On January 3, leaders of the United Methodist Church (UMC) announced plans to split into two denominations. This division of the third-largest church in the United States (after the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention) is an attempt to resolve a years-long, contentious battle over sexual ethics, particularly homosexuality. According to the announcement, Methodist leaders agreed to spin off a “traditionalist Methodist” denomination, which would continue to oppose same-sex marriage and to refuse ordination to LGBT clergy. The other portion of the UMC would permit same-sex marriage and LGBT clergy. The UMC plans to vote on the proposal in May at the denomination’s worldwide conference.
There are lessons in this UMC announcement, which was brokered by a mediation expert who managed the compensation fund for victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The first has to do with the essential theological paradigm of Protestantism, of which Methodism is but one of many denominations. Methodism’s roots trace back several centuries before its founding by the charismatic preacher, John Wesley, to Martin Luther and the Reformation. Luther’s critiques of the Catholic Church were many (and some were justified), but his reforms can fundamentally be reduced to an elevation of the individual’s conscience. As the German Augustinian monk famously declared, “for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.”
The individualism at the epicenter of Protestantism is certainly appealing for its promotion of freedom. Yet it also fostered continuous ecclesial divisions, something St. Francis de Sales observed with great rhetorical effect only a few generations after Luther. The German monk’s criteria for evaluating truth still centered on Holy Scripture—more accurately, his personal interpretation of Scripture and his determination as to what constitutes Scripture. It was Luther and his Protestant allies, for example, who excised the deuterocanonical books from the Bible. Once a person declares his individual sovereignty over the Bible and the Church, there’s nothing to stop further “reforms” ad infinitum, which is exactly what has happened.
What constitutes modern Protestantism is now a vast constellation of different religious organizations—“conservative” and “liberal,” “orthodox” and “heretical,” and “traditional” and “progressive”—many of which bear little if any resemblance to the church envisioned by Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, or Cranmer. People shift from one Protestant denomination to another, or form entirely new churches, for any number of reasons, many of which have little to do with the Bible or theology, strictly speaking.
Catholic philosopher (and convert) Bryan Cross calls this “ecclesial consumerism.” By this he means the tendency to choose one’s church for consumerist reasons: the best preaching or music, the most trendy, or the most LGBTQ-affirming. We see this at work among the Methodists. Andrew Ponder Williams, a married gay candidate for the clergy who was a member of early UMC committees formed to resolve inter-denominational disagreements, was unhappy with the Methodist pace of progress, and is now pursuing ordination in the United Church of Christ instead. Conservative, traditional, or orthodox Protestants may frown at Williams and his life decisions, but the consumerist nature of their paradigm inevitably leads to this.
The Protestant doctrines of sola scriptura (the Bible alone) or perspicuity (the Bible’s clarity) are not much help either, as I noted in a previous Crisis article. Although many Protestants read their Bibles in ways that align with Catholic doctrine (say, for example, in reference to the immorality of homosexual conduct), others do not. These latter argue that God’s unconditional love must contextualize all biblical injunctions and that passages about sex need to be interpreted in light of changing cultural and historical contexts. Indeed, Williams himself praises the UMC split as “a resolution that’s going to free the Methodist church to share love unconditionally with all people.” Those Methodists identifying as traditionalists may shake their heads at such reasoning, but their paradigm possesses no consensus on a biblical interpretive framework.
From this individualism flows another problem: an incoherent, if not non-existent conception of the visible church. The UMC decision is a confirmation of a generations-long process by which mainline denominations—the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and United Church of Christ—embrace progressive sexual norms, such as performing same-sex marriages and appointing gay clergy. Splinter evangelical denominations, such as the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) or the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), meanwhile, hold to more traditional interpretations of Scripture on homosexuality. Where is the visible church in all of this?
Many of these churches still affirm, in some manner, the Nicene Creed, including its affirmation of “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” But what could such phrasing mean when the church is divided into thousands of organizations that disagree on just about everything? Few Protestants still have the audacity to claim that their little province of Christianity represents the true, visible, apostolic church. When was the last time a Protestant denomination’s annual synod or general conference declared its decisions were binding on all the faithful? Instead, we witness announcements of further denominational splits as “the best means to resolve our differences, allowing each part of the Church to remain true to its theological understanding, while recognizing the dignity, equality, integrity, and respect of every person.”
A reciprocal recognition of one’s freedom for self-determination constitutes all that remains of unity in the Protestant paradigm—at least for now. Rev. M Barclay, ordained in 2017 as the UMC’s first transgender deacon, mourns the “significant harm that has been done to LGBTQIA people for decades because of its complicity in spiritual violence against us.” One wonders how long a Methodist church that embraces LGTBQ ideology will amicably co-exist with its more traditional counterpart before it starts accusing it of prejudice and discrimation that must be stopped, perhaps by government intervention. I’d wager a generation or less if ideas regarding “spiritual violence”—which presumably means calling another person’s sexual behavior sinful—become more commonplace.
It would be foolish not to see in the Methodist split a corollary to the Catholic Church, which is itself torn between traditionalist and progressive factions. Yet the Catholic Church, with its teachings on the magisterium and its ability to bind the conscience, is indeed essentially different from the Methodist and other Protestant denominations. Even if we don’t like our bishops, cardinals, or pope, we are not free to pursue schism from them, because they hold, for better or worse, positions instituted by Christ Himself. Our ability to remember this, and to work for reform within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, will determine whether or not the Catholic Church ever ends up like the UMC.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons