Methodism: Leaving the Struggle Behind

So, Why ARENT we a denomination? Let’s define the term. When I teach my UM polity courses at Candler, a denomination is defined as “a religious organization with congregations that:

a) agree on an essential defining set of beliefs and practices,

b) share a single administration and legal hierarchy,

c) hold a membership that is based on voluntary participation,

d) is a national body that identifies with a national culture,

e) has a developed sense of national/international mission.

Based on this definition, we stopped being a denomination when in 1939, the following rules and structures were put into place, and the Church defined its purpose for the reunification of the three parent denominations in a very provocative way.

In 1939 central conferences were given the freedom to contextualize the Book of Discipline, changing significant parts that were either irrelevant or too complex or were in conflict with the

civil laws of the country. Rules about ordination, marriage ceremonies, structures, and conference procedures could all be defined differently. Hence, the end of b). Not only were they given the freedom to make such changes, the reasons for making such changes had everything to do with making changes so that the way Methodism functioned was both relevant and in accordance with local traditions and local law – that is to say, contextualization. Hence, the end of d).

Currently, because of the inability and high costs of translating the Discipline into the 60 plus languages that many United Methodists currently speak, Disciplines are not even available, much less understood by local UM clergy and laity. For example, the most recent Russian language version of the UM Discipline is a Eurasia central conference edition from 2004. The composers of the 1939 Book of Discipline – the first of the new Methodist Church could not anticipate, much less plan ahead for the need for contextualization within the US Methodist Church.

In addition, in 1939, the General Conference allowed central conferences to elect their own bishops, and established its own Committee on Central Conferences that met, once a quadrennium at the General Conference, basically allowing central conferences to function on their own without oversight.

Another reason we stopped being a denomination, was the establishment of the jurisdictions in the United States. The establishment of the geographical and racially segregated jurisdictions both protected the geographical regions from having to create and agree to “an essential defining set of beliefs,”[deterioration of a)] and established regional service by bishops that insured that the north would never be served by a bishop from the south and vice versa [deterioration of b)]. The establishment of the Central Jurisdiction as a racially segregated institutional structure, postponed any potential for the church to be a leading witness in the Civil Rights movement, because we spent our time arguing about whether to eliminate the structure itself at the six general conferences from 1940 to 1964. Thus, we suffered from the ongoing deterioration of a national Methodist identity and a shared sense of culture within the US [d)]. The jurisdictions kept us close, but not so close that we would have to deal with major differences in views especially about issues of justice.

The final point of my argument reason is found in the rationale for the reunification of 1939 itself. Until the mid 1930’s, the MEC and MECS engaged in conversations about reunification, and could not reach agreement on how to make it happen. But by the mid 1930’s times in the US had changed. A new rationale had emerged among US Methodists giving them reason to make major moral compromises and form a new, BIG church. And it is found in the final sentences of the Historical Statement of the 1939 Discipline.

And the sole object of the rules, regulations, and usages of The Methodist Church is that it may fulfill in all places and years its original divine commission as a leader in evangelism, in reforms, and in fraternal relations with all branches of the one Church of

Christ, with which it gladly confesses its partnership in the spiritual conquest of the world. (My italics)

So, the stated, documented purpose of the merger was to become the biggest “denomination” in the US, enabling us to engage in partnerships, facilitated by the imperialistic coat tails of the growing cultural hegemony of the US in other parts of the world and become spiritual conquistadores of the modern era. This was the 20th century version of the colonialist mission society of the 19th century, seeking to not only convert and save souls but to also become a means of exporting US political and cultural values. With this kind of international expansion as our motivation for existence, the Methodist Church was no longer a denomination.

So, this analysis begs the question, then what are we? Should we be a loose confederation of national denominations? Can we be more of a Communion, along the lines of the Anglican-Episcopalians? Does the Pan-Methodist Commission help with an image for gathering at the same table? The NCC or WCC?

Quite frankly, I believe we can we come up with some sort of creative hybrid that suits the complexity of the 21st century world. I really do think we can. But, we have to pay attention to the potential for unintended consequences of our decisions. And we have to keep praying for and listening to the Commission on a Way Forward reports and praying for the 2019 and 2020 General Conferences. They are going to be doozies!

