This week conservative United Methodists unveiled The Global Methodist Church, which will launch when the denomination formally splits. When will that split occur?
In 2019 the 13 million–member global church stunned American liberals by strengthening its official teachings that affirm sex only within male-female marriage. United Methodism is the only major liberal American mainline Protestant denomination that has not weakened its sexuality teachings.
Faithful Africans: Major Force
Unlike other mainline denominations, United Methodism has millions of members overseas, mostly in Africa, where Christianity is conservative. Nearly half, and perhaps more, of the church’s members are now in Africa. Successive governing General Conferences have refused to compromise Christian teaching, thanks to growing numbers of African delegates.
The 2019 defeat for church liberals persuaded many to pursue a negotiated denominational split. Early last year, a group of liberal and conservative caucus groups announced their support for the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation.”
It proposed creating a new conservative denomination. Any conference (akin to a diocese) could vote to align with it within a year. Any local church could vote to align with it within four years. Conferences and congregations would retain their property, but only if they align with a Methodist denomination.
For example, the Mississippi Conference will likely choose the conservative path, but a liberal congregation there can vote to align with the liberal denomination. A conservative congregation in liberal Minnesota could align with the conservative denomination.
Who’s Leaving, Exactly?
Why are conservatives leaving when they won at the General Conference?
Liberals, although outnumbered globally, dominate the U.S. church and its bureaucracy. Few American conservatives want to inherit liberal church agencies, seminaries, and local conference structures, whose financial viability is already dubious.
United Methodism is the only major liberal American mainline Protestant denomination that has not weakened its sexuality teachings.
Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, which is not officially United Methodist, will feature prominently in Global Methodism. It has already committed $500,000 to the new denomination’s church planting.
Technically, traditionalists are leaving official United Methodism under the protocol. But the reality is that the church is dividing into new denominations. In that sense, under the protocol everyone is leaving the denomination created in 1968, when The Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical United Brethren. That denomination, operating under theological pluralism, plunged from 11 million members to the current 6.7 million, a trajectory that traditional Methodists don’t want to continue.
With widespread support, the protocol seemed headed to almost certain ratification at United Methodism’s scheduled governing quadrennial General Conference May 2020. But the pandemic forced postponement to August 2021 and, more recently, to August 2022.
Conservative church leaders, including several bishops, convened a preliminary group early last year to envision the new traditionalist Methodism that would emerge from a divided United Methodism. The result was the document “Reimagining the Passion of a Global Wesleyan Movement: ‘I will look upon the world as my parish.’”
From that group arose a transitional leadership team representing U.S. and overseas Methodism, including three retired bishops, which crafted preliminary plans for the new Global Methodism. It has a transitional Book of Discipline and Doctrines.
And it explains that the new denomination will not legally launch until United Methodism formally ratifies the protocol for separation or possibly when liberal partners in the protocol withdraw their support. So far, no liberal group has indicated such plans.
Meanwhile, the United Methodist Council of Bishops is convening a brief online General Conference on May 8 to address interim administrative issues. With a two-thirds vote, delegates could discuss the protocol during that online conversation. Its ratification would then require a paper mail ballot of a majority of global delegates. If ratified this way, the Global Methodist Church could then launch, instead of waiting for a vote at the August 2022 General Conference.
Who Will Align Where?
Who will be in the new Global Methodist Church? As of 2019, there were 6.7 million United Methodists in the United States. As of 2018, there were 6.5 million United Methodists overseas, of whom 6.3 million are in Africa, as reported by United Methodist News Service.
Likely about 2 million American members will align with the conservative church, leaving perhaps 4 million with the liberal church. (The chaos of the division is likely quickly to shave at least half a million members from the U.S. rolls.) Africa’s more than 6 million members will align conservative. Tens of thousands in Europe will divide about evenly, with east Europeans choosing conservative. More than 100,000 in the Philippines will probably choose conservative.
Likely about 2 million American members will align with the conservative church. . . . Africa’s more than 6 million members will align conservative.
The first post-schism General Conference of the remaining United Methodist Church almost certainly will eliminate the denomination’s teachings and policies about Christian marriage, which currently preclude sex outside of heterosexual marriage and prohibit any celebration of same-sex rites.
Global Methodism’s founding General Conference would have to ratify its new name and policies. The protocol also provides for creating additional Methodist denominations.
Liberation Methodist Connexion has already unveiled itself, pledging to fight “colonialism, white supremacy, economic injustices, patriarchy, sexism, clericalism, ableism, ageism, transphobia, and heteronormativity.” Moderate liberals will mostly stay with post-schism United Methodism, retaining creedal orthodoxy while abandoning traditional Christian sexual teachings. Radicals who want to further deconstruct traditional faith will align with the Liberationists or form other denominations.
Global Future Is Bright
Many liberal United Methodists think that without the restrictions of traditional Christian sexual teaching they will reach new audiences. But the experiences of other liberal denominations don’t bode well for that hope. Conservatives in their new denomination will struggle with congregationalist tendencies against Methodism’s historically connectional and episcopal structure. They also will struggle between a pull toward generic American evangelicalism versus adherence to specifically Wesleyan doctrine and practice.
The new Global Methodist Church will be one of America’s largest conservative Protestant denominations. The United Methodist split will accelerate the implosion of liberal mainline Protestantism in America.
Assuming, as I do, that the new Global Methodist Church will cohere, it will be one of America’s largest conservative Protestant denominations. The United Methodist split will accelerate the implosion of liberal mainline Protestantism in America.
The Global Methodist Church will also highlight an international denomination under a single juridical structure in which Americans will be the minority and Africans the majority. Conservatives hope the overseas majority will help keep the American part of the church from succumbing to cultural fads and instead focused on universal Christian teaching through a Wesleyan lens.