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In the summer of 2016, ­Karen Oliveto, a “self-avowed practicing homosexual,” was elected and consecrated a bishop and assigned to the Mountain Sky Area of the Western Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church. This is but one instance of the willful disregard for official church discipline in many parts of the church. The UMC prohibits clergy from performing or entering same-sex marriages, but whether or not this prohibition is enforced increasingly depends on the personal views of the presiding bishop in particular Annual Conferences (the Methodist equivalent of dioceses).

Oliveto’s election to the episcopacy epitomizes the profound tension that threatens to fracture the United Methodist Church. Unlike other mainline denominations, such as the Episcopal Church and the Pres­byterian Church (U.S.A.), the UMC still officially affirms the biblical and historic Christian understanding of marriage, despite repeated attempts to change this. Progressive United Methodists have been unable to change the church’s teaching because the UMC’s governing structure differs from those of its mainline siblings. The General Conference, the rule-setting body that governs the church’s affairs, includes representatives from other parts of the world. As a consequence, rapid changes in American culture have not resulted in a revolution in the church’s sexual ethics.

As progressives failed to change the UMC through proper legislative channels, many regions of the United Methodist Church have responded with a strategy of nullification. Although traditional standards of church discipline on sexual morality have been upheld by the General Conferences in recent years, the majority of bishops in the United States have been unwilling to rebuke willful violations.

The result has been division and rancor. United Methodists who support the current teaching of the UMC, which prohibits same-sex marriage and the ordination of married or sexually active gays and lesbians, are frustrated and angry. Progressive Methodists are exasperated by church policy they see as discriminatory, inflexible, and hypocritical.

Though the UMC is often adept at maintaining the status quo, no matter how dysfunctional, this conflict has reached a breaking point. January saw a surprising development. Kenneth R. Feinberg, one of the nation’s foremost experts in conflict mediation, negotiated an agreement for a process that would divide the denomination into at least two churches.

The “Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation” was officially released in early February. It establishes terms of division. Those who uphold the current position of the UMC will, ironically, have the opportunity to leave the UMC. The Protocol stipulates that an entire Annual Conference will be able to leave with a 57 percent vote. A local church can leave with a 50 percent or two-thirds vote. (The congregation’s church council can set the standard.) Central Conferences, the organizational structure for United Methodists outside of the United States, require a two-thirds vote to leave.

Progressive leaders have welcomed the Protocol. Their support makes sense, for by allowing for conservatives to depart, the liberal leadership in the United States can assume full control of the UMC. But many conservative leaders have endorsed the Protocol as well. They believe centrists and progressives will not leave under any circumstances. And why should they? Progressives have succeeded in making United Methodism ungovernable when they disagree with its policies. They have made it virtually impossible to enforce the prohibitions on same-sex marriage and the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” As a corporate body, the UMC in America is functionally in accord with progressive sexual morality, even if its official positions are not.

Put sharply, while progressives have failed repeatedly over more than forty years to change the denomination’s position on same-sex marriage, they have succeeded in making the church ungovernable. There does not appear to be a viable path to fixing what is broken in United Methodist polity. The only way forward seems to be for the two sides to go their separate ways.

How has it come to this? One story argues that the United Methodist Church, formed in 1968 by the merger of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren, represents a failed experiment in big-tent Methodism. The United Methodist Church was built upon the flawed foundation of theological pluralism. From this perspective, it is a wonder that the UMC has stood as long as it has.

There is much truth in this story. The statement “Our Theological Task” was first published in the 1972 Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church. It endorsed theological pluralism in a way that was widely misunderstood as theological indifferentism. This misunderstanding persisted in United Methodist popular consciousness, especially among clergy of the founding generation, even after the endorsement of theological pluralism was rejected and removed from the Discipline in 1988.

“Our Theological Task” also introduced the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral. First formulated by Albert C. Outler, it proposed that four sources should guide Methodist theological reflection: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Outler himself came to regret the ways the quadrilateral was misconstrued. When one puts Scripture and tradition in a list with reason and experience, reason and experience ­invariably trump Scripture and tradition. The lack of clarity in 1972 on the primacy of Scripture among these four sources contributed to this outcome.

