(RNS) In 1992 for the first time I attended the United Methodist Church’s governing quadrennial General Conference, meeting that year in Louisville, Ky. There were only a handful of delegates from African countries. Liberal church leaders from the U.S. seemed to dominate. American evangelicals, with whom I volunteered, seemed like a besieged minority.
Nobody there 24 years ago, including me, could have imagined our church’s transformation from a nearly U.S.-only mainline Protestant denomination to an increasingly evangelical and global body of over 12 million in which Americans will soon be the minority.
The results of that transformation were evident at the most recent General Conference, held May 10-20 in Portland, Ore. Thanks to African delegates, who now represent more than 40 percent of the church, United Methodism left in place its traditional definition of marriage and sexual morality (proposals for change were referred for study), quit its 40-plus year membership in an abortion rights coalition and support for Roe v. Wade, rejected anti-Israel measures, and also declined divestment against fossil fuels.
Evangelicals from America and overseas were elected to the church’s top court, the oversight agency for seminaries, and the agenda committee for the next General Conference. As the U.S. church continues to lose as many as 100,000 members a year, and theologically more conservative African churches gain more than 200,000 annually, these trends at future General Conferences likely will accelerate.
For 30 years, my entire adult life, I’ve worked and prayed for this evangelical shift but wrongly assumed the denomination would remain nearly all American. As a lifelong United Methodist who grew up in a suburban northern Virginia congregation in the 1970s, I observed United Methodism’s decline in this country firsthand as persons my own age disappeared. The denomination has lost 4 million members in the U.S. since the 1960s, and the average age is approaching 60.
While a student at Georgetown University in the 1980s I was elevated to church offices (young people are much and often prematurely sought!), attending the church’s Virginia Annual Conference, and chairing my congregation’s missions committee. I became alarmed by the denomination’s often controversial political stances amid indifference to evangelism and orthodox theology. My concerns in the 1990s led to my full-time employment to work for reformation of the denomination in which my family has had ties for over 200 years.
The United Methodist Church has traditionally been the largest mainline Protestant denomination in America, part of a worldwide Methodist movement that numbers around 80 million adherents.
Decades ago it never occurred to me nor to many evangelicals in United Methodism that our church’s membership decline and longtime theological liberalism in America would eventually be reversed by dramatic membership growth in Africa. Nobody of whom I’m aware ever predicted that the heartland of traditional Methodism would shift from the American South and Midwest to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where there are approaching 3 million United Methodists, out of nearly 5 million total in Africa.
Evangelicals in American United Methodism were for decades often scorned by church elites. With Africa’s rise, long predominant American liberals have now become the minority. The church’s chief clashing points are usually over sexuality, but evangelicals and liberals disagree on much deeper theological issues about the Bible, human nature, and salvation.
At the recent General Conference, talk of a formal church split became more salient. A prominent self-professed centrist pastor suggested a three-way division among liberals, moderates and conservatives. Some liberal voices, frustrated by their declining influence, for the first time publicly sympathized with schism. A formal church split appeals to some as the ostensibly easy solution to nearly half a century of conflict over sexuality.
Except there would be little easy about it. Most United Methodist congregations are not homogeneously liberal or conservative or even centrist. A typical local church has a wide range of perspectives, reinforced by the denomination’s clergy appointment system, in which liberal clergy often are appointed by bishops to more conservative churches, and vice versa. A formal denominational schism would likely mean anguishing division in thousands of United Methodism’s more than 30,000 congregations, accompanied by years of litigation. The ultimate winners would be few.
Maybe such a cataclysmic denominational split for America’s third largest church eventually will occur. (A thoughtful proposal at this year’s General Conference allowing liberal churches that dissent from church teaching on sexuality passed in committee, but it got no plenary vote because of deferral of sexuality legislation to the bishops.) Some hope that the bishops’ new study commission on sexuality will propose formal division.
I expect and prefer a less disruptive scenario. Just as evangelicals when long in the minority sustained their own subculture, so too can liberal United Methodists. For better or worse, within some limitations, United Methodism permits great freedom for local churches. But official orthodoxy is essential for any kind of unity or bright future for United Methodism.
Some liberal and conservative United Methodists envision an ideologically homogenous denomination without conflict. But no church has such purity, and most of Methodist history argues it. So too, I believe does Christ’s warning against forcibly separating the wheat from the tares.
Meanwhile, there’s much to celebrate about a once declining, nearly all U.S. membership church that is now growing and global, increasingly rediscovering Christian orthodoxy and the imperative of evangelism. Many of us have across decades prayed and worked for United Methodism’s revival. Instead of stressing divisions, United Methodists should be thankful for our church’s ongoing renewal.
(Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy)