Another Perspective

Tale of Two Churches

American Methodists avoid the splits that now characterize U.S. Episcopalians.

By 6.30.09

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Arguably the Episcopal and Methodist Churches have been America's historically most influential. Numerous American elites, including many of the Founders, were and are Episcopalian, making it often the de facto "established" church. And Methodism became America's largest church in the 19th century, creating the evangelical populist ethos that robustly survives today, if now mostly among other denominations.



Like other Mainline denominations, Episcopal and Methodist seminaries succumbed to theological liberalism early in the 20th century, reaching radical crescendos in the 1960s, when both churches began numerically to decline, a decline that continues until this day.

But the two denominations now seem set on different trajectories, as vividly illustrated by very recent events. Last week, the newly formed Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) convened its first provincial assembly, bringing into one denomination an estimated 100,000 regular worshipers and 700 congregations. Most of these Anglicans have left the Episcopal Church since 2003, when Gene Robinson became the first openly homosexual Episcopal bishop.

"There is a great Reformation if the Christian Church underway," ACNA's new Archbishop Robert Duncan told the ACNA audience last week in Bedford, Texas. "We North American Anglicans are very much in the midst of it. While much of mainline Protestantism is finding itself adrift from its moorings (submission to the Word of God), just like Western Anglicanism, there is an ever-growing stream of North American Protestantism that has re-embraced Scripture's authority (just as we have)."



Duncan was formerly the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, which, with several other U.S. dioceses, left the Episcopal Church and joined ACNA. "The Father truly is drawing His children together again in a surprising and sovereign move of the Holy Spirit," Duncan said. "He is again Re-Forming His Church. This also explains why there is such keen interest in what is happening here in these days among our Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters."



One Orthodox "brother" was Metropolitan Jonah of the [Russian] Orthodox Church in America, who joined ACNA last week in Bedford. So too did California megachurch pastor Rick Warren, who told approving Anglicans: "God has not called the ACNA to be a reactionary group. In the first place, you didn't leave them [the Episcopal Church]." Warren asserted that it was the old denomination that left the Anglican tradition.



Most in ACNA see the Episcopal Church as theologically irretrievable. Its membership now stands just over 2 million, more than 90 percent of it in the U.S., and the small remainder scattered in Latin America, Taiwan and Europe. The Episcopal Church belongs to the global Anglican Communion, with nearly 80 million members, and symbolically headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has not yet recognized ACNA. But Anglican primates in Nigeria, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, and elsewhere in the Global South, with tens of millions of members, have recognized ACNA, with some no longer in communion with the Episcopal Church. The U.S. Episcopal Church's General Convention will meet in July in Anaheim, California. As an almost all-U.S. body, American Episcopalians can largely do as they please. Global Anglicans can threaten sanctions or ultimately ouster but have no direct juridical authority over the U.S. Episcopal Church.

United Methodists are organized very differently, hence their avoidance of schism. Nearly a third of the over 11 million member denomination lives overseas, mostly in Africa, in countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, and Liberia. In 45 years, the U.S. church membership has fallen from 11 million to 7.9 million, while the overseas membership has surged to over 3 million and is fast growing. In two decades or less, most United Methodists will likely be African.



Unlike the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church began enacting strict guidelines on marriage and homosexuality starting in 1972, prohibiting actively homosexual clergy and same-sex unions, while affirming sex only in marriage between man and woman. Church courts have repeatedly affirmed these policies in high profile cases. Liberal efforts to overthrow these stances at the quadrennial governing General Conference, mostly recently last year, have met defeat, especially thanks to outspokenly conservative African delegates, who were 20 percent of the delegates and will be at least 30 percent next time.



Frustrated by the African obstacle, United Methodist liberals advocated creating a new U.S. only "regional" conference to deliberate over U.S. church business, omitting Africans and other internationals. Potentially a U.S.-only church convention could have redefined marriage and sexual standards for the U.S. church. Despite strong backing from U.S. bishops, which included a lesbian couple's testimony even at the church's Mississippi Annual Conference, this U.S. "global segregation plan" is being defeated by a nearly 2 to 1 in votes across the state-level annual conferences in the U.S. African conferences will vote later this year and almost certainly will follow suit.



"Here's the great virtue of our church," United Methodist theologian Billy Abraham of Southern Methodist University's seminary told Virginia United Methodists a few weeks ago. "Our canon law has turned out to be extraordinarily healthy and good. And we have a universal canon law that works right across the face of the church. The Anglicans and the Episcopalians do not have that, and that has cost them dearly in dealing with the whole debate about homosexuality."



The Episcopal Church has split, with the new ACNA looking to leadership from Anglican primates (archbishops) in Africa. United Methodism has not split, thanks to leadership from its African members. Episcopal elites and Methodist circuit riders of 200 years ago did not foresee that the spiritual spawn of U.S. missionaries in Africa would play such a role in their own U.S. churches. But they likely would have enjoyed the irony

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.