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.