WCA wants to put their votes and money where their mouth is, then they’ll need to publicly support one of two efforts:
- The best scenario out of this is a compromise: passage of the Protocol linked with regionalization (the Alaska Omnibus is an example). This would mean the Traditionalists get their money, and America would be able to create their own polity that is not up for a vote by regions outside the USA—and vice versa. No tricks or “vote for this and we’ll vote for that” shenanigans. That would put both GMC and UMC on their best possible ground for their future: a unity in uniformity for the GMC, and a unity in diversity for the UMC.
- The second effort is “A Call to Grace” (recently affirmed by the North Central Jurisdictional conference), that calls for bishops to allow churches to leave without financial penalty beyond pension obligation. While this would open the floodgates to a ton of churches leaving without serious financial penalty and create a church-by-church strategy for the GMC, it’s a best case scenario for both sides that simply want movement somewhere rather than waiting to 2024. I’m not supporting it right now–just naming it as a viable effort.
Compromising and allowing the UMC to become their best self is likely supported by rank-and-file conservatives–and recent polls indicate a larger-than-expected share of “Compatibilists” in the UMC. But the traditionalist-elected—and paid—leadership strongly oppose it. So it remains to be seen if a reasonable compromise will come forth.
The future is in doubt. Two antagonistic sides can leave and restructure at the same time. The Reformed Church of America recently approved congregations to disaffiliate alongside church restructuring. But The United Methodist Church is stuck without a way to the preferred future because of the ghosts of its recent and distant past (see previous articles on this series).
As much as I hate to say it, the future depends on conservatives and traditionalists breaking open the hard hearts of their leaders and allowing a true “set up to succeed, not to fail” future to come forth. Progressives will continue to be the minority in any future, so we keep on doing the hard work of transforming minds and shaping sanctuaries for the oppressed and cast out.
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Addendum: One leftover problem is what to do about the bishops. Since the delay of the 2020 General Conference to 2022, the United Methodist Bishops have withheld the ability to gather to elect new bishops from the duly elected representatives. A few years ago, I would have said this is a very convenient way to keep the progressive wave from electing a new slate of uniformly-progressive bishops, much like Congress denying the vote on a Supreme Court justice. But today, well, I’ll still say it is true for some bishops, but the collective purpose is to streamline the number of bishops so the next iteration of Methodism doesn’t do away with the institution of the episcopacy entirely (or neuter them like in the GMC), and so the current bishops will have more authority–at the cost of new, vibrant leadership at agencies and the episcopacy. This will be a longer term, structural problem to fix.