Thinking about the United Methodist future and (parts of) the Southern Baptist past


GetReligion readers who have been around a while may recall that I grew up as a Southern Baptist preacher’s kid in Texas. Then I did two degrees at Baylor University in Waco, long known as Jerusalem on the Brazos.

This was all before the great Southern Baptist Convention civil war broke out in the late 1970s. That all went down as I was breaking into journalism and then into religion-beat work.

Looking back, I would say that I was raised on the conservative side of “moderate” SBC life and then went way over to the liturgical “moderate” left — but only on a few political issues (I was very pro-abortion rights, for example). I never was a “moderate” in terms of doctrine. That’s what pushed me over into Anglo-Catholicism and then on to Orthodoxy. You can see signs of that in this 1983 magazine piece I wrote entitled, “Why I Can No Longer Be A Baptist: Giving the Saints the Right to Vote.”

While at The Charlotte Observer, I wrote one of the first stories about the formation of the “moderate” alliance against the more conservative SBC establishment.

Now, if you lived through all of that the way I did, you know this name — Nancy T. Ammerman. Writing as a sociologist of religion, she became one of the go-to scholars who interpreted the SBC civil war and, thus, a popular source for reporters in elite newsrooms (see her “Baptist Battles” book).

If you spoke fluent Southern Baptist, it was easy to see that she was totally sympathetic to the moderates on the losing side of this fight. Still, her views were interesting and often quite perceptive.

That brings us to this weekend’s “think piece,” an Ammerman op-ed for Religion News Service entitled: “How denominations split: Lessons for Methodists from Baptist battles of the ’80s.” Here is a very typical Ammerman summary of the thesis:

Nearly a century ago, H. Richard Niebuhr wrote “The Social Sources of Denominationalism,” and my research confirmed his contention that differences over theology or practice are rarely enough to split a denomination. The argument has to tap deeper social divisions.

It’s not that theology doesn’t matter. The Southern Baptist argument was begun by conservatives who claimed an inerrantist view of the Bible. They also definitely disapproved of the growing number of ordained women in progressive SBC churches. These were real theological differences between the parties, just as there are today between the traditional and progressive Methodists.

GetReligion readers will not be surprised that politics is part of this analysis and that some theological differences are interpreted as political differences — period. Take abortion and the ordination of women, for example. Still, there is no way around the fact that this SBC war unfolded in the context of Roe v. Wade and Ronald Reagan.

Ammerman is — no surprise — much more interested in the conservative drive to gain control of the SBC than she is the decades of “moderate” control that created the “moderate” establishment that was overthrown.

You know how in sports referees tend to see the second foul in a collision and not the first? That’s kind of what is happening here. Still, there’s information here that journalists need to read, if they want to cover what’s about to happen with United Methodism.

The key word is “polity.” SBC polity and UMC polity are very, very different.

In a very large denomination, spread out across the country, even such socially different groups can coexist for a long time without a split. A split also requires an organized movement to “call the question.” That’s what happened to Baptists in the 1980s, and that is what has happened to Methodists over the last decade.

Now that the Methodists have reached the precipice, the very complicated organizational work of division has to get underway, and one thing is sure: Nothing will happen quickly. Whatever division happens will unfold at multiple levels over at least a decade. Denominations aren’t just individuals who share (or formerly share) a theology. They are complex organizations with national bureaucracies, regional branch offices, local congregations and individual members. Each of those parts of the whole will come apart in different ways.

As I said, it is very clear that Ammerman’s analysis of the SBC wars favored the cause of the “moderates” and their worldview on moral and doctrinal issues. At one point in this piece, she admits that this has a personal connection for her.

Some progressive congregations will choose to stay and force the fight. My old church, Oakhurst Baptist, in Atlanta, stayed, forcing each of its Baptist associations to officially vote it out (which they eventually did). Other congregations may simply exit quietly. There are about 800 United Methodist churches that have identified with the movement to accept LGBTQ members and clergy. They are the ones to watch, but others may join them.

Anyone familiar with SBC life knows about Oakhurst, which is actually in Decatur. The last Baptist church my wife and I attended was to the theological left of that. Later, Ammerman notes:

When a church leaves, it can either join with others to form something new or join up with an existing denomination. Departing Southern Baptists formed the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Alliance of Baptists, which are still going strong. … The Reconciling Ministries Network may be the nucleus of a progressive Methodist alternative, but there are also overtures emerging from Episcopal and other denominations.

That’s interesting. I thought the CBF was having some financial woes, as its membership has declined and aged in a manner rather like a liberal Protestant denomination, like the American half of the global United Methodist Church. Didn’t the alternative moderate seminary in Richmond recently announce that it is closing?

This is the gaping hole in the Ammerman essay that journalists need to notice. While this op-ed offers some solid thoughts on the impact of “polity” in church splits, Ammerman failed to mention that the UMC is truly global and that the denomination is booming in Africa and in the more conservative Global South. In United Methodist polity, that really matters. Growth means more votes. Decline in North America equals, well, decline.


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