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After just fifty years, the experiment in Methodist unity that is the United Methodist Church is coming to an end. The UMC was built on bureaucratic structures designed to support a big tent. But those structures turned out to be unsustainable in the gale of cultural change. 

The small committee that recommended amicable separation of the UMC into at least two new Methodist bodies (creating a new “traditionalist” Methodist body and a UMC free to embrace same-sex marriage) garnered numerous headlines. Despite sensationalist titles like “United Methodist Church proposes historic split over gay marriage and LGBT clergy,” the committee’s “Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation” is not an official UMC document. There are a number of hurdles to pass before the recommendations in the Protocol become official (the Protocol will be voted on at the 2020 General Conference), and the document is unlikely to make it past those hurdles without changes. As an effort by a small group of persons who represent important UMC constituencies, the Protocol aims to chart a path forward in light of recent debates. In truth, however, the Protocol simply acknowledged what many already knew. In 1968 the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church finalized the plan of union to form the UMC. But by the time they completed their 1972 Book of Discipline, the die for the UMC’s dissolution had already been cast. The doctrinal section of the Book of Discipline reframed Wesleyan doctrine around the newly-coined Wesleyan quadrilateral in a way that privileged theological pluralism at the expense of doctrinal fidelity. Whereas Wesley emphasized spirituality in Scripture through his Explanatory Notes and tradition through his Christian Library, the theological commission behind the Book of Discipline turned theological pluralism into a principle emphasizing human experience as the core of theological method. Catholicity became synonymous with commitment to pluralism rather than commitment to creedal Christianity. Almost immediately the traditionalist Good News took off as an evangelical caucus within the UMC (its roots go back to 1967) and the debate over theological sources and norms has been raging ever since. The division over LGBTQ issues was simply the final battle.

Was there ever a United Methodist Church? The opening of the Protocol states that the UMC “and its members . . . have fundamental differences regarding their understanding and interpretation of Scripture, theology and practice.” But this line could have been written in 1968. Methodist theologian Albert Outler basically said as much at the time. These differences drove the 1972 decision to ground the way forward in theological pluralism. The basis of the UMC became organizational unity (connectionalism) with a commitment to theological diversity. But connectionalism lacks the depth needed to sustain any form of Methodism. The organizational structures of connectionalism merely supply a sociological surface that requires theological and moral substance to endure. 

To some UMC constituencies, particularly those in Africa, the Protocol looks like traditionalists raising a white flag on the verge of victory. With their emphasis on parachurch organizations and networks, the traditionalists seem to have the spirit of the “come-outism” that formed holiness denominations like the Church of the Nazarene in the late 19th century. As Chris Ritter has noted, the rapid growth of Methodism in Africa means that UMC African delegates will soon outnumber all other parties at the General Convention—in which case, they could orchestrate a massive takeover of UMC structures. If only it were that easy. 

First, when the UMC was originally formed it had a massive bureaucracy that ultimately morphed into the major agencies currently promoting the national and international mission of the church. Progressives largely occupy the positions within these agencies. This means that any traditionalist victory at a General Conference would be resisted in the official agencies (setting aside the issue of progressives in the Council of Bishops). When you add in the centrists who prefer the status quo of institutional unity driven by theological pluralism, the obstacles become clear. Viewed from this angle, one can understand why traditionalists negotiating the Protocol opted for an exit that would allow them to build a new organizational structure and staff it immediately with like-minded persons. 

Second, traditionalists are betting that many local churches will leave to form a new traditionalist denomination. How many, of course, remains to be seen, but the Protocol does not allow local churches or conferences to remain neutral any longer. In its current configuration, the Protocol requires that a choice be made—even if that choice is not to vote and thus remain in the post-separation UMC after the dust settles. The fight will now be taken to the local level.

Finally, there is the question of whether traditionalists want to be stuck with such a heavy bureaucracy even if they could clean house. One consequence of any separation will be dismantling agencies that simply are no longer financially viable. Any churches and conferences left in the post-separation UMC will have to engage in that task quickly if they are to survive. 

What lies ahead at the 2020 General Conference? The most probable outcome is that some version of the Protocol will be adopted, thereby initiating the separation process. While African Methodists could simply reject it entirely in a block vote, I don’t see that happening. 

If the 2020 General Conference does adopt a version of the Protocol, the next few years will see the dismantling of the UMC as new forms of Methodism emerge. Even the post-separation, pro-same-sex marriage UMC will go through massive changes. The current structures will not withstand the loss of revenue. In addition, the new traditionalist denomination will adopt its own seminaries, with Asbury Theological Seminary (the largest Methodist seminary) leading the way. In 2018 each UMC seminary had an average of 348 students, according to the numbers submitted to the Association of Theological Schools. Many UMC seminaries will no doubt lose students as new denominations designate official schools and direct ordinands there. 

I wrote last year that the two coalitions represented at the 2019 General Conference were two denominations trying to be born. The committee that proposed the Protocol has attempted to serve as midwife for this birth. It is a tragic necessity that represents the 1968 union’s failure to achieve an enduring unity. Born from the initial fires of the ecumenical movement, the UMC symbolizes how modernist approaches to ecumenism lack the depth necessary to nourish and sustain consensus.  

Dale M. Coulter is associate professor of historical theology at Regent University.

Photo by Ebyabe via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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