Extrapolating a New UM Direction

Jan 10, 2023

By Thomas Lambrecht —

With the recent election of 13 new bishops, the active Council of Bishops will be made up of one-third new members on January 1, 2023. As such, they will play a powerful role in setting the direction of The United Methodist Church into the future. What do their election and the other actions of the jurisdictional conferences tell us about what that direction might be?

More Diversity. According to news reports, this group of elected bishops represents several “firsts,” recognizing the expanding ethnic diversity of the Council of Bishops. David Wilson is the first Native American bishop in the UM Church. Carlo A. Rapanut is the first Filipino American bishop. Hector A. Burgos-Nuñez is the first Hispanic/Latino bishop in the Northeastern Jurisdiction. Delores “Dee” Williamston is the first Black woman bishop in the South Central Jurisdiction. Cedrick D. Bridgeforth is the first openly gay Black male bishop. (Karen Oliveto was the first openly gay female bishop, elected in 2016.)

The diversity, however, did not extend to including one single theological traditionalist or conservative.

Expanding the “Big Tent” Leftward. Furthermore, the theological diversity of the newly elected bishops seems to run only in a more progressive direction. For example, all 13 bishops favor changing the language of the Book of Discipline defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman. They would endorse the ordination of practicing gay and lesbian pastors and support the ability of pastors to perform same-sex weddings.

In other words, the entire slate of new bishops made it clear that they all reject the United Methodist consensus on marriage and sexuality for the past 40 years of Christian “conferencing” at General Conference – including the 2019 gathering in St. Louis that was supposed to resolve our dispute.

However, the most eye-opening theological expansion was the statement by Kennetha Bigham-Tsai, from the North Central Jurisdiction, who was the first of the 13 elected. In a mystifying answer to a question, she stated, “It is not important that we agree on who Christ is. … God became flesh, but not particular flesh. There’s no particularity around that. God became incarnate in a culture, but not one culture. There is mystery and wideness and openness and diversity in who Christ is and who God is, so that every living human being has a way to touch God, to connect with God, to have a relationship with God in Christ.”

This picture brings to mind the parable of the blind men and the elephant, which originated in India centuries before Christ. In the parable, seven blind men who have never seen an elephant touch different parts of the elephant’s body (leg, tail, side, tusk) and come away with very different understandings of what an elephant is like. It seems like Bigham-Tsai is saying that Jesus Christ is different things to different people, so that each person has a way of connecting with Jesus.

It is true that Jesus meets each of us where we are in a way that opens our ability to receive him as our Savior and Lord. That is the essence of prevenient grace. However, the radical pessimism about our inability to have a unified understanding of Jesus’ basic identity is unwarranted and contrary to an orthodox understanding of Christianity.

When Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” Peter responded, “You are the Christ (Messiah), the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:15-16). Jesus blessed Peter for his understanding that had been revealed to him by the Father, thus affirming Peter’s statement. We ought to be able to at least have a common understanding that Jesus is the Messiah, God’s Son.

Our United Methodist doctrinal standards go into much greater detail about who Jesus is.

“The Son, who is the Word of the Father, the very and eternal God, of one substance with the Father, took man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin; so that two whole and perfect natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one person, never to be divided; whereof is one Christ, very God and very Man, who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for actual sins of men” (Articles of Religion, Article II)

Is Bigham-Tsai really saying that it is not important for United Methodists to agree with our doctrinal standards’ shared understanding of who Jesus is?

Given Article II’s statements, it is difficult to understand how a United Methodist bishop could state that God was not incarnate in “particular flesh.” How can it be said that “God became incarnate in a culture, but not one culture?” God was born of a virgin Jewish mother in Bethlehem at a known historical time. He lived and died as a practicing, devout Jew. His message and his life were in continuity with the Jewish Old Testament and in fulfillment of it. All of this took place within one person in one particular culture.

Yes, Jesus has relevance to every person and every culture, but God’s presence was made manifest in the particularity of one person and one culture. Without that bedrock understanding, we have no historical basis for interpreting the “Christ event” or its application to our own lives and culture.

Bigham-Tsai’s statements illustrate very well what is meant by the “big tent” approach to United Methodism. It gives the impression that United Methodist leaders do not view the doctrinal standards as actual standards, but suggestions or guidelines, to be disregarded whenever they do not “make sense” or are judged to be not helpful.

The Book of Discipline is very specific about the role of a bishop: “To lead and oversee the spiritual and temporal affairs of The United Methodist Church which confesses Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and particularly to lead the Church in its mission of witness and service in the world. … To guard, transmit, teach, and proclaim, corporately and individually, the apostolic faith as it is expressed in Scripture and tradition, and, as they are led and endowed by the Spirit, to interpret that faith evangelically and prophetically.”

