With that in mind, I want to offer seven areas which we not only need the folks driving the train to address, but which all of us passengers need to discuss in order to share the ride. They are in more or less descending order of urgency to address.
This is the biggest and most acrimonious division among traditionalist Methodists. There’s been a lot of cross-fertilization between Baptists and others on the one hand and Methodists on the other. We have inter-married, transferred members back and forth, attended each other’s events, even accepted clergy from one tradition for service in the other. And then there’s our EUB strain, which is often appealed to by some people.
Will we have infant baptism or believer’s baptism in the new denomination? Will we allow for infant dedications? The first place we need to start to get a handle on this is our approach to the sacraments, generally: is baptism something we do toward God, or something God does toward us? No doubt, both God and we are concerned in whatever is going on, but where you place the primacy of action matters. If we are the primary actor, and baptism is something we do out of obedience to show God we mean it, then baptism is an ordinance and it does what it does when we mean it, and not before. (The problem of whether we knew what we meant at the time unavoidably comes up.) If God is the primary actor, and baptism is something he does to bring us into the Body of Christ and make us part of the kingdom that is to come, then baptism is a sacrament and it does what it does when God means it, and our feelings about it are entirely secondary. (The action of the baptizer is also secondary here, either as enabling the one being baptized to express oneself toward God or enabling God to express himself toward the baptizand.)
Historically, Methodism has lined up on the side of sacramentalism, which means God does the baptizing at whatever age the candidate is presented, and his action is unrepeatable. For those baptized too young to meaningfully express their own faith, we confirm them in the faith later. And we can “confirm” them as many times as we want. If you wander away and come back, God hasn’t moved, and your baptism is still valid. But we can lay hands on you and bless you and welcome you back, gladly.
Considered this way, I think we could very well include an option for infant dedication, if the parents choose. If we can confirm and re-affirm, then we can easily – er – pre-affirm. Well, isn’t that all that infant baptism does? No. Baptism is baptism, and it is not repeatable; however, our response to God bobbles and wanders and blows hot and cold. We need to be able to express our experience; but in baptism we are confessing our faith, which is something more than our experience. The danger here is that if we include an option for infant dedication, we will have to double and triple down on teaching a proper theology of baptism, or we will wind up with a blended theology of “whatever you want makes it so.”
In affirming proper teaching (and re-training a lot of clergy, whether they like it or not – hey, this matters) we need to consider how we have presented the New Birth. Can you overemphasize the New Birth? Well, you can present it in a skewed way. Some preachers pound away on a narrative of “before and after” that means that someone coming forward to accept Christ is encouraged to consider all that came before – childhood teaching, previously botched attempts to follow Christ, and even one’s baptism – as vain works that are swept away, giving the convert a blank slate upon which to write his confession of faith. But remember, we’re Arminians, not Calvinists. We acknowledge that God has been at work on us since the moment of our conception. His is the voice we have heard all our lives but did not fully recognize. If this is the moment at which we finally, fully realize that he is what we want, that doesn’t invalidate all that has gone before. Arminians should emphasize a grace narrative of “then and now,” not just “before and after.” Which means what was done before has been working in you all along to bring you to this moment. That includes your baptism. What we do with pastors who just have a jones for dunking people, I don’t know. Remind them that God got there before they did, at the least.
TWO: the Work of the Holy Spirit
I had never encountered the word “sanctification” in spoken modern English before attending Asbury Theological Seminary in the 1970s. Needless to say, I encountered it a lot there. And while the longer I live the more I want to be made holy and the more I see that this is what God wants and expects, I still can’t wrap my head around the 19th Century Holiness Movement’s two-zap theology (First you’re saved, then you’re sanctified, Why not tonight, etc.). I’m glad that we’re going to emphasize Christian perfection in the new denomination, as Wesley wanted us to, but trying to repeat the past is a mistake.
In any case, the problem isn’t reconciling Holiness and non-Holiness theologies. The problem is reconciling Holiness and Charismatic/Pentecostal theologies. The two theologies look very similar. Both posit a subsequent work of grace after conversion; the one calls it entire sanctification, the other calls it baptism/fullness of the Holy Spirit. But there are problems getting the two to line up. For one thing, both Holiness and non-Holiness Methodists think that all of us need to go on to perfection, but not all of us need receive any of the various gifts of the Spirit that appear in various Charismatic/Pentecostal lists. To get around this, some charismatics talk about the fullness of the Holy Spirit as a third work of grace.
Well, as Arminians (see above) we need to stop counting works of grace. There are big works, small works, many works of God’s grace and there’s no reason why your experience should line up point for point with mine. Without starting a brush war with either movement, I think the new denomination as a whole needs to hold these 19th Century and 20th Century movements at arm’s length and go back to the ancient and medieval Church for guidance. Clement of Alexandria talked about the “Christian gnostic” and meant by that something very similar to what John Wesley taught. The eastern monks developed the idea of theosis, while the monks in the west developed “counsels of perfection.” (And what Is Methodism, but “monasticism for the masses?”) Brother Lawrence (a Catholic) and Charles Williams (an Anglican) are both excellent guides in the deep things of God, and both are accessible to our understanding.
The WCA, et al have done a great job here, but enormous distrust and resentment remain within the ranks of traditionalists. The United Methodist Church has created the most bizarre clergy system of any major denomination. We have the anomaly of both licensed and ordained clergy, both of which have functions relating to Word, Sacrament, and Order. The new denomination proposes to eliminate the category of lay pastor by opening up ordination to those completing the Course of Study, at least as far as deacon. It also proposes going back to a two-ordination system for clergy, while re-energizing the ministry of the laity.