Methodism: The Denomination Struggle is Real

Pre-imminent American Methodist historian, Dr. Russell E. Richey, concludes a somewhat obscure article, in an overlooked volume of a series on Ecclesiology with the question, “Is a church with a third of its membership outside North America a denomination? Does it consider itself one? What is it?” This question was also raised at the Colloquy sponsored by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry in March, 2017, raised by another venerable retired Methodist theologian, Dr. Charles M. Wood.

So, the question gets raised, but nobody answers the question. Here we go. NO, The United Methodist Church is not a denomination. And it has not been since the reunification of 1939. Quit calling it one.

When three predecessor Methodist denominations reunified to become a very large church – “the Methodist Church” – in 1939, we stopped being a denomination. In 1939 the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Methodist Protestant Church reunified after major splits prior to the Civil War to become the largest protestant Church in the US. It was not the reunification itself that shifted our organization and identity toward something else. It was the purpose for the reunification and new rules that were created at the time that caused the change from being a trio of related denominations to becoming an international Church. The problem is, at the time, we kept defining ourselves and functioning as though we were a denomination.

On the surface, this question may sound incredibly mundane and even irrelevant. It is far from either. This question has a huge bearing on three HUGE intertwined, current struggles in The United Methodist Church. And the struggle is real.

Struggle #1: The first is the struggle to figure out whether – or not – we are (or I would argue, a “world-wide church”. This is, of course, the trajectory of a huge amount of work taking place in the UMC. There is an embedded assumption that, indeed, this must be a good thing, because of course, bigger is always better; and it is, of course, an expression of our ongoing success as descendants faithful to Wesley’s mandate to save souls and develop strong disciples who seek holiness and engage in practices that have an impact on the injustices of society. But, why have we never even questioned the assumption that this truly is the most faithful structural, institutional direction the UMC can take? I would argue as a Polity specialist, that the most vexing part of trying to figure out how to do this is our ongoing attempts to transplant a denominational identity onto international settings of Methodism.

Struggle #2: The second is the theological struggle coined as “our different understandings of the authority of Scripture.” I would argue that it also has as much to do with how we choose to relate to new knowledge offered by ongoing discoveries in the Sciences. Wesley himself, in his, ‘An Address to the Clergy” advocated strongly that his preachers could not interpret Scripture effectively without knowledge of the original Greek and Hebrew, of “profane history,” the second part of logic which he called “metaphysics, “the “Sciences” and “natural philosophy.”

Our ability – or inability – to hold Scripture and the natural and social sciences in a creative informative tension results in strained arguments about the significance and use of the Quadrilateral and an unwillingness by some Methodists to come to terms with the essential importance of contextualization of the Gospel. We have descend into processes of knee-jerk, selective literalism to defend some positions and then graciously turn to historical and textual criticism, when it conveniently supports others.

The truth is we have no consensus on what “the authority of Scripture” means, much less, on how we apply it to the issues to which we are the most committed. Why? Because the US Methodist Church denied the reality of the decline of Christendom in the late 1950’s and 1960’s, and we held on to the assumption, that as a denomination our Book of Discipline could manage a tacit consensus among a huge group of very, very different United Methodists, even as we were moving toward a merger with yet another stream of similar but also, very different Methodism – the Evangelical United Brethren Church.

Struggle #3: The third, and the most visible and contentious presenting issue is the highly conflictive debate about homosexuality. The issue on to which most of us have hooked our proverbial wagons – all aimed in different directions – is critically important – but it is NOT the main issue. We are, quite frankly, arguing about sex, when the issues behind that argument are deeply institutional and political. So, if we don’t figure out what we are and how we can function as siblings in Christ in an institutional framework that makes sense for the 21st century, then just be on the lookout for the next issue that is going to come along that will tear us apart again.

So the struggle is real. We are on the struggle bus. What do we do about it? How can we stay Methodists if we were never really a denomination to begin with? Tomorrow I answer those questions and illume a way forward.

Reacting to Charlottesville: What Would John Wesley Do?

