Dividing the United Methodist Church

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Tuesday, the 14th of January, 2020. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up, the United Methodist Church prepares to dis-unite.  

Earlier this month, Methodist leaders crafted a proposal to divide the denomination into separate liberal and conservative ones. It’s not a done deal—not yet—the denomination’s General Conference first has to vote on the proposal, and that’s scheduled for May. But the plan does have the backing of both liberals and conservatives, as well as the bishops, so it seems likely to pass.

REICHARD: Joining us now to talk about the proposal and what it means for the denomination’s 13 million members is Mark Tooley. He’s president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, an organization that advocates for Christian orthodoxy.

Good morning, Mark!

MARK TOOLEY, GUEST: Good to be with you.

REICHARD: The main issue cited for the split in the denomination is same-sex marriage. But are there other issues of disagreement between the conservative and liberal factions?

TOOLEY: There are many, many, many issues of disagreement within the United Methodist Church—sexuality is only the superficial reason for the impending division of the denomination. But if I had to summarize what divides the two or more sides is that the traditional side sees the church as having a chiefly transformative role—evangelizing, winning new disciples to Christ, new birth, a changed heart, a changed mind, personal holiness and sanctification. The liberal side would see the church’s role as affirming people where they are, creating an inclusive community, and working for social justice.

REICHARD: Why are the conservatives the ones forced to form a new denomination under this proposal? Didn’t they win the last vote on this issue? It seems like they hold the majority in the current denomination.

TOOLEY: Conservatives are the global majority but in the U.S. conservatives have almost no political power because liberals dominate the church hierarchy, bureaucracy, and most American clergy are liberal. The conservatives generally don’t have a lot of interest in inheriting the liberal church bureaucracy, which many see as un-reformable and financially unsustainable. Whereas liberals tend to have a much higher regard and cherish the church bureaucracy that they have controlled for so many decades. 

REICHARD: I see. Well, we’ve already noted this isn’t a done deal yet. What could change between now and General Conference in May?

TOOLEY: Well, the only growing part of the church and the part of the church that is now almost a majority is United Methodism in Africa, which is why conservatives have a global legislative majority and have been able to maintain the official teachings about sexuality because of the growth of the church in Africa. But the Africans have not yet really spoken to the issue of schism and how it might work. So how they come down will certainly have an impact on the final outcome.

REICHARD: Assuming we do see some form of split like the one laid out in this proposal, how do you think it will shake out among churches in the United States and around the world?

TOOLEY: There are close to 13 million United Methodists around the world. About half of them in the U.S. Half overseas. Of the 6.7 million in America, probably the split will cause at least a half million just to leave altogether at least. That takes us down to 6 million. Of those 6 million I would expect 2 or 2.5 million to align conservative and 4 or 3.5 million to align liberal. And, of course, the 2 million conservative American United Methodists would align with Africa, which is 5.5 million. So you may end up with a conservative denomination of 7 or 8 million Methodists. 

REICHARD: This has been described as an amicable split because congregations leaving to join a new, conservative denomination will be allowed to keep their property. But you’ve predicted the process will be “messy and often tragic.” You also wrote that “many local congregations will divide and die.” Why is that?

TOOLEY: The vast majority of United Methodist congregations are not strictly liberal or conservative. Your average congregation probably has a slight right of center majority in the congregation and its clergy are usually left of center. The clergy overall are more liberal than the laity. But I think most churches are probably 60-40 one way or the other and I imagine of over 30,000 congregations in America, probably several thousand will be so divided and a division may be so acrimonious that they will never recover. 

REICHARD: That all seems quite sad. Do you see any upside to this, at all? 

TOOLEY: Well, this should be seen by traditional Methodists as an opportunity, unique in our lifetimes, to revive Methodism in America, which has suffered continuous decline since the early 1960s and the traditional Methodist church, newly organized, will have the ability—finally—to evangelize and to replant Methodism around America. Especially in those areas where it has imploded over the last century—in the major cities, on the West Coast, and in the northeast. And so it’s a very exciting time to be a Methodist.

REICHARD: Mark Tooley is president of The Institute on Religion and Democracy and a longtime advocate for renewal in the United Methodist Church. Thanks for joining us today.

TOOLEY: My pleasure.

(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File) In this April 19, 2019, file photo, a gay pride rainbow flag flies along with the U.S. flag in front of the Asbury United Methodist Church in Prairie Village, Kan.

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