As of May 1, the largest body of Methodists in the world has split, officially, into The United Methodist Church (UMC) and the Global Methodist Church (GMC), formalizing divisions that had until now been contained, mostly, within United Methodism. What is the ecclesiological significance of this new reality? Answers have varied.
A number of people have argued that this division damages the public witness of the church. Rather than living as an example of living together despite differences, this line of reasoning suggests, United Methodists (and now Global Methodists) have become just another instance of social fragmentation. This position, however, is less about ecclesiology than it is about publicity; the concern is not so much about the coherence of the church as it is about the perception of the church by those outside the church. The same can be said of this position’s mirror: the belief that this breakup will foster a greater witness because each side can take advantage of market segmentation and reach its preferred target audience.
Others have suggested that the split is no big deal. After all, there are dozens of denominations; the creation of one or two more hardly impacts the unity of the church. This is a more ecclesiologically oriented response, but it also begs the question of how large a break needs to be before Christians start worrying about it. (A million members here, a million there, and soon you’re starting to talk about real numbers.)
A third answer, most clearly articulated by J. Warren Smith of Duke Divinity School in the online magazine Firebrand, claims that the breakup represents a failure of The UMC to be the church in the first place. Smith, who counsels patient endurance, does not endorse the conclusion that seems to follow directly from this claim. If The UMC (and now the GMC) does not know how to be the church, then whoever wants to have anything to do with the church should go elsewhere. (As a matter of full disclosure, I agree with Smith, and I also hesitate in the face of this conclusion.)
Notice two characteristics shared among each of these different takes. First is a disregard for what is happening in non-United Methodisms. There are vibrant Methodisms around the world, some that are United Methodist and many that are not. Just as there is more to the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church than Methodism, so there is more to Methodism than United Methodism. This parochialism of United Methodists is understandable, but it is also culpable. In ecclesiological terms, it is not enough to hold together the unity of The United Methodist Church (this is something those who claim the split is no big deal get right); we seek, and Christ prays for, a greater unity. Indeed, the ongoing existence of The UMC perpetuates some level of disunity within the church unless there is work toward this greater unity.
The second characteristic these positions share is the avoidance of an essential ecclesiological affirmation: Methodism is provisional, not ultimate. The good things of our heritage and of our way of following Jesus are God’s gifts to the church, given only for a time. This affirmation requires more of us than trotting out John Wesley’s late-life fear, not “that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist … [but] lest they should only exist as a dead sect.” It requires us to adopt an eschatological perspective. Our hope in this regard is not that we will be good Methodists for all eternity but that we will be blessed to see God, that “what we shall be” will be revealed because we will see Jesus Christ as he is, and that we will hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servants; enter into the joy of your Lord.” The future is not Methodist. The future is Christ.
A world without Methodism, therefore, is not necessarily a world in which Methodism, or Methodist denominations, has failed. It may well be a world in which the prayer for Christian unity is being answered. After all, to truly pray with Jesus that “we may all be one” is to pray for the end of our denominations, at least in the divisive form we now see and experience them.
May 1 is a lamentable day in the history of Methodism and in the life of the church. Nevertheless, this schism presents an opportunity to embrace a holy discontentment with denominational parochialism and to acknowledge our provisionality. It should motivate us who are, or were, United Methodists to seek the greater unity that is found in our true end. We may even find we have something to celebrate: not our sinful failures, of course, to hold together what unity we have had, but the promise of life after (United) Methodism in the only future that is worthy of our hope.