The Power and Accountability of our Baptismal Vows:

First Steps Toward Learning to Resist Evil, Injustice, and Oppression

While I did not have to preach on Sunday, August 14th, I did follow those of you who are former students and colleagues as you struggled with making changes to your sermons when the lectionary text – the story of Peter’s attempt to walk on the water – or your sermon series had to be interrupted because the message just wasn’t going to work. Bishops issued challenging statements and offered solace to clergy and members of their conferences; Bishop Ough, president of the Council of Bishops, issued a strong and compelling statement on behalf of the council to the whole church.  The Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe, general secretary of the General Board of Church and Society issued a strong letter calling on the attorney general and fellow United Methodist, Jeff Sessions to honor his baptismal vows and use his office to address issues of racial equity and injustice. The General Commission on Religion and Race issued an eloquent statement that identified the deeper issues of hatred and bigotry that are buried within the protests against the removal of the monuments.

And throughout this past week, the sermon postings, and facebook messages continued the conversation.   

We were reminded of our Social Principles and its definition of racism [¶162. A)] as references upon which your clarion calls for United Methodists were based. The words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were quoted. But our baptismal vows were raised over and over again as the basis for United Methodist response.

  • Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of your sin? 
  • Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? 

The most compelling thing about the use of our Baptismal vows in this set of circumstances is that when we were baptized or when we renew our baptismal vows, we answer this question before we claim Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior! This commitment comes before we stake our claim on Jesus! This is not a commitment that grows out of a long journey of discipleship that seeks perfection in love.  This commitment to repent and resist is a response to God’s prevenient grace and our awareness and acceptance of his justifying grace in our lives.

So we are called to resistance – whether we think we are ready or not! Our commitment to Jesus Christ is dependent on it – our commitment to Jesus Christ requires it, prior to publically making the claim that Jesus is Savior and Lord.

So, of course we were all called by our United Methodist leaders and pastors to resist – to speak out and stand up against the evil, injustice, and oppression we witnessed in the messages of the white supremacists, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and KKK members who marched.

Many United Methodists did stand and protest against the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. United Methodist clergy wore vestments and stood along the curbs; at least one church was ground zero for medical care. I am sure that others were involved that I don’t know about. I am very thankful to you and grateful to God for your witness and ongoing testimony.

Many Methodists, clergy and lay in Boston, just this past weekend showed up and marched – several thousand more than the several hundred participants in the “freedom of speech” rally.

Marching is one form of standing up, of showing up – to resist, to speak truth to power, to let your “yes” mean “yes” and your “no” mean “no.” And no, I am not taking Matthew 5.37 out of context, for when we march we are doing the opposite of swearing falsely. We are proclaiming with both body and voice what we believe about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

It is important to know that Methodists have engaged in outspoken protest off and on for two hundred years in the US. US Methodists led abolitionist rallies in the North prior to the Civil War. Methodists led and marched in the temperance rallies and marches (the original purpose of the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, TN, for example).  Methodists marched in the women’s suffrage marches and in the labor marches of the early 1900’s. Methodist clergy families in the south had crosses burned on their lawns for speaking up and for standing up during Civil Rights movement. Many marched in the anti-death penalty marches of the 1970’s. And many Methodists have been involved in contemporary marches and rallies regarding LGBTQ, immigration, and women’s concerns.

Rallies and marches are not new to Methodism. And there will be more times when some of us are called to the streets to let our “yes” mean “yes” and our “no” mean “no”.

And I am one who has been compelled to march on occasion.  But, I will also be the first to say that marching is something I do as much for me, whether it be catharsis or self-expression, as it is for standing up with others, with one united voice, in resistance or in support of something.

I encourage you to prayerfully consider whether you might be called to stand up and show up in this way. Be sure that you have prayed and studied our Social Principles about non-violence and civil disobedience, and know your limits.  But resistance involves far more than taking off a day or a weekend to engage in public proclamation.

And some of us are not called to marching, and some of us can’t march or go to rallies.

While I surely endorse participating in marches, we as Methodists don’t get off that easily.

I have a very Methodist suggestion for next steps, especially if you have not ever sensed before that your journey of faithful discipleship has involved resistance to evil, injustice, and oppression. What I offer here is a simple Wesleyan process of discernment about how to become involved. And I encourage you to do this with a small group of others – a prayer group, a covenant group, yes, a lot like a Wesleyan class meeting.

Using Wesley’s “General Rules” (¶104 BOD) – do no harm; do good; and practice the means of grace – begin a process of serious introspection about the ways in which you do harm, do good, and be able to be sustained through the means of grace as you address your own internal issues and opportunities for transforming the world by standing up against racism, bigotry, and privilege*.

