(Read Part One Here.)
Contrary to the apocalyptic narrative put forward by the Global Methodists, Institute for Religion and Democracy, the Wesleyan Covenant Association and Good News, United Methodism will not soon capsize into a post-modern chaos of moral relativism and unfettered sexual license. The UMC will not cease to be Christian any more than it will cease, within the United States of America, to be predominantly middle class and white.
With homophobic agitation having already served its purpose. the GMC now claims that its opposition is directed toward heretics rather than homosexuals. They claim sexuality is merely the tip of an iceberg of deviancy and heresy that negates the very Christian identity of the UMC.
This anathema contradicts their claim to be amicable and their appeals to comity. It is also defamatory and false. If there is an iceberg, it is one of similarity. Polarization and zealotry have long been significant features of the baby-boomer generation that dominates the GMC and the UMC. The split is a divorce for reason of irreconcilable similarities.
Within the U.S., evidence of Methodist homogeneity is everywhere. U.S. membership is 92% white and 20 years older than the average American. Middle-class economics and Anglo-normativity are hard-wired into UMC polity.
Homogeneity explains the willingness to create and subsidize an anti-gay denomination even as missionary structures and services are dismantled as “financially unsustainable.”1 Homogeneity explains why sexuality is the privileged concern for social justice. Unlike classism and racism, sexist homophobia also harms affluent white people, offending the powerful. Homogeneity explains why the bishops of color have taken the most bold and public stands against the GMC while many others are silent, appease, and collude.
The pillage and burn strategy of the GMC will only increase GMC homogeneity and put them at risk of destructive new conflicts around other matters once the new denomination is officially constituted.
The risk of new polarization also exists for the Remnant UMC. This risk can be diminished by examining the conflicting interests and structures that remain after the Global Methodist “sexit.”
By uniting the “Left Behind” around a common-sense strategy of equitable missionary redeployment, United Methodism can avoid re-polarization, slow the inertia of decline, and reverse the homogeneity-driven trend of cultural irrelevance.
THE REMNANT UMC
All too often, the divisions we experience are reduced to ideological conflicts between the left and right. These become lists of issues organized into political platforms. Such reduction contributes to social polarization, creates contradictions, and distracts us from the demographic and economic changes that most impact church unity, vitality, and integrity.
To help us better understand the complex relationships of competing interests and conflicts, I have proposed a model that treats the UMC as a type of simple nation-state.
Within this nation-state exist three clans: institutional, pragmatic, and idealist. These exist to provide unity, vitality, and integrity, respectively.
Due to power structures and inequity, each of these clans will be socially polarized into dominant and marginal castes. The dominant castes posses wealth, power, and social location closest to the center of UMC homogeneity. The marginal castes include those without power whose existence and witness may challenge inequity, privilege, and homogeneity.
THE INSTITUTIONAL CLAN
The Institutional Clan includes those who work within the administrative and connectional structures of the denomination. The dependence of this clan upon institutional assets makes it the most vulnerable to economic decline and mass-exodus.
Oligarchs make up the dominant caste of the institutional clan. Oligarchs are both lay and clergy. They are bishops, superintendents, secretaries, treasurers, chancellors, chief executives, and others who occupy positions of prominence created through the concentration of wealth, privilege, and power over various church agencies. Oligarchs may be elected into these positions or groomed by other oligarchs.
Oligarchs provide the church with unified vision and oversight, consistency, efficiency, and streamlined decision making. These benefits are real, but come at a cost. The Methodist itinerant system is perhaps the most efficient model for clergy deployment in the world but suffers from severe social inequity, cronyism, and favoritism. Connectional structures give the whole church an agency that is more extensive and effective than could be achieved by any single church, but these structures can become disconnected from context.
Oligarchs may be tempted to consider position an end to itself. In the context of economic decline, oligarchs may be tempted to become kleptocratic, protecting themselves by usurping others, repressing democratic structures, and withdrawing financial resources from the margins. Sadly, this conduct is most likely when equity, transparency, solidarity, and sacrificial investment are most needed.
Missionaries make up the marginal caste of the institutional clan. They also derive sustenance from connectional relationships and resources, but unlike the oligarchs, missionaries serve at the margins of geographical, generational, economic, and ethnic diversity.
Missionaries include traditional foreign missionaries, campus ministers, church planters, chaplains, urban ministers, poor-church pastors, teachers, extension ministers, staffers, agency rank and file workers, and social workers. They keep institutional structures running while extending the church beyond itself. Missionaries live in solidarity with those being served and respond to scarcity with adaptive creativity.
