Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Joining a New Denomination - Answering Jack Harnish's Questions 2.0

 The Reverend Jack Harnish recently published a "Monday Memo" called Joining a New Denomination....2.0. He asks some very good questions about the opportunity many United Methodists will potentially have to join a new Methodist movement, which will be known as the Global Methodist Church.

UMC logo GMC logo

I've not posted on this blog for a L-O-N-G time, and yet it is an appropriate forum for me to provide my own answers to these questions. So I went to the trouble to recover the account, to refresh my access to it, and to provide this response.

I met Rev. Harnish at a United Methodist Communicators meeting in Nashville about a dozen years ago. I found him to be personable, intelligent and an excellent communicator. I say this because I do not want anyone reading my responses to think that I have any ill will towards Rev. Harnish or others who agree with his point of view. Rather, I want only to express what I sense God is doing in the midst of the controversies surrounding the United Methodist Church and its potential future directions for ministry. Now ... on to the questions...


 1. What does it mean to be the "Global Methodist Church"?

I admit to being less than 100% enthusiastic about the name chosen to be the identifier for the new Traditionalist expression of Methodism. I could easily think of several other monikers that I'd like better. But, most of those names are already claimed - either by existing denominations with Wesleyan roots - or as trademarks owned by the United Methodist Church. The Protocol of Grace and Reconciliation through Separation, did not provide for transference of any intellectual property from the United Methodist Church to any of the potential successor/emerging denominations based on the protocol agreements. So none of these other alternatives are readily available.

So ... The Global Methodist Church is both a pragmatic choice and an aspirational choice. 


Its a name not already in use elsewhere. The domain name was available (vitally important in today's internet-connected world), and many churches may be able to easily change their own websites from "UMC" to "GMC" (And yes, let's acknowledge that the abbreviation of GMC is more likely to make people think of an automobile manufacturer than a new church. Maybe it will end up being referenced as TGMC.) But with enough resources, engagement and Godly blessing, the name can overcome its marketing limitations.


Rev. Harnish says, "Claiming the name 'Global' for a denomination which will only be a spin-off of the current UMC seems a bit presumptuous." Perhaps. But any presumptuousness is mitigated by expectation and desire. 

The Global Methodist Church is being spun-off (to use Rev. Harnish's words) or it is being birthed (my preference) from  the United Methodist Church. However, the United Methodist Church itself simply a spin-off/birthing from the Church of England.  Every Christian denomination is a spin-off from a parent denomination. And many of the child-churches have become more prevalent and provided greater ministry than the parent-churches that preceded them. Indeed, often the reason for the spin-off is that the parent-church has lost its spiritual direction, its desire to bring people into a right relationship with Jesus Christ,or become hopelessly corrupted by those in power over the church.

I see evidence that these conditions may be true in at least some parts of the UMC. We cannot argue with the decline in membership, worship attendance and giving in the United States portion of the UMC every year since the Methodist Church merged with the United Brethren Church to form the United Methodist Church in 1969, and decline has been exacerbated by COVID-19 and controversy. We cannot hide from the evidence of growing disobedience and protest against the covenant of connection contained within the United Methodist Book of Discipline - so much so that the UMC is basically no longer governable or accountable to itself. 

The Global Methodist Church will be comprised of people who desire a simplified denominational structure, a robust discipleship formation process, and commitment to the authority of Scripture over the faith and practice of its members. There is an expectation that people all over the world that will respond to this, and that God will surely bless it. When launched, the GMC will likely include congregations in Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America. Churches in Central and South America may join in subsequent years. This is certainly possible, and certainly makes the "Global" name relevant, appropriate and celebratory.

I am looking forward to being part of such a church!


2. What is the Underlying motivation for this new church?

Rev. Harnish quotes Asbury Seminary president Dr. Timothy Tennent's remarks made at the Wesleyan Covenant Association Global Gathering in May 2021. Dr. Tennent: "You can't found a new denomination on anger, resentment and triumphalism."