Why the “General Rules”? These were Wesley’s guides for people joined together in class meetings who were earnestly pursuing their salvation. They could not yet answer that next question about Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord with a full, earnest, and joyful heart. They were mostly seeking assurance of their salvation while they were engaged in the class meetings. These were not yet, well-practiced, deeply faithful, sanctified and perfected Christians. They needed a guiding form to their practice of prayerful introspection.

“Do no harm.” Ask each other, “How have I done harm by not resisting evil, injustice, and oppression?” “When have I done harm by ignoring or overlooking a situation in which bigotry, injustice, or oppression was experienced?” “How have I done harm by not even realizing what I was seeing?” “When have I done harm by writing off the meaning of privilege* in our society?” “How have I hurt another as I misused or ignored my own power – either unintentionally or even on purpose – when engaging with or being in relationship with others?”

“Why does ‘this form’ of evil, injustice, and oppression call out to me for action when ‘that other one’ does not?” “What gets triggered in my soul when this kind of issue breaks open in our society?” 

“Do good.” Ask each other: “How and where do I start to “do good?” “How do I learn to see and respond to the everyday, but no less important experiences of racist and bigoted (sometimes conscious, sometimes clueless) encounters that take place every day?” “How may I become intentional about initiating thoughtful and respectful engagement with others who are different from me?” “What do I need to become more centered, more courageous, more open to listening to the different journeys of others and holding others accountable for their behavior?” And then begin to do them.

“Practice the Means of Grace.” Ask each other: “Do we take seriously the Prayer of Confession in the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper?” If you are a pastor, ask yourself, “How do I shortchange my congregation when I eliminate the Prayer of Confession from the liturgy?” Question what does the Open Table really stand for in our church? How often do we offer a renewal of our Baptismal vows? How often might we fast and pray as we reflect on these issues? When can my congregation begin conversations and share public worship with congregations? Where do we find guidance for deep searching of the Scriptures and Bible Study on these matters?

The General Rules provide a basis for strengthening the vitality of our piety through a social (communal) commitment to holiness, so that we can be wholly, fully present, and prepared to stand up against evil, injustice, and oppression in our every-day lives, in our communities, and in the world. This is NOT too grandiose a statement for United Methodists. Through the freedom and power that Jesus Christ gives us, we are called, unabashedly to resist. So now, it is time, as the Church, to do it.

BN: The Southern Poverty Law Center has a great space on their website for identifying how we can stand up and against bigotry in our day to day encounters with others. Go here:

* Brene Brown in her “Fb live” presentation of August 14th (10:50am) defines privilege succinctly as “unearned rights” that are accrued to persons because of particular characteristics. Used in this conversation, it has nothing to do with how hard a person has had to work – or not – to achieve success or meet one’s goals in life.

Reading Between the Lines: Commission on a Way Forward and Why I am Hopeful.

The United Methodist Church is engaged in a two and a half year process of discernment about what we are called to be and how we are called to witness to the love of Jesus Christ as a 21st century Church. Accelerating toward both the 2019 and 2020 general conferences, many views are going to find their way into the public sphere. As a practitioner, researcher, and professor of United Methodist Polity, it is time to ad my voice to the “multilogue” about the future of the UMC. Because I believe that the seeds of what we are now reaping were planted deeply in Methodist soil decades, even a century and a half ago, my views are rooted in historic decisions and assumptions that need to be heard and understood. But I am also a sociologist and ethicist by training, and so, some of what I will share will reflect directly on current events.

I happen to be one who deeply appreciates the care and seriousness with which the Commission on a Way Forward is doing its work. Formed by the Council of Bishops its most recent report demonstrates how it has embraced its mandate to seek a way forward out of the impasse that has plagued The United Methodist Church over issues related to homosexuality and our consequent questions that emerged about unity and the possibility of schism.


Why does the Commission on the Way Forward Matter?

It matters because in the past, “schism” has resulted not just from deeply held differences about major compelling issues, but because the leaders of denomination(s) did not have the innate skills or structure to even imagine the idea of a Commission. The schism of 1828-1830 the split the Methodist Protestant Church from the Methodist Episcopal Church resulted from the expulsion of dissident leaders and the enactment of legislation that basically no clergy could “spread dissension” among the body. The 1844 schism that resulted in the Methodist Episcopal Church South and the remaining Methodist Episcopal Church, came at the end of a six week long general conference that not only ended with the Bishop Andrew could own slaves and remain a bishop, but began with an appeal of a Maryland clergyman who would not free his slaves in a state where manumission was legal.