To make matters worse, the 1972 statement declared that the doctrinal standards of the newly constituted church were “not to be construed literally and juridically.” This helped make United Methodist doctrine unenforceable and turned church doctrine into a matter of clerical opinion.

The thorough rewrite of “Our Theological Task” in the 1988 Book of Discipline tried to correct these problems, but elements of the 1972 statement have nevertheless persisted in the UMC to the present. To this day, leaders occasionally assert that statements from the 1972 statement constitute essential parts of United Methodism, despite the fact that they have been removed.

One can certainly say that the United Methodist Church is a failed experiment in theological pluralism. But that line of analysis does not go back in history far enough. The mistakes made at the founding of the UMC were largely predictable based on previous developments, for the history of Methodism in America is one of conflict over cultural accommodation.

In the current disagreements about same-sex marriage and the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals,” progressive leaders frequently appeal to a myth of progress in American Methodism. The argument goes like this: Methodism used to read the Bible in a way that supported racism and slavery and prevented the ordination of women. But eventually we realized that the Bible was wrong about those ­issues—or at least, that how we interpreted the Bible on those issues was wrong. The prohibition of same-sex marriage is the next link in the chain of injustice that we need to break. We have been using the Bible to discriminate against gays and lesbians, it is argued, and need to progress in the same way that we aligned ourselves with God’s justice in opposition to slavery and the subordination of women.

The problem with this myth is that it is not true. When confronting slavery, racism, and the exclusion of women from the ministry, the dominant strain of Methodism actually conformed to the dominant culture. It did not, as the UMC presumptuously ascribes to itself today, lead the way in progress or “the transformation of the world.” On the contrary, United Methodism in the United States was more often transformed by the world.

John Wesley is widely known for his opposition to slavery. On February 24, 1791, six days before his death, Wesley wrote to William Wilberforce encouraging him to persevere in his fight against slavery:

Unless the divine power has raised you up as ­Athanasius contra mundum, I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy, which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature. Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them stronger than God? O be not weary of well-doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of His might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.

Wesley’s firm opposition to American slavery shaped the early ­stages of American Methodism. The first Doctrines and Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church outlined detailed rules and a timeline by which the Methodists who owned slaves were required to emancipate them. If a person did not adhere to the timeline, he was to be excluded from membership in the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) and from the Lord’s Supper.

Compromise in American Methodism began almost immediately. The gradual easing of restrictions on slavery was initially framed as a necessary but regrettable accommodation to the dominant culture. As the divisions between North and South increased in the United States, so did the divisions within the Methodist Episcopal Church. The breaking point came in 1844 when Bishop James Andrew became a slave owner through his marriage, leading to the split of the MEC into Northern and Southern branches.

The Wesleyan Methodist Connection took a different approach to race and slavery. The WMC separated from the MEC in 1843 because of the MEC’s general tolerance of slavery and increased resistance to abolition. Wesleyan Methodists like Orange Scott were adamant that slavery is a sin and must be immediately abolished with no compensation given to slave owners. Leaders in the WMC emphasized that their arguments for abolition honored John Wesley’s commitments and represented the position Methodism’s founder would take if he were with them.

In 1939, the MEC’s Northern and Southern branches reunited (along with the Methodist Protestant Church, which had separated in 1830 over the role of bishops and lay representation). But the lingering issues related to slavery were by no means dead. The negotiations foundered repeatedly on the role of African Americans in Methodism. White Methodists in the South were not willing to be integrated with black Methodists. A compromise was struck that ­created five white regional U.S. jurisdictions and one segregated Central Jurisdiction for African-American Methodists. The desire to merge in order to establish a bigger and more powerful denomination came at the cost of the dignity and full inclusion of black people in the new denomination. It was a classic case of conformity to the social mores of the time, which either endorsed or accommodated systemic racism.

