The initial reports read to me a bit like the losers won, but the church of my upbringing is on the verge of coming apart after decades of internal turmoil. The details of the deal will be important, but leaders of the United Methodist Church have agreed in principle to an amicable parting of liberal and conservative factions.
For background, I was baptized, confirmed, and married in the United Methodist Church. As a teen I attended Methodist summer camps. I was active in the Emmaus Walk community of the Methodist Church. Both of my parents were graduates of a Methodist university. Much to my parents’ disappointment, as a young adult I left the United Methodist Church. I did not leave the Christian faith.
I left because of battles within the church. Battles about issues on which there should be agreement for a church worthy of the name. I left because a percentage of anything I gave to my local church would fund unorthodox activities. My parents would have had me remain to support orthodoxy within the church. Only God knows for sure who was right.
Tears come to my eyes as I remember a notice about a pro-life prayer vigil being torn down from the bulletin board of the last Methodist church I attended. The announcement even said “No signs. No protests.” The event was simply a time to pray for the least among us. How could this be objectionable in my church?
There are three key elements to the emerging agreement: pensions, local church property, and start-up money for a conservative denomination.
Conservative pastors who leave the denomination will be promised their Methodist pensions. Making this provision of the agreement work will be especially challenging. Will conservative congregations of a new denomination contribute to a pension fund run by the liberal denomination? What happens if attendance and giving drop for either the conservative or liberal churches?
The proposed agreement will let local congregations keep their church buildings. In other denominations, liberals have asserted (and they may be legally correct) that local church property is owned by the denomination, not the local church. Thus lawsuits and counter suits have been filed. Time and money that should be devoted to God’s work have been used for legal wrangling.
It will be the liberals who maintain control of the United Methodist Church in America. Their willingness to allow conservative congregations to keep local property is honorable.
Less than honorable has been American liberals’ resistance to the influence and importance of the African Methodists.
This past summer, orthodox theology with regard to sexuality and LGBT issues was affirmed by a vote of delegates to the General Conference. The orthodox position would not have been affirmed had it not been for the votes of the Africans.
Liberals for years had been refusing to submit to the church’s official doctrine in the Book of Discipline by ordaining openly practicing homosexuals and blessing same-sex marriages. It was the African votes at the General Conference that led to the affirmation of the traditional doctrine. But American liberals were unmoved by the votes of the Africans and continued to violate church teaching. Have the liberals noticed that it is conservative American Methodists who are unified with the African Methodists?
A final part of the agreement is that the conservative congregations will be given $25 million to start a new denomination. The liberals evidently get everything else, such as campgrounds and retreat centers. This seems like a paltry sum to give to the party with the most members if we consider the African members as being equal to the American members.
The news of an amicable split of the church of my youth brings feelings of sadness for what could have been and hopefulness for what will be.
There are many orthodox Christians and congregations in the Methodist Church in America and Africa. If the proposed agreement passes, they will be free to pursue the Christian faith in the Wesleyan tradition without internal discord. May God bless them.
Dr. Joseph J. Horton is professor of psychology at Grove City College and the Working Group Coordinator for Marriage and Family with the Institute for Faith and Freedom. He is also a researcher on Positive Youth Development.