What’s Next for the “People called Methodist”?April 21st, 2022
The United Methodist Church has delayed the next General Conference to 2024. This, in turn, has prompted the Global Methodist Church to announce that the new denomination will be officially launched on May 1, 2022. What does this mean for those who are heralds of historic orthodoxy in the United Methodist Church? First, why 2024 and not 2023? The move all the way to 2024 will mean that there will be an entirely new slate of delegates to the 2024 General Conference. This sends the strong signal that there will be yet another challenge to the church’s historic understanding of marriage at the 2024 General Conference. That should not be a surprise to anyone. There have been fourteen General Conference votes on this, so we should be prepared for yet another one in 2024.
However, the crisis within United Methodism has never really been about definitions of marriage. That has become the unfortunate focal point which has distracted many from the far deeper division over the very nature of the Christian message, high Christology, our view of Scripture, and the distinctives of the Wesleyan message. All of these have been seriously eroded over many decades, long before the latest “flash point.” The unity of the church is not, nor has it ever been a question of organizational unity. It is always about whether or not we are committed to historic, apostolic faith in the Wesleyan vein. Our unity with the global church around the world and back through time is the paramount issue before us.
The launch of the Global Methodist Church on May 1, 2022 is the best public testimony to what we should have known all along: The Protocol should no longer be an assumed outcome of any future General Conference. I know that this is disappointing to many, but the hard fact is that the United Methodist Church has no incentive to pass the Protocol. On the surface, it appears that the progressives should be eager to pass the Protocol. In one vote, it will sweep the evangelical wing of the church out the door. In one vote, it allows the progressives to keep the name, United Methodist. It seems to give them everything they have longed for. But, on the other side, it grants all departing churches their property and it pledges $25 million dollars to help start the new denomination. However, this kind of amicable separation which we in good faith sought to negotiate, has been shattered by a range of episcopal actions in the intervening years which are too many to recount in this short blog.
So, given the long time between now and a 2024 General Conference, and the likelihood that the Protocol will never be passed, here’s what should we expect.
First, we should expect that the churches will join the Global Methodist Church slowly, rather than as the seismic, mass departure that would have occurred should the Protocol have been passed in 2020.
Second, many churches who are happy with their current pastor will continue to believe (wrongly) that they can continue as they are and avoid any major decision. But, over time, as new pastors are appointed, the ongoing decline will continue and by the time churches realize the full impact of all the changes in the Discipline they will have already lost through slow attrition those members who might have stood with orthodoxy in the heat of a more immediate battle.
Third, the United Methodist Church still holds the power of appointment. We have already seen how dozens of conservative churches have received pastoral appointments who will not lead their congregation out of the United Methodist Church. This process will continue for the next few years. Even in a more favorable climate, it is hard for churches to vote against their own pastoral leadership in these matters.
Fourth, every congregation is going to have to determine their own future through the messy and sometimes confusing process of disaffiliation which has been in place for some time. Some bishops will be gracious and will allow churches to leave with minimal disruption. They will adopt the “spirit” of the Protocol in regards to the trust clause. Other bishops will take your church to court and force churches to re-purchase all their land and assets, which will be beyond the reach of many congregations. The adjudication of “trust clauses” differs widely from State to State so there will be some encouraging victories and some heartbreaking losses. Some congregations will be forced to walk out of their buildings, leaving behind all their assets, and start a new congregation from the ground up. In short, there will be no “national” moment where everything happens smoothly and without rancor. Instead, there will be thousands of individual skirmishes which will play out over the next decade until we end up with several different denominations that will have emerged. Others will not join any new denomination, but will join pre-existing denominations like the ACNA or the Wesleyan Church or the Free Methodists. Still others will go fully independent or become part of some kind of loosely affiliated networks.
It could all end up very differently than what I describe here. This is just what I currently think is the most likely scenario. It is not necessarily what should happen; it is just what is going to happen. I watched closely the breakup of the PC (USA), as well as the Episcopal church, and those denominations provide fairly good case studies to what is likely to happen in our denomination. The Protocol did provide a brief window of hope that we might avoid this kind of splintering and endless court cases and public shaming in the media. Some still hold out hope for that. But, the last year has made me less optimistic about this.
After the divisive break-up in ancient Israel between the house of Rehoboam and Jeroboam the people responded, “To your tents, Israel! Look after your own house, David.” I am afraid that this will likely be the theme of the next two years. Each congregation is going to have to determine their own future and chart a path how to best get there. May God be merciful to us, because these will not be easy days for any of us.
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