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Doctrines are dividing the United Methodists

Terry Mattingly

Terry Mattingly

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Sunday, June 9, 2019

This is the second of two columns on divisions inside United Methodism. Part 1 was published May 29.

The word "conversion" has been at the heart of Christianity for two millennia, with missionaries and evangelists urging sinners to repent and change their wicked ways.

Jesus also needed to be converted from his "bigotries and prejudices," according to Bishop Karen Oliveto, who leads the United Methodist Church's Mountain Sky region. Consider the New Testament passage in which Jesus seems to rebuke a Canaanite woman who seeks healing for her daughter. The woman persists and, seeing her faith, Jesus performs the miracle.

"Jesus, Jesus, what is up with you? ... Too many folks want to box Jesus in, carve him in stone, create an idol out of him," wrote Oliveto, in a 2017 online essay that was later taken down. "The wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting one, prince of peace, was as human as you and me. ... We might think of him as the Rock of Ages, but he was more like a hunk of clay, forming and reforming himself in relation to God."

In this case, Jesus changed his mind, noted Oliveto, who is the first openly lesbian United Methodist bishop and is married to a deaconess. The global United Methodist Church has repeatedly affirmed its Book of Discipline bans on same-sex marriages and the ordination of "self-avowed practicing" LGBTQ clergy.

Jesus, she added, "is meant to be a boundary crosser, and in the crossing over, reveals bigotry and oppression for what they are: human constructs that keep all of us from being whole. ... If Jesus can change, if he can give up his bigotries and prejudices, if he can realize that he had made his life too small, and if, in this realization, he grew closer to others and closer to God, then so can we."

This doctrinal approach inspires many in the UMC's Western Jurisdiction, a vast expanse stretching from Colorado to the Pacific Ocean. While this region's population has soared in recent decades, 2017 reports found only 295,308 United Methodists. The Southeast Jurisdiction, meanwhile, reported 2,668,806 members.

While 40 years of fighting over sexuality have grabbed headlines, a recent online survey by United Methodist Communications, partnering with Research Now, suggested that these fights have been signs of deeper doctrinal cracks in what is now a global flock.

A 2014 Pew Research Center poll found that 49 percent of United Methodists in America favored same-sex marriage, and 60 percent affirmed that "homosexuality should be accepted." This new survey focused on United Methodist laity in America, and avoided sexuality questions. In the new survey, 44 percent of participants identified as "conservative-traditional" on doctrinal issues, compared with 28 percent who claimed to be "moderate-centrist" and 20 percent "progressive-liberal." Membership totals in various regions shaped how the final survey results were calculated. Key findings included:

■ Large majorities of conservative, moderate and liberal laity affirmed the resurrection of Jesus, his birth by the Virgin Mary and that humans are reconciled to God through the cross. Large majorities in these groups said God's grace is available to all.

■ "Saving souls for Jesus Christ" should be the UMC's primary goal, according to 88 percent of conservatives, while 68 percent of progressives chose "social justice."

■ Only 50 percent of liberal laypeople affirmed belief in a literal hell, compared to 82 percent of conservatives and 70 percent of moderates.

■ A relationship with Jesus is the only way to salvation, according to 86 percent of conservatives, while 64 percent of moderate laity agreed and 54 percent of liberals.

■ Asked to name the "most authoritative source" for their beliefs, 41 percent of conservatives said scripture and 30 percent said Christian tradition. Among liberals, 39 percent (the largest group) chose "reason" and 6 percent chose scripture.

■ Women were more likely to be liberals. Church attendance was strongest among traditionalists.

On the theological questions stressed in this survey, self-described moderates tended to be closer to traditional beliefs than to those held by United Methodist liberals, according to Chuck Niedringhaus, who oversees research for United Methodist Communications.

"I don't think you can add the moderates and progressives and say that's where the church is," he told the United Methodist News Service. "Oftentimes we think the denomination is equally divided. It was important for us to see that the plurality of people see themselves as more conservative."

Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King's College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

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