Download a copy here –The United Methodist Dilemma
The United Methodist Dilemma
Following the February 2019 special general conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC) there has been much angst concerning the passing of a resolution affirming the denomination’s stand against same-gender marriage and gay ordination. This has ignited a firestorm of controversy and questions among Methodist and observers. In response to questions I have received at Lakeview UMC, I will attempt to describe in some detail how this has come about, a summary of the history, and some personal thoughts about the controversy.
Why is the UMC in such a controversy over LGBTQ acceptance? How did we come to be in such disarray? What can be done? Should I stay in the UMC? These and many other questions are in people’s thoughts and have raised concerns. I will attempt, to the best of my ability, to provide a summary history (for a detailed history requires a book-length essay) as factually and un-biased as I can. I will describe the events leading up to the special general conference of 2019 and then, in a final section, I will offer some personal thoughts which will bear my bias. It is not possible to summarize the events leading to and the events of the conference in a Twitter message of 240 characters, so this will be a longer read. The electronic version will contain links to other documents to aid the reader in more background and detail than I will take time to cover but will help those wishing a more comprehensive understanding.
United Methodist History
It is helpful to begin by having some sense of the history and evolution of this rather unique movement we call Methodism. With roots in the Anglican Church and founder John Wesley, an Anglican priest, the movement began in the early 1700’s when John and his brother, Charles, along with George Whitfield, began a small group at Oxford that became derisively known as the “Holy Club.” Another moniker labeled them “Methodists” because of the methodical manner in which they approached reading the classics, the Bible, and holding each other accountable. While the initial names were meant to be insults, Methodist, eventually stuck. One early ditty poke fun at them:
By rule they eat, by rule they drink,
By rule do all things but think.
Accuse the priests of loose behavior.
To get more in the laymen’s favor.
Method alone must guide ’em all
When themselves “Methodists” they call.
The early “class meetings” as they were called, were accountability groups meant to supplement one’s regular church attendance and involvement. There have been recent attempts to revive the class meeting in many churches and particularly in the under ‘30’ age category.
While Wesley never intended to start a new denomination, the American revolution forced him to make a change. Francis Asbury, a key early leader in the US was instrumental in convincing Wesley that ordination was critical so people could enjoy Baptism and regular Holy Communion since there were simply not enough Anglican priests in the US at the time, so the Methodist Episcopal Church was born.
We have always had a strong focus on social and justice issues. From the beginning of the Holy Club, William Morgan another member of the club, encouraged John and Charles to go with him to visit and take food to the poor, prisoners, and to teach orphans. This bent toward social and justice issues has become one of the hallmarks of United Methodism and, interestingly, an inspiration for many Evangelical churches who have become much more socially proactive in recent years.
We have also struggled to handle some social challenges well. In 1787 free blacks such as, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones were preaching and teaching in the Methodist Episcopal Church but there was discrimination and they were forced to leave the pulpit and left St. Georges Methodist Episcopal. Rev. Richard Allen was instrumental in starting the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) a vibrant and important movement today.
In 1844, the Civil War caused a north/south split in the church with the formation of the Methodist Episcopal Church South. The church was finally reunited in 1939 but discrimination continued. Blacks were segregated into “central conferences” apart socially but not geographically from other conferences until 1956.
Meanwhile, women have long participated as leaders despite significant pushback from the male-dominated culture. In 1770, Mary Evans Thorne was appointed class leader. Despite great objection, in 1787, Sarah Mallet was appointed to preach, and the list goes on. Many are common names to us; Sojourner Truth, a freed black slave, Phoebe Palmer who started the holiness movement, Fanny Crosby gifted poet and hymn writer, and many others.
In addition to the 1844 split, the Methodist movement has split a number of times birthing other important movements such as; The Salvation Army, Nazarene Church, Wesleyan, and Free Methodist among others. We have a history of great works and a history of great error. On the following page is one version of chart depicting the life of the church and its divisions over time.