Although small Methodist movements and individuals were powerful witnesses, the United Methodist Church and its mainline antecedents did not tend to be important moral leaders in America’s history of slavery and racism. Those who were too passionately opposed to compromise with slavery were often forced out of the MEC or encouraged to leave. The Methodist Episcopal Church started with a profoundly countercultural stand that opposed slavery. Soon, however, mainline Methodism became more accepting of slavery, and in some places pro-slavery. And this establishment strand of Methodism did not fully remove the racially defined Central Jurisdiction from its collective life until after the formation of the UMC in 1972, well after the Civil Rights Movement.

The churches that merged to create the United Methodist Church should not have caved to cultural pressure to accept and accommodate racism and slavery. They should have stood firm in their theological commitments. The more biblically formed branches of the Wesleyan Holiness family did just that.

The story of the ordination of women in American Methodism follows a similar trajectory. The strand of Methodism that is now represented by the UMC officially affirmed the ordination of women in 1956. This was inspired by the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote in 1920. At this point in time, women increasingly worked outside of the home. In short, United Methodism cannot rightly be seen to have led the way on women’s rights. It is true that many felt the decision to ordain women marked an important stride forward. But that was because an establishment strand of Christianity was adopting a cultural agenda already established by progressive forces in American society. It was not leading the way.

By contrast, other strands of Methodism, those less wedded to the cultural establishment, had led the way. Wesleyan denominations in the U.S. ordained women well before 1956 and affirmed women in leadership far sooner than did the UMC’s predecessors. Luther Lee, a pastor in the Wesleyan Methodist Connection, ordained Antoinette Brown in 1853. Lee delivered a sermon based on Galatians 3:28 at Brown’s ordination, “A Woman’s Right to Preach the Gospel.” The Illinois Conference of the Wesleyan Methodist Connection ordained Mary A. Will in 1861. B. T. Roberts, the founder of the Free Methodist Church, argued for the ordination of women in his church. He published Ordaining Women in 1891. These, and other Wesleyan Methodist communities, argued for female leadership well before it was embraced by the broader culture.

The United Methodist Church followed the cultural trajectory and only recognized women’s ordination after it was socially acceptable. Our sisters and brothers in the Holiness Movement ordained women much sooner because of their theological commitments and faithfulness to scriptural passages such as John 20 and Romans 16. The argument based on the myth of Methodist progress on slavery and race, then the ordination of women, and now same-sex marriage, is therefore bad history. Mainstream Methodism bowed the knee to culture on questions of race and female leadership rather than leading the way there on the basis of its theological heritage. That could have (and should have) led to faithfulness in the face of cultural pressure, as is seen in other parts of the Wesleyan family.

The desire by United Methodists in the United States to change the church’s position on same-sex marriage fits this history, not the common myth. As American cultural elites began to embrace gay rights and same-sex marriage, United Methodist leaders in the U.S. began to fall in line. Tellingly, the church has become more liberal first in the places where the dominant culture had already become more politically and socially liberal.

Far from being countercultural, the United Methodist Church and its predecessor bodies have too often functioned like cultural chameleons, changing their values and practices to fit in with the dominant culture. They have not operated with a strong sense of identity grounded in Scripture and tradition, and thus have not been able to face off the unpredictable and changing winds of cultural pressure and change.

It is perhaps divine punishment that the racist legacy of the Central Jurisdiction plays an important role in the current crisis in United Methodism. This jurisdiction was created in the 1939 merger for the purpose of sustaining (and expanding) segregation, as was the regional organization of the new church, which allowed Methodists in the South to go their own way on matters of racial justice. While the Central Jurisdiction was being phased out when the United Methodist Church was formed in 1968, the regional division of United Methodism in the U.S. has been maintained.

Jurisdictions in the United Methodist Church often reflect the dominant culture of their regions. The Western Jurisdiction, which is the largest geographic area and the smallest in terms of membership, is the most theologically and socially liberal. The bishops and clergy of the Western Jurisdiction felt ­increasingly constrained by United Methodist polity and ­eventually began to defy and seek to nullify the church’s prohibition of same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals in the early 2010s.

