PART I: Old fault lines in di­vided Method­ism

The Saline Courier Weekend - - OPINION - TERRY MAT­TINGLY

It was one of those Gen­eral Con­fer­ence de­bates in which the re­gional ac­cents of the United Methodists at the mi­cro­phones were part of the drama.

Times were tough, and na­tional lead­ers had strug­gled to raise enough money to cover the Church World Ser­vices bud­get. Thus, a del­e­gate from the Bi­ble Belt re­quested a bud­get in­crease smaller than the one sought by agency lead­ers.

Then some­one from the ur­ban North­east “rose and spoke against his mo­tion in a fer­vent, an­gry plea for more com­mit­ment and com­pas­sion for the needs of the poor and down­trod­den. Her enthusiasm car­ried the day,” noted “The Seven Churches of Method­ism,” an in­flu­en­tial re­port on re­gional di­vi­sions in the United Methodist Church.

“Later, the del­e­gate whose mo­tion was de­feated noted that his op­po­nent’s enthusiasm for the poor would be bet­ter ex­erted in her own an­nual con­fer­ence, which had paid only part of its World Ser­vice ap­por­tion­ment.”

That was in the early 1980s, just be­fore decades of acidic bat­tles over the Bi­ble, sex and mar­riage be­gan mak­ing head­lines.

Methodists were al­ready strug­gling with this re­al­ity:

There’s no pain­less way to cut a smaller pie. And it al­ready mat­tered that con­fer­ences in the most lib­eral parts of the

United Methodist

Church were shrink­ing, while num­bers were rel­a­tively steady or ris­ing in more con­ser­va­tive re­gions.

The cracks de­tailed in that 1985 re­port are even more rel­e­vant to­day, af­ter re­peated Gen­eral Con­fer­ence wins by a coali­tion of U.S. evan­gel­i­cals and grow­ing UMC flocks in the Global South, es­pe­cially

Africa. The de­nom­i­na­tion’s top court has ap­proved parts of a re­cently passed “Tra­di­tional Plan” that would strengthen en­force­ment of cur­rent church dis­ci­plines ban­ning same-sex wed­dings and the or­di­na­tion of “self­avowed prac­tic­ing” LGBTQ clergy. It also ap­proved an “exit plan” for con­gre­ga­tions seek­ing a way out.

“The Seven Churches of Method­ism” was writ­ten by the fa­mous Duke Uni­ver­sity so­ci­ol­o­gist Robert L. Wil­son, who died in 1991, and Wil­liam Wil­limon, now a re­tired bishop. It fo­cused on life in seven U.S. re­gions be­tween 1970-82, in­clud­ing church-school sta­tis­tics that sug­gested fu­ture prob­lems with ac­tive mem­bers and the young:

-- The Yan­kee Church in New Eng­land was al­ready de­clin­ing rapidly, in­clud­ing a dis­turb­ing 48.5 per­cent drop in church-school num­bers. Fem­i­nism and so­cial-gospel trends were gain­ing strength, with one min­is­ter’s or­di­na­tion delayed by his

re­fusal to use gen­der-neu­tral terms for God.

-- The In­dus­trial North­east­ern Church saw a rapid de­cline in its fa­mous ur­ban churches af­ter World War II. Then church-school at­ten­dance fell 53 per­cent be­tween 197082. This pro­gres­sive re­gion re­tained its clout in na­tional boards and agen­cies, with some lead­ers claim­ing, “We may be get­ting smaller, but we’re get­ting bet­ter.” Wil­son and Wil­limon noted: “There is no em­pir­i­cal ev­i­dence” of that.

-- The Church South re­mained “tra­di­tional in the­ol­ogy and style,” to the point that many clergy still thought “peo­ple need to be con­verted” to Chris­tian­ity. Some held “re­vival” meet­ings, as well as the Sun­day night and Wed­nes­day night ser­vices once com­mon in Method­ism. Sta­tis­tics re­mained sta­ble, with at­ten­dance twice that of any other re­gion.

-- The South­west Church was the only re­gion in which mem­ber­ship grew, while church-school num­bers fell 20.3 per­cent. “The con­trast in ex­pec­ta­tions be­tween some con­gre­ga­tions in Texas and in New Eng­land are so great that it is hard to be­lieve they are in the same de­nom­i­na­tion,” wrote Wil­son and Wil­limon.

-- The Mid­west Church re­mained “Method­ism’s heart­land.” But church-school num­bers fell 36 per­cent, es­pe­cially in ur­ban ar­eas, while churches at the “grass­roots” re­mained strong. Lead­ers were al­ready pro­ject­ing an “image of be­ing avant-garde.”

-- The Fron­tier Church in the Rock­ies be­came a haven for many clergy mi­grat­ing away from eastern pul­pits, and would soon emerge as ground zero for LGBTQ ac­tivism. Church at­ten­dance was small but steady, while church-school stats fell 42.7 per­cent.

-- The Western Church was “an enigma,” with cru­cial sta­tis­tics fall­ing while to­tal pop­u­la­tion on the West Coast soared. Church-school num­bers dropped 50.1 per­cent be­tween 1970-82, even as the re­gion’s lead­ers pro­vided na­tional lead­er­ship on the cul­tural and doc­tri­nal left.

As for the Methodist fu­ture, Wil­son and Wil­limon noted: “Those who have be­come ac­cus­tomed” to mak­ing big na­tional de­ci­sions “will not re­lin­quish this power will­ingly.” Mean­while, larger re­gions in the church -- their fi­nan­cial clout was al­ready grow­ing in 1985 -- “can be ex­pected to want a greater say in the de­ci­sions over ex­pen­di­tures.”

NEXT WEEK: Not all United Methodist fights are about sex­u­al­ity.

Terry Mat­tingly is the ed­i­tor of Ge­tre­li­gion.org and Se­nior Fel­low for Me­dia and Re­li­gion at The King’s Col­lege in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Ten­nessee.

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