by David Watson
A formal separation of The United Methodist Church is imminent. The only question is what it will look like. Will one group force out the other? Will one group simply become so frustrated or disgusted that it leaves? Will we go to court over property? Will there be a long string of church trials? Will we squabble over our name and logo?
There are many ways we can make this ugly. Minimizing the ugliness of a denominational split will require humility, creativity, and careful planning. It might even be possible for denominations emerging from a division of the UMC to continue to work together in some areas. Speaking personally, I have colleagues on different “sides” of our current debates whom I like, respect, and admire. I don’t want to approach them in a spirit of vindictiveness or competition. I am not concerned with “winning.” I am realistic about the fact that the UMC no longer functions according to a common polity, and that we need to acknowledge this reality in our formal structures. That doesn’t mean, though, that in so doing we cannot bless one another, nor does it mean we cannot find meaningful areas of cooperation going forward.
I am grateful, then, for the recent proposal from Bishops David Bard and Scott Jones–who represent different ideological/theological perspectives–suggesting we engage in a “new form of unity.” This proposal demonstrates what it would look like to bring our institutional structures into formal alignment with our de facto reality, and to do so by cooperating to achieve these ends.
I call this approach “cooperative separation.” We would work together toward separate polities while continuing to collaborate in some areas for practical and missional purposes. (I’d suggest reading Chris Ritter’s analysis here.)
Relevant to the assessment of any such proposal are two key questions: (1) What are the lines of separation? and (2) What are the areas of ongoing cooperation?
Where are the lines of separation?
We will formally become two or three separate denominations, not one denomination with two or three branches. There will be a “full communion” agreement, such as we have with the Moravians and the ELCA, but ordination in one denomination does not mean ordination in the others. The ministers of the Progressive Methodist Church will not be ministers of the Traditional Methodist Church, nor vice versa. The bishops of one denomination will not be bishops of the other. The doctrinal and ethical standards of each denomination will not be binding on the other. Each denomination will decide which seminaries to approve and how to fund them. Each denomination will have its own Book of Discipline, or whatever it chooses to call its body of church law.
What are the areas of cooperation?
The answer to this question is more complex. There are basically six areas of cooperation moving forward:
Each subsequent denomination will share in the governance of:
1. The General Council on Finance and Administration
3. The United Methodist Publishing House
4. The General Commission on Archives and History
Each subsequent denomination will also provide financial support for:
5. The Black College Fund
6. Africa University
Numbers 1, 2, and 4 above simply make good practical sense. Nobody wants pensions to go away, so we will continue to work with Wespath. Each denomination is properly an heir to our Methodist and Pietist history, so we will continue to collaborate on the General Commission charged with overseeing this area. The General Commission on Finance and Administration will be important as a kind of neutral ground for cooperation and shared assets. It will retain ownership of the UMC name and logo. Churches and conferences that want to use them may do so, but no subsequent denomination will have exclusive rights to them.
Numbers 3, 4, and 5 assume sufficient missional agreement to justify or even necessitate ongoing cooperation. Of these, number 5, the Black College Fund, seems least problematic. I will say more about 3 and 6 (the publishing house and Africa University) below.
For numbers 1-4, the “governance strength” of each denomination will be “proportional to lay membership strength.” I believe this means that the more lay members a denomination has, the more governing power it will have.
Questions about the Bard-Jones Plan
On the whole, this proposal seems both fair and realistic. A few critical questions, however, do come to mind. I acknowledge that there may be very compelling responses to each of these.
First, why not cooperate on the United Methodist Committee on Relief? Wouldn’t each subsequent denomination want to contribute to the kinds of relief efforts in which UMCOR engages? Serving those in need is not a matter upon which United Methodists generally disagree.
Second, is a shared publishing house viable? The theological and ideological differences of the denominations that will emerge from a separation may prevent extensive cooperation in this area. The disagreements that have brought the UMC to this point are substantial, and I question whether each denomination will help to support a publishing house that produces literature it believes to be morally and theologically incorrect.
Third, why single out Africa University for support? There are myriad smaller schools throughout Africa that are desperate for financial resources. Perhaps it would be better to allow each denomination to decide which schools to support, including Africa University.
Fourth, what happens to institutions such as colleges, universities, hospitals, camps, and children’s homes? Yes, some are connected to annual conferences, but many are not. Some are independently owned. Some are owned by jurisdictions which would go away were this plan to succeed. Would each organization not owned by an annual conference or a local church have to decide which, if any, of the subsequent churches to join?
Fifth, assuming we divided into three denominations rather than only two, the plan stipulates that both the Progressive and Open Methodist Churches will use the Simple Plan. Were this the case, what would be the initial differences between these denominations? In other words, how would a church or annual conference know which of these two denominations it would wish to join?
Sixth, why does so much governance default to the Open Methodist Church (a centrist-progressive denomination)? The plan states,
The General Board of Global Ministries (including UMCOR), General Board of Discipleship, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, General Board of Church and Society, United Methodist Communications, General Commission on Religion and Race, General Commission on the Status and Role of Women and General Commission on United Methodist Men will all have boards elected by and accountable to the Open Methodist Church but provide services as requested to the Progressive and Traditional Methodist Churches and to affiliated Methodist churches outside the United States as they may organize.
The rationale for this decision is unclear. According to a United Methodist Communications survey of United Methodists in the U.S., 44% identify as conservative-traditional, while 28% identify as moderate-centrist, and 20% identify as progressive-liberal. We already know that outside the U.S., particularly in Africa, Eastern Europe, and parts of the Philippines, United Methodists tend to be conservative. There should be a clear rationale, then, for why these boards and agencies–or at least some of them–do not default to the group that is largest both within the U.S. and worldwide.
Of course, if we divide into two churches, rather than three, then the centrist-progressive denomination in the U.S. would be a bit larger than the traditionalist denomination (48% vs. 44%). This doesn’t account for the global church, however, nor does it explain why the boards and agencies default to one subsequent denomination en masse.
Another approach would be for these boards and agencies simply to relate to GCFA rather than to subsequent denominations. The denominations themselves could decide whether or not to opt in for financial support and governance. That is, after all, how this plan proposes to deal with seminaries.
All this said, the quickest way to scuttle this plan would be to dig in our heels over assets. Yes, we want to be fair, and perhaps there are adjustments we need to make in the interest of fairness, but no plan is going to be perfect.
Is this a “new form of unity?”
In a way, yes. It strains credulity to claim that we are unified now in any but the most superficial ways. Regardless of what is written in the Discipline, different parts of the denomination operate with vastly different frameworks of both theology and polity. The Bard-Jones plan does not make us less unified in any meaningful sense. It does, however, open the door to cooperation without the ideological warfare that has so long characterized the UMC. The two or three denominations that would emerge out of the UMC would be unified in a way similar to our current relationship with the ELCA and Moravians, only more closely. We would continue some degree of institutional collaboration for both practical and missional reasons.
I could get behind this plan. It allows us to cooperate where we can and get distance where we cannot. While some revisions may be in order, the overall framework of the plan is sound. It offers real hope that we can move beyond the ideological trench warfare that has so dominated our denominational life.
Thank you, Bishops Bard and Jones, for your creative, thoughtful leadership.