Earlier today, the United Methodist Judicial Council upheld several parts of the controversial “traditional” plan adopted at their conference in February 2019.
It also struck down several other parts of the plan, but that is likely only to be a road bump on the way to a final church split.
It is widely expected that the final rupture (that’s almost a pun) will come next year, when denominational representatives meet in a regularly-scheduled general conference.
When last rites finally are pronounced over the denomination, it is likely that scores, if not hundreds or thousands, of progressive and moderate churches will leave to form a new denomination.
Between now and then, leaders of the respective factions—progressive, moderate and conservative—will meet internally to plan their strategy. Following that, it is likely that a set of leaders representing each faction will meet to see if they can reach an amicable divorce, which is a polite way of saying “agree upon a church schism.”
A church schism, or split, is not an unusual path in either Protestantism or Methodism, notwithstanding Jesus’ great prayer in the John’s gospel that the church be unified. As he says in John 17:11, “Holy Father, protect them. . . so that they may be one as we are one.”
Well, so much for spiritual integrity, even though all sides of the Methodist mess claim that scripture is on their side.
In truth, though, the Christian church has never been “one.” Instead, it has always been a lively, messy, prickly, argumentative conglomerate of people and churches with largely similar beliefs on major issues, who will then divide like angry amoebas over lesser matters.
For example, most Christians throughout history would agree that Jesus is Lord. However, Christians have killed each other over other issues, such as whether infant baptism is scripturally sound or whether Jesus’ blood and body is physically present in the communion elements.
Today’s dividing issue is LGBTQ equality. Thus, if you believe a man can love a man or a woman can love a woman, and that God is okay with that and maybe even celebrates it, well, many Christians believe you to be a heretic, damn you!
And, a good number are willing to persecute you or discriminate against you for that belief (see “evangelical” in your dictionary).
Similar to the global church, United Methodists seem to agree that Jesus is Lord, but they break down bigly over LGBTQ issues, which even the most fervent, fire-breathing conservative agrees is mentioned or alluded to in only a handful of the Bible’s over 31,000 verses.
Of course, the American Methodist church has split over civil rights issues before. Prior to the Civil War, it divided into northern and southern churches over the issue of slavery, and did not reunite until 1939.
Meanwhile, today’s conservatives pooh-pooh any suggestion that they are making the same mistake as their southern forebears, who insisted that some people are entitled to more civil rights than others.
That is hard to maintain when they are, indeed, insisting that some people are entitled to more civil rights than others, but there you go. . .
In their defense, humans have never been much for consistency, but are quite adept at denial.
Unfortunately, the handwriting seems to be on the wall for people who love the United Methodist church and had some hope that the church would stay united despite differences. They will need to find grace in their grief as the denomination hurdles toward division and death.
Fortunately, irrespective of our views on these issues, we can learn from the resurrection verses in Matthew: Jesus is alive and going ahead of us.
Our task is to follow him faithfully and prayerfully as best we can, even in hard and fractious times.