Wednesday, March 3, 2021

A New Era in United Methodist Politics: New Parties

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian 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.

As detailed in my last post, The United Methodist Church is entering a new era of politics, one in which old patterns are being disrupted, leading to fluidity and unpredictability. Four major issues will confront the church—sexuality, unity vs. division, regionalization, and denominational institutions—that cannot be reduced to one another. These different issues have varying significance for individual United Methodists, and individuals’ opinions on one issue are not necessarily good predictors of their opinions on the other issues.

Within that context, this post will try to identify some of the different parties or groups within the church based on the issue or issues they find most important and their stance on issues. There are eight such groups identified. These groups also overlap at points. This variety of overlapping and intersecting groups should underscore the complexity of UMC politics at the present moment.

Traditionalists have historically been defined by a traditional understanding of sexuality, though not all with a traditional understanding of sexuality count as members of the Traditionalist bloc. Rather, Traditionalists are those who have prioritized engaging in social issue and theological fights within the denomination. This is a significant bloc within the United States with allies in Eurasia, the Philippines, and Africa. The Wesleyan Covenant Association, Good News Magazine, The Confessing Movement, the Africa Initiative, and the Institute on Religion and Democracy are just some of the organizations associated with the Traditionalist bloc.

While historically the Traditionalist bloc has been most concerned with the UMC’s stance on sexuality, a shift has occurred, and the top priority issue for Traditionalists is now passage of the Protocol, which would allow them to leave the denomination relatively easily with their properties and a $25 million payout. Traditionalists appear ambivalent or hostile to efforts to regionalize the church or reform denominational institutions.

Exiting Liberationists
At the other end of the theopolitical spectrum, but in some ways mirroring the Traditionalists, are Liberationists who are planning to exit the denomination. This is a fairly small group of US United Methodists, mostly associated with the Liberation Methodist Connexion, but a number serve as General Conference delegates, making it a notable position. Although the group is defined by its views on sexuality, like Traditionalists, Liberationists’ top issue is currently leaving the denomination. Unlike Traditionalists, however, they are less focused on the Protocol as a means to do so. Like Traditionalists, they are ambivalent or hostile to what happens to the denominational structures they are leaving.

Progressives and Remaining Liberationists
There are a significant bloc of United Methodists in the United States and Europe who plan to remain in the UMC and whose top priority remains changing UMC policy to allow for the ordination of LGBTQ+ individuals and gay marriages. Reconciling Ministries Network and The Liberation Project are expressions of this group, and Progressive concerns are also included in UMC Next and Out of Chaos: Creation, though these groups also contain other elements (as indicated below). For many Progressives, anti-racist work is also a significant issue, though for Progressives in the United States, racism is understood in predominantly US-centric rather than global terms. Progressives and remaining liberationists are open to other issues, and some individuals are also part of other groups advocating for institutional reform, unity, and/or regionalization. For many Progressives, though, these other issues continue to be interpreted through the lens of their impact on sexuality.

There is a significant group of United Methodists around the world who may best be characterized by their loyalty to the institutions of the church and their concern for the future of those institutions. This group includes many bishops, cabinets, and agency staff. Some members of UMC Next are primarily Institutionalists. I believe the term Institutionalist is more helpful than Centrist, since this group is not primarily defined by their position on questions of sexuality but rather by their attachment to the institution; attitudes to sexuality (and other issues) vary within this group, and thus it overlaps with other groups, especially the Progressives, Internationalists, Regionalists, and Localists.

The primary political goal of this group is to preserve the current structures of the UMC to the extent possible. However, the “to the extent possible” phrase indicates the difficulties in achieving this goal and the diversity of approaches toward that goal. There is internal conflict among Institutionalists over how best to preserve structures and how much to spend on this effort. Most Institutionalists, though, form their opinions in response to various official proposals (GCFA proposals, episcopal study committee recommendations, calls by the bishops, etc.).

There is another group that is also primarily defined by their views on the institutions of the UMC. However, rather than trying to preserve those institutions, this group sees the current moment in the church as an opportunity to make significant changes and reforms to those institutions. Many also support regionalization as part of those larger changes. There is diversity within this group over how best to innovate, with a variety of unique solutions set forward. This is a very small group of inside players, including some bishops, agency staff, and church planters, but because they are inside players, their views garner attention.

There is a significant minority of United Methodists throughout the world who are primarily characterized by their commitment to preserving some sort of organic connection between different regions of the UMC, that is, unity. This view is strongest in the central conferences and finds expression in groups like the Christmas Covenant, central conference bishops, Africa Voices of Unity, and Out of Chaos: Creation (though that last group also reflects Progressive views).

This group is generally supportive of regionalization as a means to preserve (and reform) international connectional structures. Many are critical of colonialism (and its associated racism) in the church as a hindrance to international connectional structure. Members of this group hold a variety of views on denominational institutions, but they generally recognize a need to make some changes and reforms. This group also holds a variety of views regarding sexuality, with those views mainly falling out along geographic lines. Nevertheless, they are generally willing to let that issue be decided locally.

While the groups mentioned thus far are primarily defined by their stance on denomination-wide issues, the last two groups are characterized by a more limited geographic focus. Regionalists are those United Methodists who are most concerned with the future of the UMC in their region, regardless of what happens to the rest of the denomination globally. This is a significant position in the Western Jurisdiction in the United States and throughout the central conferences.

Regionalists may be either progressive (e.g., the Western Jurisdiction, Germany) or traditionalist (e.g., Africa) on issues of sexuality, but are mostly focused on finding local solutions to conflicts over sexuality, regardless of the actions of the rest of the denomination. Regionalists are generally supportive of regionalization (e.g., through passing the Christmas Covenant) as a means to facilitate a primary focus on regional issues. There is a significant overlap with internationalists, though the two groups differ in the emphasis given to the two parts of the formula “unity through regionalization.”

It is easy for United Methodist insiders to forget that the single largest group of laity and one of the most significant groups of clergy around the world is primarily concerned not with denomination-wide issues, but with church, district, and annual conference issues. Such a focus is almost non-existent among US General Conference delegates because of the nationalization of politics within the United States, but Localists are still a notable group among African, Filipino, and Eastern European delegates. These delegates are elected to General Conference not because of their position on denominational issues but because of their prominence within the annual conference. Indeed, some Localist delegates may be relatively uninformed or not have strong opinions on many denomination-wide issues. Because of their geographic background, Localists tend to be traditionalist in their understanding of sexuality, but this position does not necessarily predict their position on other pressing issues such as the Protocol, Christmas Covenant, or reforming denominational institutions.

An Era of New Parties
As I hope the above makes clear, it is difficult to predict any given United Methodist’s stance on the whole range of issues before the church based on their stance on any one issue. There are differences both among and within parties on the salience of issues and the right solution to those issues. This means that there is both a significant amount of uncertainty around how the church will move forward on its most pressing issues and a significant opportunity for forging new coalitions between various groups. Indeed, the politics of the UMC going forward will be determined by what new coalitions arise and how strong those coalitions prove to be.

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