The UMC is more traditional than ever, but it doesn't matter
Updated: Jan 11
I keep hearing some in United Methodist circles express surprise that traditionally-minded members are leaving the denomination. After all, the argument goes, the UMC is more traditional than ever. We currently have the most conservative stance we've ever had on abortion, and the 2019 General Conference strengthened the Church's traditional position regarding same-sex practices. Shouldn't traditionalists be happy? Why not stick around? The rhetoric has been amplified since the May 1 launch of the Global Methodist Church. If the UMC is more traditional than ever, why launch the GMC?
It doesn't matter
I'll grant that the UMC is more traditional than before, at least it is on paper. But it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter how traditional our Book of Discipline is because we have no mechanism or process for ordering our ecclesial life in a way that reflects what is found in our documents. You can write anything you want in the Discipline, but if those responsible for administering it only enforce the parts with which they agree, then it doesn't matter.
What's at issue? The bishops of the United Methodist Church are set apart to defend our doctrines and administer our Book of Discipline. It should be noted that our bishops do not write our doctrines and our discipline. Only General Conference does. And the bishops are supposed to be bound by the will of General Conference, the one body that speaks on behalf of the UMC. But, as it's widely known, the Council of Bishops is just as deeply divided as the rest of the denomination. And only a handful of our bishops are interested in conducting themselves with integrity in the administration of their office. For these few we are deeply grateful, and we pray their number is multiplied. The rest, however, pick and choose which aspects of our polity they will enforce.
Hypocrisy on display
Here's an example. After Karen Oliveto was elected to the episcopacy, the Judicial Council declared her election to be in violation of the Discipline. She would remain in good standing, however, until a formal complaint was processed against her. The problem with that is that the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops circled the wagons around Oliveto. And though a complaint was filed, Oliveto continues as a bishop of the United Methodist Church in explicit violation of the discipline of the United Methodist Church. Regardless of any Judicial Council decision and regardless of the will of General Conference, that group of bishops simply did what they wanted. And they have no accountability outside themselves.
Fast forward to the launch of the GMC a few weeks ago. Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey, then president of the Council of Bishops, wrote a letter dated April 21, 2022 to Bishop Mike Lowry regarding his role on the Transitional Leadership Council of the Global Methodist Church. Note that when the letter was dated, the GMC had not yet formed. In that preemptive letter, she wrote, "I trust that you understand that you will be required to surrender your United Methodist Clergy credentials as there is no disciplinary provision authorizing an ordained United Methodist minister to hold membership simultaneously in another denomination." She even cited a Judicial Council decision to substantiate her position. So, one bishop expressly violates the Discipline and her colleagues shield her from the consequences. Another bishop serves a not-yet formed denomination and is expected to surrender his ordination. I'm not the first to name the hypocrisy, and I'm sure I won't be the last.
If the UMC were a publicly traded company, the share price would tank.
Human sexuality is not the primary issue
The conflict in United Methodism has long manifest itself around the question of human sexuality. But that's only been the presenting issue. Deeper more substantial conflicts have driven the schism that is now taking place. Among those issues are an orthodox understanding of God, the person and work of Christ, the nature of the authority and interpretation of Scripture, and what it means to be Wesleyan. You can now add to that list institutional dysfunction. Our bishops are divided, and the majority of our bishops have set themselves against our General Conference. This dysfunction comes with no effective means of accountability. The denomination is conflicted, and all attempts to resolve it have failed. The institution is unhealthy, and no cure has been found. That is why traditionally-minded United Methodists are leaving. It's not primarily about sex. It's not even primarily about doctrines. It's about the accountability of our ecclesial leadership.
Consider an analogy. In the business world, a company's stock price rises or fall in part with the confidence that investors have in the leadership of the company. If a company has strong fundamentals and is well-run, investors are more likely to have confidence in the organization, and the share price is more likely to rise. If a company's board and executives make poor decisions, investors flee and the share prices falls. Share-holder confidence is crucial. If the UMC were a publicly traded company, the share price would tank. Because our constituents have lost faith in our leadership. The conflicts of the last 50 years are no longer driving the United Methodist schism. Institutional dysfunction is.
So, yeah, the UMC is more traditional than ever. But it doesn't matter.
Dr. Matt O’Reilly is Lead Pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, Alabama, Director of Research at Wesley Biblical Seminary, and a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians. He is the author of Paul and the Resurrected Body: Social Identity and Ethical Practice, The Letters to the Thessalonians, and Bless the Nations: A Devotional for Short-Term Missions. Connect at theologyproject.online.
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