The United Methodist Church (UMC) is in the midst of a major implosion.
Six thousand congregations are leaving the UMC, many to form a new Church, what they call the Global Methodist Church. Whether or not it becomes a global church remains to be seen. In fact, whether or not it becomes even a national church is a question, given its character now is basically southern and midwestern.
The issue for these Methodists is LGBTQ inclusion. Those remaining in the UMC are, in large part, open to receiving LBGTQ Christians as full participating church members; those opting out, not so much. This reflects the national debate, clearly, with Democrats affirming the LGBTQ community and, again, Republicans not so much.
I suspect there is a strong correlation between Republican-leaning counties and the new Global Methodist Church. Somebody needs to run the numbers on that. But that is true of Evangelical Christians in general, no doubt, even of Christians of any kind. This explains the presence and power of what we are calling Christian Nationalism in the Republican Party.
Two weeks ago, in response to my article “Wave After Wave of Pushback” (in which I asserted: “The conservative reaction to progressive life and politics has not yet reached its zenith.”), one Roman Catholic colleague wrote to me, “I see the same dynamics playing out in Catholicism as you articulate for Protestantism.”
Except, of course, that Catholics are not splitting off to form new Churches. Yes, they create new organizations within Roman Catholicism, like Opus Dei (1928, in Spain), Focolare (1943, in Italy), and EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network, in 1981, in the United States).
These organizations (among many others) together with new Catholic orders have caused their own problems, as described by leading Catholic periodical America in 2022: “Pope Frances has taken another step to rein in new religious groups in the Catholic Church after their unregulated proliferation in recent decades led to abuses in governance that allowed spiritual and sexual misconduct to go unchecked.”
Protestantism does not have this sort of centralized authority. In fact, it was that very presence (i.e., the Pope) that precipitated the religious explosion we now call the Reformation. What began in the 16th century has continued unabated for 500 years: Christian people splitting off the mainline to form their own community, organization, church, or denomination.
The best image I can offer to illustrate this is fireworks!
I must be careful here, because my own tradition—Baptist—has been the worst at this; or if you see such splintering as the persistent longing for purity and authenticity, you might use the word “best” as in, “Baptists have been the best ….”
That’s what we thought when we gathered in Atlanta in 1991 to form the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. We were tired of what we called the narrow-minded, authoritarian surge of fundamentalism that overtook the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) beginning in earnest in 1979.
I was a doctoral student then, writing a dissertation on “Doctrines of Inspiration in the Southern Baptist Theological Tradition.” I finished in 1982, took a church (as we say), and watched the newly politicized culture of the SBC merge into the faith and practice of the Republican Party.
Peeling back layers of public rhetoric reveal a presenting issue called Biblical Inerrancy, a practical issue dealing with female ordination and authority, and, at bottom, the political issue pushing back against the cultural changes involving race, gender, and religion. We justified our Atlanta gathering with outrage against all three layers of fundamentalism; and, in the spirit of all self-righteous reformers, created yet another organization/church/denomination.
I sat on the platform during the discussion of our new name; I leaned over to the moderator John Upton and said, “I like the phrase, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.” Evidently, others were thinking the same thing because that became the name of a new denomination, one that I have been part of for 32 years—its entire existence.
We, the CBF, now have 1,800 or so congregations affiliated, far short of the 3,000 (and counting) that are joining up with the new Global Methodist Church. And, yes, we also mirror the geography of the Republican Party and Christian Nationalism, though mostly as an alternative to their ideology rather than an expression of it.
I don’t know whether all this division and diversity is good for the faith and practice of Christianity. But I do take consolation in the way it mirrors the diversity in every other corner of creation: animals, insects, and plants, for sure, but also cultures, languages, and religions!
Maybe it’s a good thing. If so, God bless the Global Methodist Church!