Properly deployed, missionaries can help reverse the inertia of homogeneity, serving on the front lines of contextualization, evangelism, and social impact. In spite of their strategic importance, missionaries may be poorly compensated and harassed by jealous oligarchs who hold power over them while drinking from the same wells.
THE PRAGMATIC CLAN
The pragmatic clan consists of those working directly with congregations and their communities. They provide vitality by strengthening local churches, reaching new people, making disciples, developing leaders, and promoting stewardship. By definition, pragmatists are more concerned with outcomes than ideals of ethics, values, and identity.
Pragmatists focus on size, influence, and effectiveness with an emphasis on practices, success, innovation, and new technology. Members of this clan that remain United Methodist see the practical benefits of remaining, the practical difficulties in leaving, and the potential for destructive conflict within their communities presented by divisive voting.
Capitalists make up the dominant caste within the pragmatic clan and include those working in churches of strength, size, and affluence. With a focus on program and service, capitalists use money to reach people and teach them to earn and give money. Weary of divisive controversies, capitalists may favor growth and maintenance over careful spiritual formation or courageous prophetic witness.
Capitalists provide a disproportionate amount of connectional resources. As such, they are often naively celebrated and privileged by the institutional clan. Capitalists see material success in ministry as evidence of individual excellence. Theirs is a prosperity methodology rather than a prosperity theology.
Capitalists will be tempted to create empires, to compete with peers, and to seek even greater autonomy and control of what they consider to be theirs, breaking free of institutional bonds and failing to recognize the influence of context and providence upon their own good fortune.
Revivalists make up the marginal caste within the pragmatic clan. Without access to significant wealth, revivalists appeal to people with emphasis on the experiential, the sacramental, the transcendent, and the mystical. Revivalists offer direct access to God, to pastoral agency, and open pathways into spiritual authority.
Without silver or gold, revivalists offer what they hold most dear, the animistic and charismatic experience of God’s presence and power. Where capitalists emphasize covenant, transaction, and status, revivalists emphasize conversion, witness, and action. Revivalists challenge formality, encourage joyful celebration, and welcome contextualization. Here, we find many of our multicultural churches, our Black churches, our Hispanic, Asian, African, and Indigenous churches, and the Methodist practices of camp meetings and the field preaching.
Eccentric by definition, revivalists exist between the need to legitimize their Christian identity and their pragmatic commitment to spirituality, solidarity, liberation, and freedom.
THE IDEALIST CLAN
The idealist clan is concerned with the ideological and intellectual. Here can be found the academic, legislative, and judicial agencies of the church. Idealists call us to reflection upon philosophy, identity, theology, morality, and challenge us to accountability, evaluation, reform, and interpretation.
Stewards of the perennial dialectics of grace and law, faith and works, reason and experience, context and tradition, this clan will always have a left and right component. As such, it is organized into four castes, two dominant, and two marginal.
Contrary to the claims of polarizing propaganda, the four idealist castes represent differing relationships to power and intellectual authority rather than ideological factions defined by personal loyalties and uncritical conformity to political platforms. They are of mutual value to each other and significant value to the integrity of the church. All four will continue to exist within the Remnant UMC.
In the dominant position on the right of the idealist clan, we find the conservative caste. Mediators of identity and validity, conservatives are the church’s gate-keepers. This caste is dominant because it has the power to indoctrinate, evaluate, credential, include, and exclude. The conservative caste sustains order while also checking and balancing the arbitrary personal authority of oligarchs, pragmatists, and liberals through appeals to canon, revelation, tradition, and the rule of law. Conservatives may be tempted to illiberal censorship and authoritarianism that fails to value cultural and ideological diversity.
In the marginal position on the right, we find the traditional caste. Concerned with the preservation of customs and ritual in both religious and social intercourse, this caste seeks coherence and continuity with lived experience in cultural context. Family and gender roles, rites of passage, music, modes of worship, methods for cooking and healing, all form the pages of the traditional textbook. Most of the lay membership of the church belongs to this clan, and no split has ever succeeded without agitating and including it.
Often the victims of the oppressive practices of colonization and assimilation, this caste may be wary of differing traditions and vulnerable to ideological and xenophobic propaganda.
