Today's piece is by Dr. Philip Wingeier-Rayo. Dr. Wingeier-Rayo is Dean of Wesley Theological Seminary.
From its very inception, the Methodist movement has offered a relevant message as it has attempted to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Mt 5: 13-14). This quest for relevance has led to a close relationship between The United Methodist Church (and its predecessors) and the United States of America. The Methodist Episcopal Church was born a year after the United States won its independence from England, has a parallel governance structure, has an overlapping history with the United States, and has struggled through wars and social issues together. This parallel history, which I recount below, raises questions about the broader significance for American civil life of the current conflicts in The United Methodist Church.
Methodist Origins in the United States
Methodism was brought to America by European immigrants such as Barbara Heck, Philip Embury, and Robert Strawbridge. They opened the first Methodist societies in New York and Baltimore to minister to immigrants. Even after John Wesley began sending British missionaries in 1769, most of them left during the American revolutionary war. Of all the missionaries Wesley sent, only Francis Asbury remained and risked his life during the revolutionary war, thus beginning the intertwining history of American Methodism.
Following independence, Asbury took a very American stance by refusing Wesley’s order to be named a superintendent and submitted himself to a democratic vote by the American preachers at the Christmas Conference in 1784. And so the Methodist Episcopal Church was born just one year after the war of independence. Just as in the U.S. Constitution, United Methodist polity has three branches of government: executive, legislative and judicial.
As the nation grew, so did American Methodism. The nation expanded west into the frontier, Circuit Riders accompanied the settlers, and the parallels continued.
Division over Slavery
As the nation and the church both grew, American Methodism reflected the conflicts and struggles of the nation. The Book of Discipline opposed preachers owning slaves, so when Bishop James Andrew of Georgia inherited enslaved Africans, a formal complaint was filed, and he was suspended from his duties. Delegates from the American south met in 1845 to start the Methodist Episcopal Church, South and split the church. This was a foreshadowing of national conflict over slavery. The Civil War began in 1861 and, over the next four years, claimed 618,222 lives – by far the greatest toll of any war in American history. There were Methodists who fought on both sides.
Northern and southern Methodists were also active during the reconstruction period, founded orphanages, schools, hospitals, and many Methodist educational institutions. In fact, it was this missional collaboration that led to dialogue toward unification in 1939.
The Central Jurisdiction and Integration
This was during the Jim Crow era, and so the 1939 unification of the Methodist Church allowed for the creation of the Central Jurisdiction—a racially segregated jurisdiction for African American churches. Nevertheless, America began a slow and painful journey toward integration and American Methodism was in the middle of the struggle.
The owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey, a Methodist, invited Jackie Robinson, who attended a Methodist Church in Pasadena, California, to break the color line in Major League Baseball. The Montgomery Bus Boycott began when a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Rosa Parks, was arrested for not giving up her seat to a White man. Methodist and later United Methodist Civil Rights leaders such as James Farmer, Joe Lowery, and James Lawson played significant roles in the movement.
As a denomination living through the Civil Rights movement, it became clear that the Central Jurisdiction was increasingly out of step with American values and Methodist beliefs. The Central Jurisdiction ended in 1967, just in time for the Uniting Conference of 1968, where the Evangelical United Brethren and the Methodist Church joined to become The United Methodist Church.
Rush Limbaugh and Big Tent Methodism
The newly merged United Methodist Church reflected what many referred to as “big tent Methodism” – a tradition with members from a variety of social backgrounds and political beliefs. Yet, The United Methodist Church has continued to parallel the struggles of American society on many social issues, as has become increasingly clear in recent years.
At the February 4, 2020 State of the Union Address, President Trump awarded Rush Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Limbaugh, a United Methodist, is a conservative radio talk-show host perhaps most known for his 2012 comments in a national health care debate when another United Methodist, Sandra Fluke, a United Methodist pastor’s daughter, testified before the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee about her struggle to have Georgetown University’s student health insurance cover birth control. Limbaugh criticized Fluke as a “slut” and “prostitute,” claiming that the American taxpayer should not have to pay for her to have sex. Limbaugh later apologized, but this public dispute illustrated the political and social distance between United Methodists on issues such as health care. I personally condemn Limbaugh’s choice of words and his participation in misogynistic and racist conspiracy theories, but I hope that the church can be a place where diverse people can find a spiritual home that allows them to be exposed to those whom hold differing views and thus grow in their love for one another.
More recently, a formal complaint was made by some United Methodists to Bishop David Graves of the Alabama-W. Florida Annual Conference as one of his members, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions carried out the Trump administration’s family separation policy that violated the UMC’s stance to “oppose immigration policies that separate family members from each other…” (UM Book of Discipline-2016). Bishop Graves dismissed the charges against Sessions, stating that “a political action is not personal conduct when the political officer is carrying out official policy.”
Just as the struggle over slavery divided the Methodist Episcopal Church before the Civil War, I fear that a division within the United Methodist Church could be a precursor to another U.S. Civil War. If our denomination has been broad enough to have divergent perspectives under the same big tent, we can remain together over human sexuality. There are so many other areas of history, doctrine, and polity that unite us that we should not let human sexuality be the divisive issue. The people of the UMC can learn to have civil and respectful conversations about human sexuality as a witness to the U.S. and the world. Splitting will not get rid of the practices that we disagree with; they will continue but under different denominations. We are called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. If United Methodists split and two or three distinct denominations emerge, this is not a good foreshadowing for the nation whom we have mirrored at every stage of U.S. history.