In 2013, Bishop Melvin Talbert traveled from the Western Jurisdiction to the Southeastern Jurisdiction and officiated a same-sex marriage in Alabama, despite the explicit objections of the resident bishop. And then in 2016, the Western Jurisdiction elected and consecrated Karen Oliveto to the episcopacy, despite Oliveto’s being in a same-sex marriage. After Oliveto’s election, the Judicial Council (the United Methodist Church’s Supreme Court) ruled that Oliveto’s consecration was a violation of United Methodist polity. However, in United Methodist polity, bishops are accountable at the Jurisdictional level. The Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops continued to support Oliveto. The Jurisdictional polity of 1939, preserved in the establishment of the UMC in 1968, was developed to accommodate Jim Crow in the South. The same polity now accommodates those who demand sweeping changes to the church’s biblical and historic understanding of marriage.

When confronted with the internal inconsistencies, tensions, and incoherence of United Methodist belief and practice in recent decades, many United Methodist leaders have sought to make a virtue of a vice. It is the “theological pluralism” that supposedly makes Methodism special. The impression one is often left with is that the mission of the United Methodist Church is to be nice and agree to disagree.

Unity is important for Christians. It is affirmed in a variety of places. But United Methodists do not seem to have a clear sense of what kind of unity we ought to be seeking. Scripture does not support an understanding of unity that boils down to, “Do not divide at any cost, no matter how much your leadership rebels against its own doctrine and discipline.” Rather, as the Liberia Annual Conference of the ­United Methodist Church recently put it, “It is better to be divided by truth than to be united in error.”

As of this writing, it is impossible to say whether the Protocol will be adopted. It will have to pass the scrutiny of the UMC Judicial Council, whose actions have been hard to predict. And it will be voted on by the General Conference itself, an 862-member delegation representing global ­United Methodism. Past General Conferences should prevent us from imagining that we know what is going to happen. Nevertheless, there is a broad and seemingly growing coalition of people who back the plan. Key United Methodist leaders across the theological spectrum and across the globe agree that the time has come to separate.

Whatever the outcome, we need to learn from history what the two sides truly represent. One understanding of Methodism arose in the soil of Methodism’s spectacular growth and expansion across the United States of America in the first half of the nineteenth century. The establishment strand of Methodism became the biggest denomination in the United States. It influenced American culture for a season in remarkable ways, most vividly through Prohibition, the high-water mark of Methodist influence. This vision of Methodism was generally optimistic and in accord with the dominant culture, able to exercise influence through its sheer size and confidence in the righteousness of its causes. And yet, in truth, the dominant culture typically influenced this kind of Methodism more than it influenced that culture, as was the case with race relations and female leadership. Methodism often compromised on its most deeply held convictions in order to maintain influence.

The original vision of Methodism was different. Wesley’s followers in the United States saw themselves as part of a movement raised up by God in order to “spread scriptural holiness.” They were committed to a particular “method” of sanctification, one that depended upon sound doctrine and discipline, which had to be fleshed out in their particulars. Methodism’s growth in the early nineteenth century happened not because it sought to accommodate the dominant culture to the fullest extent possible. Rather, it grew because it had a detailed plan for helping members grow in holiness. The discipline was real. People who were unwilling to live according to Methodism’s standards and instead lived according to the ways of the world were removed from membership and told they could return if they renewed their commitment to live in accord with Scripture’s teaching. This vision was not hostile to the dominant culture for the sake of hostility. It was loyal to Jesus Christ and him crucified.

The agonies of the United Methodist Church and their roots in Methodist history teach an important lesson. The dominant culture has little need for nominally Christian chaplains. Let the dead bury the dead, as Jesus teaches. We need an approach to cultural engagement and sexual ethics that is anchored by Methodism’s founding mission to “spread scriptural holiness,” rather than one that drifts along with and is determined by the prevailing cultural moment. 

Kevin Watson is author of Old or New School Methodism? The Fragmentation of a Theological Tradition.

Image by Elvert Barnes via Creative Commons. Image cropped

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