Like many United Methodists, I am watching and praying for the work on the Commission on a Way Forward which was requested by the 2016 General Conference and named by the Council of Bishops to help the UMC deal with its many concerns and divisive issues. I supported the creation of this Commission, and in fact I served on the writing team (along with several other bishops) to compose much of the language which created the Commission.
However, before we spend too much time and energy seeking a Way Forward, it might help us to remember how we got into our current position. So here is a brief overview of the 200 year trends which have brought us to this place:
- We were once a vital movement of the Spirit to "reform the continent" and to bring people to Christ. Formed officially in 1789 after the American Revolution separated our Methodist revival from England, the new Methodist Episcopal Church of America grew in the late 1700's and early 1800's into the largest Protestant movement in America. I use the word "movement" because much of the history of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America reads more like a movement and less like a church. Perhaps that was its source of strength, energy, and success. The movement was focused upon its mission, unafraid to "count" and keep score of its success, and powered by clergy who traveled and sacrificed to form small congregations which were largely laity-led. That movement truly changed the face of the new American nation.
- We allowed ourselves to divide over a social issue and regional differences, led by a division among the bishops. A southern bishop inherited slaves, and under state law he was not allowed to set them free. This became the focal point of a deepening division over slavery, and the bishops themselves split and allowed or led the 1844 General Conference to divide the church into the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church South. This division was a foretelling of the upcoming division of the USA into North and South and the subsequent Civil War with all of its casualties and horrors. Several historians have noted that the inability of Methodists to hold together and to seek solutions to the issue of slavery (along with the regional differences that emerged) became the model for the whole country to polarize and divide.
- We ceased starting new congregations. Even divided, the Methodist movement in American grew and spread during the latter part of the 1800's. For a while they were starting a new congregation every day. If you have not read the stories of Bishop Charles C. McCabe and his leadership in launching those new churches (and also doing verbal battle with a famous atheist of the day), it is a history worth studying. But by the end of the 1800's, the Methodists ceased launching new congregations at such a rapid pace, and in fact the small number of Methodist congregations in what we now call the Western Jurisdiction is a result of Methodists giving up their passion for starting new congregations as the population kept moving west.
4. We moved toward educated, settled, and privileged clergy. In the first 100 years of Methodism in America, clergy were mostly lay preachers with little education and with even less desire to "settle down." Clergy who asked to be assigned to "station charges" did so largely due to being married or to being ill or too worn out to keep traveling. For most Methodist clergy, there was a pride in their willingness to sacrifice and travel to new territories to launch new ministries. They were entrepreneurs. Around the turn of the 19th century that began to change, and clergy wanted to live in civilized areas, to live in church-provided housing, and to have salaries and at least some benefits. Methodist clergy began to be required to have advanced education (which is of course a good thing), but several have observed that was a change from "formation" to "education." Earlier Methodist clergy in America (and one can see similar patterns in many parts of Africa today) did not have much formal education, but they were "formed" in spiritual disciplines and in what we might call a "mission spirit" to guide their ministry. The early 1900's began a trend which has increased in the past 100 years toward clergy being "clerics" and "professionals" more than being missionaries. One noticeable change was when clergy appointments were to churches and towns, rather than to territories to reach new populations.
- We stopped requiring Methodists to be a part of "classes" or other types of discipleship groups. Part of the genius of John Wesley was to take persons who responded to field preaching and other aspects of the Methodist revival and to place them into small groups for accountability, support, caring, and development of their discipleship. By the late 1800's such groups were less and less a requirement, and thus they became less and less typical. Recently there have been efforts to correct that mistake, but something was lost 100 years ago that we may never fully recover, namely, the notion that to be an increasingly faithful disciple and a faithful Methodist requires being a part of a covenant group.
- We reunited by compromising with racism and regionalism. The merger of 1939 which brought the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church South (and the Methodist Protestant Church) together into the new Methodist Church was achieved at a terrible price. Almost all African-American congregations were separated into a segregated Central Jurisdiction, while the rest of the new denomination was divided into five other Jurisdictions based upon regional differences and biases. The Methodist movement was reunited from the 1844 split, but that unity was achieved at the high price of allowing institutional structures for racism and regionalism which continue to divide our witness to this day.
