If you haven’t heard, the United Methodist Church (UMC) is currently in a process of splitting, due to an inability to come to one decision on whether to affirm and ordain LGBTQIA+ people. On its face, the issue that is at stake is “practicing” homosexuality, and United Methodists are divided into pro-, anti-, or undecided camps. But for a long time, there has also been a significant faction of United Methodists who have put this issue in the background and put at the forefront their hope that the UMC will not split. What this shows is that there are differing ideas at play in the UMC about what the church is. But this is untenable in the face of a split; the church will have to reimagine itself, and it cannot do so without understanding its own goal. I believe that process theology, by virtue of its emphasis on how God guides us to transform, can provide the framework for a Methodist ecclesiology in light of this reality.
Ecclesiology in Methodist Thought
The UM Book of Discipline defines the church as the community of all true believers under the Lordship of Christ, which is redeemed and redeeming. Its mission is to provide for worship, the edification of believers, and the redemption of the world. Also included in the constitution of the UMC is a commitment to theological inclusiveness rooted in an understanding that the Methodist church is part of the universal church, which is made one body in Christ. This is the beginning of the constitution of the UMC. After establishing this, the constitution goes on to list its doctrinal standards and make provisions for its polity.
The ecclesiology of the Methodist church is practical. That is, the church is defined more by what it does than what it is. It is the place where Christian doctrine is learned and grown in its members. It is a place of organizing for mission. It is the place where Christians hold and challenge each other to grow in love. At its root, the Methodist church is distinctive in holding mission, and not a theological doctrine of the church, at the center of its identity.
A rejection of the necessity of apostolic succession is another major factor in our ecclesiology. To make sense of our lack of apostolic succession, we turn instead to our emphasis on democracy; we are apostolic in the sense that we are all called to continue the witness that our ancestors in the faith bore. In the Methodist church, mission gives us our reason for being, and a democratic process is how we know that we are doing things in a way that resembles how a church should operate.
Breakdown of Ecclesiology in the UMC
Conservative Methodists of the Global Methodist Church (GMC) express, in their outward-facing documentation, a strong emphasis on the doctrines of the church and the institution of General Conference. They express a commitment to diversity; democracy, however, falls by the wayside. Though I could be generous and assume that they believe mission will be more effective if it comes from a place of doctrinal orthodoxy, the point here is that the conservative vision for a post-fracture GMC is a departure from the mission-focused definition of the UMC.
As schism has gotten more impending, unity has become more and more important for many established leaders, who lament the fact that this issue has risen to the level of schism. The calls for unity from UM bishops have been constant. Recent think pieces found on the UMC site frame the remaining church as “not a church,” and the debate as something as lamentable as the war in Ukraine. If there is an issue that rises to a level that we cannot agree to disagree, many bishops present this as in and of itself a moral failing in the church. This is ridiculous, as we are Protestants, and furthermore, we have split before due to racism, and neither the Reformation nor the question of full humanity of people of color are frivolous issues. But as to ecclesiology, if debate rising to the level of schism violates the definition of the church, then church is defined as a group in which there is no social issue that matters more than evangelism.
There is, then, a gap between what Methodist theologians say is true about our church, and what Methodist pastors and leaders have internalized as our ecclesiology. In various contexts, unity or purity or the Bible have risen above mission as defining characteristics of what gives the Methodist church its identity.
I do not believe that the way forward for the Methodist church is, or ought to be, unity at all costs. Indeed, if I am right that these various definitions of the church are at play, then there can be no unity because there would be no agreement that what was united was a church. Therefore, I suggest that a process-based ecclesiology could give the UMC a useful framework to make sense of itself in its time of division as one, holy, and apostolic.
Ecclesiology in Process Thought
Process theology places a strong emphasis on incompleteness and the constant process by which we are becoming. Fixed entities, in process thought, are really processes of becoming that tend to be continuous by their past but are also free not to be. It is in this sense that the church is the incompleteness of Jesus Christ. That is, Christ’s mission is incomplete, but its extension is the church, which is also incomplete.
The Nicene Creed holds that the church is one, holy, and apostolic. In other words, the church is united, defined by the will of God, and defined by a continual witness to the gospel of Christ. These things are accomplished by the will and the actions of God. In process thought, this is described as God holding out these possibilities for the church in God’s mind and willing the church to conform to God’s aim for the church.
As to unity, the church is that group of people who find their identity in their acceptance of the transformation begun in them by Jesus. Of all people for whom this is true, God incorporates them into the body of the church. Transformation is a divine process, by which God moves people from reality toward a new reality, by incorporating the changed reality into God’s self. This is also true for the church. In process thought, an individual presupposes a community; a Christian presupposes a church. Each moment offers the possibility for the church to be changed, and one possibility is that the church may be changed toward God’s aims. Faith is essential in this process, because God definitionally does not, indeed essentially, coerce anyone or the church toward God’s own aims.