By its very nature, this “big tent” excludes traditionalists who believe there are certain doctrinal propositions that are essential to Christianity. We believe the faith defined in the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith. Without these doctrinal understandings, we do not have Christianity, but some other religion loosely based on Christianity.

Delegates at the North Central Jurisdictional Conference were aware of these doctrinal questions regarding Bigham-Tsai, yet elected her the first bishop in this year’s class. That can be viewed either as an indifference to doctrine or the adoption of a doctrine-less United Methodism. In any case, it speaks volumes about the theological direction of the future United Methodism.

Expanded Disobedience. To great fanfare, the Western Jurisdiction elected a gay man who recently married his male partner. This election carries on the precedent the same jurisdiction set by electing Karen Oliveto as bishop in 2016, who is married to another woman. Cedric Bridgeforth was elected even though the Judicial Council ruled that Oliveto’s consecration was contrary to church law and that her standing as a clergyperson must be brought up for judicial review (it never was).

Additionally, the Northeastern Jurisdiction came close to electing as bishop another gay man married to his male partner, Jay Williams. At one point, Williams was within 20 votes of having enough to be elected.

It appears that, for many delegates, the requirements of the Discipline are to be disregarded when they do not line up with one’s ideological commitments. One episcopal candidate made the comment that change comes from the bottom up, and that rules are often disregarded by the grass roots before they are changed formally by the legislative body.

The expanded disobedience is also seen in the fact that all five jurisdictions passed a resolution that affirms a moratorium on complaints surrounding sexual orientation, asks not to pursue complaints against clergy around their sexual orientation or against pastors who officiate LGBTQIA+ weddings, and supports the election of bishops who uphold these aspirations. Questions of law were asked in at least two of the jurisdictions hoping the Judicial Council will declare the resolution null and void because it encourages disobedience to the Discipline. No matter what the Judicial Council rules, the resolution indicates the overwhelming sentiment of U.S. delegates, as well as their disregard for what the General Conference has enacted in the Discipline.

Traditionalists in the Post-Separation UM Church. Some traditionalists will unquestionably remain in the UM Church following the current spate of separations. A 2019 survey found that 44 percent of United Methodist grassroots members identified as theologically conservative or traditional. Twenty-eight percent identified as theologically centrist or moderate. Twenty percent identified as theologically liberal or progressive. Even if half of the traditionalist members leave the UM Church, those remaining would be more than one-fourth of the church’s members. Their share would still be larger than those identifying as progressive.

The question is whether traditionalists will be represented in leadership of the denomination after separation. In 2016, seven of the 15 bishops elected in the U.S. (nearly half) could be considered theologically traditionalist. (Some of those might be classified more as institutionalists than by their theological perspective, but they at least come from a traditionalist viewpoint.) In contrast, none of the 13 bishops elected now in 2022 could be considered theologically traditionalist.

Due to bishops’ retirements, seven of the 39 U.S. bishops going forward could be considered traditionalist, and even some of them would again be more institutional than traditional in their approach to leadership. At best, that means around 18 percent of the active bishops are traditionalist. If current trends continue and no new traditionalist bishops are elected, that percentage will shrink further, and traditionalists will be grossly underrepresented on the Council of Bishops.

Even more stark is the realization that nearly all the general secretaries of the general boards and agencies of the UM Church reflect a centrist or progressive theology. Traditionalists are underrepresented on the agency staffs and among the agency board members – and have been for decades. The same is true in many annual conferences when it comes to district superintendents and conference agency heads and staff.

For the foreseeable future, the traditionalist voice in the UM Church will be a minority voice and not well represented among the denominational leadership. Traditionalist members are not likely to hear their perspective communicated from bishops or general church or annual conference leaders.

Voting Strength. When the jurisdictional delegates were elected in the aftermath of the 2019 General Conference, there was a notable swing toward more progressive delegates being elected, particularly among the clergy. Since then, some of the traditionalist delegates have resigned due to their disaffiliation from the UM Church, further reducing traditionalist voting strength.

The projections made in 2019 were borne out by the vote counts at the various jurisdictions. The three resolutions passed by every jurisdiction obtained over 80 percent support in most cases. The most conservative jurisdiction is the Southeastern Jurisdiction. There, centrists and progressives made up two-thirds of the delegates.

Based on these vote counts, it is likely that the U.S. delegates to the 2024 General Conference will be at least 75 percent centrists and progressives. This would give centrists and progressives a solid majority of the conference if this year’s delegates continue to serve for General Conference.