Rev. Harnish says the rest of Dr. Tennent's remarks were triumphalistic in nature, and therefore Rev. Harnish wants them to be discounted. Maybe this is simply a matter of perspective. Since Rev. Harnish isn't excited about the GMC, any enthusiasm from GMC supporters may be perceived as triumphalistic. I heard Dr. Tennent's message when it was given, and I thought it was a fair warning about the proper aspirations for the new GMC. There are many traditionalists who are angry, resentful and frustrated by what's happening in the UMC. Those negative emotions can be drivers of change - see the civil rights movement here in America - but such drivers too often do not result in the long term gains desired by those feeling those emotions. 

My underlying motivation for joining this new church is simple. I want to be part of a faith-based movement that fully expects what God did in the first century church to still be done in the 21st century church! I want to be part of a movement that builds on the solid foundation of Scripture as a sufficient rule for life and practice - even the parts that don't always make sense to me (or have never made sense). I cannot divide the Bible into parts that are "always God's will", were "maybe God's will then, but not now" and "were never God's will". 

I want to be part of a church that preaches and practices these seven truths:

  1. Each of us is made in God's image.
  2. That image is warped by sin.
  3. Sin makes us spiritually dead - no life for us at all.
  4. Although we were dead, God still loves us so much that Divine entered Human through Jesus
  5. By faith, we receive God's love through Jesus and it changes us - we are made spiritually alive.
  6. God takes us as we are, but doesn't leave us there.
  7. We are to be made perfect in Christian love.
 I believe the Global Methodist Church will preach and practice these truths more effectively than what I've experienced in 30+ years of United Methodist ministry as a lay person and ordained elder.

3. Isn't it still about homosexuality?

Yes, this is about homosexuality, but only because that specific activity is the one being promoted as no longer sinful by our modern culture. Homosexual practice is the proverbial "tip of the iceberg." It saddens me that homosexual practice has become the most visible and targeted sin and other sins are not equally considered. The Apostle Paul included many sexual practices in several of his lists of "what you formerly were" and "works of the flesh" to be avoided. Greed, gluttony, pride, etc. are equally problematic, and I pray that we will recognize and repent of these practices, too.

I agree with Rev. Harnish that there are substantial questions about how we understand biblical mandates. But the examples that he uses (racial integration and women's ordination) can be traced within the Scriptures - the human interpretation changed over time, but the evidence supporting God bringing ALL races together and women as leaders is well documented. One cannot find similar support regarding human sexual practices outside of heterosexual marriage within the Bible.


4. What about the Order of Deacon?

The draft Doctrine and Discipline of the Global Methodist Church does re-envision the practice of ordination, and I think this is a good thing. Ordination within the United Methodist Church is confusing and out of step with the broader ecumenical understandings and practices in Christianity. The UMC "licenses" local pastors to sacramental authority within their appointments. At the same time, the UMC denies sacramental authority to those ordained as Deacons, unless the presiding bishop specifically authorizes it for a particular Deacon's ministry context. This inconsistency of sacramental authority reveals to me the confusion and weakness of United Methodist ordination theology.

The GMC's ordination model (which is still a proposal in draft form), attempts to remove the inconsistency by eliminating the local pastor designation. ALL local pastors (UMC label) will be ordained as deacons in the GMC. Some deacons will remain permanent deacons; others may feel called to the order of elder. I greatly appreciate the "nesting dolls" analogy for call and response that is in the proposed ordination standards.

I expect current UMC Deacons who want to become part of the GMC will find greater ministry opportunities and fulfillment as deacons or elders. God's call on their lives will be validated and empowered to flourish even if there is no "Order of Deacon" as currently constituted in the UMC.

5. Is it time for another church schism?

In short, no. It's already happened. 

I think the fissures of schism surfaced in how, in the early 2000s, the UMC handled the controversies around now retired bishop Joseph Sprague's public denials of the virgin birth, resurrection, atoning death and second coming of Christ and his explicit rejection of Jesus as the only Savior and Lord. At his ordination, Joseph Sprague vowed before God that he accepted the doctrinal standards of the United Methodist Church and would defend against all doctrines contrary to God's Holy Word. As a bishop, he was consecrated to guard the faith, order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline of the Church against all that is contrary to God's Word. Yet, he chose to reject the doctrines and resisted the disciplines when charges of heresy were brought against him. He had many eager and enthusiastic allies in his corner, and ultimately the charges were dismissed. He retired as a bishop in good standing and received the generous pension benefits of the church he insisted was wrong in its doctrines.

