Different viewpoints over societal changes have led some to speculate whether the unity of The United Methodist Church will hold when its top legislative body meets in May 2016.
While disputes over maintaining the denomination’s official opposition to gay clergy and same-sex marriage have dominated recent General Conferences, there have been serious disagreements before on social, theological and church governance issues, points out the Rev. Alfred T. Day III, top executive of the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History.
2016 general conference
The next meeting of The United Methodist Church’s top legislative body will be at the Oregon Convention Center, the largest convention center in the Pacific Northwest, on May 10-20, 2016.
What is amazing to Day, as a church historian, are the General Conference actions that occurred despite these differences.
The lens of history allows the church to step back and take a longer view of General Conference and discover that “somehow, God and the Spirit are in the process” all along. “I think we don’t give ourselves enough credit,” he said.
‘People of the middle’
While the influence of church members outside the U.S. continues to grow, in some respects General Conference still reflects the fact that The United Methodist Church lives “right smack in the American middle” of political and social issues.
“Being people of the middle means we’re made up of big chunks of this and big chunks of that,” Day said. And that, he added, contributes to the struggle for denominational unity.
The larger cultural currents that have been part of the General Conference experience since the 1960s are summarized in a book, “United Methodism at 40,” written by three United Methodist historians — Charles Yrigoyen Jr., John G. McEllhenney and Kenneth E. Rowe.
“They took a look at the journey that United Methodism has been on since the merger in 1968,” Day said.
Among those cultural currents are the struggle to find liberation and demands for inclusion. Along with society, Day noted, “The church is making vigorous efforts to include women and racial and ethnic minorities in every level of life.”
Unity in the civil rights era
The largest change, of course, was the creation of The United Methodist Church as a merger of the Methodist Church and Evangelical United Brethren Church on April 23, 1968.
Just as significant at the 1964 and 1968 General Conferences, Day believes, was the dissolution of the Methodist Central Jurisdiction and unification of African-American congregations.
“I don’t think we can talk about adding the ‘united’ without remembering that there was a reunion of African-American churches or a union of African-American churches and Anglo churches all in the same conference,” he explained.
Racism and slavery were the driving factors in the late 18th century that caused some African-American Methodists to form their own denominations, the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church Zion. Another division in 1870 led to the creation of Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.
In 1844, slavery split the Methodist Episcopal Church into northern and southern factions. Those factions reunited in 1939 when a compromise on the racial issue created the Central Jurisdiction, a segregated system forcing the separation of African-American Methodists from the five geographic jurisdictions of the denomination.
The Central Jurisdiction was dissolved in 1968 when The United Methodist Church was created.
During the 2004 reunion of the Central Jurisdiction, participants remembered most African Americans protested the church’s decision. They also noted that the nation moved faster than the church in dismantling racism.
“When reunion finally became a reality in 1968, I knew the beneficiaries of this new church would not just be African Americans in the Central Jurisdiction,” said retired Bishop Forrest C. Stith during the gathering in Atlanta, “but whites as well, for we brought with us not only a property or resource gain, but we brought a deep spirit of faithfulness and the love from one another that could not be transcended.”
Commitment to diversity
In subsequent General Conferences, a commitment to diversity has expanded in a programmatic way. “We’ve really wrestled with trying to be an open and inclusive church beyond the human sexuality issue,” Day said.
Over the years, six ethnic/language ministry plans were adopted — the Native American Comprehensive Plan (1988); National Plan for Hispanic/Latino Ministry (1992) Korean Ministry Plan (1996); Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century (1996); Asian American Language Ministry (1996); and Pacific Islander Ministry Plan (2012).
Prior to the 2012 General Conference, the Inter-Ethnic Strategy Development Group noted that the plans are slowly drawing more people of color into a denomination where the majority of the membership remains white. But more will be needed to nurture leaders who are ethnic or racial minorities and help reverse decades of declining and aging U.S. membership, the group said.
A beacon of hope
On the continent of Africa, where United Methodism is growing fast, the dream of Africa University as a place to nurture those diverse leaders has burned bright for more than 20 years.
The 1998 General Conference of The United Methodist Church unanimously approved the founding of Africa University, a private pan-African institution, and made a commitment to provide financial support for the university from the general church budget, US$25 million annually.
Africa University’s mandate is to create leaders for the continent grounded in Christian morals, ethics and values. The 2015 graduation class of Africa University included 694 students from 14 African countries. More than 5,500 graduates are working in agriculture, technology, government, peace-building and more across the continent.
Other initiatives included Acts of Repentance toward African Americans and Native Americans and other indigenous people, and a full-communion agreement with the historically black Methodist denominations through the Pan-Methodist Commission.
Women slowly made gains as well. Although women had attained full clergy rights in 1956, it was not until 1976 that 10 women clergy were elected as General Conference delegates for the first time. Four years later, Marjorie Swank Mathews became the first woman elected bishop in The United Methodist Church.
In addition to inclusion of diverse groups, cultural trends from the 1960s onward identified in “United Methodism at 40” included:
- The struggle for liberation, in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation and poverty.
- The rise of autonomy, or the culture of “do your own thing,” as a “stress point” for the denomination’s connectional DNA.
- The increasing participation of church members in protests, marches, social movements and cultural events, such as Woodstock.
- The push, through globalization and modern communications, into experiences of famine, revolutions and wars, bringing new points of disagreement among church members.
Those trends resulted in such action as divestment in companies doing business with the apartheid government in South Africa; the approval of denomination-wide boycotts against Nestle, Shell Oil and Taco Bell and the creation of “Shalom Zone” ministries in urban communities after rioting broke out in Los Angeles following the Rodney King trial.
So while the conclusion of every General Conference brings expressions of frustration, some actions take on significance for the long run, Day noted.
“We’re on a journey and we’re right in the middle of it,” he explained. “Taking the long view, I think, gives us a little better perspective about that. We have been anything but static.”
Bloom and Gilbert are United Methodist News Service multimedia reporters based in New York and Nashville. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org