Liberal theologian opposes Methodist schism, offers no alternative

Monday, January 27, 2020
Michael F. Haverluck (

UMC logoThe president of The Institute on Religion & Democracy says "liberal elites" within the United Methodist Church were taken by surprise when African conservatives delayed plans to liberalize the denomination and move it away biblical from orthodoxy.

In a piece published on IRD's blog site, Juicy Ecumenism, Mark Tooley says some "older institutionalists" in the United Methodist Church are vehemently opposed to the looming split in the UMC, one of them calling the recently unveiled Protocol proposal to divide the denomination "truly appalling." In fact, retired seminary chief William Lawrence – who offered that description – suggests the recently unveiled Protocol proposal to divide the UMC is a crime.

"[F]or decades, 'traditionalists' and their allies have held the denomination hostage over legislation on homosexuality," said Lawrence, who called the Protocol's $25-million payment to a new traditional Methodist denomination a "ransom note," as noted by Tooley.

The Institute on Religion & Democracy seeks to reaffirm and renew the biblical and historical teachings of Christianity.

Lawrence also complained that even more money could be funneled out of pro-LGBT Methodists' hands. "More than $50,000,000 [could be paid] to a new Methodist denomination that might continue advocating discrimination on the basis of human sexuality without having to define the theological, ethical or moral basis on which it will deny the 'sacred worth' of all persons," the liberal theologian decried.

According to Tooley, Lawrence failed to give the big picture. "Of course, Lawrence doesn't admit that traditionalists are the global governing majority of United Methodism and could instead theoretically lay claim to all $800 million in general church agency assets," the IRD president noted.

Lawrence attempted to make it appear as if traditionalists were taking advantage of the system. "[I] wonder if a progressive group might arise, ask for similar privileges, and seek equal amounts of funding for some new Methodist denomination of its liking," he pondered.

Tooley gave an explanation to set the record straight.

"The Protocol potentially provides $2 million to any other new denomination, but progressives are essentially – under this plan – inheriting most United Methodist assets," the conservative Christian leader explained. "Apparently, [Lawrence] thinks the traditionalist majority should get nothing and, as in other mainline denominations, simply flee as refugees."

A clean break?

Both sides are preparing for a break.

"The Protocol is backed by liberal and conservative caucus groups who collectively realized schism was needed and inevitable," Tooley pointed out. "Traditionalists have a governing global majority thanks to the growing churches in Africa, [while] liberals still firmly control the declining USA part of the denomination."

However, Tooley continued, Lawrence yearns to preserve the unity from yesteryear.

Tooley, Mark (IRD)"Some older institutionalists are more firmly committed to preserving United Methodism structurally as it is – even as that structure implodes – but the age of great denominational bureaucracies in America is ending as deep loyalties to denominations are ending," Tooley noted. "American Christianity – for better or worse – has become post-denominational and congregationalist."

The IRD leader points out that decades ago, Methodist liberals had virtually uncontested control.

"Older liberal institutionalists like Lawrence are nostalgic for bygone decades when evangelicals in USA United Methodism were a barely tolerated disdained minority, [as] liberal bishops and church agency bureaucrats dictated denominational policy nonchalantly and indifferent to dissenting traditionalists," Tooley recounted.

"They assumed that United Methodism as a wealthy liberal mainline church was a permanent reality. This assumption began to collapse, at least for younger church elites, as membership and finances glided ever downward."

The growing Methodist church in Africa has tipped the scales, he explains.

"Older liberal church elites – along with nearly everybody else in the USA church – were unprepared for the sudden rise of United Methodism in Africa, which gave traditionalists a new governing majority, [and] under this new demographic reality, United Methodism gained a new trajectory very different from its sister liberal mainline denominations," Tooley added.

"Unlike them, it would not liberalize its teachings on marriage and sex; and unlike some of them, it would not effectively expel traditionalists and seize their church properties."

Despite LGBT activism continuing to pervade society and the Church as a whole, things haven't gone as planned for liberal Methodists, states Tooley.

"For older liberal church institutionalists like Lawrence, the last 10 years in United Methodism – climaxed by the 2019 Special General Conference, where liberal elites were defeated on sex – have been an unexpected nightmare," the IRD head noted.

"Traditionalists who were supposedly defeated and made irrelevant early in the last century are now ascendant, getting a 'ransom,' and a large chunk of USA congregations plus the overseas church, collectively the majority. What's left of the liberal USA church will face accelerating decline while saddled by unsustainable archaic bureaucracy. Even without schism and the Protocol, the USA church faces this grim future, plus continued civil war."

Yet Lawrence continues to bash the split without offering an alternative, Tooley highlights.

"He only heeps [sic] sarcasm on its organizers for their 'appalling' presumption, with their 'bold requests,' 'aggressive claims,' and demands for 'special privileges, want[ing] all the fuss to go away and pretend[ing] as though it's still 1985 – when confident liberal institutionalists still smoothly steered a slowly sinking tanker, bringing us to the present moment of schism."

"Fortunately, 2020 offers more opportunity for Methodist revival than did the suffocating decades of liberal institutionalism, when steady unquestioning decline, managed by an aloof bureaucracy, was the only appalling option. Lawrence warns that 'breaking up is really hard to do.' He's right, but it's far preferable to near certain denominational death."


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