Do you want to hear the punch line of a joke still being told? Here goes: “The Next Methodism”. That’s it. If you blinked or looked away you might have missed it. Now let me tell you the still evolving joke. What do you call a group of people brainstorming about winning the ecclesiastical lottery like Henry VIII on the day he decided his divorce to Catherine of Aragon was final? You call them “The Next Methodism”. Doe eyed dreamers planning to build their white as snow, re-reformed church from scratch out of the sexually corrupt, doctrinally impure, scripturally misreading dregs now known as the United Methodist Church. Do you get it now? These are “The Next Methodists” planning “The Next Methodism”.
The Next Methodism is a dream being built on the idea of religious purity and a shared commitment to that purity. Whether scriptural, creedal, or theological; purity drives the “New Methodist” debate. The United Methodist Church in its current framework is polluted with too many variations and interpretations of traditional doctrines. While “New Methodism” advocates address the distortion in our administrative policies (as found in the Book of Discipline) and social theology (embodied by the Social Principles), scriptural purity remains the underlying consideration in creating frameworks for a “new” or “next” denomination. The existing parameters of United Methodist belief will be reduced to the purified theologies of second and third century patristic writers as well as the Anglican divines John Wesley, Charles Wesley, George Whitfield, and others. We will be this, this, this, and no other thing. Scriptural, theological, and social purity will be the order of the day.
Reforming churches, political parties, and revolutionary governments; institutions created on foundations of ideological purity can become emotionally manipulative and dangerous. If United Methodism devolves into a “Next Methodist” ideology, reducing belief to reductionist understandings of Christian theology, all in the name of Christian purity, the more difficult it becomes to distinguish our quest for purity from groups who seek religious purity by less than honorable means. Do we want to be another fringe “purity” cult, purged of dissent, a reflection of our pious images, speaking the big words we want to hear? After all, aren’t we the smartest people in the room? We’re the theologians, right? Trust us. It’s what the “Next Methodists” seem to be saying. I can’t do it. My ability to trust any large institution, especially ones with witty hashtags, died on January 20th, 2017.
Before you’re drawn into anyone’s new paradigm or adjective laden worldview remember: the next Methodism is whatever you’re doing tomorrow. Ideological purity is for fascists. Real change will begin in local churches, not at the General Conference. Methodism’s best ideas will come from grassroots consensus building; when farmers and fisherman speak, not when dissertations are published. Let’s start listening to ordinary people-not to the delegates who are perennially elected to conferences or the few who always know better than anyone else.
Richard Lowell Bryant