Instead of coercing people (individually or as groups) to follow God’s will, God holds open the possibility that we will become as God wills us to be. God’s will for us is our initial aim, and our will for ourselves is our subjective aim. Both these things are dynamic; the initial aim can change if we limit the range of possibilities for ourselves. If, for example, the church uses its institutional power to commit sins against its neighbors, that becomes forever part of what the church is. The real possibilities of what the church can be have become limited; they must now include this fact forever. But because it is God who holds the possibilities of the church, God continually calls the church toward God’s aim for it and calls the church to align its vision with God’s aims for what the church can be.
As to holiness, the process of being transformed by God’s holding and shaping our possibilities is a truth for all people and all groups. But the church, specifically, is called not just to goodness generally but to be holy in ways that align with the gospel. Holiness has a communal dimension and a personal dimension; I cannot create conditions of justice for my church community alone. Holiness is not limited to creating conditions for justice but also includes the creativity that defines us as living beings. By contributing their vision for a more holy world, an individual contributes the creative energy that marks the church as being alive. Holiness is a process that is always incomplete, where communal forces and individual forces are both drawn on to create the container and the content for justice. Defining holiness in this way allows us to move away from measuring holiness as a thing we will achieve if any number of conditions are met.
As to apostolicity, for the same reasons that individuals are defined by their past but yet essentially open toward transforming in the future, the same is true of the church. The church is in continuity with the past church, where witnesses to the resurrection worked to distill relational truth into propositions and record for posterity what it looked like to do ministry in knowledge of this truth. Yet, this being true does not free us from having to transform ourselves, both individually and as a group.
Fundamentally, to be Christian is not just to be caught up with the gospel but with the person of Jesus. This means that truth is like Jesus—relational and personal, not propositional. There is a sense in which propositions are useful in grounding the church in its past. But what makes the church one, holy, and apostolic is that it is grounded in the mind of God, defined by its past but also, in the mind of God, defined by its future. And so the church is, definitionally, that which participates as faithfully as it can into the aims God has set for it.
Proposal: A Methodist Process Ecclesiology
Already there are deep resonances between the process definition of the church and that of Methodist theologians. Both define the church in terms of what God wants to do with it in relation to the world. The Methodist throughline that personal piety and social holiness are inseparable resonates with the process idea that the individual, the church, and the society are co-constitutive. Methodist ecclesiology has long come behind other matters of Methodist identity, such as mission and polity; the same is true of process theologians. One could construe this as a failure of Methodist theologians, but one could also construe it as an example of being constituted in relationships. The Methodist church defines itself first by its relationship to Christ, and then by its mission, and then by its commitment to repent of historic sins. This aligns with the understanding that we are rooted in God, constituted by our past, and also in the mind of God constituted by a vision for our future.
What I believe is most helpful for the Methodist church as it comes to its current crossroads is the ability to demote the definition of the church as a continuity with its past, and instead favor a definition by which the church is conforming to the vision God has for it. I believe that this understanding can be viably and truthfully drawn from the language of process theology. The path onto which the Methodist church is being pulled is, in the grand scheme of things, a new one; if we are to walk it faithfully, we must learn to believe that God’s call to our possibilities has as strong a hold on us as does our history.
Because we have lived through a time of increasing fracture in the church, Methodist leaders have stressed oneness as part of the definition of the church’s mission. I propose that instead of defining oneness as the church’s ability to be governed by one body, the Methodist church can define oneness by holding that all Christians are incorporated, by the mind of God, into part of the body of Christ. Furthermore, God is consistently willing all people toward becoming more holy.
Defined in this way, if we hold our convictions that God has called us to love and affirm and welcome the ministry of LGBTQIA+ people, this is not in contention with the claim that God calls us to unity. God calls all Christians to be shaped toward Their vision for our holiness, and it is in the mind of God that we are to move ever closer to this unity. That is, if our belief that affirmation is a true word from God is, indeed, true, then it would follow that God calls all people to the same truth. We are united in the mind of God by being called to holiness.
One thing that I believe the Methodist church can draw on in this work is our heritage of making social mission a focus of our identity. Defining ourselves by our mission and our actions is an illustration of the principle in process thought that identity is constituted by our relationships with others, and with the world, which is incomplete without God.
We discover ourselves to be a church that has a continuity with the entirety of Christian history, and yet is being invited by God to continue transforming toward its mission, which is God’s vision for its best future. Specifically, I believe this means full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people into the ministries and offices of the church. Our past has been defined by sins, as well as by continual attempts to be holy, and apostolic, and one; our future is held by God, and is free to be shaped into the future God has called for us.
In this sense, we are able to be the church God wills precisely because God calls us to be so. But this does not guarantee that the real church is being the church God calls. We are defined by the limitations put on us by our past, but by God’s grace, we are free to be anything else. If the future UMC can hold that full affirmation is God’s will, and trust that this is the truth God gave us to be apostolic to, then we can trust that unity will be achieved in God’s mind in God’s time.
Postscript: Most of the description of process theology here is drawn from Marjorie Suchocki’s book God, Christ, Church. Much of the description of the UMC’s ecclesiology is drawn from Laycee Warner’s book The Method of Our Mission.
Cat is a student at Duke Divinity School, working on an MDiv with a concentration in Food and Faith. They are from rural North Carolina and have an abiding passion for growing a connection to land, as a way to anchor an understanding of racial justice as we work towards reckoning with history.