Methodists in Search of Their Founder

By Don Rollins

He probably wasn’t the hippest cat at Oxford, John Wesley. He was a sickly mama’s boy who grew up to be a neo-ascetic with a dysfunctional marriage. He was a control freak, often dour and given to bouts of depression. Yet what the 18th-century, seminal mover of Methodism lacked in charm and domestic bliss, he more than made up with personal integrity, grassroots theology and unflagging efforts for prison reform and against the slave trade.

In comparison, Luther despised the uneducated underclass.

Calvin burned a few at the stake; but the equally scholarly Wesley focused his fifty-plus-year ministry on the poor – a ministry that called to reckoning the social conscience of his beloved Church of England. (Only after his death did his followers leave the Anglican fold.)

The communion Wesley didn’t mean to found made the news earlier this month as it held its latest, every-four-years alley fight over gay folks. The last holdout among large mainline Protestant bodies on the issues of membership and ordination for homosexuals, the United Methodist Church (UMC) at its quadrennial General Conference voted by a 61-39 percent margin to stay the course.

Supporters of ending the ban were not shocked at the news – the UMC has in one form or another been debating homosexual membership and ordination since 1972 – but disconcerting to many was the fact that the margin was greater than in 2008, portending a trend that is at once theological and regional.

Like other mainline traditions, the UMC has for decades been hemorrhaging members and losing influence in the US. Median age is rising even as membership has dipped below the 8 million mark, reducing at General Conference the number of American delegates.

This is in stark contrast to what’s happening elsewhere. For the first time some 40% of Conference delegates were from foreign lands, where the church’s numbers are 4.4 million and on the increase. (The vast majority of the growth is situated in Africa and the Philippines, where orthodox evangelical theology holds firm sway.)

But Methodism is not alone. Students of global Christianity will recognize this trend toward “Southernization” because every other mainline denomination has been similarly affected. Mostly due to deep disagreements over homosexuality (and biblical inerrancy) whole ecclesiastical bodies in the US have begun severing longstanding domestic ties and aligning themselves with judicatories in the more conservative Southern Hemisphere.

In some instances the dissenting synods, dioceses and conferences would sooner pledge allegiance and send resources halfway around the world than halfway across town.

Little wonder the UMC hierarchy keeps trying to apply the same Band-Aid to the same gaping wound.

Given this southward shift in locus of control, it’s hard to imagine a different fate for United Methodism than the schisms that are underway in its sister traditions. So blatant is the turning of its theological tide that progressive delegates at the General Conference tabled additional gay-friendly proposals rather than risk further embarrassing and counterproductive votes.

Methodism has never been easy. Taken at its Wesleyan core, it’s a rigorous faith, not for spiritual slackers. For progressive United Methodists, it’s become even harder, raising the question of how a person can hold a moral center that is neither moral nor centrist.

Don Rollins lives in Raleigh, N.C. Email

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2012

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