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On Jan. 3, a group of leaders in the United Methodist Church crafted a proposal to divide the denomination into separate liberal and conservative communions. The denomination’s General Conference must vote on the proposal in May, but both liberals and conservatives back it. For a segment airing on an upcoming edition of The World and Everything in It, I spoke with Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, an organization that advocates for Christian orthodoxy. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.
The main issue cited for the split is same-sex marriage. But are there other disagreements between the conservative and liberal factions of the denomination? There are many, many, many issues of disagreement within the United Methodist Church—sexuality is only the superficial. The traditional side sees the church as having a chiefly transformative role—evangelizing, winning new disciples to Christ, new birth, a changed heart, a changed mind, personal holiness, and sanctification. The liberal side would see the church’s role as affirming people where they are, creating an inclusive community, and working for social justice.
Why are the conservatives forced to form a new denomination under this proposal? Didn’t they win the last vote on this issue? Conservatives are the global majority, but in the U.S. conservatives have almost no political power. Liberals dominate the church hierarchy and bureaucracy, and most American clergy are liberal. The conservatives generally don’t have a lot of interest in inheriting the liberal church bureaucracy, which many see as un-reformable and financially unsustainable. Whereas liberals tend to have a much higher regard and cherish the church bureaucracy that they have controlled for so many decades.
It was much more important to conservatives for each congregation to have the freedom to choose a conservative denomination. And we believe that if people have the freedom to choose, traditional Methodism will come out ahead.
What could change between now and General Conference in May? Well, the only growing part of the church—and the part of the church that is now almost a majority—is United Methodism in Africa. That’s why conservatives have a global legislative majority and have been able to maintain the official teachings about sexuality. But the Africans have not yet really spoken to the issue of schism and how it might work. So how they come down will certainly have an impact on the final outcome.
How will a split shake out among churches in the United States and around the world? There are close to 13 million United Methodists around the world—about half of them in the U.S. and half overseas. Of the 6.7 million in America, probably the split will cause at least a half million just to leave altogether at least. That takes us down to 6 million. Of those 6 million, I would expect 2 or 2.5 million to align conservative or 4 or 3.5 million to align liberal. And, of course, the 2 million conservative American United Methodists would align with Africa, which is 5.5 million. So you may end up with a conservative denomination of 7 or 8 million Methodists.
Do individual churches decide to leave, or does a whole conference make the decision together? It’s both. So, conferences can make a decision. If they do nothing they go with the liberal church. If a local church doesn’t like the decision of its conference, it can make its own decision by majority vote and take its property.
Any idea what happens to pastors’ benefits—things like insurance and retirement—if they do decide to go with the new denomination? That’s protected, and the pensions agency would continue servicing both sides.
You’ve predicted the process will be “messy and often tragic.” You also wrote that “many local congregations will divide and die.” Why? The vast majority of United Methodist congregations are not strictly liberal or conservative. Your average congregation probably has a slight right-of-center majority in the congregation, and its clergy are usually left-of-center. The clergy overall are more liberal than the laity. But I think most churches are probably 60/40 one way or the other, and I imagine of over 30,000 congregations in America, probably several thousand will be so divided. A division may be so acrimonious that they will never recover.
Under this proposal, the new denomination will receive $25 million. What will be left for the current UMC? Why did the committee decide to divvy funds this way? Leaders estimated that the agencies of the denomination may have $120 million in undesignated assets, so one-third was set aside for conservatives—$40 million—and then both sides would be contributing towards a fund to help ethnic churches, which took the conservative side’s amount down to $25 million.
Anything else to add? This should be seen by traditional Methodists as an opportunity, unique in our lifetimes, to revive Methodism in America, which has suffered continuous decline since the early 1960s. The traditional Methodist church, newly organized, will have the ability—finally—to evangelize and to replant Methodism around America, especially in those areas where it has imploded over the last century: in the major cities, on the West Coast, and in the Northeast. So it’s a very exciting time to be a Methodist.