The United Methodist Church celebrated 50 years of existence yesterday. As is my habit, I wanted to take some time to reflect upon this. As I pondered, I realized that the United Methodist church is, now 50 years later, in the exact same place as it was before. This is not a work of history. There is much that has been written about the merger and the reasons for it from a historic perspective. What this is however, is my reflections and musings about the last 50 years of United Methodism, which is admittedly heavily influenced by my grandfather and the history of Wesleyan theology.
By the late 19th century, German philosophy and theological liberalism had infiltrated, and become rather popular in the Methodist church. This, coupled with the social gospel, finally, in my opinion, came to a head in the Methodist Church with the only heresy trial in it’s history at the time where a council of Bishops, many of whom were students of Borden Parker Bowne (nothing like a deck in your favor after all), found him innocent of the heresy charges brought against him for his teachings on what came to be known as Boston Personalism. This seemed to be the turning point, and for over 100 years, this has heavily influenced the Methodist Church and it’s direction moving ever closer to theological liberalism under the guise of religious pluralism. As we fast forward to the 1968 merger, we find two faith traditions, The Evangelical United Brethren (EUB) and the Methodist Church coming together to form the United Methodist Church. One faith tradition was strongly traditional and the other was drifting toward, and really had passed into, theological liberalism. It was an interesting pairing.
My grandfather had hoped that the merger would direct the Methodist Church back to it’s roots of Wesleyan theology and tradition, but at the time of his death, he lamented that it had not, but instead had seemingly ruined the traditional theology of the EUB despite the standards of faith that were set forth. While he supported the ideas of theological pluralism within the larger church catholic, he recognized that such pluralism within a denomination was destructive. In the past several ears however there has been a rise of traditional theological thought within the United Methodist Church. The reasons for this are a matter of some debate, but my grandfather would have said that it was the sleeping giant of true Wesleyan theology just waiting to be awoken. Finally, we are starting to see some actual influence of the EUB within the UMC.
That brings us to 50 ears later where a General Conference is called to decide the future of the United Methodist Church. There is the theological tradition roots of the EUB battling against (and yes, make no doubt, at this point it is a battle) the liberalism of the UMC, all under the claim of Wesleyan theology, often with no actual attention paid to the theology of Wesley and the ‘primitive Christianity’ that he so loved. The goal of many, including the Bishops, is, again, some form of unit that allows for theological pluralism with an eye toward progressing further down the rabbit hole of theological liberalism. The United Methodist Church is in the exact same spot as it was at it’s founding. If those involved 50 years ago could speak to us now, I have to imagine them saying to us, “this isn’t what we meant”.
In 50 years, the United Methodist Church has not successfully answered what a United Methodist is. There have been some slogans, some ad campaigns, and Lord knows many, many opinions, but no real answer. We do not have a coherent set of beliefs. We do have standards of faith, that many ignore, many don’t seem to know exist, and man relegate to matters of opinion rather than accepting their meaning. We have contextualized (just in case a Bishop is reading, I want to use their new buzz word) everything to the point where scripture can mean anything, thus it means nothing. 50 ears later we are still in decline in America, still having the same theological issues that started with the rise of theological liberalism, and still having the same fights, only now there is even more vitriol spewed. 50 ears later and the United Methodist Church is in the exact same place. I will end this with lyrics from one of my favorite songs as I think they sum up well, where things stand as a whole. “We dared to ask for more But that was long before the nights began to burn You would have thought we’d learned You can’t make promises all based upon tomorrow Happiness, security are words we only borrowed For is this the answer to our prayers, is this was God has sent? Please understand this isn’t what we meant
The future couldn’t last, we nailed it to the past With every word a trap that no one can take Back from all the architects who find their towers leaning And every prayer we pray at night has somehow lost its meaning For is this the answer to our prayers, is this was God has sent? Please understand this isn’t what we meant” (Savatage “This Isn’t What We Meant”) As we all pray for the future of the United Methodist Church, please remember to include that what we have now certainly isn’t we we, or those involved 50 years ago meant. Merciful, loving, and just God, please understand that what we have now isn’t what we meant…amen.