AUGUST 7, 2003
Methodist Renewal: A Response
In his July 10 Sightings, “The Fighting Methodists,” Andrew Weaver uncritically accepts the hyperbolic claims of United Methodism @ Risk, a self-published outcry against conservative influence within the United Methodist Church. According to Weaver, who relies on At Risk, “extreme right-wing groups” are seeking to subvert the 8.3 million-member denomination for nefarious political purposes. These same forces “overwhelmed” the Southern Baptist Convention, Weaver writes. Now they are targeting United Methodism. Weaver refers to the “ultra-conservative” social-policy goals of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), whose United Methodist committee I direct.
For good measure, Weaver, again relying on At Risk, throws in ostensibly bellicose quotes from conservative writer William Kristol and conservative activist Grover Norquist, though neither has any connection to any conservative church renewal group of which I am aware. For Weaver, and for the committee of liberal United Methodists who hired Leon Howell to write At Risk, their church is in “crisis” because theologically orthodox Methodists have been contesting the liberal leadership of their denomination. After 30 years, these conservatives are starting to see success in church governing bodies.
Church liberals, who thought that “fundamentalism” was defeated early in the last century, are uncomprehending. They suspect conspiracy. And they assume that the conspirators cannot be United Methodists, and that their motives cannot be spiritual. The secular Right is funding the Religious Right to takeover liberal-controlled denominations!
For those outside liberal leadership circles, the situation is a little more complicated. Yes, liberalism captured mainline Protestantism's seminaries 80 years ago or more. But the culture in many if not most mainline churches, including Methodism, remained conservative in many ways. Though unacknowledged by Weaver or At Risk, polls show that most United Methodists call themselves conservative, believe the Bible is authoritative divine revelation, affirm traditional Christian doctrines such as the bodily resurrection, and vote Republican more so than most Americans.
It is no great mystery, much less a conspiracy, that many of these conservative United Methodists have over the decades become dissatisfied with their denominational elites. Also unmentioned by Weaver and At Risk is the trend of continuous membership decline for mainline denominations over four decades. Conservative churches, like the Southern Baptist Convention, which is ostensibly a victim of “the Right,” continue to enjoy growth. Southern Baptists surpassed United Methodists in membership three decades ago and now outnumber us nearly two to one.
Within mainline churches, it is often the case that regions that have the most liberal leadership suffer the greatest membership decline. Under famously liberal Bishop John Shelby Spong, for example, the Episcopal Diocese of Newark lost over 40 percent of its membership. United Methodist Bishop Joseph Sprague, who is ostensibly a victim of religious conservatives for his denial of Christ's eternal deity, virgin birth, and bodily resurrection, also presides over a declining area in northern Illinois.
A reapportionment of delegates to our governing United Methodist General Conference approved in 2000 will give more delegates to the more conservative southern and overseas churches, and take away delegates from the more liberal west and northeast. The reapportionment reflects where church decline and growth have occurred. The organizers of At Risk are concerned about this but do not want to admit the obvious: liberal theology is committing demographic suicide.
Weaver and At Risk are concerned about the “fabulously well-financed” campaign to take-over the United Methodist Church. Specifically, IRD is cited. The annual IRD budget is about $1 million a year, about a third of which goes to our United Methodist program. Half of IRD's budget comes from foundation support, while the other half comes from individual donors. IRD's United Methodist program relies mostly on small donors, of whom we have about 3,000. Their average gift is about $30. Contrast our finances with the $6 million budget of United Methodism's Washington lobby office or the $30 million budget of the church's liberal Women's Division. Can they say, as we can, that we get funding from people who actually support our programs?
Weaver is concerned that the IRD wants mainline churches to “help renew the wider culture of our nation.” He calls this political. I would refer him to Methodist founder John Wesley's goal to spread “scriptural holiness” throughout the land. Wesley was supposedly a liberal, Weaver claims, because he opposed slavery and wanted to help the poor. Believe it or not, so do we! Wesley was actually an adamant Tory who refused to politicize the Methodist movement. He proclaimed Jesus Christ the resurrected Savior to all people. We would like to see United Methodism follow John Wesley's example.
Mark Tooley directs the United Methodist committee of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.