7. We merged into The United Methodist Church without discerning a new mission and a new set of basic beliefs. The merger of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren in 1968 was a merger of institutional structures, filled with compromises, but without any new vision or even a consensus of mission and doctrine. Rather than spending the time, energy, and spiritual effort to discern God's new direction, the two denominations simply agreed to adopt the historical practices of one another – in spite of there being serious differences in those historical practices and doctrines. No clear mission statement was adopted until 1996 when the General Conference adopted a mission statement about "making disciples of Jesus Christ." Subsequently the phrase "for the transformation of the world" was added, but it could be argued that our UMC continues to lack a clear vision or widely-accepted purpose and mission. It is little wonder many within the UMC have such different perspectives about the nature and purpose of the church – with various labels like "liberal" and "conservative" and "progressive" and "traditional" used to describe (poorly) these different perspectives. A church born in 1968 without a clear mission and purpose continues to struggle to define itself.
- We succumbed to unintended consequences when we tried to advocate for equal civil rights for gay and lesbian persons. The 1972 General Conference was the first-ever denomination to adopt a clear statement (in the Social Principles) to affirm equal civil rights for "homosexuals" but that bold statement for civil rights was amended from the floor to add the phrase which became the flash-point for decades of divisions about sexuality (namely the amendment stated "though we regard the practice of homosexuality as incompatible with Christian teaching"). Thus a civil rights statement became an unintended (and one might argue a poorly-worded) ethical teaching about sexuality.
- We became a global church with a whole host of different arrangements with the Methodist movement world-wide. The UMC is "global" in the sense of having members and structures and leaders in much of Africa, limited presence in Europe and Russia, and a strong presence in the Philippines. But we are hardly "global" in terms of having the same relationships and structures with Methodists in South America, Central America, India, etc. Over the years we separated from those parts of the Methodist movement and created a confusing set of different relationships with "autonomous" conferences and other arrangements. Even within the UMC itself, we continue to struggle to define what it means to be a "global" church. In some parts of the UMC we allow a great latitude in the use of The Book of Discipline, in apportionments, and in various structures and philosophies. United Methodists around the world are united in some ways, but quite differentiated in others. Attempts to develop a clearer consensus about being a "global church" are still in process – a very slow and cumbersome process. We have continued to decline in numbers and influence in the USA, thus putting even more pressure upon the UMC to develop new understandings of our global context. The on-going arguments over human sexuality have made any consensus about the global nature of the church difficult to achieve.
- We have allowed, and some leaders (including some bishops) have encouraged, loyalties to various constituencies and caucus groups to supersede loyalty to the UMC and faithfulness to Christ. Many of the blogs and expensive publications of these groups sound more like secular political parties than healthy dialogue among parts of a unified Body of Christ. General Conference is the most obvious setting for these groups to exercise their influences, but so are Jurisdictional Conferences where some persons seek to elect bishops who will serve their caucuses rather than being "bishops of the whole church."
So here we are. It is a longer story than this article can describe adequately, and it is not a pretty picture. It is a picture of the typical entropy of a movement which becomes an institution which then becomes a collection of separate parties with little common purpose or values. The picture includes one of clergy and laity seeking appointments and budgets around their personal preferences rather than around the mission of the church. The picture is fuzzy, due to a lack of clarity around theology and practice. And of course the picture is focused too narrowly upon the "presenting issue" of human sexuality, which prevents us from taking a larger view of the broader and deeper issues facing our UMC.
Is there a way forward? Yes. Likely it will need to be a multi-faceted approach including some kind of temporary compromise (such as a version of the "local option" for individual congregations and Conferences to deal with their local contexts for decisions about human sexuality issues) to allow us time and freedom to deal with our deeper issues. It may include the need for a called "constitutional convention" rather than just a called General Conference. We may need to put the time, energy, and prayerful discernment into re-writing our mission statement and developing a new theological foundation document (obviously based upon the historic confessions of our Christian faith but boldly describing our faith in a contemporary context). And we all will need to ignore the efforts of too many individuals and groups who have much to gain by fermenting divisions and gaining power and finances by exploiting the fears and frustrations of our people.
I am hopeful for our United Methodist Church because I see so many signs of life and movement of the Spirit among Methodist people (often without much planning or support from our formal structures). So I pray for the Commission on the Way Forward, and I hope that we all can learn from our past in order to understand our present and to plan for our future.
— Michel J. Coyner, United Methodist Bishop (retired)