The United Methodist Church’s fate is not a matter of life and death. But it may well be a matter of death and life.
So says the Rev. William B. Lawrence in his new book “A Methodist Requiem: Words of Hope and Resurrection for the Church.”
In just 127 pages, Lawrence covers the history of division within Methodism, the death of the small, northeastern Pennsylvania United Methodist church in which he grew up, and the current threat of denominational schism over how accepting to be of homosexuality.
Lawrence sugarcoats nothing. But he believes Methodism, as a Christian movement, has much to offer and will go forward, whatever else happens.
And he counsels United Methodists to keep the faith.
“If you trust in God, you don’t panic,” Lawrence said in an interview with United Methodist News Service, paraphrasing Isaiah 28:16, a verse he said became “profoundly important” to him as he worked on the book.
Buy the book
The book, which is in study guide format, is published by Wesley’s Foundery Books, an imprint of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry.
Learn more about Foundery Books and other Higher Education and Ministry publications at www.gbhem.org/about/publications.
Lawrence is a triple-threat expert on The United Methodist Church. He was a pastor and district superintendent. He’s a Ph.D-holding church historian, having taught or been an administrator at three United Methodists seminaries, including 14 years as dean of Perkins School of Theology.
He also knows United Methodist polity from the inside, as former president of the Judicial Council, the denomination’s top court.
Lawrence has written other books about The United Methodist Church, but the new one (published by the Board of Higher Education and Ministry in study guide format) is his most personal.
In “A Methodist Requiem,” Lawrence describes the great influence that the Methodist church in Alden Station, Pennsylvania, had on him, his family and the community during his formative years. One by one, he names the church’s saints:
“There was Gertrude Fairchild, who handled the nursery class every Sunday and who helped the Methodist Youth Fellowship lead an Easter Sunrise service every spring. During the rest of her time, on mornings after her husband Harry went to work around the coal mines, she managed her family’s general store, struggling to keep it in business.”
Two years ago, under its final name as Newport United Methodist, the church closed. Lawrence relates the decline of coal mining in the region, along with other economic and cultural realities. He builds to a series of questions about the church’s fate, including:
“Did it die because steep population declines made its endurance untenable? Or did it die because small churches in small towns with big problems had fallen off the radar of Methodist mission?”
Lawrence said the church’s closing was one reason he wrote “A Methodist Requiem.” The other was growing talk of schism in The United Methodist Church after the 2016 election of the Rev. Karen Oliveto, a lesbian, as bishop.
Shifting into church historian mode, he writes about several splits Methodism already has endured in the United States, including over the nature of pastoral appointments, clergy versus laity control of denomination governance, and slavery.
Lawrence elaborates two possibilities for The United Methodist Church, given current tensions — divorce and disconnect.
Divorce is what happened in 1844 when Southerners who supported slavery left the Methodist Episcopal Church to form the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.
But divorce in The United Methodist Church, which is now worldwide, with not only local churches but agencies, colleges, seminaries and other assets, would be far more complicated and costly. How, for example, does the denomination split if that involves dealing with the laws of multiple nations?
“The model of divorce is available through a historic precedent,” Lawrence writes. “However, in the twenty-first century, these proceedings will be extremely messy.”
The disconnect option also is part of Methodist history, and Lawrence gives examples, such as colleges and health care institutions that began in the church but broke away. He uses his polity background to explore the trust clause challenge and others, should local churches on a large scale seek independence from The United Methodist church.
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While his analysis is not cheerful, Lawrence finds hope amid the current troubles. He thinks United Methodists can begin to get over what he sees as an unfortunate preoccupation with institutional preservation, and focus again on connectionalism and Methodism’s historic mission of, in John Wesley’s words, spreading “scriptural holiness over the land.”
“In a single frame, (Wesley) focused both on personal salvation and public welfare,” Lawrence writes. “He saw spiritual significance in addressing both the sin that imprisons souls and the souls that are sequestered in prisons.”
Lawrence sketches various needs Methodism could meet around the world, as it once met needs in the U.S. by creating colleges and hospitals. He draws on the Biblical stories of Abraham and the prodigal son in arguing for why trust in God is paramount and life can be found on the other side of spiritual or institutional death.
As for having “requiem” in his title, Lawrence said the secular understanding of the word is all about death, but the Christian understanding is different.
“The requiem service, whether it’s sung or spoken, recognizes the reality of a death and affirms the even stronger reality of our hope in resurrection,” he said.
Lawrence stepped down as dean of Perkins, part of Dallas’ Southern Methodist University, in 2016. He moved with his wife, Naomi, to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. But he’s remained on Perkins’ faculty, taking a research leave, and then commuting to fulfill teaching obligations. He retires in May.
He’s beginning work on a history of religion for use in local churches, and a biography of Joshua Soule, an important figure in 19th century American Methodism.
Lawrence said he hasn’t been asked to speak to the Commission on a Way Forward, the group advising the Council of Bishops on how the denomination might stay unified.
What would he say to the commission, other than read “A Methodist Requiem”?
“I would ask them first of all to read the whole book, and then go back and focus on the practical issues that are identified in those pages that discuss the metaphors or models called `divorce’ or `disconnect.’”
Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.
News media contact: Vicki Brown at (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.