In early January, First Things contacted me and asked me to write a piece for them about the impending division of the UMC. This came right after the announcement of the “Protocol.” First Things wanted a piece that would be published just before the UMC General Conference.

It is hard to believe how much has changed since then. The General Conference has been postponed by more than a year. And Covid-19 has disrupted virtually every aspect of our lives.

Print publications work on a timeline that significantly limits their ability to respond to unexpected events. My article for First Things was in the very last stages of editing, for example, as Covid-19 began to cause massive disruption across the United States and it became unclear whether General Conference would meet as originally planned.

My article was published in print in May, 2020 and online a few weeks ago. While the timing made sense in January, it was far from ideal when it was actually published.

In “Methodism Dividing,” I put the United Methodist disagreement about same sex marriage and human sexuality in broader historical context. I particularly press on what I see as a common myth in United Methodism that we lead cultural change through our work for social justice.

In my experience there is a myth of social progress in three areas: slavery and racism, women’s ordination and leadership more broadly, and affirmation of same sex marriage. I argue that United Methodism, and its antecedents, did not lead these changes from a place of principled Christian conviction. Rather, the main branch of Methodism responded to changes in the surrounding dominant culture and followed in their wake. (I.e., the Methodist position on the first two changed after the dominant culture changed, rather than leading change in the dominant culture.)

This is why the worst moment of institutional racism in American Methodism was the formation of the Central Jurisdiction, which segregated all African-American Methodists into one Jurisdiction determined solely based on race, in the 1939 merger that created the Methodist Church. And it is why the Central Jurisdiction was not fully dissolved until the early 1970s, after major changes in the South came through the Civil Rights Movement.

Here’s another way this can be illustrated:  The position of United Methodists in a particular geographic area in the U.S. can generally be determined by the position of the dominant culture in the same area. There are of course exceptions, but this is a fairly sound and generally predictive principle. If the UMC is conservative in places that are generally conservative and liberal in places that are generally liberal, this suggests that United Methodism lacks a clear sense of identity and takes on the values of the dominant culture.

I often describe the UMC as a cultural chameleon. There are aspects of this that can be positive and helpful. There are also a variety of ways that this can be detrimental and damaging to a coherent Christian witness. I yearn for an expression of Methodism with a stronger grounding in its theological heritage and greater clarity of its own identity.

Regardless of where you are on the theological spectrum, all United Methodists need to give careful consideration to the relationship between church and society.

I think it is now inevitable that the UMC will divide. What is to be determined is how much fighting and bitterness there will be as division unfolds, and whether the church divides into a few new branches or fragments and splinters into many. Regardless of where we end up, there is room for all of us to be more firmly rooted in Christ.

You can see how I develop the historical argument in more details by checking out “Methodism Dividing” at First Things. My book Old or New School Methodism? The Fragmentation of a Theological Tradition provides an in-depth look at a particular moment of division in American Methodist theology.

Kevin M. Watson is a professor at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. He teaches, writes, and preaches to empower community, discipleship, and stewardship of our heritage. Click here to get future posts emailed to you. Affiliate links used in this post.