The cracks widened at each of the UMC General Conferences in 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016. Protests against the Book of Discipline grew more blatant, disruptive and divisive. Bishops and elders chose to openly defy the Disciple and marry same-sex couples, ordain sexually active homosexuals, and declare their own homosexuality. When brought up on charges, most clergy complaints were either dismissed on technicalities or penalties were so light as to be non-existent. 

The schism became de facto with the election of Karen Oliveto to be a bishop in the Western Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church, even thought she was openly lesbian, marrying her wife in 2014. The Judicial Council ruled in 2017 that while her lesbian status was in violation of the Discipline, it did not have jurisdiction to remove her from office. The Judicial Council returned the matter to the Western Jurisdiction to resolve. Their resolution was to ignore the violation and allow her to continue as bishop. This was the first sign that governance and accountability in the UMC is broken.

A special called General Conference in 2019 was announced by the Council of Bishops to settle the issue of human sexuality "once and for all." A special Commission on a Way Forward brought a recommendation called "The One Church Plan" (supporting view) (opposing view) which would have been a version of "don't ask/don't tell" where those in favor of same-sex marriage and ordination would exercise that, and those who were not in favor would not exercise that. Most bishops and clergy were in favor of this plan. They fully expected that this plan would be accepted by the delegates. After hours of delaying tactics, the Traditional Plan (maintaining the current language in the Discipline and adding accountability measures for enforcement) was approved by a vote of 438 for and 384 against. Because parts of the Traditional Plan were in separate resolutions, not all parts of the Traditional Plan were voted upon due to the major delaying tactics employed by opponents to the Traditional Plan. No one left that General Conference happy with the outcome. Progressives, in particular, upped their efforts to ignore and castigate the traditionalist understandings of human sexuality and the doctrines of the church. Entire annual conferences and jurisdictions have declared their intent to ignore the decisions of 2019 General Conference. Governance and accountability in the UMC is broken, indeed.

I was not a delegate to any of the General Conferences, but I did observe them closely. I have never seen a more disgusting failure of witness to Christian principles of grace and mercy than what was GC2019. Key leaders from across the theological spectrum in the UMC agreed that they didn't want a repetition of the 2019 experience just one year later in 2020. Conversations around that desire eventually coalesced into the negotiations led by Bishop John Yambasu of Sierra Leone and facilitated by Kenneth Feinberg, an expert in mediation and dispute resolution. The result of those negotiations was the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, General Conference 2020 was delayed until 2021. Not quite out of COVID a year later, the General Conference is now delayed again until late August 2022.

I think the history I just recounted (and this was the SHORT version of events) proves that there needs to be a formal recognition of the schism that is already come. 

Rev. Harnish says, "Though it is clear we are headed for schism, I still regret it."

I still regret it, too. I am grieving the course of actions that have led us to this point, but I am reminded that within our faith is the concept of death and resurrection. The death of the current iteration of the UMC can bring resurrection to both a post-separation United Methodist Church and a Global Methodist Church. I think it's possible that releasing one another may be the winds of Holy Spirit renewal that all of us need. 

The United Methodist Church can follow in the footsteps of the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church, USA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and bitterly fight over church assets and resources (where the only winners are the lawyers), or we can follow the footsteps of Paul and Barnabas, who disagreed on ministry priorities and next steps but didn't fight to the death over them. They let go of one another and each continued on to do God's work the way each saw it should be.

Rev. Harkness closes by quoting E. Stanley Jones: "Here we enter a fellowship. Sometimes we will agree to differ. Always we will commit to love and unite to serve."

I love this quote, too. And my prayer is that through the World Methodist Council or other partnership structures, those who agree with Rev. Harkness and those who agree with me will find the space to flourish in our differences without fighting over definitions of love and unity and service.

Grace and hope ... Pastor Kerry

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