If new delegates are elected for the 2024 General Conference, there will be a reduction in U.S. delegates and an increase in African delegates due to changing membership numbers. Unless traditionalists are completely shut out in the U.S., this shift will result in a much narrower margin for centrists and progressives. The wild card here is what would happen in annual conferences that experience high rates of disaffiliation. If those conferences, like Texas, South Georgia, and Alabama-West Florida, shift markedly toward centrist and progressive delegates, that would increase the margin and give centrists and progressives a solid majority at General Conference.

Future Directions of the UM Church. It is abundantly clear from the three resolutions passed by the five jurisdictions that the affirmation of LGBTQ+ persons and lifestyles will be a primary agenda item for the denomination. The Queer Delegates’ Resolution (the official title) affirms that each jurisdiction:

“Commits to a future of The United Methodist Church where LGBTQIA+ people will be protected, affirmed, and empowered in the life and ministry of the church in our Jurisdiction, including as laity, ordained clergy, in the episcopacy, and on boards and agencies.”

One jurisdiction held a two-hour presentation for all delegates on combatting heterosexism, which affirmed all sexual orientations and gender identities, as well as promoting the acceptance of same-gender relationships and transgender reassignment.

Another priority for the UM Church going forward will be to continue addressing the challenge of racism. Two of the jurisdictions encountered difficult circumstances around bishop elections and nomination of candidates that contributed to a perception that racism had entered into the process. One jurisdiction adjourned into executive closed session to address issues of racism connected to the conference.

The United Methodist Church is the second most white mainline Protestant denomination in the U.S. (94 percent white), following the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Unfortunately, even a decades-long focus on representation and gender and ethnic diversity in the church’s leadership has not translated into a growing diversity at the grass roots of the church. Nevertheless, the emphasis on diversity continues. This strategy deserves rethinking.

A third priority for the UM Church will be instituting a regionalized system of governance. The Christmas Covenant proposal was overwhelmingly endorsed by all five jurisdictions. This proposal would create the U.S. part of the church as its own regional conference, along with three conferences in Africa, three in Europe, and one in the Philippines. Each regional conference would have broad powers to create its own rules and standards and adapt the Book of Discipline to fit the context and opinions of that region. The driving force behind this proposal is to allow the U.S. and Western European parts of the church to affirm LGBTQ+ relationships and lifestyles, while allowing Africa and perhaps the Philippines to maintain their more traditional understandings of marriage and sexuality. Although there may be a majority of delegates supporting this proposal, it will not have the two-thirds vote needed to pass General Conference unless the African delegates can be persuaded to support it. African leaders have previously said they could not remain in a church that endorsed same-sex relationships, even if they themselves were not forced to join in that endorsement. African delegates and members have the numbers to single-handedly block regionalization if they do not support it.

A fourth priority for the UM Church going forward will be a realignment of conference boundaries. Due to the disaffiliation of 10-20 percent of United Methodist members and churches, some annual conferences will become too small to be sustainable. There will likely be mergers and consolidation of some annual conferences. The jurisdictions recognized this reality by not filling all the vacant bishop positions. There will be seven episcopal areas with no resident bishop, with those areas being covered by nearby bishops (three in Northeast and two each in Southeast and South Central; additional vacancies will occur in North Central in 2024 due to episcopal retirements). Some annual conferences may remain intact but share a bishop with an adjacent annual conference.

There is also a working group studying the possibility of revising or eliminating the jurisdictional system altogether, which came up during floor debate in some of the jurisdictional conferences. The jurisdictions are a holdover from a racist past, having been formed in the 1939 Methodist Church merger of North and South, which also created a separate jurisdiction for Black Methodist congregations and clergy. That separate jurisdiction was eliminated in the 1968 United Methodist merger, but the regional jurisdictions remain and have fostered regional differences in the church that led to disunity. Changes to the jurisdictional system will require a two-thirds vote to amend the church’s Constitution.

Given these four priorities, two of which would entail major structural changes, it is questionable whether denominational leaders will have the bandwidth or energy to pursue essential components like evangelism, church revitalization, caring for the poor, church planting, and cross-cultural ministry. Local churches will be expected to assume primary responsibility for these areas, and they may or may not be equipped to do so.

The 2022 jurisdictional conferences provided an illuminating look at the current reality of the UM Church in the U.S., as well as some of the potential directions the denomination might take into the future. In the words of Jesus, “Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand!” (Matthew 11:15).

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. This essay first appeared in Firebrand (firebrandmag.com) and is republished by permission. Photo: Shutterstock.

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