In recent months more and more voices are calling for the United Methodist Church to split into two churches. So serious has this issue become that our General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns has published a booklet entitled, In Search of Unity. Note how the first paragraph states the problem:
In recent years there has been growing tension within The United Methodist Church. Controversies over social issues have led to the realization that a deeper layer of tension exists concerning the role and authority of scripture and divine revelation. Today, some persons suggest that a split could occur in The United Methodist Church because of the depth of the conflict and the disturbing choices people feel compelled to make.
What has brought us to this point? For a long time the Church has included a broad range of liberal and conservative voices within its membership. However, in recent years a growing number of faculty members in our theological seminaries and of the leaders in key church agencies have turned sharply to what might be called the liberal-left. Process theology, liberation theology and radical feminism have become dominant voices. These voices have tended to irritate the average churchgoer mostly through applying persistent pressure in two ways: to overturn the legislation passed by the General Conference (the supreme law-making body of the Church) on homosexuality, and to replace traditional “God-talk” (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) with inclusive language about God.
The statement in In Search of Unity about “the role and authority of scripture” masks the more explosive issue of Christology. Is Christ the final revelation of God or one revelation among many? Is Jesus Lord and Savior of all? Or is he just a model for the godly life? Indeed, these are divisive issues!
These divisive issues–both social and doctrinal–have been exacerbated by our almost catastrophic loss of membership since the 1960s. Certainly, sociological factors, such as the decline in population in rural and small-town America, where most United Methodist congregations are located, have played a role. Nevertheless, many United Methodists have simply voted with their feet. Indeed, membership losses are higher in the more liberal Conferences (which are like the ELCA’s Synods).
This background is necessary to understand the reason for the emergence of renewal movements in the UMC. They represent a growing reaction to this turn to the liberal-left in the UMC. The spiritual center of this growing reaction is Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. While not an official seminary of the UMC, Asbury teaches more United Methodist ministerial students than any of the official seminaries of the Church. Also, the vast majority of Asbury’s some eleven hundred students is predominantly male, while the majority of ministerial students in the more liberal seminaries is predominantly female.
Asbury stresses the authority of Scripture, the Articles of Religion (which John Wesley adapted from the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles), and Wesley’s sermons. Asbury also places emphasis on prayer, evangelism, and holy living.
Not surprisingly, the Good News Movement, the first center of organized resistance to the drift of the UMC away from its theological and evangelistic moorings, is also located in Wilmore, Kentucky. The Good News Movement was founded thirty-one years ago to recall the UMC to its Wesleyan heritage. This strong movement is organized at the Conference level and publishes a magazine also called Good News. In recent years Good News has elected many delegates to the General Conference. The movement also initiated the publication of church school literature as an alternative to that put out by the official United Methodist Publishing House.
In 1984 The Mission Society for United Methodists was organized as a voluntary association of pastors and laity seeking to expand the number of United Methodist missionaries overseas. In recent years the official Board of Missions has seemed more interested in institutional maintenance (schools and hospitals overseas) and issues of social justice than in world evangelism.
Also in recent years a Confessing Movement has been organized “to contend for the apostolic faith with the UMC and seek to reclaim and reaffirm the church’s faith in Wesleyan terms.”
Similar to the Confessing Movement is the Ed Robb Evangelistic Association, one of whose projects is sending committed conservative students through Ph.D. programs in order to secure positions in colleges and seminaries and to spread the faith there.
nother organization associated with the renewal movements in the UMC, and other Churches as well, is the Institute on Religion and Democracy, headquartered in Washington, D.C. The IRD is the closest equivalent to a “think-tank” within the renewal movement.
Perhaps the greatest influence upon local churches has been the Walk to Emmaus Movement and Promises Keepers. While the Promises Keepers focus on married men, both of these organizations focus on the more experiential aspects of religion. Both are biblically-oriented.
In actuality the renewal movements (frequently there is overlapping membership) have been functioning as a church within the UMC for years. Accordingly, the calls for a split within the denomination are not idle chatter. Basic institutions, as the above survey indicated, are already in place should the schism occur.