This means we are looking toward a recovery of pastoral ministry in the laity via the leadership of classes and bands in the historic Methodist manner. Shepherding is the work of the whole people of God, not just a professional class, and we want lay people empowered to share in it. At the same time, we are looking toward a recovery of the pastoral office in the clergy. The clergy (deacons and elders, superintendents and bishops) are set apart to do certain things. We want them to concentrate on those things that we need clergy to do, which means they need to quit hogging the show and shouldering the laity aside in their exercise of leadership.
FOUR: Global reach
Half of all United Methodists live outside the United States. In the alliance of traditionalists, they constitute a majority. We hope that most of them, especially in Africa, Eurasia, and the Philippines, will choose to join us in the new Global Methodist Church. But can we truly include all the Methodists around the world in such a way that we (mostly white) Americans don’t expect to dominate the denomination? We all say we want that, but are we really ready to make room for everybody? American trads need to realize that African Methodists agree with us on many church essentials, but they have very different points of view on other things. The potential for conflict is there. If we are to head off trouble before it arrives, we need to do some serious self-examination and be ready to prefer others ahead of ourselves as Christ would want us to do.
FIVE: What’s inside the box?
The problem with denominational identity is that the sign outside a UM church most of the time tells you nothing about what’s going on inside. The theology could be anything – literally, anything. But also, knowing what sort of liturgy you’re going to get is a mystery, too, until you open the box. Among traditionalists these days, the energy is with the purveyors of what is called “contemporary worship.” The style of music and its presentation are very different from the hymns and anthems many grew up with. The sermons are long, the leaders’ dress could be very different from what one is used to, there is a lot of technology. People sit, stand, or jump about, but rarely kneel. Printed prayers are few, creeds are rewritten, there are no hymnals. And so on.
Yet there’s a fair number of folks out there who say they’re looking for a church “that feels like church.” They want something like the old-fashioned liturgy they remember from their childhood. They want times of quiet in the service. They want a little dignity, though perhaps without starchiness. They want to sing hymns. And so on. And the big question I keep asking is, will there be any congregations offering liturgical worship, as opposed to contemporary worship? How many? And can we resource these folks, or must they just get used to All Hillsong All the Time and like it?
SIX: Online communion
This is a new controversy that just popped up over the last year of the covid-19 pandemic. (Well, it has actually been broached before, but the worship gurus at GBOD have scotched it when it’s come up before now, and This Holy Mystery seems to preclude it.) Since the pandemic hit, some are doing it, some aren’t, and the ability of The UMC to control the situation is negligible. And after the pandemic? The technology isn’t going away; indeed, we are only seeing the beginning of a broadcast/narrowcast/streaming revolution in congregational worship. We need to sort this out, fast.
The obvious question is, can online communion be valid? We readily accept that we can pray over the telephone or by Zoom, so what’s the big deal? But in matters of the sacraments, is it that easy? I mean, could you do a baptism online? You know, I ask the questions from here, and you respond while pouring water over yourself over there? Is that a valid baptism, or do we have to be in the same place to do it right? In other covenantal matters, I suppose you could receive a person into membership by transfer of letter online. You could even exchange marriage vows – but you couldn’t exactly consummate the marriage, which is a lot more fundamental to the covenant of marriage than the words we say from the Book of Worship.
At the core of this controversy is a question nobody is prepared to ask: When we celebrate the eucharist, what do we really believe is going on here? In what sense(s) is Christ present, especially in the bread and wine? The Catholics know what they believe, as do the Lutherans and Baptists. But Methodists have historically been reluctant to define these matters. (Charles Wesley’s hymn asks, “Who shall say how bread and wine God into man conveys?” and means it.) We come by this aversion honestly, since the Anglican Church fudged the issue in the Elizabethan Settlement of 1559 and also covers it up with lots of sanctified verbiage.
I’m afraid that asking that question and deriving a satisfactory answer will lead us into some very deep weeds: the origins of the doctrine of transubstantiation in the 9th Century and the fight over the words “Real Presence.” And depending on what we find there and how we answer the question, that will lead us to other issues that need to be resolved, including the issue of “reserving the sacrament.” We have an Article of Religion that explicitly condemns that, but a lot of issues we’ve scrambled to address over the years would have been made enormously easier if we’d left ourselves an out that allowed us to pre-sanctify the elements.
As it is now, our conflicted and contradictory teaching on the eucharist means that we have no answer when someone says, of some bizarre practice, “But Pastor So-and-so did it (so why won’t you).” Expanding the permissible means that standards shift and what becomes the New Normal is not what anyone would have countenanced if we’d thought about it before starting out.
SEVEN: Bruised but not cracked (yet)
These issues haven’t been deal-breakers for anybody that I know of, but they’re there. There’s always a lot of back-and-forth over the Rapture and the question of pre-trib/post-trib, a-/pre-/post-millenialism. You pays your money and you takes your choice, but: we need to remember that Dispensationalism is an alien system to Wesleyan Arminianism, and we need to educate our clergy about this.
Young Earth Creationism is likewise not something we have spent much time and energy on, but lots and lots of traditionalist Methodists believe in it, including many pastors. I list it here because it illustrates the problem of drawing boundaries. We all agree that The UMC allows too many opinions on things, and we need accountability for our teaching, as well as our lives. But: allowing people to “think and let think” on something like YEC means setting boundaries on “think and let think” more generally. And there are lots of other causes and controversies one can encounter among traditionalist Methodists. So what, exactly, are the boundaries of our teaching? The Creeds? The Articles of Religion? Wesleyan Arminianism (as defined by . . . what)? The Scriptures (as interpreted by . . . whom)? If we want to include as many trads as we can, but not the non-Methodist trads, we need to be very precise in where we draw the line, or we will make springes to catch woodcocks. I would not want to wind up excluding somebody who believed in YEC – but I wouldn’t want somebody who didn’t believe in it to be excluded, either.