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Too late to patch things up? How to cover a schism, United Methodist Church edition

Too late to patch things up? How to cover a schism, United Methodist Church edition

Church splits are endemic with Protestantism, and in coming years a really messy example is almost certain to afflict the large (6,951,278 members, $6.3 billion annual  income) U.S. sector of the United Methodist Church.

At issue is biblical teaching and authority, especially regarding openly gay clergy and same-sex marriage, Protestants’ most divisive issues since slavery.

As reporters and other religion-watchers will know, the UMC’s highest tribunal ruled on April 26  that church law allows much of the “Traditional Plan” that global church delegates passed in February to reinforce existing moral prohibitions. The tribunal also approved a measure that allows dissenting congregations to leave the UMC and keep their buildings and assets (text here).               

Approval of this special “exit plan” is a huge local, regional and national story. This exit plan apparently lasts until New Year’s Eve 2023 and sidesteps the “trust clause” by which the denomination claims ownership of local church properties.

Withdrawal plans must be approved by two-thirds of a congregation’s professing members, but also by a simple majority of delegates to area meetings called “annual conferences.” Judging from past struggles in other denominations, one can imagine mischief with that second requirement.

Methodists who want to loosen church discipline and give congregations local option on gay policies will mount  a last-chance effort at next year’s General Conference (mark your calendars: May 5–15, Minneapolis Convention Center), but the traditionalists should be able to continue their unbroken 48-year winning streak.

Herewith a few pointers for covering future developments. 

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Play the religion-beat game: Trying to parse United Methodist Church's options for future

Play the religion-beat game: Trying to parse United Methodist Church's options for future

During my decades on the religion beat, it's safe to say that I have met very few preachers -- people whose work requires solid pulpit skills -- who were lousy when it came time to crafting one-liners and soundbites.

If you want good quotes, preachers are safe bets.

However, the leaders of major religious organizations -- like denominations -- are another matter. They tend to be hyper-cautious leaders of complex coalitions and they often hide their views in clouds of theological fog.

I remember a U.S. Catholic Bishops meeting long ago in which the men in black were debating the moral status of nuclear weapons and the strategic concept of deterrence. At one point, they released a draft document that was so unquotable that it could have been written in Latin. In a press conference, I asked a panel of bishops if their goal was to "launch a preemptive strike on American headline writers" -- preventing coverage.

The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin offered this oh-so-quotable response: "Yes."

This brings me (a) to this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), (b) my column this week for the Universal syndicate and (c) the latest strategic moves in the long, long, long war inside the United Methodist Church about biblical authority, marriage and sex.

The global UMC is less than a year away from a special General Conference that is supposed to make history. The goal is to approve a plan for church life in the post-Sexual Revolution world. Think of it this way: In terms of property laws, church agencies and pensions, they are trying to keep the "united" in United Methodism. Doctrine? Keep reading.

The bishops recently produced a press release that described two models that are under consideration. Pretend that you are a religion-beat professional who needs to parse this, as part of a religion-news game:

ONE CHURCH MODEL
The One Church Model gives churches the room they need to maximize the presence of United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible.

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United Methodists stand at a 'tipping point' -- once again

Yes, it’s time to head into yet another oldline Protestant summer of sex. This leads to a painful, and very old, oldline Protestant question. Here it is: Just how long have United Methodists been debating whether (a) local bishops have the right to ignore passages in the denomination’s Book of Discipline linked to homosexuality and (b) this means that it is inevitable that schism will result?

At this point, the evangelical (and international) wing of the denomination is openly discussing this equation, which led to a Religion News Service feature on the subject by former GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey. After months of mainstream news coverage of the actions on the doctrinal and cultural left, her piece focuses on the painful discussions now being held on the other side of the denominational aisle.

Here is the section of the piece — the background, context material — that caught my eye:

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