As both authors and critics of dogma and law, the liberal caste values independence, autonomy, and objectivity. Emancipated from the taboos of tradition and enlightened from superstition, liberals seek elite epistemic status and authority to challenge and change laws, recreate social norms, revise historical narratives and world views, and restructure institutions without fear of coercion or exclusion.
The liberal caste has contributed much to United Methodism, freeing the church to reflect, discover, adapt, modernize, and reform even as it provides a respected secular framework for academic formation.
The temptation of the liberal caste, however, is to universalize itself and create alternative orthodoxies. Practitioners of deconstruction, reductionism, and the via negativa, this caste is often accused of materialism. rationalism, atheism, relativism, hedonism, and antinomianism and may be tempted to normalize the negative, defining identity by the lack of norms: what Christians do not have to believe or do.
In the marginal position on the idealist left, we find the progressive caste. Often confused with liberal due to liberal usurpation of this label, progressives approach ideological concerns by examining structures of privilege and power, seeking justice, equity and systemic reform.
Progressives and liberals share advocacy for sexual minorities, but for differing reasons. The liberal caste tends to consider anti-gay policy as an encroachment upon personal autonomy and privacy. In contrast, the progressive caste considers anti-gay policy to be an insidious a form of oppression against a vulnerable minority. Progressives assert an intersectionality between the struggle of sexual minorities and the experience of other violently oppressed groups, thus building a compelling traditional case for advocacy rather than an appeal to personal liberty or privilege.
Progressives seek to build solidarity between all the marginal castes: the missionary, revivalist, progressive, and traditional. The temptation of the progressive caste is to disregard pragmatic boundary conditions and realities in favor of utopian radicalism.
INEQUITY: TOP-DOWN POLARIZATION
The focus upon ideological polarization around single issues has distracted the church from an awareness of growing inequity. Patterns of growing inequity within the church mirror those in society at large.
Within the last 10 years, regressive new policies have altered the balance of power between the dominant and marginal castes throughout the UMC. The most significant of these took place in 2012.
After a year-long campaign defaming the straw man ineffective pastor and bemoaning the expense and inefficiency of disciplinary process, dominant caste delegates at the 2012 General Conference briefly set aside their differences and unanimously approved a consent agenda giving oligarchs authority to arbitrarily deny employment to ordained clergy. This regressive and repressive legislation was challenged to Judicial Council, defended by the Council of Bishops, and was later thrown out as repugnant to the church constitution, fair-process, and the covenant nature of itinerant ministry.2
Other regressive proposals have appeared within various annual conferences. These include the following:
- Downsizing and consolidation of inclusive democratically elected governance structures.
- Standing rules designed to diminish the voice and vote of conference delegates.
- Loop-holes allowing oligarchs to serve on episcopacy committees and defeat term limits through “extended cabinets.”
- Clericalization of executive agencies once properly served by laypersons.
- Appointments shifting from ordained to part-time licensed ministers who are not conference members.
- Moves from apportionments to direct billing and from defined benefit to defined contribution, on benefits
- Privileged young clergy groomed into high paying appointments where they will serve for longer periods.
- Minimum salary standards increased at the same time equitable compensation is defunded.
- Obscuring evidence of inequity and failure through simplification of reports.
RECONCILIATION AND GRACE THROUGH SOLIDARITY
In conclusion, the most destructive division facing the UMC is not the departure of the GMC. It is the growing demographic and economic division between the church and its missional context, a division evidenced in its own growing homogeneity, inequity, internal polarization, and numerical decline.
The desire for inequity and homogeneity motivates contextual alienation that is economic, generational, cultural, and xenophobic in character. This alienation begins inside the church with a hegemony that concentrates power, wealth, and privilege. Like the “Emperor’s New Clothes,” the resulting inverse relationship of privilege to responsibility is obvious to all and toxic to morale.
With humility, honesty, and repentance, the Remnant UMC can examine innate conflicts of interest present in its own social structures while recovering the proper function and value of those structures. The split provides an opportunity for such reflection and an opportunity to renew historic commitments to collegiality, impartiality, solidarity, civil discourse, and accountability in the shared work of Christian ministry.
Properly aligned, balanced, and centered on the mission of Jesus Christ, the talents, values, and interests of the various clans and castes can provide significant unity, vitality, and integrity to the Left Behind, Remnant UMC.
1 FACT Report justification for the dismantling of the former Rio Grande Annual Conference.
2 Judicial Council Decision 1226. At oral arguments, the bishops claimed the legislation did not increase their powers while also claiming that they had standing to defend the legislation.