• R.C. Muhlbaier

The Day the United Methodist Church Died

This is the first of a series of posts that I originally wrote as a way to reflect on and process my experiences serving in and leaving the United Methodist Church. These were not originally intended for others to read, but I know there are others who are just beginning to process their own experiences. It is my hope that others will be comforted in knowing that this season has been hard for many others as well.

American Pie by Don McLean is an iconic musical cultural commentary precipitated by the untimely death of Buddy Holly. It would be an overstatement to say that an era of American culture died with any particular artist, but the event was clearly emblematic of a broader cultural phenomenon for McLean. In his words, it was “the day the music died.” In a similar way, my experience at a jurisdictional gathering in 2019 was a distillation of the wider crisis in the United Methodist Church. The event was not pivotal in itself, but for me, it was the day the UMC died.

In February 2019, a special General Conference affirmed the existing doctrine of the United Methodist Church that marriage is defined as a union between one man and one woman, that same sex relationships are incompatible with Christian teaching, and that clergy and ministry candidates were expected to live within the doctrinal commitments of the church. Multiple plans to create space for affirming and traditionalists United Methodists to practice ministry according to their conscience were offered. The One Church Plan, endorsed by the Council of Bishops, was a version of a solution that had repeatedly been rejected by the General Conference. It was defeated again along with the other options except the Traditional Plan which maintained the doctrine of the UMC and increased accountability. In the following weeks and months, it was clear that progressives would not accept the decision of the General Conference and were willing to break covenant and the good working order of the denomination. It was clear that something still needed to be done to create space for progressives and traditionalists to live out their visions of faithful ministry.

I had the honor to be elected as a Jurisdictional Conference delegate by the Indiana Conference of the United Methodist Church at the 2019 Annual Conference. The invitation to run was given by a leader of one of the “traditionalist” caucus groups who was looking for young(ish) candidates to endorse. I was not affiliated with the Wesleyan Covenant Association or the Confessing Movement at the time, but I was committed to historically orthodox doctrine including on marriage.

I grew up United Methodist, my wife was pursuing ordination in the UMC, and I had begun working on conference staff the year prior; I wanted to see the denomination continue and thrive. I began my service convinced that there was a way to keep the UMC together, but allow for clergy and laity to practice according to their conscience. Surely, after seeing the aftermath of the progressive response to the General Conference, we would all be more motivated to try some more creative options that were largely sidelined in previous attempts. However, it soon became clear that these hopes were long past viability.

In November 2019, the North Central Jurisdictional delegates gathered outside of Chicago, IL to discuss what the future of the UMC might look like. The delegates were divided up into smaller discussion groups, the results of which were recorded and assembled to create a statement from the jurisdiction. The groups varied, but it quickly became clear that I was the only traditionalist in my discussion group. This gave me an opportunity to listen and try to understand my fellow United Methodists.

The discussions began cordially with introductions and a spirit of fellowship. However, the mood changed quickly as we got to the discussion prompts. For two days I listened as the progressive delegates demanded an all or nothing result in the United States. The central conferences could do what they liked (it would take them some time to be enlightened), but the U.S. would be an affirming region of the UMC. The language referring to marriage and same-sex practice would be removed from the Book of Discipline and while no formal position on marriage would replace it, the BOD would make clear that LGBTQ+ persons’ practice would be affirmed in whatever form it took. If this could not be achieved, these delegates were ready to “burn it all down.” Progressives would not give in. Progressives would not leave. Progressives would be so disruptive as to crumble the institution in hopes that they could do something with the rubble.

I had to object after hearing this assertion. Why could there not be space for traditionalists to continue to affirm the universal (until recently) teaching of the church on marriage? The answer: justice. For the progressive delegates and the aligned progressive denominational leadership, there could be no room for the injustice that has been the always and everywhere teaching of the church on sexual ethics. This was the moment that I knew there would one day be either no United Methodist Church or no place for me in it.

It was not the progressive commitment to a perspective of human sexuality or justice for LGBTQ+ persons that caused a shift in my understanding of the UMC divide, but their indifference to the institution. If they could not use the UMC to further their goals, they were willing to destroy it. Even if we could come to a truce on human sexuality for a time, there are much deeper issues that would continue to divide. No amount of goodwill negotiation would change this; only prolong the inevitable. It was clear that any future disagreements would be handled with the same scorched earth mentality, even as it is clothed in rhetoric of love and justice. My hope for a future in the UMC was shattered and my grieving began.

One might object that this is an anecdote, and not a representation of the general attitude of UMC progressives. Perhaps, but this group consisted of laity, clergy, superintendents, and other annual conference leadership. They were the people elected by their annual conferences to make these decisions, so whether they represent a general consensus is moot. This group referred to other wide ranging conversations and ongoing strategies. Much of the justice rhetoric and inflexible approach to the disagreement mirrors the practice of influential progressives and UMC leaders. Three years out, it seems to me that things are going as planned.

When I returned from Chicago, I knew I wanted to be a part of the new Methodist movement that emerged from the division in the UMC. I joined the Wesleyan Covenant Association and looked for ways to help. As a member of the Indiana Chapter WCA Board, I have been blessed to have had a small part in supporting like-minded United Methodists and working towards a new Wesleyan movement in the Global Methodist Church. It was not my first choice, but I am proud to now serve in the Global Methodist Church.

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