Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
There has been a lot of conversation about the possibility of a coming split in The United Methodist Church since General Conference 2019. Secular media has speculated about it. Members of the Renewal and Reform Coalition have been calling for separation or "mitosis." The recent UMC Forward and UMC Next events discussed this possibility. Even the Council of Bishops "is exploring models and plans of new forms of unity."
There are, to put it mildly, many questions that arise from the possibility of such a split. On a basic level, there are many different ways separation could happen – one group leaving the existing structure and another staying, all current connections being dissolved with congregations or annual conferences left to determine their own plans, two or more groups negotiating a plan of separation, and probably other possibilities as well.
Assuming some sort of negotiated plan of separation, questions then arise of who will be doing the negotiation. What authority will they have to speak for a wider group? What voices will be part of the negotiation, and whose interests will they represent – theologically and in terms of a variety of identity issues (race, gender, sexuality, nationality, etc.)?
Then there are questions regarding the details of the separation, including the following:
1. What happens to the central conferences? Do they become autonomous? Do they go with one group as a default? Does each of them vote on autonomy or affiliation with one group? Is the central conference even the right body to make these decisions in all cases, or would it make more sense for episcopal areas or annual conferences to make such decisions in some cases? Allowing United Methodist outside the US to make these decisions themselves is necessary for a division to happen in a non-colonialist way. It is quite likely that different central conferences would make different decisions. It is also likely that there will be differences of opinion within some central conferences.
2. Who (if anyone) keeps the name “The United Methodist Church”? If one group keeps the name and the other doesn’t, then it seems more like an exit than a division. If neither group keeps the name, then it seems more like a mutual division.
3. Who (if anyone) keeps the cross and flame insignia? Again, if one group keeps the name and the other doesn’t, then it seems more like an exit than a division. If neither group keeps or both groups keep the cross and flame, then it seems more like a mutual division. Both groups continuing to use the same logo may cause confusion, though, unless there is some modification by one or both groups.
4. When determining which congregations and clergy become part of which group, is there a default option for affiliation, or does every congregation and clergy person vote? If there is a default option in the division, what is it – the progressive or the traditionalist group? Who determines that default? At what geographical level is it determined – jurisdiction? annual conference? This may be the most contentious issue, since whichever group is the default option with likely retain divided congregations or congregations reluctant to vote.
5. What happens to the boards and agencies? Do they go with one group? Is it necessary that they all go with the same group? Are at least some of the boards and agencies shared between groups? Do they become independent non-profits, able to serve Methodist groups and non-Methodists alike? If they do not continue to be part of one group solely, how will their boards be determined? In any case, what will their revenue streams look like? Will they be dissolved, their assets liquidated and split?
6. What happens to other United Methodist-related institutions such as seminaries, colleges, hospitals, non-profits, etc.? Do they choose a group? Do they cease to be church-affiliated at all? What does that affiliation look like? In cases where there are currently United-Methodist appointed trustees, who will appoint those trustees in the future?
7. What, if any, opportunities will there be for on-going relationship across newly separated parts of the church, including perhaps newly autonomous central conference regions? Will they all be part of the World Methodist Council? Will there be other avenues to foster those relationships, such as some non-law-making continuation of General Conference? Will boards and agencies continue to serve as means of fostering relationships? Will there continue to be direct relationships between annual conferences or local churches?
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is the question, to the extent that congregations, annual conferences, and/or church institutions are choosing between groups, what are the defining issues by which those choices are being framed? Will the choice just be about views on queer ordination and gay marriage, or will each group articulate a larger vision of the church, say around a particular understanding of holiness, full inclusion and affirmation of all people, and/or opposition to systemic oppression in all its forms? This question has particular salience for United Methodists of color and United Methodists in the central conferences, who may not see themselves aligning perfectly with either side in a split if the terms are set solely by white Americans.