Modern Methods of United Methodists Bring Disunity

The Methodist division is instructive for what it can tell us about postmodernism leading and guiding churches.

(photo: Wolfgang Staudt, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Jan. 3 announcement that a panel had come up with terms for a divorce of the United Methodist Church (UMC) into a “traditionalist” spinoff from presumably mainstream Methodists who endorse homosexual “marriage” and clergy. What most struck me is the very post-modern approach to ecclesiastical truth and unity that mark this episode.

The story began last Feb. 26 in St. Louis, when a church conference voted that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and made clergy officiating at homosexual “weddings” subject to punishment, including eventual defrocking. The vote came as a shock to American Methodists (the second largest Protestant denomination in this country, after Baptists) and much of their educational/theological establishment. It was largely driven by Methodists from outside the United States, particularly Africa.

I’ve previously commented on the moral aspect of this debate — that the “traditionalists” who prevailed last February in St. Louis were doing nothing more than affirming what Christian tradition had held for millennia — but today I want to focus more on what I found to be the characteristics of “thoroughly modern Methodism” (and, by extension, mainline Christianity).

Obviously, the most interesting aspect of the discussion is that the “traditionalists” — the people who prevailed in St. Louis — are the “spinoffs” who are “leaving” the now no longer “United” Methodist Church. Part of this situation stems from the lack of any magisterial authority in Methodism. As people concede, since there is nobody who can definitively say “you are not acting as a Methodist” (even if you are the ones defying the majority-vote-according-to-the-rules finding of morality of your church) then it’s those who uphold that determination that find they have to leave a group that won’t abide by the outcome of their own rules. Of course, this serves the propaganda purpose that the core of Methodists don’t really accept what those old fashioned fuddy-duddies decided in St. Louis. It’s called “seizing control of the narrative.”

Now the UMC still has not split up. What came out Jan. 3 was simply a “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation” developed by a “diverse, 16-member group of United Methodist bishops and other leaders” in collaboration with “famed mediator Kenneth Feinberg, who worked on the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.” The signatories include Methodist prelates, identified by their “episcopal areas” (like Catholic dioceses) and others “representing” particular interest groups like “Mainstream UMC,” “Uniting Methodists,” and the “UM Queer Clergy Caucus.” The document is officially nothing more than a proposal, which can be set aside, changed or accepted. Any Methodist split would have to be approved at the 2020 General Conference next May in Minneapolis. Still, as in many matters, this document is likely the scene setter and script to choreograph the official divorce.

Why do I call this “thoroughly modern Methodism” (or, more accurately, post-modern)? Several reasons:

The parties clearly see no normative element to ecclesiastical truth. What we have is “your” truth and “my truth” but not necessarily “the Christian” truth. Gone is that old notion from Aristotelian logic (he was a dead white European male, anyway) that “X cannot be true and false at the same time.” The “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation” clearly thinks they can: X is morally evil enough to defrock a clergyman for Methodist A, but morally exemplary and inclusive enough to split a church for Methodist B.

Well, what does that mean for interdenominational cooperation? Will Methodist A acknowledge Methodist B clergy (and vice versa)? Will they be able to share pulpits, even after parting ecclesiastical ways? What about intercommunion? Will a Methodist A congregation member take communion from a Methodist B clergyperson whose practices presumably would suffice to defrock him in his own church? Remember: it’s not (just) about the qualities of the clergyperson (the old Donatist problem) but the bug in the rug that surfaces behind the question of the Catholic Church in particular countries communicating the divorced and remarried: If Eucharist is to be a sign of oneness with God, and the one thing that alienates us from God is sin, can a traditionalist Methodist accept communion from a minister and church that — at least according to his denominational discipline — encourages behavior “incompatible with Christian teaching” (i.e., sinful)? There is a bigger logical problem here than just can X be simultaneously true and false.

The methodology behind the “Protocol” is also interesting: a “mediator” to divvy up doctrinal and moral disagreement? (Don’t forget, he got a federal benefits program going!) Again, because the notion of theological “truth” here has prescinded from the rule of non-contradiction (we are always “searching” for truth but never really able to “find” it), “truth” becomes a matter of “can you live with half a loaf.”

Now this might make sense to people reared in cultural relativism and believing that “truth” is “diverse” (and, presumably, in contradiction to itself). Imagine, however, this model at other points in Judaeo-Christian history. Did Moses need a “mediator” to find “common ground” between himself and the tablets from Sinai versus Aaron and his golden calf? When Zwingli went off on his own and started rebaptizing people, did Luther call for “mediation” between Wittenberg and Zurich?

My critic is likely to say: well, no one wants religious wars! That’s true, and nobody’s advocating that. People instinctively recognize, however, that a faith and morality that can be determined by majority vote or “mediated” when a substantial minority dissents seems devoid of the characteristics that most people would attribute to “faith” or “morality.” They might find that fudge factor in a labor union contract, but as part of salvific truths?

In the end, then, do we believe these are “salvific truths?” Do we believe that God cares what we believe (other than our being “nice” about it) or do? In the end, are these truths we believe to be of divine origin (and, therefore, more “take it or leave it” – see Joshua 24:15)? Or, are they of mere human origin and, therefore, subject to good-natured “give and take” compromise, not unlike politics (which, in woke America, is paradoxically acquiring a more dogmatic caste)?

In the end, is it a question of the Church of Nice? After all, the divorce deal calls itself a “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation.” It’s an ecclesiastical version of no-fault divorce: “it’s so much better for the children, who will be so much more resilient.” We are so used to employing buzz words that we no longer recognize their incompatibility: are we “reconciled” by “separation?” Only postmodernism sells us the bill of false goods that unity comes from division. And, again, dubious that theological truth can be known or binding, the Protocol assures us that a deal brokered over the inability to decide a basic element of theological anthropology and morality is an occasion of “grace.” God may send His rain on the good and the bad (Mt 5:45) but His grace (apart from the grace of conversion)?

I note these points because they are not alien to Catholicism: there have long been voices in the Church that want to create quasi-denominationalism (generally along national lines, perhaps synodally) and which doubt that truth can be known or binding. Perhaps some Catholics will admit the truth is there somewhere, but by introducing a split between dogmatic truth and pastoral praxis, they wind up in the same place as our Methodist friends.

The UMC is of relatively recent vintage: while having roots in John and Charles Wesley’s work, the UMC itself dates from 1968, and is the result of a tenuous unity. (See here for background). While one might hope that some “traditionalist” Methodists might see Catholicism is more compatible than some of their Protestant co-religionists, and “the people called Methodists” who find roots in Anglicanism look back further on the family tree, I fear that swimming the Tiber may be a farther reach for many of them, especially absent any use to accompany them.

The Methodist division is instructive for what it can tell us about postmodernism leading and guiding churches. It’s an instruction that should be a cautionary warning.