That the General Conference of 2016 even had the spiritual, emotional, and legislative where-with-all to ask the Council of Bishops to propose a means by which we could try and navigate a way forward, was in my mind, a God-inspired step toward resolution of our impasse.

Do I wish the Commission would “hurry up”? Sure. Do I wish they could share more information? Sure. Do I wish I could be an observer to their closed meetings? Sure. But do I trust them to carry out their mission and present the UMC with a workable way forward for most of us? ABSOLUTELY!

The Commission defined its mission to “bring together persons deeply committed to the future(s) of The United Methodist Church (UMC), with an openness to developing new relationships with each other and exploring the potential future(s) of our denomination in light of General Conference and subsequent annual, jurisdictional and central conference actions.” 

Its stated vision is to “design a way for being church that maximizes the presence of a United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible, that allows for as much contextual differentiation as possible, and that balances an approach to different theological understandings of human sexuality with a desire for as much unity as possible.”

I strongly encourage everyone to go to the following webpage to access the Commission’s latest report following their fourth of nine meetings, released on July 26, 2017: See the report here .

Let’s look closer.

My first impression is that they have clearly embraced the importance of contextualization.

Check out the stated “Goals for the Final Report.” While already a part of its vision statement, the goals statement uses phrases that have never been applied to Methodism in the past: “dynamic, flexible, and contextual connection,” “separate and common ministry,” “enable(ing) people with contradictory convictions to flourish,” “multiple versions of the Book of Discipline,” and “global connection in loosely configured structure.” 

After almost eight decades of ever-evolving, increasingly strangling structures and procedures reached through contentious debate in the general conferences of both the UMC and its predecessor, the Methodist Church (MC), this is a welcome and refreshing picture.  So also, pay attention to how these goals are framed. First, we find a statement of what must be the basis for unity: shared “values of unity and mission” and a “common theological center.” And then, the goals that focus on establishing a means for enabling contextualization are framed by two additional cryptic goals. The first is “a new church that doesn’t look like the current church.” Holy cow! A new way of being church in the 21st century! I hope we are so brave. Then, at the end, is the zinger, “allowance for those who don’t adopt the new structure.” Could it be that we find a gracious way of helping folks exit who can’t get on board with the new plan?

What is so hopeful about this?

As a practitioner and professor, which means I am both a lover and hater of UM polity my observation has been that our procedures and structures became the key tools for competing groups to attempt to wrest control of the mission and vision of the Church from those who had won control in the previous conference. Our system for changing the rules through the General Conference became more and more dysfunctional the larger, more complex, and more diverse the MC and UMC became.

This means that procedures and structures reinforced our divisions because we had in some way to strive for unanimity among everyone from all parts of the international church. The 2016 General Conference finally, finally held the mirror up to the Church and as painful as it was, helped us to see that we simply could not go on, the way we have always gone on before.

What is implied in these goals is the development of processes and structure that allow for decision-making about issues that we have normally reserved for the general conference to take place at more local levels.

This is the principle of subsidiarity applied to our polity. This kind of de-centralization would make room for what the Commission calls “differences in practices and non-essentials for the sake of contextual mission” and it is a radical shift from “the way we have always done it before.”

A second point that gives me hope is that through the Colloquy, in which I was a participant, members of the commission have truly listened to what we participants researched and shared.

For anyone who is interested, these papers will be made public toward the end of the year. But, one of the things that the Colloquy offered was a removal of the snapshot lens with which we were all focusing on the issue of human sexuality and place it in within the Ken Burn’s like mini-series of the complicated divisions and mergers of Methodism and the secular realities – that is to say, the contextual realities  that prompted them. I would like to offer a “thanks for listening” to the Commission for that.

A third point that gives me hope is that woven throughout is the implication that there is a difference between schism and grace-full, orchestrated and well-organized distancing. The game is no longer “all or nothing” is it “both-and.”

The truth is, we all need breathing room. No one has to threaten leaving anymore, because the plan will open the door for you to go. I’m at peace with that now more than ever before.